Royal Porthcawl Golf Club | Golf Course in PORTHCAWL | Golf Course Reviews & Ratings

Royal Porthcawl is, in our opinion, the best golf course in Wales – and would be a fitting venue for The Open.

The elite amateurs who travelled to south Wales to play in the Amateur Championship of 2016 competed over a course that is not only widely regarded as the finest in the Principality but also one deemed capable of hosting The Open.

While the first statement might be contested by supporters of Royal St David’s, Pennard and Aberdovey – both of which have significant merit – most prefer Porthcawl, illustrated by its position in our GBI Top 100s.

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The second assertion is more open to debate, yet largely owing to factors not pertaining to the course. “It is a gem. It can certainly measure up with any of the courses that host The Open and Senior Open,” says Bernhard Langer of a links over which he won the Senior Open in 2014. “It would make a great Open Championship course,” agrees Tom Watson.

The infrastructure required to host an Open these days might very well dispiritingly preclude Porthcawl being anointed. So might the return of Royal Portrush to an already intensely competitive ‘rota’ of Open hosts.

Against which, one might argue one, two or even four regular hosts might in the near future disappear from selection for political reasons, and that what had looked an unlikely opening may appear.

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Certainly, the RA’s preferred architect Martin Ebert has worked on the links recently and it is one of the governing body’s favoured hosts for its championships. The 2016 championship was the seventh ‘Amateur’ it has staged, and it has also hosted a Walker Cup, the aforementioned Senior Open and a Curtis Cup.

It did so in 2016 in tandem with Pyle Kenfig, a felicitous way for Porthcawl to celebrate its 125th anniversary.

The club was formed in 1891 by coal and shipping merchants from Cardiff, with a nine-holer laid out among the gorse and bracken of Locks Common by Charles Gibson, the professional at Royal North Devon.

The original course was soon insufficient to cope with the increasing popularity of the club though, and within four years land for a second nine was secured. The original nine – witnessed on arrival at Porthcawl as the land on which it sat is dissected by the driveway – was then abandoned due to the significant walk between the two halves, and Ramsay Hunter was engaged to create the first 18-hole course in Wales.

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The work of Hunter, of Sandwich fame, was altered by world war efforts and a succession of esteemed architects including Harry Colt, Fred Hawtree, JH Taylor and notably Tom Simpson. More recently, Ebert has rebuilt some greens.

Porthcawl was granted its regal prefix in 1909 but it wasn’t until the 1950s, aided by the astute husbandry of Fife man Marcus Geddes, that it reached its potential.

Geddes was a proponent of fast-running, fine fescue links and his work helped attract elite championships to this nook of south Wales. They tended to bear timeless stories too; the 1965 Amateur, the second hosted here, was notable for Michael Bonallack’s comeback from seven down after eight holes to beat Clive Clark 21 but also for him winning the jackpot on the fruit machine at lunchtime. Thirty years later, GBI beat an American side containing the ‘phenom’, Tiger Woods, 14-10 in the Walker Cup.

Professional luminaries triumphed here too, from Percy Alliss (a former assistant at Porthcawl) in the Penfold tournament of 1932 to Peter Thomson in the 1961 Dunlop Masters to Sandy Lyle in the inaugural Coral Welsh Classic of 1980. Two years later, Gordon Brand Jnr held off Greg Norman in an event battered by a thunderstorm during which lightning struck the TV aerial of the press tent and ruined the writers’ enjoyment of a World Cup football match from Spain!

In picturing that mid-summer event of 1982, one’s mind conjures images of the scorched links that would have played hosted, even with a good drink from the thunderstorm. In such ‘brown’ conditions, Porthcawl is at once a visual delight, yet necessitates such huge patience and precision that one is never at ease.

Due to the absence of dune corridors found on many elite links, it famously permits a view of the sea from every hole, as well as south to Somerset and Exmoor and across Swansea Bay to the Gower Peninsula. Instead, undulating terrain created by blown sand climbs away from the captivating opening three beachside holes and characterises this world-class links. Marram, gorse and heather cover the rolling hillside, although vegetation is admirably being scraped back to reveal original authentic sandy areas.

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As per every classic links, Porthcawl is not all about brawn, with placement of drives between what can be thick rough and mastering the often fast-running conditions as important as thumping it miles. The victory of notoriously short-hitting Gary Wolstenholme over Woods – in his wondrously athletic but wild youth – in the Walker Cup is exhibit A.

Then there is a set of greens that are routinely slick and uncommonly contoured, with putting into bunkers not unheard of. If you follow this golfer in doing so, take solace in the rumour a famous lady of yesteryear is thought to have gone one better and lost a ball while putting downhill and downwind on the 5th!

Now up to 7,100 yards from the championship tees, the 6,580 off the whites will be ample for all but single-figure players – and the 6,300 off the yellows advisable for most.

The regular changes in direction, with holes pointed in every direction on the compass, is another strong theme here and ensures it is always testing and interesting. The aforementioned first three head in a north-westerly direction as they hug the coastline, the 3rd green being the point to the ‘triangle’ of land on which Porthcawl is laid out. Think of this opening trio – a gentle opener followed by two stern par 4s, with the common theme of uncommon beauty – as the left-hand side of the triangle.

The right side is then provided by three holes that follow in a steadfastly south-east direction, a 3-5-4 combination that play with the prevailing but travel against the grain to greens set into the hill.

An exquisite short hole to the south then begins the bottom of the triangle. Played to an intimidatingly slender green guarded by six bunkers, it might be flippantly but not wholly inaccurately be described as Wales’ Postage Stamp. If you kept walking off the back of the 7th green in a straight line across the practice ground you would eventually find the 18th tee and thus the clubhouse.

But instead Porthcawl now loses is navigational discipline. From the 8th tee it darts about the land within the triangle in all directions. Only 16 and 17 vaguely follow each other of consecutive holes.

The back nine is 200 yards longer despite both halves featuring two 3s and two 5s, the quartet of two-shotters that even off the whites all exceed 410 yards (off the backs they average 458) from the 13th making the difference.

The dog-leg 13th begins an exacting finish. Played into the prevailing wind, the margin for error on the approach is minimal due to sand either side of a narrow green. The 15th is even better, set on a fantastic slab of undulating ground where bunkers set into the face of a ridge frame the tee shot before a green on the brow of the ridge beyond rising and falling terrain.

The 16th is played downwind but that advantage is negated by cross bunkers that mean you face a shot of at least 158 yards.

The scorecard suggests they are in balanced by a mid-length short hole and a ‘short’ par 5. But while the 14th may be modest in length for a championship par 3, like the 7th it requires a controlled short iron to hold its plateau green, especially in the customary crosswind.

The final par 5, meanwhile, may be only 504 yards off the tips, but it is uphill and includes a blind drive. It is, nevertheless, a chance of a birdie when it is calm.

Then to the final hole, where many great victories have been sealed, although not Langer’s Senior Open win, as it played as the 1st. Whether that was a trial run for the main event is a moot point. In the meantime, fortunate club golfers ought to savour Wales’ No.1 for themselves.

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