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Great Welsh golf courses: Royal Porthcawl and Machynys

(March 01, 2014)

Two great Welsh courses:
Royal Porthcawl and Machynys – the old and the new

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl; one of the world's finest courses

Wales used to be a country few people would naturally associate with golf. And, to be fair, it isn't Scotland. The Ryder Cup changed that in 2010. Played at the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, the Ryder Cup was a huge success, with an estimated 615 million viewers around the globe. This single event put Wales on the map for golfers, and for visitors from across the world. It catapulted Wales and Welsh golf into the world spotlight … finally.

Wales has had its fair share of great golfers, from Dai Rees and Brian Huggett, to Ian Woosnam and Jamie Donaldson. Less publicly, Wales also has a number of exceptional, world-renowned golf courses. Catering for all golfers and their pockets, Wales has 176 courses.

I was brought up with the myth that golf is a game for the elite; thought of as a game for doctors and bankers and the belief that you needed to be rich to join a golf club. There were, and in some cases still are, elements of that, but this has been generally eradicated over the last few decades. In the past decade, which has seen businesses struggling financially, golf courses have had to open their doors, challenge old habits of elitism, and become more professional, in order to survive. Far more children in Wales now play golf than ever before. In part, this is due to the number of Ryder Cup initiatives, where an estimated 200,000 people in Wales tried out the game.

Wales has a surprisingly long history of golf. The earliest recorded golf game in Wales seems to have been at Tenby. A passage from the ‘Laws of Markets and Fairs’ (1875) tells of court proceedings being adjourned, whilst the mayor took time off to play golf.

A number of Welsh golf courses have quirky features. For instance, West Monmouthshire Golf Club, Nantyglo, boasts the highest course in Great Britain; the 14th tee is over 1500 feet above sea level. Or Llanynynech (where Ian Woosnam learned to play golf), which advertises itself as the only dual country course in Europe. On the 4th hole you drive in Wales and putt out on the green in England.

Two of Wales' finest golf courses are in the southwest of the country; Royal Porthcawl and Machynys. Ranked the number one course in Wales by both Golf Monthly and Golf World, Royal Porthcawl Golf Club is ranked 86th by the prestigious Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. The up and coming Machynys Clwb Golff's course is already ranked just outside the top 10 courses in Wales.

These courses, founded over 100 years apart, are incredibly different in so many ways, but they also have their similarities. Both are links courses; that is, golf course built along the seaside with numerous bunkers. And both appeal to the whole range of golfing abilities … but in different ways.


Machynys Clwb Golff

S4C Ladies Championship of Europe, at MachynysS4C Ladies Championship of Europe, at Machynys

Machynys was designed and developed by Gary Nicklaus on behalf of his father, the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who has 18 major wins. The project cost around £3.5 million and introduced 25 acres of salt and freshwater lakes, 12 miles of irrigation pipes and 6 miles of drainage pipes. The club opened in 2005 and is an amazing development. Situated just outside Llanelli, it is bordered by the Millennium Coastal Path and Carmarthen Bay to the south, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Penclacwydd to the West. This gives the course a natural feel, with water featuring prominently. Five years later, in 2010, it had been voted best new links course. In its brief history, it has hosted a number of prestigious events, including becoming the youngest course worldwide to host an official R&A Championship in 2007 the R&A Seniors Open Amateur Championship in 2012, the Ladies British Open Amateur Championship in 2013 and has become part of the Ladies European Tour, holding the 'S4C Wales Ladies Championship of Europe' four times.


Machynys' clubhouse 15th green & 16th fairway,  Machynys - view from Clubhouse
Clubhouse, Machynys Clwb Golff 15th green & 16th fairway - view from clubhouse

The reason for the praise is the quality of the golf course. Machynys is a modern links course, combining all the benefits of a links course with contemporary high quality maintenance infrastructure and large water features to match. It is a spectacular, flexible, modern golf course that like all of the best courses changes frequently depending on the wind and the weather. Golfers have a challenging course to battle as the course navigates its way through the water, sand and marshland.

Machynys from the airMachynys from the air

It can be a tough course, especially when the wind blows. Although there is a fair amount of water to contend with, it is fair. As a golfer, you know where it is and that you need to avoid it. The greens are deep, slick and true. The course rewards good players with no hidden tricks, which is all you can ask for really.

Machynys - 16th holeMachynys - 16th hole

Beyond the course is the club house. This attractive, modern building is the centre for the golf, spa, restaurant, conference centre, bar and pro shop.


Royal Porthcawl Golf Club

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl's 13th green

Less than 30 miles southeast of this modern icon is a golf course that was opened over a century earlier, yet embodies the same challenges and excitement to golfers. Founded by a group of coal and shipping businessmen from Cardiff, Royal Porthcawl is as traditional a golf club as you can get.

The club's first golf professional, Charles Gibson, designed and developed the original nine hole course in 1891. Its 18 hole course was laid out in 1895, designed by Scottish greenkeeper, Ramsay Hunter. Other legendary golfers and course designers have been involved at various stages, including James Braid (Open winner on five occasions) and Harry Colt, in 1913. However, Mother Nature has probably been the course's main designer; wind and rain constantly shaping the land.

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl's 12th green

Perched on the Bristol Channel, subject to the best and the worst of the Welsh weather, Royal Porthcawl is the epitome of a links golf course, changing subtly over the years, like many of the finest Scottish courses. Playing here is a unique experience, making you aware of the history, the traditions. The sea is on view from every hole. Bunkers protect the course, which is not particularly long by today’s standards, and the greens are superb and fast. No two holes are played consecutively in the same direction. This may seem a minor point for non-golfers. For golfers, it means constantly having to adjust your swing and your aim to allow for the wind.

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl's 7th green

The course has many remarkable features. On a clear, windless day it can seem to be an extremely benign course. However, like many of the seemingly benevolent links courses, the wind is rarely quiet for more than a few hours or days at a time.

Having played Royal Porthcawl at the Welsh Championship in 1910, Bernard Darwin, possibly the finest golf writer of all time, succinctly encapsulates this unpredicatable course: On the meeting's first day there was no wind or rain, "all sorts of wonders were observed. A competitor holed a full brassie shot and 3s were as plentiful as blackberries." Conditions having changed the following day, he continued, "I remember being left with a putt of some eight or ten yards, and banging the ball past the hole with a light and careless heart, fully prepared to see it trickling in. Alas! The green was a little wet that morning and the ball stuck firmly on the opposite bank and refused to come back."

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl's 18th green (foreground) and 1st hole (background)

It really is a special golf club, figuring consistently in the top courses to play, by many magazines and professionals. It has hosted many leading amateur and professional tournaments, including: the Walker Cup; the Amateur Championship (six times); Curtis Cup; European Team Championship; the Home Internationals; the Ladies British Open Amateur (three times); and Dunlop Masters. This year, Royal Porthcawl is the venue of the Senior Open Championship, the first time it will be held in Wales. And it is the course where Tiger Woods lost his singles in the 1995 Walker Cup to Gary Wolstenholme; the USA team lost 14-10.

Royal PorthcawlRoyal Porthcawl's 10th greenside bunker

Now it seems there is the possibility of Royal Porthcawl achieving the ultimate accolade for a British golf course – it is being seriously considered to hold the Open Championship. It was always felt that the travel infrastructure and lack of space around the course would never make this possible. It now seems these obstacles could be overcome and, who knows, before 2020, Wales could hold its first Open Championship.

Byron Kalies, March 2014

For more on Welsh golf, see Byron's website:

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