I explained my trip included golf in Northern Wales and Scotland. He looked at me and in utter seriousness asked, "So what part of England is Northern Wales located."
Incredibly, I had to inform him that Northern Wales is part of Wales -- a separate country within the United Kingdom. I further added, if he had made such a clear faux pas within earshot of any Welshman – his ears would be ringing.
The sad reality is Welsh golf is not fully appreciated by many Americans or by many outside the immediate UK area. Golfers coming to the UK instinctively head to Scotland – the ancestral home of golf. A number also seek out various courses in England – notably near London and the southeast coastal area stretching from Kent to Rye.
The scenic par-3 12th hole Aberdovey Golf Club
In order to change the awareness, or more accurately, the lack of awareness, a bold initiative was made by Sir Terence Matthews, Wales' first billionaire and owner of the country's premier golf resort – Celtic Manor. Sir Terence pushed to the forefront with his considerable fortune in making a bold move to host the 2010 Ryder Cup Matches for the first time in Wales. Ultimately, Celtic Manor was chosen as the host site and Team Europe vanquished the American side to retain the Cup.
The main downside of the matches was the unfortunate miserable weather -- rain simply flooded the site and the talk of the day was more about the ineffective rainsuits the American side had chosen to wear instead of the European win or the broader travel qualities Wales provides.
During my time covering the matches I had heard a good deal about golf options in the northern perimeter of the country and I promised myself to check those out. That visit took place last August.
Northern Wales is easily accessed through the airports in Manchester and Birmingham in England. Just about any point of the area in question is no more than two hours drive via the direct motorways.
Par-4 15th hole Royal St. David's Golf Club - among the finest holes in all of Wales
My golf journey started at one of the most celebrated courses in the country Aberdovey Golf Club -- aberdoveygolfclub.co.uk. Located immediately alongside the Irish Sea, Aberdovey is a classic out and back design. Founded in 1892 – the club was home for one of the greatest writers in the history of golf – Bernard Darwin. The legendary chronicler never felt more at home than being at Aberdovey. The adjoining train tracks can easily take you up the coast for easier and quicker access and is the perfect alternative to driving.
High dunes protect the course from the Sea and the fairway turf is cut tight and close – the perfect opposite of the blowing fescue rough grasses awaiting the slightest misfire.
The real qualities of Aberdovey commence in earnest with the inner half of holes. The riveting par-3 12th hole is listed at just under 150 yards but the green is elevated substantially above the tee and when the wind is whipping can cause a host of swing issues. Sadly, a few of the holes on the back nine used to have tee boxes set high in the oceanside dunes -- affording spectacular views of the beach area. Environmental issues forced those tees to be placed within the main perimeter of the course and while the holes themselves are good -- the loss of such a favored starting point is noticeable.
The closing hole at Aberdovey commands respect -- the long par-4 finishes with a putting surface hugging an adjoining out-of-bounds area next to the clubhouse. When the pin is cut tight to the left the slightest pull will mean a quick reload from your last position. Be forewarned in being too aggressive with your play.
Harlech Castle. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
The ride north from Aberdovey to Harlech takes about 90 minutes -- best bet is to break up the travel and enjoy the offerings in Barmouth -- the perfect midway point. In Harlech you come upon the country's 2nd best course behind Royal Portcawl -- Royal St. David's -- royalstdavids.co.uk.
Views of the castle come from just about any position on the course. The key when playing Royal St. David's is to score early in the round. The outer half of holes is considerably less challenging than the inner side - especially once you reach the long par-3 14th and the ferocious five you encounter.
The long par-4 15th is easily among the best 18-holes I have played in the country. Standing on the tee gives little hope to the player as the fairway is ensconced with high grasses that obscure the ideal landing zone. Simply "pulling the trigger" with confidence at the tee can be a mental tug-of-war. Hard to beat Royal St. David's as the sun pulls lower and lower to the horizon and the colors of the surrounding grasses and hillsides illuminate with Harlech Castle resting magnificently above the course.
One of the more enjoyable drives in Northern Wales is the journey from Harlech to the Llyn Peninsula. The southern portion of the peninsula just out into Cardigan Bay which serves as the larger inlet of the Irish Sea. It is here you find Pwllheli Golf Club -- www.clwbgolfpwllheli.com.
