Wales' Royal St. David's: Links golf gets no better

December 09, 2008
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Golf in Wales can be quite different to other parts of Britain and indeed Ireland. The difference comes not in the quality of the courses, where Welsh layouts are every bit the equal and often even better than will be found in other parts of the British Isles, but in the unpretentious, genuinely friendly attitudes members have toward visitors. In Wales, golf remains the people's game where camaraderie and good-times are as important as your scorecard.

Royal St. David's epitomizes Welsh golf.
Royal St. David's - golf so good, it's protected by a 13th century castle.
Deceivingly short, Royal St. David's knows every trick in the book.
Royal St. David's is pure links at its most glorious.
Ranked among Britain's Top 30, Royal St. David's is as handsome as it is testing.
Royal St. David's - 10th green.
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Even in the most prestigious of Welsh golf clubs, neither snootiness, nor any other kind of elitist attitude exists. Instead, the Welsh exude a heart-felt welcome to all visitors and informality rules. They are justifiably proud of their clubs and courses, but they also want to share them with visitors and genuine friendships quickly develop. The end result is that very special golf experience we all hope to find, but too often eludes us. Nowhere is this unique Welsh welcome as warm as at one of the country's top golf clubs, Royal St. David's.

The small picturesque town of Harlech, situated on the northwest coast of Wales, has two claims to fame. First, it is home to one of the most impressive medieval castles to be found in all of Britain. Second, it's also where you will find one of Wales' most highly regarded links course, ranked among the top 30 in the UK and Ireland.

Named after the Patron Saint of Wales, Royal St. David's probably enjoys one of the most glorious settings of any course in the world. It's certainly the equal of Northern Ireland's Royal County Down, Pebble Beach in California and that beauty of The Canadian Rockies, Banff Springs.

Flanked by Tremedog Bay and The Irish Sea on the one side and the highest mountain in Wales, Mount Snowdon on the other, with picture postcard vistas of Snowdonia National Park in the distance, the location is nothing less than magnificent.

As if this was not enough, the course is laid out beneath the ever watchful eye of Harlech Castle, with an almost forbidding presence as it views all who play from a rocky outcrop, high above. Built by King Edward I in the 13th century, the castle has endured a turbulent history and played a prominent role during the War of the Roses. For the golfer however, it is the challenge and experience of the unique links at Royal St. David's that is the main reason for visiting this charming small town.

At a shade under 6,500 yards from the championship tees and playing to a par of only 69, this is a deceivingly short layout, which inevitably plays long. The constant westerly wind coming in from The Irish Sea plays havoc on every hole and just to add to the torment, only twice do successive holes play in the same direction.

The early holes are relatively flat, giving even more exposure to the effects of the wind and making it very difficult for even the strongest to get up in two on some of the many lengthy par 4's.

Although the bunkering is minimal, this is a links course with all of the bite associated with that name. Ditches and plentiful gorse stand ready to inflict their own punishment on any erratic play and uncertain lies are commonplace amid the humps and bumps, which surround and protect every green.

Royal St. David's is a course of strong holes, with the strongest of all on the back nine, where the tenth turns back toward the clubhouse, taking you around and between an honor guard of substantial dunes. The benefits of some protection from the wind are immediately lost to the challenge of the dunes themselves.

There is something very Welsh about this course, which must be experienced to be understood, but once tasted, there can only be a hunger for more of the same. Perhaps nowhere is this special flavor of Wales so apparent than at St. David's nineteenth hole and a clubhouse that must rate as one of the friendliest to be found in the entire British Isles, with hospitality making you feel you have been one of the family since birth.

There is an on-going debate as to whether Royal St. David's is the best links in all Wales, or if that honor belongs to Royal Porthcawl in the south. This is an argument, which you can best settle for yourself by playing both.

But Wales is a country with a depth of golf, which extends far beyond these two championship links and while in the Harlech area, there are at least a couple of other golfing gems not to be missed.

A short half hour drive south of Harlech takes you to Aberdovey Golf Club, a classic links that captivates all who play here. Welsh golf hero, Ian Woosnam, has adopted Aberdovey as his spiritual home and a place to hone his golfing skills when not on the world circuit.

Drive north of Harlech for a brief 15 minutes and there are more Welsh gems to be discovered. Porthmadog Golf Club is a true diamond in the rough and a combination links and heathland, designed by James Braid in 1905. Literally a few minutes further is Pwllheli Golf Club where Tom Morris and Braid's talents combine to produce another jewel and a testy links cum parkland layout that can only impress.

It's a few miles further to find Nefyn & District Golf Club, ranked among the Top 100 Courses in the British Isles; it's not a true links, but another kind of golfing treat. Running along a cliff-top, Nefyn contains many links-like characteristics and is as pleasing to the eye as any course you may find with enough distracting views to last a lifetime as well as an exhilarating round of golf. You'll find a little extra Welsh hospitality at Nefyn's 12th hole, where on the beach, directly beneath, is the Ty Coch Pub, ready willing and able to provide the necessary to quench that Wales, such things are quite permissible.

Golf in Wales is unique and although it remains relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic, the best time to experience it for yourself is now, before the crowds start rolling in. With golf this good and hospitality this welcoming, it can only be a matter of time before that happens.

For a few ideas of how Royal St. David's, Nefyn, even unpronounceable, Pwllheli and other Welsh golfing treats can be included in your golf trip, click here.

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