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Northwest Wales golf is well worth the drive

Dave BowersBy Dave Bowers,

WALES -- The golf courses of northwest Wales have long lain undiscovered by visitors from other shores.

It's not because they have been disregarded or because they're not up to scratch - quite simply access has been a problem.

The nearest airport is Liverpool's John Lennon - and while just over 100 miles may not sound much, there is no easy route into the region.

There are direct roads but they are to a Highway what your mismanaged municipal course is to Augusta National.

But if you have the time and the patience for the two-hour-plus car journey, a visit is well worth the trouble. And you get to see some spectacular scenery into the bargain.

Try Nefyn as an example. The "town' of Nefyn hardly warrants the description. It's small, anachronistic and - to some - quaint. But it's certainly not where one would expect to find a spectacular golf links.

Like many British links courses Nefyn & District GC is hard to gauge, however, it's at its most testing when the weather is in a mood - on a benign day it threatens you very little.

But what is certain is the impact the course has on the memory. Standing on the first tee, the view is stunning - and it gets better as you progress the picturesque course.

Nefyn is located on the cliff tops of the Lleyn peninsula and there is an all-encompassing feeling of historic majesty about its towering presence over the sea.

It is, as somebody pointed out on a recent trip, a little reminiscent of the Old Head at Kinsale, in Ireland - "Only closer and a darned sight cheaper..."

Nefyn scraped into Golf World's 2002 top 100 British courses at number 83, but that remains a great honour.

It consists of a front 10 holes and two distinctly different back eight holes.

The club is 96 years old and retains a certain degree of charm from that era. The clubhouse possesses the feel of a laid-back gentleman's club.

Interestingly, memberships here are remarkably cheap. Because there are so few local residents, the rates are kept low - and many members live in other parts of the country and justify the "expense' by playing just a few times a year.

To get the benefit of its somewhat eccentric layout, you should visit soon. Plans are under consideration to amend certain holes - which is a shame because the bizarre layout where the headland is at its narrowest is something you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. And take advantage of the occasional wait on a tee to take in your surroundings and spot the local porpoises.

It's not hard to imagine Celtic hordes fighting off invaders at this point - though they would probably have availed themselves of the pub adjacent to the 12th hole, the Ty Coch Inn.

A relatively short drive from Nefyn is the better-known Royal St David's, at Harlech. Overlooked by a spectacular 13th century castle which inspired the Welsh anthem Men of Harlech during the 15th century War of the Roses, the course - site of the 1995 Welsh Amateur Championship - does not offer up the same coastal vistas as Nefyn, but it is scenery in its own right; a links course in the traditional vein, with many long par fours, offering a major challenge to anybody's golfing prowess.

The 6,571-yard course was once described as the toughest par-69 course in the world - and who am I to argue - and cruised into Golf World's 2002 top 100 at number 33.

The inward holes in particular are likely to leave a lasting memory, not least the blind uphill par-three 14th and the 15th which will require as precise a tee shot as you may ever be asked for. Survive these two and you deserve to take in the view from the 16th tee of the Lleyn Peninsular, across Tremadog Bay.

There are no species of dangerous wildlife around here so you can prod away in the dense gorse to your heart's desire in search of that stray tee shot. Rewind for a second and recall that tortuous journey from Liverpool Airport.

In order to ease oneself into the vacation, why not start the golfing odyssey in the historic town of Conwy, Gwynedd. The ancient medieval town still possesses its castle and town walls and provides a fine example of the industrial revolution in Robert Stephenson's fantastic tubular railway bridge, erected in 1848. It is also home to a fabulous 6,647-yard, par-72 links course, which will be one of the venues for the final qualifying rounds for the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool.

Typical of clubs in this region, it is set among spectacular scenery, with Conwy Mountain to the south and Great Orme to the north. And like the other venues mentioned here, the golf course looks as if it came about as naturally - and at the same time - as the peaks of Snowdonia.

Bizarrely, the course itself has a chequered history, having been requisitioned as an army camp in WWI and, beyond the second green, was the base for the construction of the Mulberry Harbours which proved so crucial on D-Day in 1944.

However, members painstakingly restored the course to its previous grandeur on both occasions and they should be revered for doing so. It may appear flat and relatively forgiving, but stray off the fairway into the gorse -which is seemingly indigenous to golf courses in this region - and it's far from easy.

So that's three top-quality courses to take in as you drive round Wales northwest coast - and if you insist on fitting in a fourth, try Aberdovey after you've finished at Royal St David's. It was one of Bernard Darwin's favourite courses, is the spiritual home of former masters champion Ian Woosnam and is just an hour's ride by train - described by one critic as one of the best rail journeys you can experience - from Harlech.

Off course

You won't be short of choices of accommodation in this part of the British Isles, but resist going to the ultra-cheap end of the market. At Conwy, the Castle Hotel (castlewales.co.uk) is ideally situated for both the historic town and the golf club. It is comfortable, inexpensive and possesses a typically British pub.

And for a good, tasty example of typical 21st century British food, take a left out of the hotel, walk to the end of the road and visit the Bengal Chef, for some excellent Indian cuisine - I can personally recommend it! For Nefyn and Royal St David's you can combine fine golf with luxurious escapism and mystify the younger members of your party by reciting the phrase: "I am not a number..' all the way to your hotel, the like of which you may never see again.

The small Italian-style village of Portmeirion was built by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1926 and has attracted such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Noel Coward - who wrote Blythe Spirit while staying there in 1941. But it's instantly recognisable as the location for the filming of the 1960s TV classic The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan.

Little has changed in the 30 years since it was made and most of the village is accommodation (www.portmeirion-village.com). It has 51 rooms and suites: 14 in the main hotel - which possesses a glorious location overlooking the bay - 26 in the village itself, and a further 11 at Castell Duedraeth.

You don't have to venture too far for great food, either; try the dining room at the hotel or the bar and grill at Castell Deudrath. It's worth paying a little over budget to stay here as it is a unique experience. Another option for Royal St David's is the 14th century Maes Y Neuadd Country House & Hotel (neuadd.com), which has its own acclaimed restaurant and bar.

Dave lives on the south coast of England with partner Jackie and their three children. Originally a football writer in his homeland, he even rose to the giddy heights of public relations manager for an English professional Premiership side. But he'd been bitten by the golf bug and returned to his roots in journalism as executive editor for Golf Management Europe magazine and as a sports sub-editor/golf writer on one of the country's largest regional daily papers. Like all of us, he plays golf whenever he can - which isn't as often as he would like - and has even performed stand-up comedy in a top comedy club.

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