Looking at Royal St David’s golf course from the vantage point of the medieval Harlech Castle. Its’ foreboding walls situated on a rocky granite outcrop high above gives you an amazing panorama of this excellent Welsh links. When it was built, the Irish Sea lapped at the rocks below the castle but over the coming centuries, the sea receded leaving the perfect canvas for a world-class golf course. After all that is the true meaning of links golf, “land reclaimed from the sea” sorry Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Less Famous But No Less of a Challenge
Although less famous than many of its Scottish or Irish neighbors, it’s among the very best in Britain. The relatively flat, and benign start, that comes after the 443 yards first can easily lead you into a false sense of security, for while there are many fine holes on the front side, the backside, with all due respect to Catherine Zeta-Jones, maybe the best in Wales. It’s also just a brutal as a Game of Thrones episode especially when played into the wind.
Established in 1894, it’s no wonder the Harlech links has long been ranked within the ‘Top Fifty’ courses of the British Isles, and most recently ranked 2nd in Wales by Golf World, the leading golf publication in the UK. King Edward VII bestowed ‘royal’ status in 1908, while the club’s honors board bears the names of five Open champions and a Master’s champion, a testament to the quality of the many championship events to which the course has played host.
The Castle Watches Over Every Shot
Wherever you go on the course, the castle watches over you and it’s easy to imagine a Lannister or Stark looking down at you from the walls. Wondering what the hell you are doing with a bag of fourteen sticks, slashing the air, and slaying no one, but the grass. Although much more likely, the figures above will be West Midlands tourists for despite the 62-degree weather in August there was an endless stream of families walking through the public trail that splits the course to the wind-swept beach beyond the massive dunes. Hardy people these Brits. The castle, for history buffs, was built by Edward the first during his invasion of Wales between 1282 and 1289 at the relatively modest cost of £8,190 which is less than the cost of a secondhand caravan.
Over the next few centuries, the castle played an important part in several wars, holding out in one siege for seven years during the War of the Roses 1468, a siege memorialized in the song Men of Harlech. Following the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the castle was held by forces loyal to King Charles 1, holding out until 1647 when it became the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentary armies. One should not miss a visit to the castle for the history, the stunning views or just a “cuppa” at the tea shop. Be warned the drive up is as steep and narrow as any Spanish hill town.
The Course is a Tail of Two Nines
For a top-class venue, the course is unusual in many respects. Measuring just 6629 yards from the championship tees, it is extremely short by modern standards, not that you’ll notice in the wind, it’s plenty long enough. It’s also a par 69, less you mistakenly think that makes it easier let me advise you that it is often described as the world’s hardest par 69. Unlike many links courses that go straight out and straight back St David’s meanders one way then the other, so the wind is often across left and right, and not just into or behind. There are other quirks like back-to-back par fives on the front nine, although since they go in opposite directions one will most likely be directly downwind offering a clear birdie opportunity while the other will be dead into demanding a tough par.
There are no par fives on the back nine, only one blind shot that must be trusted to fate, and a par three finishing hole. There are five short holes, although, on my trip, one demanded a driver the other a three wood. The fairways are generous for a links, the greens are large, and while there are bunkers galore, 11 on the 17th alone although they are generally less severe than a typical links. Which means you can get out of them, with a single shot.
Your Score Must Be Made on the Front and Protected on the Back
With the exception of the first and third holes, two long and challenging par fours, the front nine offers plenty of birdie opportunities. From the 5th the course heads inland away from the sound of crashing surf towards the Snowdonia mountains, and briefly takes on the personality of a classic heathland course rather than a links. That all changes back again on the tenth.
On the Back Nine, the Dragon Shows its Teeth
The par four 10th heading back towards the dunes is long, tough, and almost certainly into the wind, giving you a taste of things to come. There is a brief respite on the short 11th a medium length par three surrounded by hillocks that will often kick an errant shot inward towards the green but that’s the last real birdie chance you will see, from here on in, it’s a hard road home.
12th a 436-yard, par-four from a tee set high in the dunes is one of my favorites. A slight fade off the three bunkers on the left will leave you with a second looking at the castle squarely behind the green. The 13th is longer still and a cluster of bunkers around the green means the long-distance approach must also be accurate. The last five holes form a loop through the dunes that provide a finish equal to any championship venue. The 14th a semi-blind par three, the first of the holes in the dunes and was a full-blown driver on the day we played. The 15th is regarded as one of the finest holes in Wales. Visually dramatic, the fairway snakes left then right between the dunes with a long blind second shot to a large green surrounded by dunes.
The 16th like the 12th is from a tee situated high in the towering dunes although unlike the rest of the course where the dunes block any view of the sea from here, the Irish Sea is clearly visible and another great photo opt. The 17th is another long four with OB all down the right, and the course ends with a par three that is anything but easy.
The Last Five Holes Are as Tough as They Come
Despite being just 3,129 yards, the back nine has five par fours over 400 yards and two par threes over 200. That’s before you begin to factor the wind, which as at most course always seems mainly to be against. With a par of just 33 shots, this is indeed a stiff test of golf. Anyone playing the last five in anywhere close to par is likely to have a very good score.
The club offers four very modest rooms attached to the clubhouse building for those that want to stay on site. Alternatively for a small king’s ransom, one could stay adjacent to the castle above in the Harlech Apartments which is a new luxury development offering five new self-catering apartments. There are several small hotels and B & B’s in the area but they are very busy in the summer months.
An out-of-the-box option is to be a prisoner in Portmerion. Well, not literally but it happens to be the Italian village in Wales where the 1960’s cult Si-fi spy series The Prisoner was filmed. It’s an eclectic mixture of architecture, gardens, shops, and charming walking trails right on the estuary. A bit like a visit to the Twilight Zone, so out of place does this Portofino in Wales seem.
At a Glance:
- Superb links golf that ranks among the best in Britain
- Value half the price of links courses that are not as good
- The castle I mean how many courses have that kind of photo op? Go up there and have a tea or coffee before or after your round.
- Decent practice range and chipping area
- Relatively easy access two hours and fifteen minutes from Manchester airport and could be included on a trip to the famous Liverpool or Southport links although only Royal Birkdale is better.
- Portmerion an odd but interesting attraction only 15 minutes away
- Several interesting courses can be found within an hour’s drive including Nefyn, Aberdovey, Porthmadog, and Pwllheli making an ideal place for a golf trip