There are some golf courses that invariably manage to beat you up. Maybe it’s a purely mental thing but I know that when I go to play at Rye down on the east Kent marshes or attempt to take on the quite ferocious Carnoustie across the border in Angus, Scotland the wind will blow up and so will my golf.
The majestic links of Royal Porthcawl, a 45-minute drive west of Cardiff, is one that I also add to my list. I have played matches for my club against Porthcawl and been soundly beaten. I have been back to Porthcawl as a guest of one of its many friendly and welcoming members and been beaten again on more than one day.
Trying to play safe, and totally misjudging the subtle slopes and run-offs, I once contrived to put my playing partner in so many bunkers during our match that when I asked him on the 18th if he was going to the bar he coolly replied, ‘I think I had better go to the pro-shop first and get my sand iron re-grooved first.’
Yet that is enough of my woes as Royal Porthcawl is, quite simply, the best golf course in Wales and I certainly would put it in the top five links courses in both England and Wales. It just happens to be very tough, especially when the wind blows which it often does.
Whereas some links, such as Royal Lytham and St.Anne’s for example, offer no views of the sea at Porthcawl one gets a view of the Bristol Channel from every hole and that is where the prevailing wind comes from, all the way from the Atlantic.
The course has been tweaked and lengthened many times since it started life as nine holes in 1891, with an additional nine added just five years later. Unlike the classic links shape of a long narrow stretch of land squeezed between the sea and a railway line, Porthcawl is shaped like a triangle and we run along the base fronting the shore to play the first three holes before we turn inland to play along a boundary fence at four, five and six.
At 353 yards (323 meters) off the white tees, from where inter-club matches are traditionally played, the first hole, other than three strategically placed bunkers to the left and another pot-shaped creation to the right, does not look too intimidating. Unfortunately it is usually straight into the prevailing wind. The green is large and with lots of difficult slopes and undulations so, even if safely on in two, a par is far from certain.
At the second we move straight into the tough stuff. There is no gently easing into things at Porthcawl, accuracy from the tee is crucial and those slopes and more sand mean, as I have borne bitter witness to, can easily toss what looks like a very safe shot into a deep bunker where simple escape is the very best one can hope for.
The second is 425 yards (389 meters) from the white tees and a long drive is needed to get over the rough stuff and also be on the right-hand side of the fairway. The raised green not only slopes from front to back but is also two-tiered. If we pull or hook our approach shot we are out of bounds.
By now you should have gathered that this is absolutely no place for a beginner. We must simply hope that the sun is shining, the wind is but a gentle breeze and we must take our punishment when this grand old course decides to dish it out and simply more on. There are some wonderful golf holes to appreciate if not exactly speak of fondly.
Even the par threes can be tough. The first we meet is at the fourth when we turn inland and a following wind often helps us which is as well because the long, steep, terraced green is surrounded by seven bunkers, 200 yards (183 meters) away and three of them, all great, deep, ragged traps bar our entry.
We may feel that we get a bit of respite when we reach the fifth as we climb uphill to a plateau and arrive an area that does not feel quite so links-like. The fifth is also a short par five so we can heave a sigh of relief although a water hazard has been thrown in recent years just to make sure that we don’t have it all our own way and more giant, ragged edged bunkers are on the right to torment us.
From here, until the turn we do get a bit of respite although there is no such thing as a weak hole at Porthcawl. Even the shortest hole on the course, the seventh, at 122-yards (112 meters) from the tips, is into a long narrow green surrounded by hummocks and bunkers.
We then go back into the breeze for another shortish par-five and a superb par four at nine with the second shot into a steeply sloping green surrounded by yet more sand.
The first time visitor should be well pleased simply to be in possession of the same ball that they started with but preparing themselves for an even tougher ride on the back nine, so do enjoy the view from the elevated tenth tee before we go back into battle.
The closing four holes are as tough as anything you will find anywhere in Great Britain with three long par fours only broken at 17 by a narrow par five. Standing on the 16th tee looking upwards at a massive bunker that one must clear in the hope of attaining par is a daunting prospect.
The only good news amongst this is that the 410-yard (377 meters) last is downhill and, provided the drive is well struck, even mere mortals can finish on a high note here provided the elements and despair have not overcome them.
At least there is the excellent old clubhouse to repair to afterwards and a chance to think how to play it next time, for at Porthcawl there should always be a next time, especially, if like me, you live in hope of one day being able to deliver a decent score around this magnificent golf course.
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