Declaring anywhere to seem “far way” is obviously always relative to where you’re starting. Even Timbuktu isn’t far away if you live in central Mali. But for many people living in the British Isles, South Wales seems to be quite far away. I am sure it can only be that misconception that prevents the fairways being overrun by enthusiastic golfers because this corner of the nation is uncommonly blessed by nature and has more than its share of exceptional golf courses that are an utter joy to play.
Part of me wants it to stay that way, so shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but the truth is Bridgend isn’t really that far way at all. Starting in London it can take less than three hours’ driving – it’s taken me that long before to get to courses in Surrey – and once you’ve arrived you can play to the sound of waves lapping Welsh beaches, through forested hillsides and along rugged fairways that provide some of the most inspirational golfing in the entire country.
Accepting that it wouldn’t be fair to keep it to myself, here are my notes on a recent trip to Bridgend that took in five of the finest courses the Welsh county has to offer, starting at the truly glorious Royal Porthcawl.
Driving down the coastal road towards Royal Porthcawl Golf Club you catch sight of the famous red-tin roofed clubhouse some distance off. Once you’ve arrived and are able to explore inside, you discover intimate dark panelled rooms, large leather chairs, creaking floorboards, and peerless views out across the putting green and beach. You can almost smell the character, and it’s impossible not to fall for the place even before setting foot on the first tee. Once you do, the scene looking down the opening hole whets the golfing appetite further still, and you’ll be keen to get out and play away.
Royal Porthcawl is a pretty unique test for a links course, with a routing that is ever-changing in direction and a location that has two distinctly high and low sides. This all translates into some fantastic elevation changes, satisfyingly keeping the sea in view for the majority of the time, and ensuring the angled wind sternly examines your game.
Normally the greatest compliment you can pay a course is to say that there isn’t a single weak hole on the golf course but, as far as Royal Porthcawl is concerned, I’d extend that to say that there isn’t a best hole on the golf course. You can make the case for just about any to be the signature hole. I have only played a handful of courses where you’d be hard pushed to pick any one hole over another during the customary post-game evaluation in the bar, but this is one of them.
I found the opening run by the sea particularly enjoyable, and indeed the severely uphill approach to the par five 5th hole is a truly memorable shot. At the highest point of the course, the narrow and heavily bunkered par three 7th is framed in gorse and is an excellent short hole, as is the later 14th, with its plateau green surrounded by pot bunkers.
Rugged bunkering is in sight on the long par four that follows, which is a fine start to an exceedingly tough run of holes home. But the 18th hole, hitting down towards the beach and crossing just in front of the first tee and clubhouse provides a striking finish that may take the honours for many visitors. There are just so many truly great holes.
Of course, this doesn’t qualify as breaking news. The club has held numerous Championships, both in the Amateur and Professional ranks, so it’s pedigree is well-established and the name very well known by most golfers, whether they have ever visited or not. In 2016 Porthcawl will again host the Amateur Championship, and in 2017 it will welcome the Seniors Open Championship for the second time in four years (the first being last summer, in 2014). Such tournaments are entirely fitting for what is a truly magnificent golf course, and there’s a strong argument to justify the club’s ambitions to one day host the most prestigious Championship of them all, The Open.
I thought it was magnificent, and it won’t just be the high point on a trip to the region, but a course that will sit amongst the very best you’ll ever play.
The following day, I got into the heart of local golf playing at Coed-y-mwstwr GC, a modern parkland style golf course much shorter than its more illustrious neighbour of Royal Porthcawl.
It rightly makes no apologies for being of more manageable length, and indeed there’s certainly enough difficulty created by undulations and particularly slender greens to defend the par. The tree-lined fairways are fiddly and awkward in all the right places.
Despite the yardage being quite enticing, I doubt it’s a course that gets defeated too regularly, even by the pros, as many of the holes on the higher side of the valley roll down and up from tee to green, often influencing bounce, and regularly leaving awkward lies, stances, and pitches.
It’s a young course, established in 1994 with the full 18 holes completed in 2006, and on the older side of the course, the back nine, the layout seems to have settled a little, running through gentler and more mature terrain. Several holes traverse each other on occasion, so you’ll need a keen sense of awareness throughout!
Stand out holes include the sharp dogleg left 5th hole that plays around an old walled garden and demands a precise drive to the corner of the fairway; the tricky 9th, another dogleg left that descends heavily and sweeps around the corner and out of view; and the 16th, a tree lined par four with an attractive pitch over large trees down to a green nestled in a deep hollow.
The course at Coed-y-mwstwr is no doubt at its best from spring through autumn, when trees are in bloom and framing the lush green fairways in this rural corner of Bridgend Town. It’s also worth noting how accessible the club is, being only 20 minutes from both Cardiff and Swansea by car.
