Wales set to reintroduce itself at Ryder Cup
NEWPORT, South Wales – The 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor will be not just one of the biggest sporting events ever held in Wales but also a coming-out party for this nation of 3 million people. Rarely has a country had so much riding on a simple golf tournament.
Wales’ virtues are many, though largely undiscovered by American tourists. Its craggy coastline is lined with good, and sometimes great, links golf courses, many a century old or more. It has a diverse landscape, with the mountainous north providing a counterpoint to the beaches in the south. And it has a fascinating culture distinct from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Yet even within the U.K., Wales has struggled to forge its own identity. As recently as the 1800s, Wales commonly was considered an English principality rather than a country such as Ireland or Scotland. That reality has helped fuel a dogged movement to preserve Welsh culture, most notably by keeping alive the Welsh language. Many first-time visitors are surprised to learn that the language still is taught in schools and commonly spoken among natives, and road signs include directions in English and Welsh.
Wales’ low international “Q” quotient is partly attributable, ironically, to its industrial successes. Its booming mining industry supplanted the agrarian economy in the 19th century, and workers flocked to South Wales to work in the Rhondda Valley mines and on the Cardiff docks, which used to export more coal than any other port in the world. Cardiff’s population, just 1,875 in 1801, exploded to 164,000 a century later. Jonathan Jones, director of tourism and marketing for Visit Wales, notes that the Welsh, unlike other Europeans, did not emigrate to America in large numbers. U.S. Census Bureau data, for example, indicate that more than 36 million Americans identify themselves as having Irish ancestry; by contrast, fewer than 2 million Americans trace their roots to Wales.
The Cardiff of the 19th century was a crowded, rough-and-tumble, working-class town, its streets dotted by “blind tigers” and shebeens – illicit bars peddling cheap, low-grade spirits, according to Mike Phillips, an historian at the city’s Visitors Centre. These days, the Welsh capital’s City Centre is lined with fashionable bars, restaurants and shops populated by college students who flood the city’s large walking plaza near Cardiff Castle.
To appreciate the level of excitement the 2010 Ryder Cup has generated here, it’s perhaps useful to understand the history of the Welsh people, who rarely have caught a break. Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered the Welsh and, adding insult to injury, Caesar is said to have wolfed that the natives’ war paint “gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle.” Ouch.
In the 5th century A.D., Wales faced another invading force, the Germanic tribes, followed 400 years later by the Vikings, then the Normans. The 13th century brought the ultimate indignity: English rule under King Edward. Owain Glyndwr, a charismatic warrior of Shakespearean proportions – literally, the bard commemorated him as Owen Glendower in “Henry IV” – led an uprising in the early 15th century, but by that time, Wales effectively had been annexed by England.
The Ryder Cup, the biggest sporting event to be held here since the 1999 Rugby World Cup, will provide a stage upon which modern-day Wales can reintroduce itself to the world. It’s a compelling story. American tour operators recently have been promoting the country aggressively. They compare it to Ireland of 20 years ago – before that country’s tourism business caught fire – with an abundance of affordable links golf. The Welsh envision a similar tourism boom, but say they won’t sacrifice value, as did many Irish course operators in the lead-up to the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club.
“What we have learned is not to make the Irish mistake of pricing ourselves out of the market chasing American dollars,” Jones says.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Royal Porthcawl, the sublime South Wales layout ranked No. 28 among Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses (pre-1960) in Great Britain Wales and Ireland, can be had for £95 (approximately $158) on weekdays during the high season. In Ireland and Scotland, it’s not uncommon for tourists to pay twice that rate, often for courses that don’t have Porthcawl’s pedigree.
“Wales has a huge price advantage,” says Sam Baker, CEO of Haversham & Baker, a Cincinnati-based golf tour operator. He also suggests the Welsh Rarebits – 54 boutique hotels scattered around the country – are a natural option for couples on a golf trip.
In a world devoid of hospitality tents and luxury accommodations, Royal Porthcawl would be the natural choice to serve as Wales’ Ryder Cup venue. It’s a course that would not be out of place in the British Open rota. (That idea apparently has been raised periodically, though it would be a logistical impossibility. The membership seems content to host the occasional British Amateur or Walker Cup.) Several years ago, the club’s membership considered a motion, summarily defeated, to tear down the quaint, wooden clubhouse that sits on a bluff above the Bristol Channel and replace it with something far more grandiose. The members chose substance over style.
