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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.”
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.
Harlech Castle, built in the late 13th century was somewhere I used to visit regularly as a child before I even cared for the fact that there was a golf course sitting below it. Now that my addiction to golf travel has well and truly gotten hold of me, I had to go and play the course that lay under the watchful gaze of the castle so well connected with my early childhood.
Along with the castle views, Royal St David’s is also accompanied with more fantastic scenery, the hills of Snowdonia, together providing one of the most impressive backdrops in UK golf. The views aside, the club itself is relatively modest with the clubhouse now looking a little tired and in need of refurbishment. This becomes immaterial though as you step onto the course, the opening holes of which are played over a primarily flat piece of land that leaves the course open to the elements.
Overall, there are no tricks to Royal St David’s. Until the closing stretch, the holes are all laid out in front of you. This par 69 golf course is short on blind shots or general trickery but it offers the genuine links experience. Whilst the front 9 provides a solid test, it was the back 9 that I found more memorable. You make the turn at the far end of this out and back course at the par three 9th where a small area of woodland peers over the hill that sits at the back of the green, shades of Formby here.
Having scored pretty well on the front 9, I then turned into the wind at the 10th which is the kind of hole that greets you with a slap to the face to let you know what sort of examination is to come. This stroke index 1 hole has a well placed stream 60 yards in front of the green and if playing into the wind, will need three shots if you want to comfortably get to the green. This portion of the course gets tantalisingly close to the sand dunes and whilst the cute par three 11th is played between two small dunes, you never feel like you’re fully immersed amongst the dunes here, most of the course is played alongside them.
Of all the holes, the 15th is the one truly outstanding hole on the golf course. This is one of the few areas where the routing takes you into that duneland as the hole winds its way across bumpy links turf and the green is situated cleverly within a circle of dunes. I was also a big fan of the approach to the 17th with undulating ground across the fairway and a narrow gap through which to thread your ball between two bunkers.
Whilst the backdrop to the course is one of the best I’ve seen, the shine is taken off by the derelict block of flats and adjacent concrete building that are an eyesore for the last three holes, an unwelcome return to reality and a sign of the massive under investment in this relatively forgotten part of the UK.
I thoroughly enjoyed my round at Royal St David’s, especially the splendid back 9 and it’s deserving of its place in the GB & Ire Top 100, but for me, not one that warrants a place in the top half of that list. Having now played 6 of Wales’ top 20 ranked courses; Royal Porthcawl, Royal St David’s, P&K, Nefyn, Machynys and Borth, there’s no doubting that Wales has some very good golf courses, but I’ve failed to yet see anything top draw unlike the other countries that make up the British Isles. Maybe one day I’ll get to Pennard and that will be the one that truly delivers?
Nice review, and that building truly is a stinker ! From the interweb SNOWDONIA National Park has said the demolition of a “disgraceful eyesore of a building” in Harlech is “unlikely to happen quickly or easily” as a petition calling for action is launched.
Love playing in Wales, only P&K remaining of its links. I think that Pennard and Tenby (loop aside) are my favourites, agreed though that there are several nearly brilliant links courses there, in addition to yours Ashburnham, Southerndown..
Royal St. David’s is regarded as one of the best links courses in Wales and has a reputation for being a fearsome test of golf.
The numbers certainly back that claim up. The par of 69 from the championship blue markers has an SSS of 73 and the maximum yardage of 6,629 includes a number of brutish par fours; seven of them over the 430 yard mark!
On my most recent visit here the fairways were beautifully browned off and the run on the ball ensured that the course didn’t play as long as the scorecard suggests. And with just a gentle breeze blowing over the links it was a joy to play. It should also be noted that the condition of the course was absolutely first class. Fresh on the back of hosting the Welsh Open Strokeplay Championship the subtle greens putted absolutely superbly having a lovely pace where the ball just keeps rolling out that extra couple of feet which you’re not quite expecting.
As host to many notable championships over its 120-plus year history it’s a course that top players will love because for the most part it is one of those links that provides just about as fair a test of golf as a seaside layout can.
For the most part the front nine is played over flattish land with expansive greens merging beautifully, almost seamlessly, from the fairways. The naturally rippling fairway of the opening hole offers much promise but we must wait until we are well into the back-nine before we see any real movement in the land.
Indeed a gigantic line of towering sand dunes flanks the course and we play directly towards it, most agonisingly as we come up the long seventh, but then away from it a few times during the round. We long to get into the best of the terrain but we must wait until late in the round and then it is only a fleeting visit.
There is a wide variety of bunker styles at Harlech and I just hope The Club are currently in a process of updating them and making them more uniform. It doesn't quite feel right as it is. There are some wonderful blow-out fairway bunkers on the course, that define many of the holes, and some brilliantly menacing deep pits around the greens but you also have some very shallow and tame, almost parkland in nature, traps dotted around too; mainly around the greens. I’d love to see these converted into some of the deeper pits that are often in close proximity.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Played RSD in April 2017. Great setting beneath Harlech castle, shame about the derelict buildings which also overlook the course, particularly the 1960s tower block. Not much the golf club can do about that though. The green fee is exceptional value at £38 and easy to book online. The course is as described in earlier reviews, average first 12 holes then a good finish. That said the opening 12 are still challenging links holes and not as bad as suggested in some reviews. I wouldn't go out of my way to visit again but a course that's well worth playing for any serious golfers who are in the area and a good double with Aberdovey further down the coast.
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.