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Short reviews of five of the six North Wales' finest courses (Royal St David's being the other):-

Aberdovey, Bull Bay, Conwy, Prestatyn and Porthmadog.

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Review

The finest course in North Wales is Royal St David’s, sited on The Morfa under Harlech Castle. Having previously been reviewed, it was not among the next five finest visited in my recent trip that happened to comprise a wonderfully windy week at Aberdovey, Conwy, Bull Bay, Prestatyn and Porthmadog. 

North Wales should be better known for the incredibly good value golf holidays on offer from these fine running-courses and I recommend the Dormy Houses at Royal St David’s and Aberdovey as great places to stay. Highly recommended also is Bryn B&B in ‘world heritage’ Conwy. 

aberdovey golf club, finegolf the running gameWe started at Aberdovey where we were privileged to play with Adam Ruck, the grandson of the Club’s founder who was also an uncle of Bernard Darwin. Darwin, the doyen of golf writers, was openly, utterly sentimental about this course on which he grew up and continued to return right up to his death in 1961. 

Aberdovey is an attractive holiday destination, with sailing as well as golf and contains many second homes belonging to the English. Its fairways, which are of fine turf, are hemmed in between the dunes and railway line. The course is out and back but it also runs in a curve around some dominant hills and so the wind is continually shifting to a new angle of play. 

Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler and James Braid have all had a hand in designing the course that is now of SSSI status. The Club is keen to preserve a true, traditional, running game challenge, and has been recently renovating bunkers with attractive marram grass tops, mowing the greens’ run-offs, over-seeding with fine grasses and adding sand to firm up the course so as to counter-act the predominantly annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens. 

This is the finest holiday golf, (6500 yards off the white tees, par 71, SSS 72), which has been host to many amateur tournaments over the years. 

The early and late holes are the most characterful with natural bumps and hollows, with perhaps the sixteenth the most tantalisingly simple at a mere 290 yards, though it is often a card wrecker. 

Alternatively, on the further out, flattish holes on the marshes, there is plenty of fairway space, while the seventeenth and eighteenth are classic long par fours requiring precise drives to set up long irons down the prevailing wind that need to be threaded into large greens. 

It is a pity the thirteenth and fourteenth tees are not allowed (by the SSSI status) to be on top of the beach-side dunes so as to give dramatic dogleg drives. Nevertheless, at the thirteenth, an approach past the deep, well positioned bunkers protecting the interesting green gives the longest hole (540 yards) downwind a fine risk/reward option. 

The distinctive par three twelfth green does sit on top of the dune that was partly swept away in a recent storm. 

A convenient overnight stay can be had at the Dormy House that is attached to the modern clubhouse which has upstairs reception rooms and a viewing gallery overlooking the eighteenth green. 

The decision to play the much less well known Porthmadog, Bull Bay on the Isle of Anglesey and Prestatyn (and just visit rather than play Nefyn) gave us three very different designs but each with fine running turf. 

Although the dramatic coastline at Nefyn offers great views and provides powerful marketing for the Club, this rolling downland course is dominated throughout by annual meadow grass (Poa annua) and has few interesting features except from what I call the ‘Diddy Town’ holes sited on top of a spit of land sticking out into the sea under which there is an historic seafarers’ pub. Fine golfers love a battle with the wind but how these holes can be rationally played in anything more than 25mph I just don’t know. 

bull bay golf club, Bull Bay, Wales’ most northern course (6276 yards, par 70, SSS72) was designed in 1913 and is an undulating heathland course along the cliffs and displays tremendous, typical Herbert Fowler, iconic features of characterful green settings. One plays upwards to ten of the greens and has a drive downwards from a high tee eleven times. Some of the tee-shots are semi-blind and nearly always requiring clever placement to set-up strategically the best approach to the interestingly sited greens. 

The mass of bluebells (that are of a type that don’t need shade) were out in full bloom in May and though there were plenty of Yorkshire Fog and Poa annua grasses on the fairways, the greens of speckled colours were composed of many species, chiefly fine bent/fescue grasses, cut at 4 mm. These gave a firm response to the ball and a reliable, continuous putting roll that sensibly was not too fast for the strong movement in the contours. 

Fowler has created a number of ways to play the holes from different angles and levels, whereas if the greens were soft and receptive the challenge would be reduced, the agronomic firmness poses interesting questions of how best to approach these small greens. 

This is true ‘joy to be alive’ fun, maintained by a team of just three greenkeepers, the same number as at Prestatyn. 

Neither of the these two clubs have a close-by benefactor, like for example Golspie in the Highlands that has hand-me-down equipment passed on by Royal Dornoch. They subsist on a tight budget that hinders any temptation to over-fertilise or over-water and the courses are in wonderful, running-game condition with loyal course managers proud to be deservedly part of FineGolf’s 200 finest courses in GB & I. 