Back towards the seaside town of Porthcawl, Grove Golf Club is a very lush, green, parkland golf course, where the terrain is, on the whole, much more uniform. There are exceptions, with holes 16 and 17 providing a pair of opposing doglegs that utilise undulations very well, as does the par four 11th, which offers a particularly formidable test.
A notable feature are the numerous windswept low level trees that line several fairways, hinting at the difficulties no doubt provided by the elements on a persistent basis.
Several of the par threes are excellent, from the long 220 yard 4th that threads narrowly between two greenside bunkers, to the shorter 12th hole, played to a raised two tier green. But for me, the best hole on the course is the par four 11th. Played semi-blind to the fairway, a careful tee shot short of the water on the corner of the dogleg leaves an uphill approach to a raised green on top of the hill.
Based prominently on the main road out of Porthcawl, the large clubhouse offers high quality dining and is a hive of activity for golfers, as well as visiting locals. Here, as with all the venues I visited on my trip, there is a very distinct personality to the club. Grove is markedly verdant, modern, and a lot of fun to play, and indeed entirely contrasting to the hilltop and links courses nearby.
On my last day, and again in total contrast to others, nestled high on the hills of the Llynfi valley, Maesteg Golf Club has a beautifully rugged feel throughout the golf course. The lush green parkland of Grove Golf Club was replaced by rolling moorland fairways, small greens, and expansive views across the distant valleys.
Maesteg was established in 1912, and time has afforded it a wonderful character at many points on the course. Designed by the legendary James Braid, it’s little surprise that there are a number of standout holes, with the long double dogleg 5th being a highlight, with ‘out of bounds’ encroaching at several points of the hole, as well as the par five 11th that threads along the valley side and between thick pine trees. The shorter par four 12th, with its blind tee shot over a treacherous corner of bushes and another area of ‘out of bounds’, is also one that stands long in the memory.
The course undoubtedly enjoys a quintessentially Welsh feel, too, with glorious rolling forested hillsides on view throughout, along with traditional stone walls which frame the boundaries of the road-side holes. It feels like golf from a bygone era; shorter holes, small greens, and natural use of the undulating land. The length (under 6,000 yards from the back tees) is no representation of the difficulty of the course, which played from such an elevated position and exposure to the elements demands considerable guile and skill to score well. With any breath of breeze, I doubt it’s ever overpowered. What is for certain is it’s a very enjoyable layout from start to finish.
Pyle & Kenfig
Completing the triumvirate of courses in the western part of the county, Pyle & Kenfig is just a short hop from Grove GC and Royal Porthcawl GC, and pleasingly it offers yet another style of golf course.
The course has two distinct loops, with a front nine that is wide open, excepting the swathes of gorse dotted throughout the holes, while the glorious back nine is played through mammoth dunes, fescue grasses, and characteristic linksland that is a joy for any purist.
The par four dogleg 7th hole is particularly good, climbing up a rolling fairway before turning the gorse-lined corner and pitching up towards the green. Not long, but certainly tricky.
My personal highlight came later on, while strolling through the dunes from holes 11 to 16. While all the holes are good, here there is a very marked and unusual sense of isolation to be enjoyed. With nothing but the sea and wildlife for company, this was my idea of golfing perfection. A challenging variety of par threes, fours, and fives, where semi-blind carries, raised dunes, and rolling fairways all test your metal as the course meanders around a loop back towards the clubhouse.
Not far short of its centenary year in 2022, Pyle & Kenfig is a very well established golfing name, its credentials supported by its past hosting of the strokeplay stages of the Amateur Championship on two occasions (which it is set to do again in 2016), as well as the Home Internationals, and Senior Ladies British Open Amateur Championship.
Quite simply, it’s a lovely golf course, where even if your game deserts you, the views across The Bristol Channel, Gower Peninsula, and Welsh Mountains will keep a smile on your face.
And perhaps that’s where the beauty of a golf trip in the Bridgend region lies, for no matter what your preference when it comes to the style or difficulty of a golf course, your budget for a green fee, or your favoured landscape – and however unavoidably clichéd it may be to say it – but there really is something for everyone here.
No doubt there are other good hotels in the region, but I was fortunate to stay at The Great House, Laleston, a 15th century converted house and Coach House with 12 individual bedrooms, health centre, and award winning restaurant (called Leicester’s) offering exceptional Welsh dining. The food here I am sure would meet the standards of even the most demanding gourmet, and provided another significant plus point – and something of a welcome surprise, if I am absolutely honest.
And it was little surprises like this that sold the region to me. From a golfing perspective, it surprised me just how close this cluster of courses were to each other and yet how marked their different characters were. Of course, the more famous names enjoy their celebrity for a reason and they are the stand-out courses but the others serve as very accomplished support and help make up a delightful tour in a truly lovely part of the world. I will be back!