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Wales National Golf Club is no walk in the park

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer

HENSOL, Wales, United Kingdom -- The Vale Hotel, Golf & Country Club has always had great facilities to host American golfers since opening in the mid-1990s, but never the must-play golf course to attract them.

That will all change with the opening of the Wales National Golf Club, a 7,323-yard gem of a design. The course is already on a short list of candidates to host the 2007 Solheim Cup, the ladies' equivalent of a Ryder Cup.

The par-73 layout is the creation of Peter Johnson, Vale's director of golf. Johnson has designed courses in East Africa and Vale's other existing course, the 6,700-yard Lakes, but after a visit to America, he came away with the notion that Wales needed a tougher, longer course.

He succeeded with a beautiful brute over almost 200 acres with five water features coming into play on nine holes.

"New golf technology has seen top golfers like Tiger Woods destroy the reputation of some of our traditional courses with their huge driving -- and we have to develop more challenging courses," Johnson said. "However, I am a bit of a traditionalist and set out to mold the course into the countryside, making the most of the land's natural contours, features and waterways."

The National took more than 20 months to build after several years of planning and cost nearly two million pounds (more than $3 million American), according to Vale golf operations manager Alister Morrison.

"This will not be an easy course," Morrison said. "It will be very challenging. Initially, we thought it might be an 8,000-yard course, but we (scaled it back)."

Vale, owned by The Leekes Group of Companies, headed up by Gerald Leeke, now joins the ultra-luxurious Celtic Manor, host for the 2010 Ryder Cup, and the Marriott St. Pierre, a past Solheim Cup site, as the only other resorts in Wales that feature two courses and four- and five-star accommodations on the same property.

The National, which will cost 50 pounds to play, starts out with a short pitch-and-putt hole as a warm-up. Use it, because from there on out, nothing will be that easy.

The second hole is the longest, maxing out at 607 yards. Players must avoid five bunkers to hit the green at the 188-yard fifth. And the back-to-back par-5s at No. 7 (495 yards) and No. 8 (563) are sure to make or break many rounds.

The tee at the seventh hole introduces players to a gorgeous natural amphitheater. Huge boulders were placed just out of play, acting as benches to hold up to 1,000 people. Potential spectators at the Solheim will have a great view of the 177-yard, par-3 15th and the tee of the 447-yard 16th from this corner of the course.

The 16th holds another amazing feature - a green that runs 60 yards wide with some incredulous humps. Four putts aren't out of the question.

"We tried to leave as much natural as we could," Morrison said, noting that hundreds of shrubs were planted to protect the natural homes of badgers in the woods just off the course. Gorgeous groups of blue bells dot the tree line in many areas.

"Although it's a new course, it quickly won't look like one. The (weather) schedule has been amazingly good. We've had a mild winter," Morrison said.

After playing the National, golfers might be disappointed with the Lakes course, which has hosted three Welsh PGA Professional Championships, but is too quirky to enjoy. The good thing is players aren't tied to the resort to find more golf.

Vale's biggest selling point is its central location on 450 acres, about 15 minutes from Cardiff and 20 miles from the Cardiff International Airport. Golfers can easily drive to some great courses along the coast, including Royal Porthcawl, Wales' No. 1 course; the wonderful Pennard Golf Club, where ruins of a castle and wild horses lend to its allure, and even make the two-hour drive to Tenby, the oldest course in Wales.

Convenience is a theme at Vale. The pro shop, the golf courses and the 20-bay all-weather driving range are literally a two-minute walk from the rooms. Unlike many courses in Wales, buggies are available for rent.

The sports facilities are some of the finest in the UK. A large gymnasium with a 20-meter pool, squash and tennis courts, sauna and steam rooms and jacuzzis can entertain non-golfers for hours, or days if they lose themselves in Wales' largest spa.

And maybe the most unique building on the property is the indoor arena, home to the Welsh national rugby team. It houses a 60-by-50-meter field, a two-lane track and is available for some creative corporate team-building events.

The guest rooms are just as customer-friendly. All 143 rooms have internet service on the TVs, a rarity at European resorts. For business travelers, nine separate conference and meeting rooms can cater up to 300 people. All of it adds up to one-stop-shopping for visitors.

But Vale isn't the only newsworthy golf story in Wales these days.

The country is currently riding a high in the world golf scene. Most obvious is the announcement that the 2010 Ryder Cup will be held at Celtic Manor's Wentwood Hills course. It marks the first time Wales has hosted the prestigious event. The country's tourist board is so excited, 2010 Ryder Cup merchandise is already on sale.

Still, there are even more signs that the Wales' golf swing is on the upside. Countryman Philip Price was a major contributor to the European win at the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry. Price was maligned for poor play heading into the competition, but shined in an underdog role. Wales' most famous player, Ian Woosnam, is one of several favorites to captain a European Ryder Cup team in the near future, as well.

Then came the announcement in late April that Colin Montgomerie, arguably Europe's most recognized player, will compete in the 2003 Wales Open for the first time. In past years, the Wales Open, held annually at Celtic Manor, was considered a second-tier tournament on the European Tour until a date change and an ever-increasing purse put it in prime position to attract better players.

Combine all of these factors, along with the must-play reputations of Royal Porthcawl and Royal St. David's, and Wales has a positioned itself to lure more international players.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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