To put this into some context, The Belfry, the hotel and spa complex near the Birmingham conurbation, made famous by buying into being a Ryder Cup venue, requires 35 full-time greenkeepers plus ten summer casuals to sustain its three iconic ‘target-style’ courses. (That must be pretty labour intensive grass!) 

prestatyn golf clubPrestatyn, though along a strand beach on flat linksland is not the most visually attractive links course and there are no views of the sea which remains hidden behind a line of dunes. 

It is one of those courses that should work particularly well for those who do not have time to play a full round, as the first six holes, though in good order and quite stretchy, are not as interesting as those from the seventh onwards and the seventh tee is located quite near the clubhouse. 

I was impressed by the firm trueness of the greens that are predominantly fine grasses. After the earlier holes, with mainly annual meadow grass fairways and roughs which require repeated mowing, I guess less labour is required for the second half where there is a wilder feel and more of the beautifully tight, red fescue grass. The small greenkeeping team still find time in the winter to upgrade the course as highlighted by the beautifully revetted bunker across the front of the seventeenth par-three green. 

A new seventh green, tucked away in the dunes, starts to develop the excitement, with the ‘island’ green, short, par-four ninth and long par-four tenth turning back into the prevailing wind. 

The stretch from twelve to sixteen is as fine a challenge as you will find anywhere on a classic links, with a spine of dune and the railway dominating play. 

The Welsh Ladies Championship had been hosted the previous week to our visit and the Welsh Mens Amateur and the British Ladies Senior Amateur are coming in 2015. Those around Manchester who look to play golf on excellent firm turf and wish to escape from their own ‘pudding’, Poa annua dominated courses in the winter, have Prestatyn (6825 yards, par 72, SSS74) within as easy a reach as is St Annes Old Links in Lytham, another fine club that welcomes winter visitors. 

porthmadog golf clubI had been told that Porthmadog (pronounced ‘portmadoc’) was a course of two halves and this proved true with nine, flat, heathland holes and nine set among the tumbling dunes, with some similarity to Pyle and Kenfig, the fine course that is sited next to Royal Porthcawl. 

What was similar throughout the course was the high quality of the fine wiry running grasses, with a lot of over-seeding of red fescue taking well, particularly across the heathland holes, where a lake at the far end and some ditches add extra character to the risk/reward. 

We played on a 30 mph windy day which further heightened the challenge of the spectacular back nine amongst the dunes, with Snowdonia providing a distant dramatic background. 

Designed by James Braid in 1905 with all of his usual quirkiness and the odd blind drive, the settings of the green complexes are brilliant. At 6322 yards in length, with par 71, SSS 72, seven of the par fours are under 400 yards and the two finest of the five par threes are both over 200 yards and located among the high dunes, these two being separated by one of those delicious short par fours where I inevitably lost my ball ‘going for it’! 

conwy golf clubConwy, usually regarded as the second best links championship course in North Wales, is a more classic routing set across flattish duneland with a wonderful setting between the Irish Sea, the Great Orme at Llandudno and the Conwy mountains. 

Golf has been played on The Morfa since the 1860s with The Caernarvonshire (Conwy) GC being established in 1890. Little known Jack Harris is reputedly the original architect and Frank Pennink was engaged to re-design when the dual carriageway tunnel of the A55 under the River Conwy was built so as to protect the setting of the incredibly well preserved, world heritage, medieval, fortress town of Conwy. 

Pennink left us with tight finishing holes positioned between banks of gorse which come as a bit of a surprise after the openness of the first fourteen with its moderate bunkering. The par three fifteenth under the shadow of the mountain stands out, as does the par five fourteenth that narrows to a green behind a gully. 

Both Amateur and Professional championships have been held here over the years, and the fifth clubhouse to be built and the course are well presented. In the summer the course design and the largely fescue grassed fairways supply a natural running game, while the annual meadow grass (Poa annua) dominated greens will be more receptive in the winter. 

The famous Douglas Adams golfing paintings, prints of which are found all round the world, were painted here on the Conwy Morfa.

Conwy also has the notable distinction in 1914 of firing none other than George Duncan (who became Open Champion in 1920) who ran the golf shop here, for slipping away to play football on Saturday afternoons! 

What a feast of fine running golf we discovered across these six so different golf courses. It is a great holiday area with the back-drop of Snowdonia. The Dormy Houses at Aberdovey and Royal St David’s give excellent accommodation and to enjoy the world heritage Conwy try the historic and high quality guesthouse Bryn. Click on the adverts at the top of this page on the right to visit the accommodation websites.

 

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