Myths, mountains and mulligans
Matt Cooper travelled to West Wales and found a golf coast waiting to be discovered.
By Matt Cooper
Last Updated: 29/04/14 7:40pm
Ceredigion splits opinion.
There are those who know and love it - and then there are others who have never even heard of it.
"Where?" people asked when I told them where I was heading. I explained it used to be known as Cardiganshire. More blank looks. The mid-Wales coast, I said, and finally there was recognition. "Right," they said, "Aberystwyth."
But there is so much more to Ceredigion than the town of Aberystwyth, as I was about to find out.
The drive to Ceredigion is one of Britain's greatest road journeys, taking in both the rolling green hills and the imposing mountain passes of mid-Wales.
On arrival, and with an hour to spare before my tee-time, I climbed the Ynsylas Dunes and peered north, past the pretty town of Aberdovey, to the Snowdonian mountains which loom over Cardigan Bay. Looking south, between the sand hills, I spied my first destination - a piece of land that has been used for golf since the 1870s.
History is Borth & Ynyslas GC's great strength because you are playing golf as it was first conceived, when the natural contours of the land and the quality of the turf were not just paramount, but essential to the playing of the game. 150 years later the course remains good enough to draw golfers back.
A classic out and back links design, the middle holes of both nines pass through a wonderful section of land with undulating greens, pot bunkers and humped fairways tucked between the dunes. And the opening/closing holes? You'd better be hitting the ball straight because anything off line will disappear across the coast road or into the Irish Sea.
After my round I took a stroll across the beach, partly to see the tree stumps there, said to be 4,000 years old and a remnant of the mythical kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a sort of Welsh Atlantis. But also? I wondered if I might find the ball I sliced from the 14th tee.
I spent the night in Aberystwyth, a town not often connected with golf but whose castle ruins and gothic university vaguely resemble another remote university town that is - St Andrews.
Welsh rarebit? For breakfast? Made with Tomos Watkin's Magic Welsh Lager and served with Bloody Mary ketchup? Take a bow Gwesty Cymru. Throw in friendly, helpful staff, a magnificent shower and an ideal spot on the promenade, and you've got a great base for this part of Ceredigion.
After a stroll along the prom, I climbed above the town - quite literally above it actually. The road to Abersytwyth GC snakes up the hill behind the cliff railway. Then the course itself snakes further still up yet another hill. And finally, from the top, you take in the complete sweep of Cardigan Bay.
If the climb hasn't taken your breath away, the view will do. I played as a temporary and honorary member of the senior section in their midweek comp and it was probably the most uninhibited welcome to a golf club I've had. It was a pleasure to be defeated by the guile and cunning of the veterans, who knew their hilly course much better than I - they were also less pre-occupied with scenery.
I woke further down the coast, at Penrhos Park in the village of Llanrhystud. I'd arrived the previous evening and spent the night in a Scandinavian-style lodge overlooking the golf course and hotel. Before hitting the sack I had mixed preparations for my round: an hour in the sauna and swimming pool, offset by a rare visit to the gym afterwards.
Next morning at breakfast I could hardly move my arms, but there was no point moaning because there was a new challenge ahead. Penrhos is the most modern golfing test in Ceredigion, with USGA spec greens and a risk and reward design that has matured impressively since being built in the early 1990s.
It provides an impressive and varied challenge that includes severe elevation changes, subtle putting surfaces, water hazards and natural threats too. It also never loses its essential Welsh character with stunning views inland of green valleys and arcing wide panoramas of Cardigan Bay.
After a post-round dip in the hot tub outside my lodge, I followed the valleys inland for dinner at Y Talbot in Tregaron. It was once the inn of choice for drovers, prior to their journey to London. It is now respected (with good reason) for its excellent food. But I spent most of the evening sat round a log fire chatting to locals about another set of visitors in the 1960s.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix came, so too, in their Mini Cooper, did Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Best of all, Bob Dylan was rumoured to have taken a bungalow for a fortnight. And the reason? A London dropout who was producing LSD in his cottage just outside the town.
I settled for a pint of bitter shandy.
I started my week in the north of Ceredigion and ended it in the south, driving through the pastel-coloured coastal towns of Aberaeron and Newquay on my way to Cardigan GC. Like the previous two courses it sits high above the sea, but unlike them it is a distinctly links-like challenge, with bouncy turf, gorse and a traditional design.
Yet again the views were stunning: inland across the Teifi Estuary to the fishing port of St Dogmaels, down the coast to the wide expanse of Poppit Sands and out to sea where, if you get lucky, dolphins perform somersaults.
The course isn't bad either. In fact it's a wonderful track which rewards good shots, punishes poor ones and there is no doubt that a couple of the greens could easily grace more celebrated layouts. I was so taken with the 17th green I had three goes at not three-putting it, from the front edge to the back pin.
I left Ceredigion with a smile on my face. Many people may be ignorant of its pleasures, but it's their loss. West Wales is a beautiful spot and vaguely reminiscent of Ireland - not just because of the land itself, but the people, who are friendly, welcoming and full of stories.
For more information about the region visit the Discover Ceredigion website.