It has become fashionable among the golf cognoscenti to criticize Celtic Manor as an inapt Ryder Cup choice given all of the U.K.’s great links. Get over it, guys. No, the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor isn’t a timeless seaside links like Porthcawl, nor does it necessarily exemplify Wales’ slogan, “Golf as it should be.” (Its halfway house seemingly exists primarily to add 15 minutes to each player’s round.)
That said, Twenty Ten still is a fine course that should perform nicely as a match-play venue. Players will have to weigh risk and reward on a number of holes, and water could figure prominently, particularly on the back nine. The topography, with much of the course set in a valley, also should make it a tremendous spectator course.
Two holes, in particular, seem likely to provide great Ryder Cup theater. No. 15 will play as a drivable par 4, but the narrow green is bracketed by a steep hillside and a stream. And the par-5 18th is reachable, but will require a mid- or long-iron second shot off a downhill lie to a perched green, with any shot that comes up short certain to roll into the fronting pond.
Celtic Manor stands to be one of the chief beneficiaries of the elevated awareness the Ryder Cup will bring to Wales. The 1,400-acre resort has all of the amenities one would expect from a luxury resort, including two additional courses, the 2-year-old Montgomerie Course and Roman Road, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that opened in 1995. These are scenic layouts; the Montgomerie Course reminded me of a mountainous Vermont course, and from the edge of the third green, I almost had the sensation of riding in a blimp, with spectacular views of the back nine of the Twenty Ten Course in the Usk Valley below. Roman Road, which used to host the Wales Open, benefits from being walkable, something the Montgomerie most definitely is not.
If all goes according to plan, the Ryder Cup also figures to bring long-overdue attention to the country’s other links, particularly along the easily navigable southern coast.
Like St. Andrews in Scotland and Ballybunion in Ireland, Royal Porthcawl is the course that every golf tourist should make time to play when in Wales. It has the organic, unforced flow of a great links, though ironically, perhaps its most memorable shot is on its most inland hole, the 122-yard seventh, surely one of the coolest short holes in golf.
There’s an authenticity to the Welsh links experience that compares favorably to Scotland and Ireland, which have grown accustomed to catering to spoiled Americans. Carts and practice ranges are rare; you pay your green fee, typically less than $90, step onto the first tee and figure it out.
At Tenby, one of the country’s oldest courses, you open with a blind tee shot. The only advice in the entire yardage book is on No. 3, which is named for former Ryder Cup captain Dai Rees: “Do NOT miss the green.” That’s easier said than done. The course is a part of, rather than a sanctuary from, the surrounding town. Commuter trains pass by on the rail line that bisects the course, locals pause to watch players on their way to and from the beach, and occasionally, the sound of machine-gun fire fills the air as soldiers practice on a firing range a few hundred yards from the eighth tee.
There’s a similar vibe at Pennard and Southerndown, though those courses are more rural – farm-like, in fact. You can expect your first shot at Pennard, which dates to 1896, to be hit over cattle that roam the course, the result of a grazing-rights dispute with a local farmer. This is a source of irritation for members, though for guests, it makes the experience all the more memorable. But Pennard is no cow pasture. Designed largely by James Braid, it rests easily on the land, and its cliffside holes on the back nine are considered to be among the most scenic in Wales.
Much the same could be said of the hillside setting at Southerndown, which affords unobstructed views of the Ogmore River and South Wales. Like Pennard, it’s a step back in time. Sheep lazily feed on the course, indifferent to nearby players. And the elevated setting all but ensures a breezy round.
Baker, the tour operator, is particularly fond of Southerndown and Pennard and believes tourists new to Wales will be pleasantly surprised.
“We’ve never had anybody come back from Wales who felt they had a bad experience,” Baker says. “It is comparable to the north and west of Ireland in the sense that it is rugged and undiscovered and has a very nice collection of links golf courses. . . .
“Is it as good as Scotland or Ireland? No, it’s not. But for Americans making a second or third trip to the U.K., is it a good option? Absolutely.”