Porthcawl, Wales – On July 24th, Wales will welcome their first ever major golf Championship when the 2014 Senior Open takes place at the Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. Wales has hosted many national and international events including the Walker Cup, four European Tour Welsh Classics and The Amateur Championship six times, but a Major has always eluded them, until now.
Porthcawl dates back to 1891 and comes with a fine pedigree. It is currently ranked #1 in Wales and #86 in the world according to the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. From the clubhouse, you can see the beachfront views to the south and across the Swansea Bay to the rugged coastline of the Gower Peninsula to the northwest. Being from the “other-side of the pond” I rarely have the opportunity to play a true links course. Some golfers are more partial to the modified terrain and well groomed North American style but for me this is golf in its rawest form. I love the sheer ruggedness and natural setting.
In the past, I have challenged Ballybunion and Royal County Down in Ireland and most recently Cabot Links in Cape Breton Island Canada so I understand how much the coastal weather conditions can play havoc with your game.
In June, I had the extreme pleasure of testing out Porthcawl for myself. The day I played the sky was clear and the temperature balmy. The winds were gusting at 25 miles per hour off the Atlantic, so the swells were high, and the young well-tanned surfers on Rest Bay were loving life. For me, it was my first test of true links golf in Wales, and I was giddy with excitement.
Unfortunately, I started as a solo player so there was no one to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with so I’ll share it with you. My first drive of the day was a good one except the horizontal crosswinds did not affect my ball flight as I had expected. I ended up in a deep faced bunker on the left side of the fairway. With no option to progress the ball, I was forced to play sideways out of this cavernous crater. On the second hole, I found the green-side bunker, and it took me three shots to escape. My start to the round was an omen of more to come.
It didn’t take me long to catch up with a foursome (four-ball as they call it) ahead of me. As I waited patiently, a young teenager and his chaperone approached me from a distance. They had been zigzagging around the course avoiding congestion so I asked them if they would like to join up. I soon discovered that my new playing partner, Tom was a 14-year-old student from Dublin. He was visiting his grandparents and, as an aspiring professional, played golf every day that he was there. “Young Tom” as I called him went on to par the 3rd hole and birdie the 4th. Ah, a humbling experience indeed, but I appreciated his company and was mesmerized by his swing.
What you first need to realize here is that the yardage markers signify the distance to the front of the green on all par 4’s and 5’s but to the middle of the green on par 3’s. This is not typical for us North Americans, and so it took me a while to adjust. I found the fairways to be wide, but the fescue mounding punishing. The greens are large and very irregular with swales surrounding them that funnel away your errant approach shots. And, the deep-faced bunkers must be avoided at all costs. For example, my tee shot on the 12th hole, an uphill par 5, was my best drive of the day only to find myself once again in a deep bunker, and this time it cost me five strokes to get out!
Porthcawl is a very walkable course but has some elevation changes and best of all, each hole offers spectacular ocean views. There are only three holes here that have blind tee shots – 13, 17 and 18 but the rest are what you see. The 18th will become the opening hole for The Senior Open and is a great two-shot downhill par 4 that passes in front of the clubhouse to the ocean-side green.
When we reached the 16th tee, the group ahead of us were just setting up so while we were waiting I glanced back and noticed a two-some approaching the 15th green. In the interest of faster play and meeting new people, I walked over and asked if they would like to join us. They politely declined, but we ended up striking up a conversation. Turns out I was talking to veteran European Senior Tour player, Bob Cameron and his caddy. They were there to re-familiarize themselves with the course and complete a few practice rounds in preparation for the Open. I also discovered that Cameron had been the best man at the wedding of one of our local pros, and I was to say “hi to him from Bob”. Talk about six degrees of separation. What a true gentleman and so approachable! Guess you know now who I’ll be cheering for in this year’s event.
The Royal Porthcawl Golf Club is a top-notch golf course and deserves to have this great honor bestowed upon them. I’m so proud to have been given the opportunity to play and write about this course while making new memories.
By the way “Young Tom” shot 83 with 8 on the 12th hole. I have yet to add up my score, but I had him sign my card so I can say “I knew him when…” his dream of becoming a PGA player comes true.
For more information on the Royal Porthcawl Golf Club visit http://www.royalporthcawl.com/pages.php/visitor_homepage.html
By Dave Finn (dave @ golfinn.com)