Location: Mid Glamorgan, Wales
Designer: Ramsay Hunter
Golf World visits Royal Porthcawl, the course ranked as Wales’ No.1. Golf Course
The elite amateurs who played in the Amateur Championship of 2016 competed over a course that is not only widely regarded as the finest in the local area, but also one deemed capable of hosting The Open. While the first statement might be contested by supporters of Royal St David’s and Aberdovey, but most prefer royal Porthcawl, illustrated by its rise in the Golf World Top 100 UK & Ireland.
The second assertion is more open to debate, yet largely owing to factors not pertaining to Royal Porthcawl. “It is a gem. It can certainly measure up with any of the courses that host The Open and Senior Open,” says Bernhard Langer of a links over which he won the Senior Open in 2014. “It would make a great Open Championship course,” agrees Tom Watson, who details his affection for this distinctive seaside track overleaf.
The infrastructure required to host an Open these days might very well dispiritingly preclude Royal Porthcawl being anointed. So might the imminent return to Royal Portrush to an already intensely competitive ‘rota’ of Open hosts. Against which, one might argue one, two or even four regular hosts might in the near future disappear from selection for political reasons, and that what had looked like an unlikely opening may appear.
Certainly, the R&A’s preferred architect Martin Ebert has worked on the links recently and it is one of the governing body’s favoured hosts for its championships. This will be the seventh ‘Amateur’ it has staged, and it has also hosted a Walker Cup and the aforementioned Senior Open. It will do so this year (June 13-18) for the third time in tandem with Pyle & Kenfig, a felicitous way for Porthcawl to celebrate its 125th anniversary.
The club was formed by coal and shipping merchants from Cardiff, with a nine hole course laid out among the gorse and bracken of Locks Common. The original course was soon insufficient to cope with the club’s increasing popularity though, and within four years land for a second nine was secured.
The original nine was then abandoned due to the significant walk between the two halves, and Ramsay Hunter was engaged to create the first 18-hole course in Wales, and by far the best golf course in Wales too.
The work of Hunter, of Sandwich fame, was altered by world war efforts and a succession of esteemed architects including Harry Colt, Fred Hawtree, JH Taylor and notably Tom Simpson. More recently, Ebert has rebuilt some greens. Porthcawl was granted its regal prefix in 1909 but it wasn’t until the 1950s, aided by the astute husbandry of Fife man Marcus Geddes, that it reached its potential. Geddes was a proponent of fast-running links golf courses, and his work helped attract elite championships to this area of south Wales.
The 1965 Amateur Championship was notable for Michael Bonallack’s comeback from seven down after eight holes to beat Clive Clark 2&1, but also for him winning the jackpot on the fruit machine at lunchtime. Thirty years later, GB&I beat an American side containing the ‘phenom’, Tiger Woods 14-10 in the Walker Cup.
Professional luminaries triumphed here too, from Percy Alliss (a former assistant at Porthcawl) in the Penfold tournament of 1932 to Peter Thomson in the 1961 Dunlop Masters to Sandy Lyle in the inaugural Coral Welsh Classic of 1980. Two years after Lyle’s win, Gordon Brand Jnr held off Greg Norman in an event battered by a thunderstorm during which lightning struck the TV aerial of the press tent.
In picturing that mid-summer event of 1982, the mind conjures images of the scorched links that would have played host, even with a good drink from the thunderstorm. In such ‘brown’ conditions, Porthcawl is a visual delight but necessitates huge patience and precision so that you are never at ease.
Due to the absence of dune corridors found on many elite links, it famously permits a view of the sea from every hole, and across Swansea Bay to the Gower Peninsula. Instead, undulating terrain climbs away from the opening three holes. Marram, gorse and heather cover the rolling hillside, although vegetation is now admirably being scraped back to reveal original authentic sandy areas.
As per every classic links, Porthcawl is not all about brawn, with placement of drives between what can be thick rough and mastering the often fast-running conditions as important as thumping it miles. The victory of short-hitting Gary Wolstenholme over Woods – in his wondrously athletic but wild youth – in the Walker Cup is exhibit A.
Then there is a set of greens that are routinely slick and uncommonly contoured (see Watson’s column), with putting into bunkers not unheard of. Now up to 7,100 yards from the championship tees, the 6,580 off the whites will be ample for all but single-figure players – and the 6,300 off the yellows advisable for most.
The regular changes in direction, with holes pointed in every direction on the compass, is another strong theme here and ensures it is always testing and interesting. The aforementioned first three head in a north-westerly direction as they hug the coastline, the 3rd green being the point to the ‘triangle’ of land on which Porthcawl is laid out.
Think of this opening trio – a gentle opener followed by two stern par 4s, with the common theme of uncommon beauty – as the left-hand side of the triangle. The right side is then provided by three holes that follow in a steadfastly south-east direction, a 3-5-4 medley that play with the prevailing but travel against the grain to greens set into the hill.
An exquisite short hole to the south then begins the bottom of the triangle. Played to a very slender green guarded by six bunkers, it might be flippantly but not wholly inaccurately be described as Wales’ Postage Stamp.
If you kept walking off the back of the 7th green in a straight line across the practice ground you would eventually find the 18th tee and thus the clubhouse. But instead Porthcawl now loses its navigational discipline. From the 8th tee it darts about the land within the triangle in all directions. Only 16 and 17 vaguely follow each other of consecutive holes.
The back nine is 200 yards longer despite both halves featuring two 3s and two 5s, the quartet of two-shotters that even off the whites all exceed 410 yards (off the backs they average 458) from the 13th hole making the difference. The dog-leg 13th begins an exacting finish. Played into the prevailing wind, the approach is unforgiving due to sand either side of a narrow green.
The 15th is even better, set on a fantastic slab of undulating ground where bunkers set into the face of a ridge frame the tee shot before a green on the brow sits beyond rising and falling terrain. The 16th hole is played down wind, but cross bunkers ensure you face an approach shot of at least 158 yards.
The scorecard suggests they are balanced by a mid-length short hole and a ‘short’ par 5. But while the 14th may be modest in length for a championship par 3, like the 7th it requires a controlled short iron to hold its plateau green, especially in the customary crosswind. The final par 5 may be only 504 yards long, but it is uphill and includes a blind drive. It is, nevertheless, a chance of a birdie when it is calm.
Then to the final hole (see left) where many great victories have been sealed, although not Langer’s Senior Open win, as it played as the 1st. Whether that was a trial run for the main event is a moot point. In the meantime, the world’s elite amateurs – and its club golfers – ought to savour Wales’ No.1 for themselves.
Royal Porthcawl GC,
tel: 01656 782251 w: royalporthcawl.com
To view the Top 100 Golf Courses in the UK & Ireland please click here.