A prospective guest at Royal Porthcawl appears before the club’s secretary. A round at Porthcawl, arguably the finest layout in Wales, is no small feather in a golfer’s cap, and its guest policy is somewhat more stringent than at most courses in the British Isles. Thus, the interview with the all-powerful secretary is neither a formality nor a social call, but a vetting.
“What do you play to?” asks the secretary.
“Twenty,” replies the interlocutor. After a pause, sensing his petition is weak, he adds,
“A good 20.”
“There is no such thing as a good 20!” the secretary roars.
End of vetting.
Despite the anecdote, apocryphal or otherwise, Royal Porthcawl’s 115-year history suggests not a puritanical approach to golf and its rituals, but a club that revels as much in the sensual aspects of its past as it does the plain-spoken classicism of its links. In another oft-told story, after a woman hits her approach into the bunker guarding the right side of the sixth green, she arrives upon a couple in the throes of passion. No rule seems to quite apply—loose impediment? immovable obstruction?—so local mores are invoked: The couple marries within two weeks and the bunker is filled in.
Royal Porthcawl’s layout is similarly temperamental. From the tips, it measures 6,697 yards to a par of 72. The numbers, of course, mean little. Like all links, Porthcawl is meant to be played in the wind; unlike most links, there is little sustained relief from the wind because the course runs in a circle rather than the usual nine-out, nine-in route.
Despite its lack of length, the course has endured as a worthy championship test. Best known as the site of the 1995 Walker Cup, in which Great Britain & Ireland waxed the Tiger Woods-led U.S. side 14–10, Porthcawl also has hosted six British Amateurs and the 1964 Curtis Cup, as well as the European Tour’s Dunlop Masters.
Porthcawl’s primary challenge is the need to hit perhaps the most telling, score-defining shot in golf: the crisp, well-aimed approach. Rings of tightly cut hummocks and swales and small, deep, revetted bunkers fiercely guard Porthcawl’s greens. With no high grass to slow them, indifferent approaches find the bunkers almost as reliably as water finds the drain.
The layout begins with a flourish, a trio of par 4s alongside the beach, each more demanding than the one before. It begins to bend away from the water at the fourth, a par 3 of 212 yards, then follows the property’s perimeter for several holes (no hooks allowed) before zigging and zagging through its previously unexamined center in a run of holes that features three strong doglegs.
The course finishes with a three-hole salvo that presents what great courses should: equal opportunities for triumph and disaster. Cross bunkers on the 430-yard 16th raise the possibility of a card-wrecking 6. The par-5 17th, at 504 yards, is a genuine birdie chance. The par-4 18th runs gently downhill, with Bristol Channel serving as scenic backdrop for both shots. The approach provides the last touchy moment of the day: A thin hit will roll through the green, bound for the beach.
After the round, the cozy clubhouse should not be bypassed. In such a sanctuary, there is no such thing as a bad round. Instead, it leaves a remembrance of Porthcawl that consists of the elegance of the routing, the bunkering, the testy approaches and the fresh tang of the breezes off the pewter sea.