The one area outside my stomping ground I know, if not like the back of my hand, then certainly better than anywhere else, would be South Wales. My cousin has lived in the valleys for years, my brother moved there two decades ago and for many years it has served as a cost-effective and enjoyable base for golfing holidays with friends.My tour started out in the valleys, heads north to the Brecon Beacons and then southwest to the coast before arriving at Tenby in Pembrokeshire. This may sound ambitious, but AA Routefinder assured me it was 75 miles tee-to-tee, so perfectly do-able for a short break.
The first course I ever played in the valleys was Morlais Castle near Merthyr Tydfil, which grew from nine to 18 in 1989.It’s set high enough above the town to enjoy views north to the Beacons, with its 3rd hole lying adjacent to the remains of an unfinished 13th century castle.
This is a truly tough front nine test – it starts narrow then gets narrower – while its back-nine equivalent would be the 16th, which skirts the quarry around which the new nine is set. A friend and I once played in the Men’s Open here, rather too well for comfort actually, walking off with the first and third prizes as I recall. This must have appeared a somewhat gratuitous cross-border raid to our generous Welsh hosts, but in reality I suspect our handicaps carried particularly well back then, and we just fluked good days at the same time.Mountain Ash was another popular haunt on those trips – a prettier course than you might expect in an area that was once one of the industrial epicentres of Britain, and home to the hundreds of mines that used to litter these coal-rich valleys. Look at the heather-framed pictures of this short, hilltop course and you’ll probably be thinking Scotland, not Wales. The climb up Cefnpennar mountain starts from the 5th and you won’t come back down until the closing par 5, whose launchpad of a tee offers a chance to open the shoulders and go all out for a closing birdie. This is a fun place to play and, like Morlais, offers views of the Beacons some 15 miles distant.
Before heading south west to the coast, a trip north to Cradoc just outside Brecon is well worth it, not just for the golf but also to savour the stirring stretch of the A470. It takes you past a string of lakes and then on up and through the Beacons close to Pen-y-fan, South Wales’ highest peak at just under 3,000ft. The course is a very pleasant and fair parkland layout, though you may question that fairness on the 11th tee – a tough dog-leg with a demandingly tight drive that can lead to serious scorecard damage. If you do suffer at its hands, simply do what someone did in the group ahead on the next when I last played here – shut out the alluringly distracting views of the Beacons to the south and knock it straight in the hole. Instant redemption.
The lure of the coast
Now it’s time to drive south-west to Neath and back down the M4 to one of Wales’ finest links. Parts of Pyle and Kenfig play through just the kind of towering duneland to really get the purist’s heart pumping, with the sharp dog-leg par-4 13th and heavily bunkered, long par-3 15th perhaps the pick of the rugged bunch. Elsewhere the course has more of an open heathland feel. The greens are invariably excellent and will reward anyone who gets both stroke and green-reading eye “in”.
As you head further west, take a detour around the Gower Peninsula to tackle the course at Pennard and, just as importantly, to gaze in awe at the vast sandy expanse of Rhossili Beach at the peninsula’s western tip. Pennard’s “links in the sky” was born in 1896 and underwent a James Braid makeover precisely a century ago.It’s easy to see how it gets its nickname as you peer down on the estuary and Three Cliffs Bay from over 200ft up.
The tricky 7th must be the only fairway in Britain guarded by a Norman castle on one side and the remains of a church on the other – unless any reader knows different? The back nine works its way closer to the sea and has a sting in the tail that means walking off 15 with a healthy scorecard and an air of complacency is an ill-advised combo, despite two par 5s to come. Neither is long, and both will undoubtedly catch the eye of the big hitter.
But if the glorious sea views don’t get you on the 16th, its severely sloping green may well do, rendering the approach trickier than you might imagine, even if simply trying to pitch on in three. Any attempt to overpower the 17th needs to be carefully thought out as this blind double dog-leg requires precise positional play to justify all-out attack. Just for good measure, the last is no pushover either.
The links at Ashburnham is a former Tour venue, which you may be surprised to learn hosted the prestigious PGA Championship twice, before it took up long-term residence at Wentworth. It kicks off with a downhill par 3 that will severely test your short game prowess should you miss its well-protected green – an opening double-bogey my personal testament to this. But for me, the course really comes alive on the par-5 8th with its late dog-leg and narrow approach. The long 10th is beautifully framed by pines – not everyone’s cup of tea on a links, but they really work visually here. The layout is essentially out-and-in from the 3rd to the 14th, but the last four will test your wind-reading skills to the full as you’ll be hitting to all four points of the compass.
Wales’ oldest links
Wales’ oldest established course began as a nine-holer in 1888, grew to 18 in 1907 and has undergone a number of changes since, most recently the introduction of new 8th and 9th holes.
The long, blind opener can be a real shock to the system, and elsewhere there are sufficient undulations to guarantee the odd wayward bounce.
Some may not be keen on this, but the course giveth and the course taketh away in equal measure, with the scope for good fortune perhaps at its greatest on the 4th, whose green is set in a hollow capable of gathering, and unduly rewarding, certain miscues.
The first time I played here, I felt the three holes the other side of the railway were perhaps just a little incongruous, but on subsequent visits I’ve warmed to them, especially the downhill par-3 17th. My overall favourite would be another par 3 – the 12th set close to the sea. On the tee, bushes provide shelter that can deceive you as to the strength and direction of the wind, which only becomes fully apparent once you’ve despatched your ball to the exposed target – sadly too late for some of my badly misjudged efforts.
Tenby is a lovely town in which to spend one final night before letting the M4 whisk you back out of the country. But do bear in mind that it’s one of the hen and stag capitals of Wales, so may be worth avoiding on Friday and Saturday nights – unless hen or stag watching ranks among your chosen pastimes. But whatever that particular knowledge may or may not do for you, don’t let it deter you from tackling the town’s links, which ranks among my top three or four Welsh courses.
SOUTH WALES ESSENTIALS
T: 01685 722822
T: 01443 479459
T: 01874 623658
PYLE AND KENFIG
T: 01656 783093/771613
T: 01792 235120/233451
T: 01554 833846
T: 01834 842978