Finding that perfect golf destination at the perfect time can be as speculative as playing the stock market or betting the Detroit Lions to win the Super Bowl. OK, hopefully not that speculative. Yet the point remains that a golf vacation search is hardly an exact science.
In many cases it is all about beating the trends, about staying just ahead of the crowds at the tees)
Go a little too early to a supposed emerging destination and you're liable to find yourself playing subpar courses in a still developing locale. Go a little too late and you're guaranteed to find yourself scrapping for any available tee time on the best courses, fighting off souvenir T-shirt vendors all the way)
Which brings us to Wales)
The tiny country in the United Kingdom, a quick trip from London's wonders, is hardly a golf secret anymore. TravelGolf has been singing its praises for a few years now. And Wales won Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year honors in 2003, as voted on by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. (Once you get an award for being undiscovered, you are anything but undiscovered.)
Still, time and circumstances are combining to provide a window to experience this land of 200 courses before the costs and crowds truly skyrocket to Scottish and Irish levels.
With the British Open returning to The Old Course at St. Andrews this July and the Ryder Cup heading for Ireland for the first time in 2006, Europe's golf travel craze is focused on those traditional locales at the moment. Everyone wants to see what bunker changes those zany folks in St. Andrews are going to put together for the PGA stars. Everyone wants to experience golf on the Emerald Isle before an already simmering Ryder Cup rivalry resumes. (Thank you, Paul Casey.)
"St. Andrews is big with the British Open," said Mitch Healy of Scotland-Ireland Golf Tours, a packaging company that specializes in United Kingdom hot spots. "Ireland is bigger than ever with the Ryder Cup coming in 2006. You have a lot of trips booked already for those destinations."
Which leaves a spot like Wales, waiting to be booked as it enjoys its last few years of relative anonymity. For make no mistake, Wales is next in line to receive the St. Andrews/Ireland duffers' rush. It is set to host the Ryder Cup in 2010 and is determined to use the preceding publicity to push its golf to the world.
The Wales Tourist Board has come up with a 10-year strategy to pump up its golf Q-rating. The signs of an advertising blitz are already out there, with more to come shortly. Throw in the fact the country has a billionaire with a Richard Branson personality who lives for golf and the tourist stampede appears almost inevitable)
"More and more of the travel agents I talk to are pushing Wales golf," said Mark Sauer, a frequent golf traveler from New Jersey. "And you're starting to see it in the magazines more. If you think about, there's not that many new places you can go for golf, especially in Europe. So I'll probably give it a try."
Welsh telecommunications billionaire Terence Matthews is doing his part to make his homeland alluring to golfers. To secure the Ryder Cup bid, Matthews pledged to create a new $20 million course on the site of his existing Celtic Manor golf resort. To convince the TV networks it was a good idea, he presented a plan where he would put wireless cameras on every green and tee.
Persuading vacation golfers to come to Wales centers on a much less technological pitch. It is all about courses like the Harry Vardon-plotted Llandrindod Wells Golf Club that evoke a simpler time. Walking is encouraged here and it is the only way the locals play. You are liable to catch a few sheep lingering near the fairways and the whole setup threatens to leave plenty of doubt in the whole modern is better argument.
This is a major part of the draw of Wales. It has all the traditions expected from a St. Andrews or Ireland golf trip (the ancient castles dotting the landscape, the quaint back-in-time villages, the backwards roads and sheep gazing everywhere). Yet those traditions have not felt the full brunt of modernization. Yet. With the Ryder Cup tourist-baiting campaign already in full swing there are signs that could be changing soon)
Matthews' Celtic Manor is already the kind of sprawling three-course, four-restaurant, one-large luxury hotel/convention center (400-plus rooms) resort that can be found at runaway commercial golf successes like Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Monterey. Celtic Manor is only getting bigger for the Ryder Cup and other properties are sure to follow.
Part of the Wales Tourist Board strategy is to bring in more business conventions with the golf being a strong tie. The 2010 Ryder Cup is even necessitating the almost complete revamp of a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course that only opened in 1999. Progress has definitely hit Wales golf.
The jump from undiscovered golf destination to over-industrialized, tourist-trap golf destination can be a short one indeed in today's world. Wales is on the move in golf circles and soon everyone's going to notice.
"Right now, the British Open and the Ryder Cup in Ireland are grabbing the attention from a lot of other areas," said Graham Spears of the Golf Travel Co., another packager. "That will probably change in the next few years."
Wales is not quite now yet. Which might just make now the right time to visit.
December 5, 2004
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
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