Pennard Golf Club, Wales, The Cliffs, The Castle, and The Club
by Sean Arble
Pennard is not the sort of golfing destination which finds itself at the forefront of many discussions concerning golf. In fact, Pennard is often taken to be Penarth (the home of Glamorganshire Golf Club), a town very near Cardiff on the Mouth of the Severn. To clear up the confusion one must continue west on the M4 another 40 minutes or so, exit on the A483 and carry on through Swansea. When Clyne Golf Club appears on the right the urbanized landscape abruptly opens onto the Gower Peninsula. After exploring its beaches, cliffs, caves and castles it is easy to understand why the Gower was designated Britain’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. In a glorious location, near the village of Southgate and overlooking Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bays, is Pennard Golf Club. Once seen, nobody could mistake Penarth for Pennard!
My introduction to Pennard was through Donald Steel’s Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland, a book treasured by many links aficionados. Some years later, while on a book finding mission in Hay-on-Wye, I purchased The Confidential Guide by Tom Doak. I considered this to be a risky purchase as I had never heard of Doak, but his frank commentary convinced me to part with £8. The blurb on Pennard was brief, but included “the terrain is probably a little too spectacular for the tastes of many. The course is home to Vicki Thomas, who played on the last four (eventually to become six!) British Curtis Cup squads; next to Pennard, other courses must look tame to her. ” Those words were enough to intrigue me. Eventually, I made my way to the Gower on consecutive weekends in the summer of 2001. What I found on that first encounter can hardly be described. I had played many links previously, but none of these past experiences could have prepared me for Pennard. It was firmer, bumpier and wilder than any course I knew of. Ponies and cows freely roamed the Burrows and the views out to sea were beguiling. After making enquiries as to membership availability I was astonished to find that I could join then and there for Ã‚£75. So join I did!
A golf club of sorts has existed at Southgate since 1896, but it wasn’t until the reconstitution of 27 March 1908 that Pennard Golf Club began to take the shape that is recognizable today. During this infant year and while at the height of his fame as one of the Great Triumvirate, James Braid made three visits and designed an 18-hole course, some of which remains today. Although the overall flow of the course has been altered greatly in detail, the broader strokes of the 1908 routing and the three further visits of 1911, 1920 and 1931; make it clear to this author that Braid deserves the lion’s share of credit for Pennard. It is equally clear that significant contributions were made by C.K. Cotton in 1965. Additionally, important alterations were carried out by Fred G. Hawtree in 1920 and Donald Steel in 1991. Interestingly, H.S. Colt was paid to make suggestions for alterations in 1920. Whether or not Braid used some of Colt’s ideas is not known.
Despite its merits, Pennard also has detractors. They point to the limitations of the course: the land is severe, bunkering is light, conditioning is far from ideal, and perhaps worst of all, the course is short and plays shorter still during the summer months. The criticisms are accurate, yet Pennard unabashedly rises above these. After several plays one gains a perspective which reveals the rhyme and reason of Pennard. Along with the West Links of North Berwick, St. Enodoc and Carne, Pennard offers the golfer a balance of challenge, beauty, fun and affordability which is difficult to match anywhere. Pennard is not the “championship” test that other Welsh links such as Harlech, Royal Porthcawl and Conwy are. Rather, Pennard is top drawer holiday golf which can be enjoyed daily by any standard of player. Most links rely on wind to put the back of the golfer in play and Pennard is no different. It can be an awful test when the wind rips up the Bristol Channel and the course is keen. Even so, Pennard is first and foremost a place to enjoy the ups and downs of a friendly game followed by a pint while discussing any topic under the sun.
The flow of the holes are a wonderful tribute to the routing. I am reminded of other Braid gems such as Perranporth and Brora, both of which lead the golfer to ponder what will come next and sometimes cause surprise despite the open vistas. The rugged terrain was maximized by three main techniques. First, on five occasions (first & second, fifth & sixth, seventh & eighth, 13th & 14th, 16th & 17th) the course works into and out of a dead end. Second, three shelf greens (third, 10th & 11th) are cut just below or above the ridges which holes nine and 15 are routed over. In my experience, this technique of using fairways as “backstops” for greens is fairly rare, but can be very effective on hilly sites such as Pennard. Third, and perhaps most important, building the less than perfect blind tee shot 12th makes it possible to utilize a spectacular part of the property for the 13th. The player is then taken back to more conventional ground for the following hole. Tom Doak claims that Alister MacKenzie had a similar difficulty at Royal Melbourne’s West course. He decided to accept a blind drive at the fourth to make other elements of the routing work. Perhaps the good Doctor took a page from Braid’s book!
The course can be divided into four sections. Numbers one through five, are located furthest from the sea and allow the golfer an opportunity to gain a few shots on the card. Holes six through 10, probably the best stretch on the course, are characterized by playing over much of the harshest land in the Pennard Burrows. The following sequence of holes, 11-15, includes three short holes, but all are crafty. This section is the most important for protecting a score because the card doesn’t offer any strokes by way of low indexes and shots can be leaked with niggling regularity. The final three holes provide a grand finish and includes the 16th, perhaps the most memorable hole, and 17, the most controversial hole.