Started as a 9-hole course in 1900, Pwllheli was the handiwork of legendary Tom Morris. Nine additional holes were added by James Braid -- five-time Open Champion -- in 1909. The two nines are quite different -- the front more parksland and the inner half more in line with links golf. Not especially memorable but if you need to keep the golf muscles limbered it's worth a stop.
Criccieth Castle. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
Less than 30 minutes away is Nefyn District & Golf Club -- nefyn-golf-club.com. 26-holes await and when the fickle weather cooperates -- few, if anywhere in the UK, are more naturally beautiful as land and sea intersect in a breathtaking presentation.
You begin with a rousing start -- a plunging downhill long par-4. A series of holes along the coastline follows before making your way back closer to land. Nefyn provides golfers the option on playing the “Old” course from holes 1-10 and then either proceeding with the “New Course” which provides the final 8 holes or you can opt for a continuation of the “Old Course.” While it may sound confusing the routing does work. By no means should any player miss playing the final 8 holes of the Old Course. Here you encounter the equivalent of a wild roller coaster ride stretched out over a peninsula of land jutting out into the Irish Sea. Unfortunately, some of the holes need a bit of an updating but the core remains intact and the scenery is an eyeful indeed – most notably the par-4 13th.
My travels took me even further to the far northwest corner of Wales -- crossing from the mainland via the Menai Bridge to the Isle of Anglesey. My destination -- Bull Bay Golf Club --bullbaygc.co.uk.
Designed by Herbert Fowler -- the man who crafted such UK gems as Walton Heath, Saunton and, in the States with Eastward Ho! -- Cape Cod's most iconic layout -- Bull Bay opened in 1913. Few people realize Fowler transformed Pebble Beach's 18th hole from a lackluster par-4 into the all-world par-5 hole it is today.
Bull Bay is positioned on rolling terrain and provides a legitimate heathland presentation -- a hybrid of links and park land intersecting together.
Among the more striking of holes is the superb short par-4 9th. The hole lures the player into making the bold play by providing a lower and upper landing area -- the upper provides the easier most direct approach but requires a surgeon strike -- marrying power and accuracy in one blow. The most striking dimension of Bull Bay is the artful routing -- Fowler takes you in a myriad of directions - the wind shifting as you play and the challenges at times both vexing and engaging.
Conwy Castle. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
No visit to Northern Wales is complete without a round of golf at Conwy (Caemarvonshire) Golf Club --conwygolfclub.com. Opened in 1890, with 18-holes in play by 1895 -- Conwy is positioned at the mouth of the River Conwy in the shadow of Conwy Mountain, overlooking the Conwy Estuary with Llandudno's Great One beyond and the Isle of Anglesey.
The par-72 layout plays to a maximum of 6,986 yards and provides a solid opening hole -- just under 400 yards and long enough to stretch the muscles but OB protects the right side and a duo of well-placed fairway bunkers invites the slightest doubt to grow when preparing to tee off. The green sits behind spectacle bunkers offset from the putting surface which runs away from the player.
Where land and sea meet at Conwy Golf Club
Conwy comes with a clever routing -- with the par-4 7th at 451 yards a glorious test of golf. The River Conwy parallels the hole on the left with deep rough on that same side. The tendency is to avoid the calamity on that side and push shots further to the right. Don't make that mistake! The putting surface -- set in a bowl -- is difficult to reach successfully unless your tee ball flirts with the more demanding left side.
The quality of the holes stays strong throughout -- with the final quartet smartly placed in gorse-lined fairways. Pity the hapless player who becomes unglued at the end. Conwy is one of the most underrated of all the courses I have played in not only in Wales but throughout the UK.
The charming village of Aberdovey - a must stop for any visitor.
TRAVELING TO / WITHIN WALES ...
When flying from the States the best way to access Northern Wales is through either Manchester or Birmingham airports in England. Drive time to most spots from either location is no more than 2 hours -- even to the most remote spots.
Once you get to Wales seriously consider rail service -- the benefits are obvious. Rental cars aren't inexpensive ditto fuel / petro. The service is very good and the proximity to key destinations, golf and otherwise, is hard to beat. www.thecambrianline.co.uk.
