"Not far from Porthcawl – as the aeroplane flies – is another excellent course, Southerndown," wrote Bernard Darwin, in The Golf Courses of the British Isles. "It is perched high aloft and looks down on Porthcawl, amid the many other glories of a beautiful view. You may look out far over the sea, or again over a wide stretch of English – or rather Welsh – landscape. The breezes blow cool and fresh here, and on a still and stifling August day, when the golfer is almost too limp to crawl round Porthcawl, he will be wise to refresh himself by a round on the heights of Southerndown."
Southerndown Golf Club's elevated site, high above the Ogmore River Valley, provides arresting views across the Bristol Channel. Over time, sand has blown up from the seashore, coming to rest on the rolling slopes and giving the turf at Southerndown a rather links-like character. In fact, you would be hard pressed to categorise the course – it's quite unique – but one thing is for sure, it's absolutely natural. There are no trees or artificial water hazards, just bracken, gorse and bunkers waiting to trap the wayward drive. Oh yes, we'd almost forgotten, there are a couple of other things – the ever-present wind and the sheep – serious hazards in their own right.
Willie Fernie originally laid down the course in 1905. But this wasn't the same Willie Fernie who won the British Open Championship in 1883 – it was his namesake – a fact we learnt from Southerndown's knowledgeable Secretary. The hands of a number of great architects have touched Southerndown over the years (Herbert Fowler, Willie Park Junior and more recently, Donald Steel) but its lineage remains intact.
"Bracken to the left of you, bracken to the right – and a fairway rising up to the sky," was how the great Henry Cotton saw Southerndown's opening hole. It's certainly a most challenging two-shot hole and it's followed by two more, which are equally tough. The four par threes at Southerndown are noteworthy, especially the 5th hole, known as "Carter's Folly" – it's expertly bunkered and calls for an accurate iron shot.
James Braid and Harry Vardon predicted that Southerndown would become a great course, and they were right. It's hosted a number of important events including the Piccadilly Masters and the Martini International. The most notable current event is the Welsh amateur competition, called the Duncan Putter, an annual 72-hole competition, which has seen Peter McEvoy and Gary Wolstenholme emerging as winners.
No trip to South Wales would be complete without a game at Southerndown – it's an exciting experience with a warm and inviting clubhouse, which completes the perfect day.
The uphill approach into the club surprised me. The first hole then rises steeply up from the clubhouse, it’s not really an attractive or enjoyable hole and you might need crampons in wet weather. But once you’re up to the green, the rest of the course plays on and around a plateau, with tremendous views over the valley and down to the coast.
Up on the plateau, the holes play up and down, and are bordered by gorse and bracken, but the playing corridors are reasonably wide so it never feels narrow. Being high up, the course is exposed to the wind. In mid-August we weren’t battered by the weather, but I imagine this can be a brutal place to play golf when it’s cold and windy.
The course has some long and tough par fours, but the collection of par threes were the stand out holes for me. The 5th is 175 yards and plays from a high tee over a valley to an elevated green – it’s a 165 yard “heroic” carry to the small green. The 7th played long at 218 yards into the wind. It was downhill but the green is surrounded by gorse making it a small and intimidating target. I would have liked to run the ball into this green, but the fairways weren’t really firm enough for this. The 10th is 168 yards but played a lot shorter downhill and downwind. The double green (shared with the 16th) is framed by a host of bunkers and has some heavy undulations: it’s an attractive hole. The 14th is another medium length par 3, with a green shaped like a figure of eight with bunkers either side pinching in the centre of the green.
We noticed some of the greens had slopes on them, but they were running so slowly the challenge was negated. The main challenge was trying to whack the ball hard enough to reach the hole. At least they were true. We enjoyed the challenge of the last few holes, in particular the 18th which drops back down to the clubhouse, with an interesting two tier fairway cut into the side of the hill.
No review of Southerndown would be complete without mentioning the sheep. Although the sight of the sheep adds a quirky charm, their droppings do not. Playing in the morning, the course was covered in the stuff and there is no way you can get round without trudging through the sloppy mucky mess. We noticed a tractor sweeping most of it away during the morning, so I would recommend an afternoon visit. Overall, a good test let down a little by conditioning.
Over an excellent breakfast in the clubhouse, I looked at the steeply uphill first fairway with sheep everywhere and wondered what kind of game we might be in for but Southerndown proved to be a very fun course and we really enjoyed our game.
It's an unusual mix as it feels like a links but is on very high ground so you get excellent views down the coast at the start and then inland to the hills later on. It's not too demanding off the tee as the fairways are wide and there's not much rough. The greens were smooth but relatively slow so you could be aggressive and a good score is possible for anyone playing well.
I thought 9th was a very good looking hole and the closing stretch from the 15th is excellent with the split level fairway 18th being a nice surprise. After walking through the sheep for 4 hours you will need 10 mins to clean your shoes and trolley wheels and the club has plenty of facilities for this so not a problem. Southerndown is well worth a look if you're in the area for Porthcawl.
