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Wales: Britain's little secret

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

Though it's the smallest country in the United Kingdom -- about the size of Massachusetts -- Wales has nearly 200 golf courses, most of them with eminently reasonable green fees and historic origins. From the mountains to the sea, the landscape is largely rural, unspoiled and incredibly scenic. The country is a natural not only for golf, but also for hiking, climbing, horseback riding, fishing and other adventure sports.

Standing on the first tee of the Llandrindod Wells Golf Club in mid-Wales, I felt a sense of history and a sense of awe at the steepness of the fairway rising before me - and not a "buggy" (golf cart) in sight. Behind the tee, about 1,000 feet below, lay the Victorian spa town of Llandrindod Wells. It was in its heyday in 1905 when Harry Vardon mapped out golf holes on this bit of high pastureland.

A foursome of knickers-clad senior citizens walked in from the eighteenth green -- their steps light, their calf muscles corded like cedar knots. They paused, grinning, to watch us Americans. We hit our drives, then began to climb, dragging our bags on two-wheeled trolleys and trying not to wheeze until we were out of earshot.

Soon my legs and lungs gave up their protest and I was under Vardon's spell. We followed his sheep-mown fairways across the moorland plateau, over ancient stone walls and turf banks to "good true greens," always with a panorama of valleys and far hills. Llandrindod Wells is spiced with many blind shots and fairways that drop steeply before rising to tabletop greens.

Later we drove northwest through a countryside studded with castles (Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country) to Aberdovey, a picturesque resort town. Western Wales runs into the sea at nearby Cardigan Bay, home to some of the purest links-style golf terrain in the United Kingdom.

Our lodging was in the dockside Harbour Hotel, a Victorian inn above a cozy pub serving local mussels, steaks and foamy Guinness Stout. Dinner conversation dwelled on the contrast between our first two courses in Wales.

We had spent our first day at the modern five-star Celtic Manor Resort near Newport, where we were pampered beyond measure with exceptional accommodations, dining and spa. The courses were a bit more punishing but, in retrospect, the motorized golf carts and finely groomed fairways were also luxuries.

The late Robert Trent Jones Sr., who was born in nearby Aberystwyth, designed the par 69, 6,685-yard Roman Road Course, opened in 1995. The layout, which follows an ancient hillside route overlooking a Roman village, is a tough collection of blind shots, long holes, canted lies, and steep rises and drops. The late master was also responsible for the par-three Coldra Woods (opened in 1996), one of the finest short courses in Great Britain.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. trumps his father with his new par 72, 7,403-yard Wentwood Hills Course, host to the 2000 Wales Open and the venue for the 2010 Ryder Cup. The course catches fire on the 613-yard second hole, which emerges from a forest track to reveal the front nine spread out below in the pretty Usk River Valley. The steeply descending third and fourth holes merge into a flat river plain rife with water and sand hazards. On the thirteenth hole the climb from the valley begins a long uphill battle to the very end.

Neither Celtic Manor nor Llandrindod Wells prepared us for the wild beauty of the Aberdovey Golf Course on Cardigan Bay. The course, which lies in a narrow strip of land between sea and hills, was founded in 1892, but locals say their grandfathers played here in the 1880s using flowerpots sunk into the turf for cups.

The cups are no longer flower pots, and electric wire protects the greens from grazing sheep and cattle -- but little else has changed on this classic links layout. The sea roars unseen behind a range of high dunes, and wind swirls over the crests to trifle with lofty shots. Narrow fairways snake through a maze of gorse-covered mounds. Some tees are positioned atop the dunes for a view of sea and fairway.

Heading north along Cardigan Bay to Dolgellau, we arrived at Penmaenuchaf Hall in time to watch the sun set over the Mawddach estuary. Built in 1860 as a country house for a cotton magnate, the gray stone manor is now a 14-room luxury inn with modern amenities. We walked down to the waterfront for a drink at the historic George III tavern, then sat down to a feast before the fireplace in the inn's dining room.

Our next round was on the legendary Royal St. David's Golf Course in Harlech, ranked in the world's top 50 by Britain's Golf World and Golf Monthly magazines, and often described as the world's toughest par 69. Overlooking the course is Harlech Castle, a stunning fortress built in the 13th century by Edward I to subdue the Welsh. Over the years the sea receded from the base of the castle, leaving the strand of linksland occupied by Royal St. David's since 1894.

Almost every hole changes direction, which also changes the effect of the wind among the gorse-covered dunes. A cluster of mounds protects the par three fourteenth hole, so hitting to it is rather like dropping an egg in a nest. The par five fifteenth hole (one of the top 500 holes in the world) calls for a drive over dunes to a narrow fairway lined with mounds all the way to the green.

We set off cross-country then, bound for the capital city of Cardiff and another St. David's - the glass and steel tower of the St. David's Hotel and Spa on the Severn River. The hotel was a great base for day trips along the stunning south coast of Wales, where we had a choice of fine links courses.

Any visiting golfer's list should include Royal Porthcawl, the 1995 Walker Cup venue which Europeans consider one of the world's top courses. On paper, one could wonder why. It's a 6,691-yard par 72 with no dunes, ditches or landmarks, not even a tree. Playing it is a different story, one well worth the 70-pound tariff. Beautiful Swansea Bay is never out of sight. The first three holes skirt the pebble-strewn coast of Rest Bay, where seagulls are prone to stealing balls and the wind whips across a 300-yard-wide beach at low tide. The last four holes return to the sea and a wind that can blow a dead-on drive off at right angles to the fairway. And some of the sand bunkers could conceal a tank.

Pennard Golf Course, perched on the cliffs overlooking Three Cliffs Bay, is, in a word, unforgettable. Designed in 1896 by James Braid, Pennard is often called "links in the sky" because it has all of the mounds, gorse and sand of a seaside course as well as the views of a mountain layout. Near the seventh fairway, wild ponies graze in the ruins of Pennard Castle. Facing southwest from the seventh green and eighth tee, Three Cliffs Bay and its wide sandy beach fill the horizon. Holes sixteen and seventeen are close to the bluffs where the wind lays siege.

Leaving Wales, I knew I had only scratched the surface of golf in this undiscovered corner of Great Britain. The countryside, from the mountains to the coastline, is largely rural, unspoiled and incredibly beautiful. Only five percent of Britain's population lives here. Tourism is Wales' top industry, followed by agriculture (sheep and cattle dot the hills as far as one can see) and there are few places in the world that are safer or friendlier to visitors.


Aberdovey Golf Club, Aberdovey - 011-44-1654-767493.
Celtic Manor, Newport - 011-44-1633-413000. celtic-manor.com.
Harbour Hotel -- 011-44-1654-767250, wales.travelmall.com
Llandrindod Wells Golf Club, Llandrindod Wells -- 011-44-1597-823873.
Penmaenuchaf Hall - 011-44-1341-422129, penhall.co.uk
Pennard Golf Club, Swansea - 011-44-1792-233131.
Royal Porthcawl, Porthcawl - 011-44-1656-782251.
Royal St. David's, Harlech - 011-44-1766-780361, harlech.com/stdavids.html
The St. David's Hotel, Cardiff - 011-44-29-2031-3075, thestdavidshotel.com

An excellent source for places to stay in Wales is the UK Auto Club - theaa.com

For more on travel in Wales, 888-544-0541 (U.S.) 888-847-7885 (Canada) or golf-in-wales.com.

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

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