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Royal Porthcawl

Yardage
6870/7200
Par
72
SSS
75
Built
1891
Architect(s)
Charles Gibson, Ramsey Hunter, Fred Hawtree, JH Taylor, Tom Simpson, Ken Cotton, Martin Ebert
Nature:
A duneland course of Open Championship standard, with a seaview from every hole. Fine running grasses.
Location/Address:
On the sea front at Porthcawl, South Wales. Postcode CF36 3UW
http://www.royalporthcawl.com
Secretary
Michael Newland
Telephone
01656 782251
Professional
Peter Evans
Green Keeper
Ian Kinley

Venue for the Amateur Championship 2016 and Seniors Open Championship in 2017.

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Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome, book in advance
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
-
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£115 - 2015

Review

There are several fine golf courses in South Wales to attract visiting golfers looking for the ‘running game’ and none more so than the club that Porthcawl’s coal merchants founded in 1891 as a nine-holer laid out by Charles Gibson of Royal North Devon on Locks Common.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The ‘Bungalow’

This course was soon to be abandoned, however, and can now be seen either side of the driveway to the quaint and distinctive club house originally called ‘The Bungalow’.

An unusual aspect of what became ‘Royal’ Porthcawl in 1909 is that the ladies’ rooms have had from the beginning the best location overlooking the home green and the course beyond.

This reflects the importance of the ladies’ side in the history of the Club with many amateur and professional ladies’ championships having been held here.

The R&A, who seem to suffer embarrassments in the media these days whenever  The Open Championship is held at men-only membership club would not do so here. This along with being Wales’s premier club perhaps is one of the reasons Royal Porthcawl is being considered as a possible future Open Championship venue.

Royal porthcawl, walker cup, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

1995 Walker cup plaque

The hosts would love to welcome Tiger Woods back after he, then aged a mere 19, was beaten here impressively by middle-aged Gary Wolstenholme in the 1995 Walker Cup. With the success of the Senior Open Championship in 2014 when Bernard Langer spread-eagled the field in glorious ‘running’ conditions and the Amateur Championship returning in 2016, let us hope that the site is positively assessed for the ultimate golf challenge.

The geology of the land is blown sand on top of a limestone raised beach, (not linksland as some call it – to be accurate!) with a hill climbing away from the beach giving a view of the sea from every hole.

The dunes, which cover virtually the entire area of the course, with the exception of a few ‘watery’, clay-based areas, are possibly earlier than those at Kenfig and Merthyr Mawr, either side of Porthcawl, as they have long since become fully stabilised and covered in vegetation and gorse. This old gorse had become too leggy and invasive and much has now been rooted out giving areas, like on the right of the first hole, where heather is being re-generated.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The 9th green

The ground undulates considerably with an escarpment half-way up the hill and it is the clever manipulation of the ground movement by the course designers that provides the primary interest, as well as a routing that keeps turning in the wind and positions the back nine holes mostly within the outer front nine, much like Muirfield.

It was a Scottish green keeper, Ramsey Hunter, who first laid out the 18 holes in 1895 (also Royal St George’s initial designer) and some of the greatest designers have added their tweaks ever since.

Harry Colt made some changes in 1912. Frederic Hawtree and JH Taylor changed many of the green sites and the routing within the middle of the course in the 1920s, before Tom Simpson created new green locations at the first, second, third, fifth, sixth, tenth, sixteenth and seventeenth holes and the seventh is his new hole. Ken Cotton changed the 8th and 12th greens after the Second World War and added the left hand greenside bunker on the 18th.

The course then remained unchanged until the 2000s when the 12th hole was extended by the club advised by David Williams and as explained later Martin Ebert has reconstructed some greens.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The 10th with Bristol Channel behind

I was fascinated to read in the Club historian Leo McMahon’s excellent centenary book about the greenkeeper Marcus Geddes who was recruited from Fife and came under pressure from UK chemical manufacturers looking for new markets to satisfy their ever increasing capacity after the Second World War; what better market than golf courses?

We do not know why the good Mr Geddes resisted the temptation to buy disaster. It may have been that the club’s finances were not up to such purchases. But botanists were aware, even then, that the fine fescue and browntop bent families of grasses are not assisted by such fertiliser, which actively promote the invasion of the enemy, annual meadowgrass (Poa annua).

Scottish green keepers, who believed in the old and tried starvation methods, knew from observation over many decades, that the fine poverty grasses were aptly named because they grew on poor soil, whereas Poa annua could not survive on such a starvation diet.

For whatever reason, Mr Geddes resisted the temptation to which so many other golf clubs succumbed and the Porthcawl greens continued to consist of a high proportion of fescue and browntop bent grasses giving the ‘running game’.

Their quality was recognised by the Club being asked to host the Amateur Championship in 1951 by  The R&A and onwards,  the home internationals in 1958, 62 and 66 and the Curtis Cup in ’64.

