Wales is a part of Britain still unfamiliar to most Americans. Bordered by the Irish Sea to the north and west and The Bristol Channel to the south, this tiny country seems to be holding onto the western counties of England, as it reaches out toward its Celtic cousins on the Emerald Isle. In many ways, Wales is Britain's Cinderella and just like Cinderella, she could be the most beautiful of all and may yet win the hand of Prince Charming.
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This is an intriguing country, with a unique culture and rich history, entirely of its own. The scenery is spectacular, the capital of Cardiff is as lively a city as will be found in Britain and it's villages and towns are over-flowing with charm and visitor appeal. But Wales is also filled with exceptionally good golf, boasting more than 200 courses, including a healthy sampling of layouts ranked among Britain's best.
Just like its many other attractions, Welsh golf had always escaped the attention of all but the locals. It wasn't until 2001, when it was announced that Wales would host the 2010 Ryder Cup that the world of golf suddenly sat up and began to pay attention. And the more they see, the more they like it.
The plush Celtic Manor Resort is the selected Ryder Cup venue and the property's recently redesigned, Wentwood Hills Course, now renamed the Twenty-Ten Course in celebration of the upcoming honor, will be on center stage. For many in the global audience this will be their first taste of Welsh golf, but it is only a taster. Excellent as this layout is and as much attention as the celebrity status will bring, the Twenty-Ten is just the tip of the iceberg that is Welsh golf.
The Royal & Ancient game has been played here for almost a century and a half and Wales' first official golf club, Tenby, was formed in 1888. This was golf's golden era, when many of the great classic courses were created, some by talents unknown, others by names now established as being the true design maestros of all time -- Old Tom Morris, James Braid, Harry S. Colt and Willie Fernie among them. Wales has benefited from them all with a dizzying array of top class layouts, stretching from one end of this small country to the other.
Use Cardiff as a hotel base and the selection of golf courses within a 30-mile radius is impressive, with some of the very best within even closer striking distance.
Royal Porthcawl sits a half hour drive west of Cardiff and is ranked as either #1 or # 2 in Wales, depending upon which ranking list you use but fits easily into everyone's "not to be missed" category. This is an outstanding links, situated in one of the most exposed locations in the entire country. The wind blows here like nowhere else and with fairways shooting off in every direction, the challenge becomes all the more complex. Only adding to the distractions are the stunning views across the Bristol Channel to the rolling hills of Somerset and North Devon in England. They are there to be enjoyed from virtually every point on this very flat layout, but beware, to be successful at Royal Porthcawl, concentration; careful club selection and solid technical abilities are all essential.
Very close by is Southerndown Golf Club, a 1905 design by 1883 British Open Champion, Willie Fernie. A downland course with some links characteristics; this is a wonderfully natural layout where, just as in days of old, sheep are still employed to graze the undulating fairways. The rough of bracken and gorse can be more than punishing and on windy days, which are plentiful, must be negotiated with extreme care. There are longer courses around, but none with a finer collection of short holes and as imposing a close, where the 18th is particularly intimidating. For any who may be under the impression that only links courses present the ultimate test, Southerndown could change their minds.
Just to the other side of Porthcawl is the outstanding links at Pyle & Kenfig, a masterly 1922 design from the great Harry S. Colt. Built around, over and through impressive sand dunes, this is true links golf at its best and a layout that will please even the most jaded. From the forward tees, Pyle & Kenfig is as approachable by high handicappers but tackled from the back tees, presents a true championship test.
Drive east from Cardiff and Ryder Cup host, the Celtic Manor's Twenty-Ten Course, can be reached in little more than 20 minutes. A parkland layout, appropriately enough, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. (a man of Welsh heritage) specifically for tournament golf, this won't be everyone's cup of tea, though trophy collectors and big hitters will undoubtedly enjoy all 7,493 yards offered from the back tees.
For those of more modest abilities there are two other courses here, The Montgomerie Course, designed by Colin Montgomerie, measures a more human, 6,371 yards. Celtic Manor's original layout, The Roman Road Course is an impressive design from Robert Trent Jones Sr. and had been the regular host to The European Tour's, Wales Open, until being dethroned by the longer, rougher and tougher, Twenty-Ten Course.
The Celtic Manor Spa and Golf Resort, is undoubtedly the catalyst responsible for bringing The Ryder Cup to Wales and for those who are looking for an American style, 5 star resort hotel with 3 modern championship courses, the temptation to stay and play here will be irresistible. There will be others however who may prefer something a little more typical of Welsh golf and for these folks the rest of this southern coast is filled with very special Welsh delights.
But true Welsh golf exists throughout the country and nowhere is it as much in evidence as along the west coast where Aberdovey and Royal St. David's, reign supreme. Aberdovey was much lauded by the fabled golf writer, Bernard Darwin, who considered it the best and prettiest links layouts in the country. But that was decades ago and today, Royal St. David's officially competes with Royal Porthcawl as the best in Wales, a fact few will dispute.
Journey only a few miles further to the northern coastline and Nefyn & District Golf Club is another Welsh layout to add to the must play list. Enjoying a spectacular, cliff-top location, reminiscent of Ireland's Old Head, this is picture postcard scenery, with a challenge to match. The original design, started in 1907, comes from James Braid and J.H. Taylor, although the layout wasn't finally completed until 1993 -- Wales moves at a slower pace.
There's another James Braid design on the Welsh Island of Anglesey at Holyhead Golf Club. Connected to the mainland by a short road bridge, the minor detour will be well worth the golf experience that awaits. Renowned as one of North Wales' most demanding tests of golf, Holyhead is packed with variety always accompanied by narrow, undulating fairways, stiff sea breezes whipping in from the Irish Sea and a cantankerous nature that will keep you on your toes from start to finish.
And so the selection of Wales' north coast golf continues unabated, all the way to the English border, each course with its own, distinctly welcoming, Welsh character. Golf in Wales is quite different to playing the courses of England, Scotland or Ireland, where floods of visitors and in many cases, over-commercialization, have detracted from the real enjoyment of the game. Wales remains, at least for the time being, a place where golf can still be savored and enjoyed in the way it was intended. Better get there before the crowds discover it, and with The Ryder Cup coming soon, that won't be too far away.
Making a very good thing even better, Wales offers a welcome value for money, unmatched in any other part of the British Isles, with a first class golf trip often costing 20 or even 30% less than elsewhere. And even that situation has become even more enticing over the past 6 months as our US Dollar has increased in value against the British Pound by an astounding 25%. That Welsh golf trip has become an absolute bargain and simply too good to resist. It might not be a bad idea to start packing your bags right now!
For more ideas and suggestions on enjoying the very best of Welsh golf and sampling the many other pleasures of this charming little country, click here.
©2008 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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