Southerndown is deemed as downland but I prefer someone below’s description of “a links in the sky”. The first few holes would be a hard walk on a hot day but it levels out and pretty much plays like a links course. A few holes wouldn’t be out of place at nearby Royal Porthcawl and the drainage is excellent. You then descend the slope to the 18th, clubhouse and sunset over the Channel if you’re there late enough.
I’m struggling to name a favourite hole as it’s such a steady, enjoyable test. The 18th’s split-level fairway did stand out. It felt unique too, it’s a bit heathy, all the bracken had turned an alluring deep red and every hole has a view – some towards the sea, half over the Welsh hills. I can think of one lesser hole, a late par 3 but that’s only really because it looked and felt less dramatic.
Condition was good too, I’ve read some complaints of fairways being poor but we had no issues. All the greens rolled well, the clubhouse and bar are nice, the practice facilities are decent… My main gripe was the lack of sheep roaming! It was busy though so I guess if you want to see Southerndown’s famous sheep nestling in bunkers then a Saturday’s not the time.
Overall then, I’d say Southerndown is a worthy addition to any visit to the area, whether there on a golf trip or just work or other leisure. It’s not particularly strategic but if the wind starts gusting on that big hill I’m sure a lot more decision making would be necessary.
Too bad, this summer Wales was parched, and the club has no sprinkler system. Rock hard fairways but regular greens were fine. Built on a bluff, it's down land not links but many well designed holes. Would be nice to play under better conditions.
Played Southerndown a monday afternoon mid-July after reading the reviews on this site and was quite dissapointed. Primarily with the general condition of the course, which was a little surprising as we had asked beforehand in the proshop and been told it was “good”!! The dry - bordering dead - fairways were probably due to the dryspell. The greens however where green and watered but also slow and scruffy. Without any clear definition of fairways from part of the surroundings we found the front9 very average. The two short holes are quite good though and the view of the coastline from the first holes is great. The back9 is quite a lot better, especially holes 12 through 15. All in all the condition of the course was a BIG letdown, and I have to advice visitors not to take the word of the otherwise kind guy in the proshop for good but rather go and see for yourself before you pay the greenfee.
How would you describe this links in the sky… moundy, bumpy, sheepy, fun? All true. Classy golf course with superb greens. Plenty gorse to avoid!
Really enjoyed the variety of challenges going round this superb links course.
Well deserved place in the rankings
Played Southerndown on a warm day in late May with little or no breeze and hard running fairways after an extended period of good weather. The course was excellent, although the greens were the slowest of our week in Wales, still very true however. The lack of wind made some of the stroke indexes seem peculiar with the long uphill 3rd showing as SI 13 while the shorter, easier4th was SI 7. I suspect in a strong wind those holes may have player rather differently. This is a very natural course and the resident sheep wander freely around although that had no impact on our game - unlike Pennard where we had to wait a few times while the cattle chose to cross our fairway. There is a lot of gorse so hitting off-line is likely to be penalised but, in most cases, the fairways were wide enough that the drives did not feel too daunting. I enjoyed this course a lot and would happily play it again if back in the area.
Played May 2017
Southerndown is unlike many courses I have played before and really has its own identity. Set slightly inland from the sea on very high ‘downland’ ground the course has all the playing characteristics of a true links with some superb and spectacular looking holes traversing wonderful sandy ground where sheep roam freely.
Regardless of what type of course this is (I think I settled on downland links) it’s a real joy to play and although trouble lurks, mainly in the form of gorse and bracken, the width and relative lack of rough ensure that it is the strategy of the course that presents the challenge and is the order of the day.
The ground game is often required on this exposed and very natural course which dramatically climbs uphill at the first hole before twisting and turning across gentle undulating land for the majority of the round before gradually descending over the final few holes. With the firm fairways it’s an easy walk and I seemed to fly round on my visit.
Not much is hidden at Southerndown. There is the occasional blind drive but most of the bunkers are laid out before you and this allows the golfer to plot their way round or risk taking on the hazards in order to set up shorter shots into the green.
Southerndown is a bit quirky at times and great fun but also undoubtedly provides an excellent test of golf.
If you are heading to South Wales this course must be high on your list of priorities to play. I felt it was a real treat to play here and came away with a wide smile on my face having done so.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Played Southerndown for the first time in July 2016 in their mixed open. Biggest surprise was the glorious location adjacent Ogmore-by-Sea with sea, river and inland countryside views. As per other reviews, sheep, gorse and wind were all factors. Course was generally in good condition (apart from a few greens which were a bit below the others); the welcome, clubhouse and practise facilities were also good. After the uphill first the course tends to be on a plateau and holes were generally interesting with good bunkering. Three downhill par 3's in the first 10 holes was quite unusual, and I thought the course really got going after that. The finish from hole 15 onwards was for me the best part of the course with hole 18 an excellant finishing par 4 (an unusual two tier fairway, into the wind and heading towards the bay and prominent clubhouse). Well worth a game and look forward to returning