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A496 on the lower Harlech road
Current handicap required – book in advance
Harold Finch-Hatton, William Henry More
The glorious setting for the Royal St David’s links at Harlech is nothing short of beautiful and romantic. The forbidding medieval Harlech castle and towering sand dunes guard the course. Behind the dunes, to the northwest, is the sweeping bay of Tremadog and to the north are views across to Snowdon and the lesser peaks of Snowdonia. “Small wonder if the visitor falls in love with Harlech at first sight,” wrote Bernard Darwin in The Golf Courses of the British Isles, “for no golf course in the world has a more splendid background than the old castle, which stands at the top of a sheer precipice of rock looking down over the links.”
According to folklore, Harold Finch-Hatton reputedly identified the links upon his return from Australia, originally using the area for boomerang practice. Finch-Hatton teamed up with William Henry More and in 1894 St David’s was born. It seemed poignant that Wales should have a golf club called St David’s, after all, Scotland has St Andrew’s and England has St George’s. Edward VII granted the club royal patronage in 1908.
Locals regard Royal St David’s as the world’s toughest par 69. Who would argue with them? The course measures 6,500 yards from the back tees. It’s not your usual out-and-back links – the holes zigzag in all directions, subjecting each shot to the vagaries of the prevailing westerly wind.
The opening dozen holes are fully exposed to the elements. They play back and forth across fairly flat and at times, open ground. When the 13th hole is reached, the landscape changes dramatically and at last we enter rippling undulating dune land. The bunker free par four 15th requires a long carry across dunes from an elevated tee to a narrow fairway, Mount Snowdon is in the distance. A decent drive leaves a partially blind approach shot to a raised green nestling between sand dunes. You might catch a quick glimpse of the Irish Sea from the 16th tee before turning back inland towards the clubhouse. Unusually, Royal St David’s closes out with a fairly ordinary, but tough 200-yard par three with the green directly in front of the clubhouse.
Royal St David’s has hosted many major amateur championships over the years. There are a number of famous names on the roll of honour, including Cecil Leitch. In 1926, she beat Mrs Garon 8&7 to win the Ladies’ British Amateur Championship. More recently, in 1994, Sweden’s Freddie Jacobson won the British Youths Open Amateur Championship here at Harlech.
I played Royal St David’s last month for the first time during a trip that included Aberdovey, Nefyn and Conwy. There’s nothing particularly negative to say about RSD except that the 220-yard par three 14th needs re-thinking as Jim McCann has already mentioned. It’s not often the case, but this par three is a far better hole from the ladies tee. Unfortunately I doubt the club will want to shorten the 14th because that would drop the total yardage from the back tees to less than 6,600 yards. St David’s is certainly not short however, and it is indeed a very tough par 69 but I actually think that is the heart of the issue which will prevent RSD from moving much higher in the Britain and Ireland rankings. The course is not well balanced, with the only two par fives on the card coming back-to-back at holes 7 and 8. RSD relies on the strength of its long par fours for teeth. With no fewer than seven 400+ yarders this is no easy course on which to score and it’s plain to see why many call this the toughest par 69 in Britain. But variation for me is more important than long par four after long par four. If the club could find another couple of hundred yards to create two more par fives on the homeward nine then RSD might give Royal Porthcawl a run for its money. Porthcawl offers a much sterner test on a more conventionally configured course and, of course, fantastic sea views from virtually every hole. I enjoyed RSD very much and recommend it thoroughly, however, on balance I think Aberdovey is my pick of the north Wales courses… but only just. Both are well worth the trip from wherever you live in the world.