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Wales Golf

Posted by: Ira Miller

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Almost every year for the last two and a half decades now, I have loaded up my golf gear and my luggage and headed for a couple of weeks playing links courses in the British Isles.

And, almost every year, the reaction from friends is the same: “Are you going to play St. Andrews?” As if that’s the only course anyone has ever heard of.

Perhaps it is. But each year I head to a different region, and this year’s trip involved a week in Wales, a largely undiscovered gem where, among other things, the last Ryder Cup was contested.

Wales is narrow roads, uncrowded villages and funky golf courses.

There is Aberdovey, a traditional links that, according to legend, was started by an Englishman who borrowed nine flower pots in the village and used them as the first nine holes of the course in the 19th century. It became the home course for the famed writer Bernard Darwin, who used to ride the train, whose tracks parallel the links, to and from the first tee.

Only a couple years ago, cows grazed the course at Aberdovey and were kept off the greens by electrified fences. Cows, of course, tend to do what they tend to do and there was a sign by the clubhouse admonishing the golfers not to wash their trolleys (pull carts to you Yanks) or shoes there.

Wishing to attract events, the cows have been banished and the electrified fences removed. Lot of neat holes here, none better than the short 16th, a driveable par-4 for long hitters with out of bounds left and a minefield of bumps in the fairway short of the green.

Former Masters champ Ian Woosnam honed his game at Aberdovey.

There is Nefyn & District, way up there in northwest Wales, a wide-open course built on hilltops where the wind whistles across the unprotected ground and many of the holes skirt along the Irish Sea both uphill and downhill. There is a view of the sea from almost every hole.

The par-4 second calls for one of the most spectacular tee shots in Wales, requiring a drive over the rocks to a fairway that skirts the cliffs all the way to the green. And there is the 11th, a beaut of a par-4, kind of a layup hole calling for a blind second shot over a hilltop to a hidden green, which leads to elevated 12th tee where golfers must beware of hikers walking along the fairway below.

And, of course, there is Pennard, on the Gower peninsula near Swansea, a great course if you don’t want to travel far because it includes elements of Lahinch in Ireland, Prestwick in Scotland and many Hawaiian courses.

Pennard is another clifftop course featuring magnificent views of the sea and blind shots on almost every hole with bumps and mounds in the fairways sending drives in all directions. This is true links golf; seemingly good drives can end up bad and bad ones can end up good, and there is also a driveable par-4 here (where, I learned, danger in the face of a deep bunker lurks for those who try for the green and miss it).

James Braid is credited as the designed of Pennard, a course that remained little known until an American architect, Tom Doak, re-discovered it and called the site “one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.” A great course because of, not in spite of, its funkiness. Like the restaurant reviews would say, worth a detour.

Southerndown is a delightful links once you survive the steep uphill climb to the first green. Sheep still graze on the course, which still has electrified fences around the greens. The elevated site provides great views over the sea including one that stretches to the famed Royal Porthcawl (although it takes super-human vision to see that one).

The closing stretch in particular is not to be missed, with the 16th and 18th holes looking much more intimidating from the tee than they actually are because of gorse and other hazards that appear to be in the driving area. -- although the 18th, at 413 yards from the regular tees and featuring a double fairway, would be tough no matter what appeared in a driver’s vision.

In the same region, Ashburnham opens with a downhill par-3 but be wary of out of bounds to the right, and closes with a par-4 up to the clubhouse that calls for a lofted second shot from a fairway well below the green. There’s a great view to the water from the tee of the par-3 16th, and magnficent views over the golf course and the water from the clubhouse and the first tee.

Bottom line, the golf experience in Wales is as good as any in the UK, as is the beer and the Scotch, there are fewer crowds, and it’s considerably less expensive than the more well-known places where everyone wants to be.

         Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who spent three decades with the San Francisco Chronicle. He comments occasionally for hookedongolf.com. He welcomes your comments at: imillernfl@aol.com.

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