Founded in 1934 by Mr M H Daniel, a disenchanted member of Swansea Bay Golf Club, Neath members enlisted the services of James Braid to lay out their 18-hole course on what was once Gellia Farm, to the north of the town.
Braid’s opinion of Neath from over seventy years ago is as true now as it was then – “it is a first class course, ideally situated… the condition is excellent and the course is nicely undulating without being too severe… the views from every part of the course are magnificent and extensive, whilst the air is most exhilarating”.
Authors John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming note in the book James Braid and his Four Hundred Golf Courses: “It is now believed his visit lasted an afternoon, during which he walked the site unencumbered by pencil and paper, drawing the plan afterwards.
The course exists on two levels 700 feet above sea level overlooking the town. The holes on the lower level are meadowland, the upper ones moorland. The course is well-drained, recovering quickly from the heaviest rain (and) this demanding test has naturally produced many fine golfers.”
The vista westward from the 10th tee at the furthest point from the clubhouse is probably the best on the course. From here – more than 500 feet above sea level – one can see the Neath and Dulais valleys from Llantwit and Resolven, Cefn Coed and Crynant, as far as the Brecon Beacons.
Don’t be put off by the climb up the first two holes as the course opens out at the top and the fairways run back and forth over this plateau before returning down hill again at the 18th hole. The signature hole is “Pulpit,” the 378-yard par four 15th, where an elevated tee sits high above the fairway below and the green looks as though it just might be reached in one mighty blow.
First couple of holes at Neath are uphill from the clubhouse, the 1st being an ok par 5 but the 2nd is a totally blind par 3 which for me is fairly pointless. Hole 3 is also uphill, a short dogleg par 4 but it is very clever in that there is a concealed brook running across the fairway. The course then plateaus out for a few holes. I thought holes 3-7 all had a merit, in particular nr 5 which was a very good looking par 3. Unfortunately torrential rain curtailed my game at Neath and it was on 7 that the heavens opened so after that I was restricted to either looking at holes or walking down them on way back down to clubhouse. I did notice an old James Braid tee for hole 3 which looked interesting and the short 14th looked good, whilst the last couple of holes running down to the clubhouse looked more mundane. Moorland style on some of the holes with a dry stone boundary wall very much a feature. Difficult to judge course condition because of weather but some of the greens seemed to have interesting slopes and bunkers were well cared for and good to play out of. Enough encouragement for me to revisit hopefully on a sunny day !
As you play from the 1st tee though there is however only the smallest of hints of the fun and golfing pleasure you will experience playing this course. All good things come to those who wait and it is not until you reach the third hole that you are on-top of the plateau and beginning to soak in what this course has to offer. In fact the 1st hole is a par 5 slog up the hill and the second an uphill par 3 to a semi-blind green. From the third you start to have to think your way around this course. You do though have a few chances to get some pars under your belt before you reach the difficult, but impressive stretch of holes 6,7 and 8. These 3 holes define the difficulty of the front nine offering long straight hitting down through pine tree tunnels to well guarded greens. The length and challenge of some of these holes was equally matched by some very good, but well contoured greens, where certainly in the summer landing in the wrong area would spell trouble for securing an easy 2 putt.
The start of the back nine heads towards the highest and most spectacular scenery on the golf course. The 9th takes you to the ridge and by the time you are on the putting surface you start to peer over the brow in anticipation of a truly awe-inspiring panorama. The tee shot at the 10th gives you time to dwell on this breathtaking view, but focus is required to find the tight fairways at both this hole and the 11th. An easy par 5 is then followed and offset by a challenging par 4 (13th) where a long straight tee shot from your 5th highly elevated tee rewards you with a chance of a long iron to a narrow green. The 14th is a delightfully petite par 3 framed again with good bunkering and pine trees before you face the best elevated drive of all from the par 4 15th signature hole – a fairly easy par 4 if you can hold your nerve and get the drive away. The last 3 holes at Neath present an excellent mix (a par 4,3 and 5) where none are easy pars and I am sure have been card wreckers as well!!
A pre-requisite of playing (and enjoying) Neath is being fit!! Rest assured your heart will be pounding as you putt on many of the holes, but equally to play well here you have to keep the ball straight, preferably be long and at times really think yourself to around the golf course. If you like the challenge of championship golf and seek to play those courses which etch on the memory a stunning and unique location then Neath will be a course most golfers will enjoy. Ian Henley