To visit the pro before running through stretching exercises and a quick putt is an age old custom. In a very real sense, every proshop is akin to a bazaar. One never knows what is on offer. When entering Pennard’s proshop the customer is likely to be greeted by Mike Bennett, our congenial and long time Professional. If not behind the counter, Mike can often be found on the range giving lessons or collecting balls. Mike is a local lad who learned the game at Ashburnham, not an hour down the road. His Welsh roots, however, haven’t prohibited Mike from being a disciple of the National Football League (NFL). Mike is a loyal supporter of the San Francisco 49ers and hangs a collection of team caps from the ceiling. If you are looking to haggle over green fees keep this bit of information in mind!
While it is true that none of the opening holes is superlative, it is equally true that any of these holes could be placed on a course with more pedigree than Pennard and not be viewed as inferior. For sure, the fourth must be the pick of the bunch.
1st hole, 416 yards, FOUNDER: Named in honour of Dr. Edgar Reid, the Founder and Secretary for 28 years. This is essentially a Braid (1920) hole, but CK Cotton (1965) extended the tee by approximately 45 yards. Much later, in 1994, the bank in front of green was leveled to make the approach more predictable.
The opener is a good bunkerless hole which heads straight inland for Swansea. Indeed, many may wonder if this isn’t a peculiar way to start the game when such beauty is at our back. Never mind, the hole requires a long drive down the right side of the fairway to view the pin and a well judged approach to earn a four.
2nd Hole, 145 yards, CEFN BRYN: Welsh for the five mile long sand stone ridge which locals call the backbone of Gower. This CK Cotton (1965) hole is played in the same direction as the old second, but a new green and tee were built.
The golfer encounters the first of many blind/semi-blind tee shots with all the bunkering hidden. One would think the green gathers because of the partial bowl in which it lies. However, this is not the case. When the wind is off the sea (from the golfer’s left) nothing but a well flighted shot will prevent the ball drifting right. During the summer of 2006 the green was re-laid. Unfortunately it did not take well and the green remained closed during the following winter.
3rd hole, 365 yards, PRESIDENT: Named in honour of Major Tom Morris, President of Pennard in 1965. This is essentially a CK Cotton (1965) hole which may utilize Braid’s 1908 second green. The hole plays in the opposite direction to the old third and is approximately 50 yards longer.
The golfer is faced with an awkward tee shot to the corner of this nearly 90 degree dogleg which bends around a large dune and a pair of blind bunkers on the left. The flat-belly can take on cutting the corner to huge advantage. The modest golfer must select his club with care as a drive either too short or too long results in a blind approach. If one does place his drive well the view of the green can be described as a flat shelf and not at all a promising target. Club selection is a worry when the hole is cut in its best position on the right of the green. The space between the front and rear bunkers is a mere snip and appears shallower still when the summer shade of green reminds one of mushy peas.
4th hole, 517 yards, ILSTON: A small village located at the head of Bishopton Valley. The village is famous for its church which is said to be the first place of congregation for Baptists in Britain. In 1965 CK Cotton substantially re-routed the fairway which eliminated a sharp dogleg in favour of a tee which makes this hole play fairly straight and directly over the 3rd green. In 1972, the large sandy area near the public footpath was seeded. Donald Steel (1991) further straightened the hole by moving the green some 50 yards back and left of a dune because it was located too close to Brig-y-Don, a bungalow just beyond the hedge. One of the incidents which prompted this alteration involved a Dr. McDonald rummaging through the hedge of Brig-y-Don in search of his ball. The doctor was grabbed by the son of the owner who refused to release him until the police arrived about an hour later!
Too often, holes are designed to guide the player to the green. This is certainly not the case with Ilston. The landing zone is very large and not well defined. This may sound like a weakness, but the author believes this openness to be the major strength of the hole because the imaginative player has several lines of attack to choose from. The marker post is there, but it can be difficult to understand why this is the “best line” in a confused landscape. In fact, with modern equipment and a tailwind, the line of the marker is the most dangerous play due to Out of Bounds lurking another 50 yards up the fairway. Perhaps the sight of players on the third and ninth holes combined with walkers heading for the beach causes consternation for some. After a well placed drive near the public footpath the visitor should not be embarrassed to ask where his second should be placed or indeed if the green can’t be reached. The green is nowhere to be seen. What the player can see is a fairway which pitches and rolls and a pair of bunkers just short of a moderate size dune on the right of the fairway. The large green is tucked over the crest of a roll and runs away from the player. Tempting the player to bite off more than he can chew is a critical aspect of good design. When one considers the dodgy lies that can be drawn beyond the green, the fourth meets these temptation criteria as a classic risk/reward hole.