Keep in mind secondary roads throughout Wales are quite narrow in spots -- in small communities that can mean pulling to one side to allow on-coming traffic the necessary space to proceed. Be especially mindful of night time driving.
Afon Rhaiadr. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
WHAT TO DO BEYOND THE GOLF ...
Harlech and Criccieth Castles - No visit to Wales is complete without an authentic visit to an historic castle. Harlech was completed in 1290 and Criccieth in 1280. They are great vehicles to understand the long and storied history of Wales. The views are also stellar of the surrounding countryside and water areas. Provides a real appreciation of what life was like in those early days. www.harlech.com and cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/criccieth-castle/?lang=en
Portmeirion Village – is a recreated Italian village in the town of Gwynedd. The architecture is striking and the level of detail is quite impressive. Walking the streets whisks you away from the modern world. Plenty of things to do for all ages. Well worth the visit. portmeirionvillage.com.
Portmeirion Village. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
Town of Conwy – A delightful medieval walled town and Designated a World Heritage Site with its magnificent Castle whose presence dominates the town. An absolute must to stroll and visit the countless shops and stores throughout the area. www.conwy-wales.com.
Town of Barmouth – An incredible beehive of outdoor activities for this coastal community. Traffic -- both pedestrian and vehicle is nonstop during the summer season so time your visit smartly as congestion can be a bit overwhelming at times. Ideally located halfway between Aberdovey and Harlech. www.barmouth.org.uk.
Snowdonia National Park -- Mount Snowdon is the highest peak in Wales topping out at 3,560 feet -- the 2nd tallest in the UK. Access to top is possible by train and auto visit with a range of activities for young and old alike. Best bet is spend an overnight so there's sufficient time to really absorb what Mother Nature has seen fit to provide here. www.visitsnowdonia.info/
Snowdon summit. Crown copyright 2014 Visit Wales
WHERE TO STAY ...
Wales possesses a fine array of lodging options. One solid resource is called Welsh Rarebits.
Bodysgallen Hall & Spa - Located just minutes from the center of Conwy -- provides a wide range of personal comforts from a range of restaurants to spa services. Lodging options abound from the cottages to the main hall bedrooms. www.bodysgallen.com
On the way to Aberdovey from Manchester check out Afon Rhaiadr – translates to "the house by the river and waterfall." Hosts Jan and Martin provide an ideal setting -- warm and inviting with grounds that bespeak of Downton Abbey splendor. The B&B is on the doorstep with easy access to the coastal communities and mountain hikes / vistas. www.afonrhaiadr.co.uk.
In Harlech the Castle Cottage – www.castlecottageharlech.co.uk – provides an intimate setting in tandem with a gourmet dinner experience courtesy of hosts Glyn and Jacqueline. Just steps away from Harlech Castle. Be mindful of the steep slope from the main road to where the lodging is located.
Heading to Pwllheli, Nefyn and Bull Bay – be sure to stop in Caernarfon – the location where Prince Charles received his investiture in 1969. A bit setback from the main road and providing the ultimate in both comfort and style is Plas Dinas House – one of the finest B&B's in all of Wales – www.plasdinas.co.uk. The ground are quite large and you are free of all the clutter and frantic activity that takes place just off the property.
After one's round at Conwy – check out The Castle Hotel – located in the heart of the city and providing first rate service. Be mindful of the tiny entrance way that leads to the rear car park area. Within easy walking distance of all the key shops, stores and restaurants. – www.castlewales.co.uk.
Gourmet dining awaits those staying at Castle Cottage
ROYAL PORTHCAWL HOSTS 2014 SENIOR BRITISH OPEN ...
Wales has never hosted The Open Championship thus far. The finest Welsh course -- Royal Porthcawl -- located in the southern portion of the country approximately 30 minutes west of Cardiff -- the country's capital and largest city -- has been justifiably rated among the finest courses in all of the United Kingdom. Although not committing itself to a future Open there -- the R&A will stage for the first time the Senior British Open (July 24-27) with two similar events planned for Welsh soil between 2015 and 2024.