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1½ miles NW of Porthcawl
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Royal Porthcawl Golf Club is located off the beaten track, east of Swansea and west of Cardiff. Despite being the highest ranked course in Wales, it remains relatively unknown.
The club was founded in 1891 and Charles Gibson, Royal North Devon’s professional, laid out a 9-hole course on Lock’s Common. In 1895, an adjacent piece of land became available and Ramsey Hunter created an 18-hole layout. Porthcawl was granted its royal title in 1909 by King Edward VII. Over the years, the layout has been extensively modified, primarily in 1913 by Harry Colt, F.G Hawtree and J.H. Taylor in 1925 (when the duo added for new holes) and by Tom Simpson in 1933.
The first four holes and the last six holes represent classic links golf, but the holes in the middle rise up onto higher ground, offering fantastic views across the Bristol Channel. This middle section of the course, with plenty of gorse, has distinct heathland characteristics. Darwin completely disagrees with our sentiments. He wrote about “the very excellent links of Porthcawl. Links they may worthily be called, for the golf at Porthcawl is the genuine thing – the sea in sight all the time, and the most noble bunkers.”
Royal Porthcawl measures 7,065 yards from the back markers, but position from the tee is just as important as distance. Gary Wolstenholme will vouch for this. Wolstenholme played Tiger Woods in the 1995 Walker Cup here at Porthcawl and despite being constantly out-driven by Woods, Wolstenholme controlled and positioned the ball better and secured a famous victory at the last hole.
The Bristol Channel acts as a funnel for Atlantic gales and the course is fully exposed to the wind. It’s not a traditional out and back layout – the holes loop back on one another, playing in various directions. With an absence of trees and dunes, the wind plays a powerful role.
In 2014, the Senior Open Championship was hosted at Royal Porthcawl. This was the first time a Major Championship had been staged in Wales. The event turned out to be a one man show when Bernhard Langer cruised to a 13-stroke victory over nearest rival Colin Montgomerie and, in doing so, the German broke the tour record for the largest winning margin in a 72-hole event.
Three years later, the event returned to Royal Porthcawl and once again the evergreen Bernhard Langer emerged victorious, claiming his third Senior Open title with a four under par aggregate score of 280, three strokes better than that of runner-up Cory Pavin from the United States of America.
Architect Martin Ebert sent us this exclusive quote in August 2020 regarding work his firm had undertaken at Royal Porthcawl:
“The recent project at Royal Porthcawl has followed on from Course Manager Ian Kinley's resurrection of a wonderful old rough edged bunker to the right of the 5th fairway. This is something Mackenzie & Ebert had proposed as part of an overall masterplan some years ago. With the bunkering, old aerial images showed them as being much larger and rough edged hazards. Many of them had been lost over the years as well. The information was supplemented by the wonderful plan which the great Tom Simpson had drawn up which hangs in the men's changing room. This depicted some tremendous rough edged bunkers sketched out in his talented drawing style.
Some highlights of the project have been the full restoration of the carry bunkers at the par three 4th hole and the huge cross bunkers at the 16th. Some new bunkers have also been added to ensure that the course poses the right questions for the modern day elite players. They can be found at the 2nd (down the left and right), the 5th (two to the left), the 13th (down the right), the 15th (to the left) and at the 18th (to the left).
In addition, the flatness to the left of the 6th hole has been completely transformed with the construction of a range of dunes into which a bunker has been set. Some ecologically valuable sand areas have also been created where it was necessary to win material for the construction works.”
Like almost all links courses the greens were still in tip top condition in March, at a time when many parkland dancefloors will be tigned and sanded to more closely resemble dimpled, dusty shortbread. The course may also play a touch more easily in March than summer with the rough low and the greens not too quick. On my few trips into greenside bunkers they did not contain that much sand but were all consistent with each other. Due to the reduced winter rate in March, two holes were on temporary greens, which is always a shame, especially when it affected the excellent holes 5 and 9, which appeared to being having major surgery. However, it would be difficult to choose which two greens you would prefer to be out of commission, even if you had the choice, such is the quality and variety of all the green complexes.
Links courses are known for their flatness so this course – thanks to holes 5, 10, 12, 13, 17 and 18 – must qualify as one of the more mountainous. I know Cruden Bay has greater changes in elevation but I struggle to think of any links course to match the slopes here. The 17th was a great reminder for me (not that I needed it) that links golf demands a high level of focus for each shot. Standing on the 17th tee, on course to match my handicap, I left the green a few minutes later with an 11 and a good lesson learnt. The day was further enhanced by dry weather, a good breeze and a blue sky adorned with fluffy white clouds and vapour trails tracing the progress of jet-setters to distant shores. Stunning.
After being too long away, I returned to play Royal Porthcawl some eight years after my last visit. The reason for the relatively short trip from my home in Devon was to meet up with Fergal, our US Consultant, who is significantly more than mid-way through an epic journey, whereby he’s aiming to become the youngest person to play the World Top 100. The recent inclusion of Royal Porthcawl in a notable American magazine’s World Top 100 rankings made me smile, as we were the first publication to rank Porthcawl in our World 100 back in 2006.
Playing golf with Fergal is firstly a pleasure; secondly it’s a rather daunting experience for the average golfer (of which I fall squarely into that category). My rather paltry 10 handicap is no match for a +1 golfer who wants to see every course from the back tees. Under normal circumstances, I play off the regular mens tees or perhaps, if I am feeling lucky, off the mens competition tees. Fergal naturally wanted to experience the Walker Cup course, so off we went on the first, all the way back along the side of the pro shop to the tips where only fools and scratch golfers care to tread.
Since I last played Porthcawl, David Williams extended the course and, more recently, Mackenzie and Ebert have been advising the club on various aspects including bunker changes and greens modifications. Indeed, both the 5th and 9th greens were out of play in March 2012 as they have been reshaped and re-laid over last winter. These latest changes are sure to make Porthcawl a wonderful test and will stretch the field when the Senior Open Championship comes here in 2014.
There are so many things I love about Porthcawl… the uninterrupted sea views, the revetted bunkering, the topography (which is an easy walk but could never be described as flat), the magnificent greensites, the one-shot holes, the brutal closing stretch and, last but not least, the conviviality of the wonderful club itself. If I lived within a 30-mile drive of Porthcawl, I’d join. It’s the best course in Wales by a comfortable margin and it’s perhaps the best Welsh golf club too. A worthy World Top 100 course and, in my book, it’s outstanding. 9/10. Keith Baxter, Editor-in-Chief