Mr Geddes retired in 1966 and it is remarkable how quickly Clubs can be misled as Charles Lawrie (chairman of The R&A Championship Committee) seriously considered trying to find an alternative venue for The Amateur in 1973 as Porthcawl had become dominated by the weed-grass Poa annua from over use of water and fertiliser and was giving receptive ‘target golf’.

That year Charles’s course architect partner, Donald Steel, lost to the eventual winner in the fourth round with Peter Moody losing to Dick Siderowf in the final, but tragically never playing again.

jim arthur, royal porthcawl

Jim Arthur

Charles introduced Jim Arthur, who was then retained by the Club as their consultant agronomist and with appropriate austere policies being followed again, the course was restored to former glory.

royal porthcawl, ian kinley green keeper,

Ian Kinley

One imagines that a course with such good drainage, an open aspect and a sensible, knowledgeable membership would not allow ‘target golf’ conditions to repeatedly return, but by the late 1990s the greens had reverted again to Poa annua during the ‘green is great’ fashionable era.

Thank goodness things changed again after the millennium and the present course manager Ian Kinley, who’s greenkeeping career has seen him work at Royal Birkdale, St Andrews, Lahinch and North Berwick and in the footsteps of the great Marcus Geddes, is bringing the fescues back with a regular over-seeding programme throughout the growing season (sometimes called the ‘plant-pot’ technique) that he explains HERE.  Richard Windows is his agronomist adviser.

So it is a relief to report that Royal Porthcawl is another club that is part of the modern retro-trend back to the running game.

 

The first major professional tournament at Porthcawl was the Penfold in 1932 won by their Assistant Professional Percy Allis who went on to Clyne and then Ferndown where his son Peter, the much admired BBC TV commentator learnt the game he so loves.

Donald Steel speaking at the FineGolf Enjoyment Day on slow play & balls

As a course for major events, Leo McMahon noted in 1991 that Royal Porthcawl was criticised for being too short for professional golf. For the Coral Classics in the early 1980s, one of which Sandy Lyle won, the total yardage was 6605 with the inclusion of four par fives.

This is further exacerbated these days with modern ‘uncontrolled’ balls and equipment plus the prodigious violence with which professionals strike the ball!

The course has been extended to 7200 yards from the championship tees but more importantly for the rest of us, there are factors which maintain the course as a very exacting test.

As would be expected from a Tom Simpson of the ‘Strategic School’ designed course, first is its subtlety, particularly in terms of positioning the tee shot, which requires brain as well as brawn; otherwise some second shots become very difficult. When the course is dry and running, the tough rough on many holes requires accuracy rather than length, and finally, the greens though seldom cut below 5 mm, can be fast when dry, and are characterized by a variety of slopes where the wind becomes a major factor. Putting into bunkers used to be a quite a commonplace danger, and one renowned lady golfer of yesteryear is alleged to have lost her ball putting downhill and downwind on the fifth green!

tom simpson, Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

Renovated 5th hole ‘Tom Simpson’ drive bunker

In 2011 Martin Ebert reconstructed the 4th, 5th and 9th greens to create more pin positions, reducing the severity of slopes so modern green speeds can be achieved whilst remaining playable, a significant issue when windy. He also adjusted the surrounds to the 10th and 12th greens.

Martin is also helping the club consider ragged-edged bunkers, in what is called a ‘natural’ style, replacing uniform revetted hazards. The Tom Simpson style bunkers recently created on the 5th hole is an example, that have apparently been well received. 

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The first hole

Lets now get onto the course, where chronic slicers may think after the first hole they are going to particularly enjoy their round but such a thought would be a false sense of security, as the next seventeen may destroy them!

The next two fine holes hug the beach with plateau greens that have to be flown on the full, bringing to those shots the intimidation of the prevailing wind from that most difficult of angles, into the right-hander’s left-hand face.

The tightly bunkered, not so short, par three fourth hole turns inland and then comes one of Porthcawl’s famous holes, a doglegged par five (now extended to 611 yards for the back tee) around a marshy pond and up an inclined funnel with the OOB wall tight on the left. The dense gorse on the right has now been managed back. Its one of those types of holes the tiger thinks he can tame with the fun of opening his shoulders but beware the inevitable hook.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The sixth hole

The sixth hole, less than 400 yards, lies on flat ground at the top of the course with a green at an angle to the fairway and if one is tempted to drive too far right, so as to obtain the best line to the green, there is plenty of gorse to be avoided.

The seventh at 120 yards is Tom Simpson’s hole that he created in the 1930s and as to be expected this has a tiny two-tiered green, well bunkered with large humps.

The eighth is a short par five with hidden bunkers down the left and second-shot cross bunkers and OOB to keep you interested, before a great hole of 366/400 yards with severe fairway undulations and a high, sloping green now with little pockets of  flatness for new ‘fair’ pin positions. This brings us back to the top of the escarpment down which we drive at the 340 yard tenth and what a fascinating bump-in approach shot it offers to a narrowing green.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The eleventh hole par three

A lovely, triangular, raised green par three comes next where a well floated downwind medium iron will gather-in your ball.

