By Tom Doak
Of all the golf courses I discovered in my year overseas studying golf architecture after college, the most unexpected find was an unknown links in southern Wales.
Driving through the old gray city of Swansea, smokestacks in full force, it became clear how the course might have been overlooked for decades. There is little inherently charming about Swansea, best known as the hometown of poet Dylan Thomas, who described it as “an ugly, lovely town.”
However, ugly is the wrong description of the Gower Peninsula west of the city. It is a beautiful rural area buffered from industry by the brisk westerly winds. And at the end of the road to Southend, I crested a hill to find the most rugged landscape I have ever seen for golf, brilliantly green after the late-fall rains.
Pennard has been described as a “links in the sky” because the tumbling contours of its fairways are found not at sea level but 100 to 200 feet above, with spectacular views of a river valley (known as the Pill) and cliffs leading down to a deserted beach. Dating to 1896, the design is attributed to James Braid, five-time British Open champion and a member of the “Great Triumvirate” of the early 20th century, along with J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon. Later, C.K. Cotton did work on the 6,232-yard par-71 course.
The front nine begins by heading uphill along the road back to town; the first truly memorable hole is the 517-yard 4th, the first of a quartet of challenging par 5s. But it’s when you arrive at the 7th tee that the nature of the course shows its full jaw-dropping potential. The short par 4 plays between a small church ruin on the left and a much more complete castle ruin just to the right of the fairway, overlooking the deep river valley just beyond.
Still, the back nine is the reason to make the trip. The par-5 10th is a sharp dogleg to the left; to reach it in two you have to carry a narrow stream and some nasty native vegetation on the inside corner. After the driveable par-4 12th falls away dangerously toward the Pill on the right, the green of the par-3 13th is tucked awkwardly behind a dune on the left, on the other side of a deep, sandy dip.
The three finishing holes crank up the drama. The tee shot on the 493-yard par-5 16th plays out to sea, then doglegs sharply to the right, with a wide green perched at the edge of the cliffs daring you to blast a fairway wood toward the green.
The 488-yard par-5 17th has tee atop the cliffs, a fairway falling away to the right with just a small shelf in the center, and the last half of an interrupted fairway swinging around the back of a gorse-strewn hillside, so that going for the green in two requires you to flirt with the blind left side.
The 399-yard 18th hole tries to play straightaway from a high tee, but in contrast to the 17th, its fairway tilts sharply to the left, so severely that only a faded tee shot has any chance of staying out of the rough. Still, it’s not too demanding a finisher, with the green laid out directly in front of the clubhouse so that members in the second-floor lounge could wonder aloud how a young American had found his way to this corner of the globe.
But golf is indeed a small world. A year later, I was visiting a friend at an amateur event in Florida when I met a golfer from Pennard—Vicki Thomas, who played in six Curtis Cups. Next to her home course, I suspect all the rest looked rather dull by comparison.