Great Courses of Britain & Ireland: Royal Porthcawl

Yet to host an Open Championship, the brute of Welsh golf boasts many hallmarks of great British courses

Only a few die-hard advocates of Royal St. David’s and Aberdovey would dispute Royal Porthcawl’s claim to being the finest golf course in Wales. Moreover, many knowledgeable commentators would go further and argue that it is one of the finest links in the British Isles and, alongside Royal Dornoch and Royal County Down, one of the three greatest never to have hosted an Open Championship.

The latter suggestion may seem bold, yet there are elements and sequences of play on the Welsh links which provide echoes of Turnberry, Hoylake, and Portrush. There is even a quartet of holes that wouldn’t look out of place at Ganton or Walton Heath, two of England’s most venerated heathland layouts.

4th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Located 25 miles west of Cardiff in southern Wales, Porthcawl occupies an impressive site that tilts from high ground toward the coast. Links enthusiasts might initially be disappointed by the absence of significant sand hills; but the two upsides to this are the unrestricted views of the sea—the Bristol Channel inlet of the Atlantic Ocean being visible from every part of the course—and that the holes laid out closest to the coast interact with it in a more dynamic, “Turnberry-esque” fashion.

In fact, golfers might imagine themselves to be in southwest Scotland when playing the first four holes at Porthcawl. Beginning, like the legendary Ailsa Course, with three par fours followed by a par three, the 1st tumbles down toward the sea; the 2nd and 3rd run parallel to the coast, spectacularly hugging the shore for their entire length; and the short 4th is superbly bunkered with a rather wickedly contoured green.

Strategically positioned bunkers and characterful putting surfaces define Royal Porthcawl. This is not too surprising since Harry Colt and Tom Simpson were the architects most responsible for their crafting and, in more recent times, Martin Ebert has judiciously restored and updated their original intent.

The aforementioned “heathland quartet” occurs between the long 5th, a hole that leads the golfer up onto the higher ground, and the right-to-left-curling 8th. Great swaths of gorse and broom frame the fairways on these holes, causing some critics to question Porthcawl’s credentials as an authentic links. But then comes the marvelous down-and-up dog-legging 9th, which no one could describe as anything other than a classic seaside hole.

royal porthcawl
14th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Potentially the most influential feature affecting a round at Porthcawl is an invisible one—the near ever-present wind, which, partly due to the links’s exposed nature, must be confronted from all angles (and explains the similarity to Hoylake). Golfers on the back nine will hope the wind isn’t blowing fiercely when they tackle the stretch between 13 and 16, three exacting par fours and a potentially ruinous par three with a Postage Stamp-styled plateau green.

Porthcawl boasts one of golf’s most exhilarating closing holes. It is somewhat similar to the famous downhill 5th at Portrush in the way its green is dramatically perched next to the sea and seemingly careens right into it. But whereas the drive is the exhilarating shot at Portrush, it is the approach at Porthcawl. Even if this thrilling stroke is successfully executed—judgement of distance is key—the green is very large and full of slopes. Birdie threes are almost as rare as calm, windless days in south Wales.

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