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¼ mile W of Harlech
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.”
|Did you know that Royal St David’s came out top in an analysis of your favourite Welsh courses? Click here for more.|
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 appropriate that Wales should have a golf club called St David’s, after all, Scotland has St Andrews 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.
When golf is discussed in the United Kingdom the top tier courses located in Wales usually get far too little attention. I've been to the country on two different occasions and I have had the opportunity to play just about all of the key candidates generally praised for their qualities.
My time at Royal St. David's had me scratching my head in bewilderment. The course is blessed with some incredible scenery -- Harlech Castle located on high ground provides views from just about any hole on the course. You also have in the distance the outline of the Snowdonia Mountain Range. Nearby just west of the course is the beginnings of the Irish Sea. Add all of the off-course elements and it's quite impressive.
The issue I see for Royal St. David's is a layout that's blessed with one quality nine -- the inward half. The outward nine is simply functional golf -- nothing bad per se but nothing of stirring qualities either.
As a par-69 course Royal St. David's has back-to-back par-5 holes on the front side with no less than five (5) par-3 holes for the entire layout.
After playing the front side I was wondering when the course might hit its stride. That momentum starts at the long par-4 10th. When you finish the fine par-3 11th you cross over a road that separates the course and begin the final stretch of holes to its conclusion.
The key difference?
The terrain for the final few holes does draw one's attention. Holes #12 and #13 are solid par-4 holes. The long par-3 14th is exceptional -- played into the prevailing wind it can mean anywhere from 2-3 clubs more to cover its distance. I was saddened to learn that the original blind shot to the target was eliminated some years ago. It's a first rate hole and anyone who can claim to have hit the green in the regulation stroke has done well.
The par-4 15th that follows is truly one of the finest holes in all of Wales and likely can be included on the short list of top tier holes throughout the UK.
The hard part comes when standing on the tee at this bunkerless 439-yard brute and getting a clear idea on your target line. The fairway is aligned on an angle so working one's ball off the tee on a left-to-right basis is preferred. The fairway actually is wider when shorter off the tee -- the deeper you go the more stringent the hole becomes. I can't stress enough how exacting the requirements are here from the tee -- failure to pay heed can easily mean a quick reload. The green is separated from the first part of the fairway and is beautifully positioned and contoured.
The 16th is a fine short par-4 which starts from an elevated tee -- the sea immediately behind you and is well defended in the drive zone. The long 17th at 431 yards is also a fine hole. The tee shot must escape a trio of bunkers that protect fiercely the right side and out-of-bounds on that same side must also be avoided. The fairway is especially rolling so balls can kick to either side. A true adventure.
The concluding 201-yard par-3 18th hole is one that commands one's attention but I found it sufficient but not particularly memorable. I've played an assortment of other courses ending with a par-3 such as Garden City, the Geronimo Course at Desert Mountain and the Cascades Course at The Homestead -- and the one at RSD's is behind each of the aforementioned. I have read where some claim the par-69 here is the toughest for its type. I would urge those taking that view to head to Wannamoisett across the pond in Rhode Island.
As I said at the outset -- Royal St. David's has plenty of elements -- off course and on -- that certainly will carry the day for many who play there. For those who are design connoisseurs the totality of what could have been present is the key element that left me wanting more and likely others will feel similarly. It's too bad the land used for the final five (5) holes could not have been more in the mix. All in all, a worthy course to play and one where spending some time in Harlech will clearly complete the visit in fine fashion.
by M. James Ward
Very few links courses can boast that all of their holes are in dunes or unmistakable links like. Invariably, there are some holes that route inwards where the topography is flatter and more heath like. RSD is in this cohort but the inland holes are very strong holes especially 3,5 and 12. The finish is sublime and the setting haunting (in a good way). Just a top golfing experience.
Played RSD at the end of September and was fairly disappointed. Had played Aberdovey the day before, which was excellent, and I think that given its ranking my expectations were high but it did not do a great deal for me. I am not sure what classifies as a links course but apart from holes 14 through to 16 which are played through the dunes the rest of the course is situated on flat fairly featureless land. Sure there are great views of the sand dunes, but none of the sea. Although there are also great views of Harlech Castle and Snowdonia it is what is on the golf course that counts. The first 13 holes are basically on a flat field. Although August and September had generally been very dry in much of England and Wales many of the fairways had large amounts of standing water and 70% of the bunkers were full to the brim with water. One local said that there had been a lot of rain particularly in the Harlech area, but Aberdovey 30 miles away had no standing water at all. There are 3 proper links holes 14-16 but I hardly think that this qualifies it as a links course. Greens were good and true but quite slow. At par 69 it is a very tough course but with so few par 5's and so many long par 4's it felt a bit of a slog bashing a driver off the tee on almost every par 4. It is a good course but no more, in fact if I had to play at a course every week I would rather play at Conwy. Top 100 in UK, no way.
I played RSD in July and I agree there they have issues with the bunkers, but standing water on the fairways is a real surprise. I also prefer Aberdovey but I’m surprised that the only other review you’ve posted is for St Annes Old Links and you gave that course a 6-ball rating. SOL has no dunes, is even flatter, more featureless and also has no sea views. I cannot believe that anyone could rate SOL ahead of Harlech (even with its current bunker issues). Two very odd reviews and two rather wacky ratings IMO.
Hello Hugh, I feel like you are stalking me! A lthough I have played many links courses in Ayreshire, the Lancashire golf coast, Ireland and Kent I rarely feel the need to comment because I generally agree with most reviews. In the case of St Annes I felt as I stated that it offered good value for money, hence the rating. In the case of St David's I felt that given the way I found it that it did not offer good vfm. Interestingly the night after we played it there was more rain resulting in course closure at St Davids the following day, which is unusual for a so called links course. On the day that it was closed at St David's we played Aberdovey which was fully open, some water on about 4 fairways, none on the greens and none in the bunkers. After torrential rain that night we played Porthmadog. Admittedly there was standing water on some of the greens but the course was quite playable. There does seem to be a problem specific to St Davids regarding drainage.
I too was disappointed with RSD and feel it's overrated. I'm sure this site doesn't factor vfm into the equation when ranking courses otherwise the rankings would be daft - all the current Open courses and all of London's top heathland courses would be missing from the list.