The short par five twelfth, always originally a birdie chance though having a tight uphill drive over a mass of gorse now removed, was intimidating for higher handicappers, has been controversially lenghtened. With the distance that the powerful uncontrolled ball is being hit these days, the Club saw the opportunity to extend this hole. This meant the much loved Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor/Ken Cotton green was moved a further 100 yards up a not so well draining fairway to a two-tier green with rounded fall-off, to my mind not quite in keeping, and though subsequently tweaked, I understand is still under review.

This change has also allowed the addition of an extra 40 yards to be added to the back tee of the thirteenth, one of Porthcawl’s most iconic holes, that comes back to the top of the escarpment and is then played down,  on the dogleg often with a hanging lie, to a green below you. I know of no other hole quite like it, (although there are aspects to be found on Gullane hill), with ensnaring bunkers even if you manage to keep out of the central one well shy of the green.

With these changes the total course yardage has climbed to approx 7200 from the back tees while the normal course is now 6870 yards par 72, SSS 75.

At 150 yards the fourteenth should perhaps be the easiest of the par threes but it is across the hill, with usually a cross wind and with the green set high the depth of its bunkers is terrifying.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The fifteenth green on a ridge

The fifteenth is awesome and is between 420/460 yards into a prevailing wind. The drive is to an island fairway over wilderness, and in front of a high bunkered ridge. I can do no better than quote Peter Dobereiner, that fine golf correspondent writing in 1984, to give some feeling of the second shot. “In the past 90 years there have been several attested cases of players hitting the green with their second shots, something I would have said to be impossible”. The green sits atop a second ridge above the intervening fairway that has a slope from the left that runs many balls (including recently my own after what I thought was a spanking one-iron up the left) into the right-hand greenside bunker. Another great hole!

The sixteenth plays longer than its 430 yards as there are cross bunkers downwind at 260 yards and your second is played uphill with a long greenside bunker to catch the ball drawn in from the right.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

The sixteenth hole

The seventeenth has a blind drive and is a bit of a slog and best played leaving your ball short on the right waiting for a bump-and-run up and down birdie. Whereas the eighteenth is lauded as typical of Porthcawl, requiring thought and careful club selection, running downhill towards the sea and into the wind. The club website says “this has to be one of the finest finishing holes in golf”.

I admit, playing five years ago my Ping Eye Two 1-iron drilled to the green gave me exceptional enjoyment and I can still remember the feeling but as I suppose with all great holes one needs to play it a number of times in order to appreciate the full subtlety. The green runs away towards the sea and until your ball is in the cup you have not won!

In 2010 this was the green in the poorest condition with a high percentage of Poa annua. Nevertheless when Ian showed it to me I praised him for the weak yellow patches where he was stressing out the weed-grass. As Jim Arthur used to say Poa annua is a foe that one is always fighting and never quite defeats and with the amount of rain in South Wales in recent years, it is more difficult to gain a domination of fine grasses than on the drier eastern side of the country. Where the over-seeding has really taken and improved the course so much is across the aprons and run-offs that are firm, predictable and gorgeous to bump-and-run over.

Royal porthcawl, modern retro trend back to the running game, fine golf course review

HRH The Prince of Wales

Horace Hutchinson, an early golf writer, was a member and Cyril Tolley won a number of Welsh Amateur Opens here. HRH Edward Prince of Wales was Patron from 1923 to 1936. Perhaps more important than these was the 54 years that James G Hutcheson was the pro here from 1897, dyeing in harness in 1951. He grew up as assistant to Willie Fernie (Open Champion in 1883 and in the top eight players in 17 of the 21 years he competed) at Troon.

Michael Bonallack, for many years the respected secretary of The R&A won here and though his victory was perhaps not quite as remarkable as his win in the 1963 English Amateur against Alan Thirlwell at Burnham & Berrow (where he required only 23 putts in the final round), his Amateur Championship win at Porthcawl in 1965 came from being seven down after eight holes in the final of 36 holes!

Royal Porthcawl, being closer to conurbation areas than Royal St David’s at Harlech, has become the premier Welsh club. Acquisition of new land has allowed it to expand and develop fantastic practice facilities over the years, building a Dormy House and new open-glassed dining room over-looking the first hole but the Club has sensibly kept the traditional feel to ‘the bungalow’ with its knarled, creaking wood floors.

It must be only time before The Open Championship comes to Wales for the first time and in the interim Royal Porthcawl is proud to host the Seniors Open and The Amateur Championship in 2016, while Ian and his team continue with their successful austere greenkeeping programme.

See “Royal Porthcawl 1891 to 1991” by Leo McMahon

Reviewed and updated by Lorne Smith 2015

 

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