Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, On and Off the Course

It already seems like such a long time ago, but the 2010 Ryder Cup turned out to be a very big deal for golf in Wales. The host venue, Celtic Manor, enjoyed a banner year in 2011 that included a 25 percent boost in green fee revenues and an armful of travel industry awards. The other major winner, however, was Royal Porthcawl, a venerable 120-year-old club on the Bristol Channel coast. Just a half-hour drive from the Welsh capital of Cardiff, Porthcawl profited considerably from the steady stream of media and other international visitors passing through the region during the build-up to the event. The course proved to be more than ready for its close-up, as was demonstrated by its subsequent arrival on more than one Top 100 list, including the LINKS100.

Seaside links courses can usually be filed in one of two categories—stern, championship tests (Muirfield, Carnoustie) and quirky charmers (North Berwick, Brora). Royal Porthcawl, host of the 1995 Walker Cup—an event which saw, among other things, a 19-year-old Tiger Woods get waxed by the immortal Gary Wolstenholme—is very much in the former camp. The course features crater-like sod-walled bunkers, well-contoured greens, and (from the tips) four two-shot holes that break the 450-yard mark. The best of this bunch is the 2nd, a thrilling ramble down hill to a kidney-shaped green tucked against the beach fence and OB. The writer James Finegan once described this hole as “astringent”—an adjective well deployed, given that the hole plays dead into face-scouring winds off the Bristol Channel. Porthcawl is set at a moderate remove and well above the beach—it scores points for beauty, as the sea is in sight at all times. Standing on the first tee, visitors might be surprised, though, to know that the first fairway has been flooded by winter swells on more than one occasion!

It’s fair to say that the golf course has been a work in progress since the beginning. The original layout was a nine-holer by one Charles Gibson, the professional at Royal North Devon; this course didn’t last long, however, and the earliest design on the current site was by Ramsay Hunter, who is perhaps best known as the first architect of Royal St. George’s in Kent. Since those early days, the course has seen alterations by—and this is only a partial list!—Harry S. Colt, Fred Hawtree & J.H. Taylor, Tom Simpson, and Donald Steel. Just this past winter, Martin Ebert was retained to make adjustments to a few holes—most notably, altering the 5th and 9th greens. According to Mike Perry, a club spokesman, “The slopes [on these holes] from back to front were severe and caused some problems during high winds.” Ebert also found additional length, pushing the course to 7,200 yards. These will likely not be the last changes, either—this is a course that changes with the times. That’s the kind of statement that often raises the hackles of architecture aficionados, but the layout somehow seems to consistently improve in its evolution.

Royal Porthcawl is not a links from start to finish—the 6th through 8th, and parts of a handful of other holes, rest on higher ground of more of a heathland quality. However, the greens staff does an excellent job of making this transition as seamless as possible. And they’re helped in their efforts by the bed of quick-draining limestone that underlies these more acidic soils—as a result, the turf is as springy and fine as you’ll find on the beachfront holes. When heavy rains famously delayed the action at the Ryder Cup, golf continued at Porthcawl without interruption—a fact not lost on the many observers who had hoped to see the matches contested over a links.

With Royal Porthcawl comfortably ensconced inside the LINKS100, the question becomes: What makes this a world-class golf course? I puzzled over this for a while. The best answer I can offer is that it’s simply strong across the board, checking many of the boxes of the great golf experience without overwhelming in any one of them. The routing is solid, with the outbound nine describing a long arc around the perimeter of the property and (mostly) encircling the compass-boxing homeward holes. There’s plenty of challenge, but with a dash of quirk thrown in—at first glance, the 122-yard seventh seems a toy of a hole, until one fully realizes how many awkward recoveries await should one miss the sliver of green. And the home hole, playing downhill and straight toward the beach, is another unique construction, as the fairway abruptly plunges into a hollow of rough, broken ground precisely where one’s best tee shot wants to arrive. Finally, while there’s certainly plenty of history at Porthcawl, the club itself is low-key, with a welcoming atmosphere and a properly cozy oak-paneled bar to enjoy a few post-game libations. It all adds up to a lot, and one leaves with the comfortable impression that Royal Porthcawl, course and club alike, is world-class.

Off the Course:

Porthcawl doesn’t have much in the way of attractions to ensnare the traveling golfer, but that’s all right since the town is midway between south Wales’ two most vibrant cities, Cardiff and Swansea. In the capital, the Cardiff Bay section has experienced a revitalization effort not unlike the transformation of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with shops, restaurants and stylish modern hotels like The St. David’s Hotel & Spa scattered along the waterfront. In the city center, duck off the avenues to explore Cardiff’s many Victorian-era arcades—covered shopping streets where one can find anything from an old Bernard Darwin volume to a hole-in-the-wall cafe serving Welsh rarebit, a distant cousin of the grilled cheese sandwich that Bubba Watson holds so dear.

Swansea, for its part, is known for its connection with the poet Dylan Thomas, who was born and raised in this “ugly, lovely town.” The town’s maritime quarter is now home to an excellent museum, the Dylan Thomas Centre devoted to his life and work. Even non-fans will likely find some interest in revisiting an era when poets were essentially rock stars—listening to old radio recordings of Thomas declaiming his poems in a deep, resonant voice is worth the price of admission. The best hotel in town is clearly Morgan’s, a stylish boutique housed in a handsome 1902 red brick building. Every room has its own individual character, and its lobby plays host to a sophisticated bar scene—although there are plenty of watering holes in the immediate vicinity, most feature an atmosphere that might best be described as “collegiate.” Swansea, finally, makes the ideal jumping-off point for exploring the beaches and coves of the nearby Gower Peninsula, one of Britain’s most appealing holiday regions.