Where Dragons Play

The 2010 Ryder Cup shines a spotlight on Wales — the next great golf destination.



Rampant red dragons will join birdies and eagles in golfers’ dreams this year as the Ryder Cup Matches make their debut in Wales, an enchanted land where it is easy to imagine fire-breathing lizards (the country’s symbol) flying down the fairways of some of the finest golf courses in the world. I swear I saw a dragon or two when I played the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort, the site of this fall’s biennial competition between America’s and Europe’s top golfers.

When I hopped across the pond for a look at the course where Tiger Woods and the rest of the American team will defend their title, I discovered an easily-accessible golf paradise any Hudson Valley golf traveler should add to their must-play list. Wales has pretty much played fourth fiddle to Scotland, Ireland, and England as a premiere golf destination, but that time is over. Golf in Wales is affordable, the clubs are friendly and accommodating, the courses are challenging, varied, and seldom crowded. There are some fascinating places to stay and the food was fabulous. What more could you want from a golf destination?

But if you’re going, hurry before the word gets out. The Ryder Cup will bring Wales into the golf world spotlight, which was the reason Sir Terry Matthews built the Twenty Ten Course at his Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, just a few minutes from the capital of Cardiff. The course was designed expressly to host the event and promises to provide a stern test for the teams and great vistas for the spectators. The Usk River valley shapes the experience. It serves as a wind tunnel for the sea breezes sweeping up the Bristol Channel and brings water into play on nine of the eighteen holes. Add fairways without a single level lie, rough so thick and high you can’t see your shoes (much less your ball), and you have a world-class golf challenge.

The course has plenty of length, too, measuring 7,493 yards for par 71. The bunkering was designed with today’s big hitters in mind, so no one is going to bomb and gouge their way around the course. Fortunately, multiple tees not only give us hackers a chance to enjoy the track, but also gives the set-up committee options to make several of the par four holes drive-able, although pin-point accuracy and some luck with the wind will be required to take advantage. The sharp right dogleg 377-yard fifteenth hole will be particularly interesting because there is a small gap high in the trees allowing a 270-yard tee-shot straight at the green for the most intrepid players.

The three finishing holes rank with the best championship venues in the world. They all play directly into the prevailing wind and are further complicated by tough bunkers and heart-stopping elevation changes. The16th is a 508-yard par four with a narrow fairway guarded by bunkers on either side. A tee shot even slightly right will end up rolling over a steep embankment. The 17th is an uphill par three measuring 211 yards to a long, narrow green protected by bunkers deep enough to hide a herd of Welsh cattle along the entire front right side.

The finishing hole is a classic risk-and-reward par five. At 613 yards and playing only slightly downhill, it will given even the longest bomber a second shot to think about if he hasn’t closed his match out before he gets there. Even if he carries the bunkers on the left by flying his drive 331 yards, he’ll be left with a downhill lie to a green fronted by a pond that stretches across the entire fairway. The green is elevated, too, with a steep shaved bank that will send any short shot back into the water. My favorite feature of the hole is a big old gnarly oak behind the green that’s probably been there since before the colonies stuck their finger in King George’s eye.

There is more to golf at Celtic Manor than just the Twenty Ten Course. The Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Roman Road Course has enough elevation change and highly contoured greens to challenge the best players. At 6,515 yards, it’s long enough, too. The Montgomerie Course is a 6,371-yard par 69 layout that features punitive pot bunkers and a few other delights added by designer Colin Montgomerie, who happens to be the captain of the European Ryder Cup team this year.

Dining at Celtic Manor is as adventuresome as the golf. The top spot is The Crown, where the prix fixe menu features seared scallops, curried sweetbreads, and cauliflower panna cotta among the many options and amuse bouches are served before every course. For less formal dinners, the Olive Tree has a sumptuous buffet of contemporary European cuisine each evening and the Rafters in the Twenty Ten Clubhouse presents dishes based on local Welsh ingredients. The Lodge Brasserie overlooks the 18th green on the Roman Road Course and the Patio at the Manor House has a relaxed setting and traditional Italian fare.

Need to un-kink after your round? Head for the Forum Health Club in the Resort Hotel with its 34-station gym, 20-meter pool, whirlpool, saunas, steam rooms, and luxurious marble changing rooms. For the ultimate in un-kinking (or a place of refuge for the non-golfers in the group), the Forum Spa offers the latest in therapies including massages and facials, hydrotherapy, and manicures and pedicures. For total indulgence, try the Rasul Mud Ritual, a 45-minute exfoliating experience. There’s another full gym and spa in the Lodge, too.

If your game needs a little tune up (or a complete makeover), take advantage of the Celtic Manor Golf Academy. Its staff of teaching professionals gives lessons in state-of-the art swing studios, practice greens, and short play areas, then let you practice what you learned in the 28-bay two-tier driving range.

