Drive Time

Photo : Drive Time

Emyr Griffith is in the Welsh Rarebits driving seat. When he’s not haranguing hoteliers you’ll find him driving off at his favourite golf courses.

Aberystwyth has to be one of my favourites, not just because it happens to be my home town. It was here that my grandfather introduced me to golf when I was about 12. I started off playing with just one club, then graduated to a motley collection of wooden shafted clubs before inheriting my grandfather’s ‘posh’ matched set of Forgans of St Andrews when I was 16.

Aberystwyth was a great training ground for me. They used to say that to play ‘Aber’ it helped if you had one leg shorter than the other. But I also heard it said that if you learnt your golf here you could play on any course.

My apprenticeship certainly paid off when I played another favourite course of mine : Llandrindod Wells. It was here, in the 1950s, that I surprised myself by winning the Welsh Boys Championship. I still enjoy playing here at what is undoubtedly one of Wales’s best inland courses. Your ball sits up on the springy mountain turf and invites you to thump it with a ‘wood’ or a long iron. It’s an ‘upland links’ course set in a magnificent, airy spot, high on a hill with far-reaching views – not that you’ll have much time to appreciate them on this involving 18-holer.

When my work took me to North Wales the first thing I did was to join the Maesdu club in Llandudno. This was the first municipal course in Wales and, boy, was it a competitive place! It stood me in good stead for whilst a member I won the 1966 North Wales Amateur Championship at Wrexham. More fond memories, then, but it’s still a course – mainly parkland, along with stunning sea views – that never fails to fire the competitive spirit.

While living in North Wales I played most of the courses. My out-and-out favourite was the Caernarfonshire course at Conwy. It has changed considerably since the construction of the Conwy Tunnel and the A55 Expressway but still retains its fearsome finish through the gorse. It’s a fabulous links course – links golf is something of a speciality in Wales – that in 2006 became the first in Wales to have hosted a qualifying event for The Open Championship.

The most photographed course in Wales has to be at Nefyn on the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula. Fifty years ago golf writer George Houghton reckoned that it was the nearest thing to playing golf on the deck of a destroyer. I don’t think that anyone has come up with a better description. If you don’t believe me try playing it in a force eight gale as I did once in a championship meeting.

PortmadogI’m also a fan of the course at Porthmadog. It’s a course of two halves with the second nine holes a great test of links golf. And there’s no better view on a clear day than the 360-degree panorama from the 13th tee which takes in the castles of Criccieth and Harlech, Cardigan Bay and most of the mountains of Snowdonia.

Talking of Harlech, I’ve played lots of golf over the years at the famous championship royal St David’s course in the shadow of Harlech Castle. It’s this course, more than any other, which for me epitomises the best of links golf in North Wales. But a word from the wise : treat the last five holes with respect as they can make or break you. The 15th par four is my favourite hole despite the fact that nowadays it seems a lot longer than it used to be.

AberdoveyJust down the coast from Harlech there’s Aberdovey. My first visit to play golf here wasn’t very conventional. Along with a friend we cycled, golf bags slung over our shoulders, from Aberystwyth to Ynyslas just across the estuary from Aberdovey, and shouted for the ferry to come and collect us. After 18 holes we returned on the boat to pick up our bikes and to cycle home. Little did I imagine at that time that I would one day be a member at Aberdovey. I consider it a great privilege to be part of a club that’s so steeped in golfing heritage.

It also has a magic all of its own. Bernard Darwin, the first literary giant of the game, had a soft spot for Aberdovey, describing it ‘as the course that my soul loves best of all the courses in the world’. I know how he felt.

Aberdovey also sums up another side to Welsh golf that more and more visitors are discovering, to their delight. A group of golfers from California, now friends of mine, have played a match against Aberdovey four times in the last seven years. Why do they keep coming back when they have so many other choices worldwide? They love our natural courses, especially our old links courses. But that’s just half the story. They also love the genuine, unforced welcome – the ‘croeso’ – and the company. Never has the slogan ‘Golf as it should be’, dreamt up by Visit Wales to describe the game as it is played here, been more true.

I make no excuses for being a traditionalist and for preferring links to parkland courses. In West Wales, my first port of call is inevitably Tenby, a pure links classic that claims to be Wales’s oldest course, and Ashburnham near Llanelli, which always gives me warm memories of Maesdu because of its membership profile. Here you could find yourself playing against steelworkers, painters and taxi drivers. And unless you played extremely well, you were guaranteed to lose your money.

Wales’s best course for me – and certainly its most famous until The Ryder Cup put Celtic Manor in the limelight – is our other ‘royal’, a true challenge especially when the seemingly ever-present wind blows from the Bristol Channel. I’m talking, of course, about royal Porthcawl where I saw Tiger Woods and his Walker Cup colleagues lose to Britain and Ireland in 1995. I have many delightful memories of playing here in the Welsh Amateur Championships and of helping to prop up the bar afterwards in what has to top the list (this time no argument) as the most characterful clubhouse in Wales, if not Britain.

PennardI must also add Pennard on Gower and Southerndown to my list of favourite courses in the south. Pennard’s location couldn’t be more dramatic (but watch out for wandering ponies and a ruined castle at this ‘links in the sky’), while the hidden gem of Southerndown, part-links, part-heathland, part-wandering sheep, is a true golfing test.

Ten years ago, most of my favourites were best-kept secrets, way off the golf radar. That’s not the case now. Welsh golf is firmly on the worldwide map thanks in no small measure to ‘The Ryder Cup effect’. The buzz has travelled from Celtic Manor resort to all corners of Wales. Golfers have woken up to the world-class – and great-value – golf that Wales serves up. And Wales itself has raised its game. Clubs have similarly been woken from their slumbers. Nine-hole courses have been extended to 18, clubhouses have been refurbished and modernised, youngsters have been introduced to the game and amateur golfers – both men and women - have been making sure that Wales punches above its weight.

A quiet word to those amateur team captains : I’ve got a decent set of clubs nowadays. And I’m still available, you know.