When you want a break from golf, take advantage of the 1400 acres of parkland surrounding the resort for a hiking or mountain biking adventure. The concierge will also help you schedule a half- or full-day of clay pigeon shooting, salmon fishing in the River Wye or fly fishing on the River Usk. Horseback riding is available, too.

No golf trip to Wales or anywhere else in the UK would be complete without at least a sampling of links courses, which to me represent the heart and soul of the game. Royal Porthcawl is as good as links golf gets. How good? Tiger Woods and the rest of the American team went down in defeat there in the 1995 Walker Cup matches. Maybe they were distracted by the views of the sea which you get on every single hole, or the knee-deep rough, or the persistent wind that is as important to the success of every shot as your stance, grip, and swing. Royal Porthcawl has hole after excellent hole, with the 466-yard 15th and 430-yard 16th (both par fours) standing out as prime examples of where sand, grass, elevation, and wind come into play. Both require long tee shots downhill to landing areas constricted by impossible cross bunkers. The second shots are blind and uphill to small greens wearing pot bunker necklaces. One hole plays downwind, the other back into it. These are just a few of the reasons Golf Magazine added Royal Porthcawl to its list of Top 100 Course in the World.

The place to stay when tackling Royal Porthcawl is the Great House at Laleston, which was originally given to the Earl of Leicester by Elizabeth I to use as a hunting lodge (although he’s rumored to have frequently cavorted there with the neighborhood milk maids as well). The restored inn is about fifteen minutes away from the golf course, but the food alone is worth the drive. My fillet (sic) of Welsh beef was fork-tender and perfectly charred with a red center, and the grilled mushrooms and tomatoes were a fabulous touch.

As much as I admired the Twenty Ten Course and enjoyed the struggle to break par at Royal Porthcawl (I wasn’t even close), my favorite round came at Tenby Golf Club, the oldest organized golf club in Wales. Today’s Tenby is a fascinating seaside course full of quirky challenges like the fourth hole, a 436-yard tester where both your drive and second shot must be aimed over striped marker poles because the landing areas are completely hidden. If either ball is stuck off-line, hit a provisional—Tenby’s fairways are the narrowest I’ve ever seen, measuring twenty yards or less in most places (less than the usual U.S. Open width!) and the rough hasn’t been cut since about 1875, when official records show the Tenby town court proceedings were adjourned so the mayor and magistrates could get in a round before returning to the affairs of state.

Not far from Tenby is St. Brides Hotel and Spa, sited on a hillside high above the beach at Carmarthen Bay in Saundersfoot. Even if you are foolish enough to forego a massage after your round, don’t miss the bubbling spa pool overlooking the bay, the sensation chamber where you choose tropical rain, cold mist, or gush showers, the sauna, or the two steam rooms—one aromatic, one with salt water. The Cliff Restaurant was exceptional, too. I went for Whole Black Bream with Garlic Butter and Spinach, one of many dishes prepared almost exclusively with fresh local ingredients. For some fun after dark, take a short walk to the many raucous pubs lining the beach below the hotel.

One of the best parts about a golf trip to Wales is that getting there is easy. We flew into Bristol on a direct flight from Newark and were registering at Celtic Manor less than an hour after our plane landed. Alternatively, Cardiff has an international airport, but is also only a couple of hours by train from London’s Heathrow. If you need a jet-lag break before golf or a place to decompress even further before heading home, try St. David’s Hotel and Spa in Cardiff. Sweeping views of the docks and the Bristol Channel as well as easy access to the revived waterfront shopping and dining district are just a couple of the luxuries in the ten-year-old high-rise masterpiece. •

Celtic Manor Resort
Where: Coldra Woods, The Usk Valley, Newport
Website: www.celtic-manor.com
Rates: Ryder Cup Two-Course Package – from $250 per person – includes one round each on the Twenty Ten and Montgomerie courses, one night’s room for two, full Welsh breakfast, and use of the health club.

Royal Porthcawl Golf Club
Where: Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Mid Glamorgan
Website: www.royalporthcawl.com
Greens Fee: $175
Where to stay: The Great House, Laleston, Bridgend
Website: www.great-house-laleston.co.uk
Rates: Vary but generally $200 per night including breakfast for two

Tenby Golf Club
Where: The Burrows, Tenby, Pembrokeshire
Website: www.tenbygolf.co.uk
Greens Fee: $80
Where to stay: St. Brides Spa Hotel, Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire
Website: www.stbridesspahotel.com
Rates: $315 per night including breakfast for two

St. David’s Hotel & Spa
Where: Havannah Street, Cardiff
Website: www.thestdavidshotel.com
Rates: Vary but generally $200 per night including breakfast for two

Captions: Hole 17 on the Twenty Ten course could easily be home to a dragon like those carved into the pillars of the Resort Hotel lobby.
 

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