When the sun is shining, with views of the breaking Atlantic rollers from each and every one of its 18 holes, there are few places a golfer would rather be than Royal Porthcawl. On other occasions, when the wind whips down the Bristol Channel, it becomes a course of rare difficulty as those same vantage points are exposed indeed. Unusually for a links course, Porthcawl is far from flat and some of the greens are built into the general incline away from the shore.
The prevailing wind, roughly off the sea, counteracts the effect of the slope but anyone who has ever encountered it blowing in the opposite direction will know that greens such as the 4th and 5th are treacherous in the extreme when both forces of nature are working in alliance.
In such conditions, the true challenge of links golf is at its most apparent. Certain holes can be little more than survived and a bogey represents a worthy score indeed. Retaining control of the ball – even if only partially – is paramount, as are the virtues of equanimity and patience.
With much skill and the occasional dose of good fortune, though, it is possible to survive such stretches at Porthcawl and then use the conditions to your advantage later on in the round.
From any tees apart from the championships, all four par fives are a reasonable length and there are several par fours under 400 yards. Were it not the opening hole, for example, the 1st would often present the chance of recording a birdie.
As it is, most are happy to ease themselves into the round without disaster and certainly it is imperative to be warmed up before tackling the imposing 2nd and 3rd holes that run parallel to the beach.
After that, the next three holes climb to Porthcawl’s highest point before a cuter-than-cute short hole to an impossibly narrow green. Little over 100 yards it may be, you can run up a five in a matter of seconds by finding sand from the tee.
In windy conditions, the true challenge of links golf is at its most apparent. Certain holes can be little more than survived and a bogey represents a worthy score indeed.
The 9th begins the descent back towards the sea, doglegging left around some nasty bunkering and undergrowth. In the right conditions, the 10th can be drivable but the green is a plateau and extremely awkward to pitch and chip to. The low, running approach is the order of the day – but only if you get your angles right.
The 12th calls for a blind, uphill drive – hardly the most enticing of prospects – but hold your nerve and you will be rewarded with the chance of a birdie four. Then comes perhaps the most testing portion of the course, with three long par fours flanking a classic links par three that is modest in length but demands a properly struck short iron.
Wit the 13th and the 15th running in broadly the same direction and the 16th the opposite, regardless of wind direction you will be tested to the extreme at some stage.
The pick is probably the 15th, where the rolling fairway is abruptly punctuated by a nest of bunkers in the face of a hill. Then the land falls before rising again to an exposed green. Into the wind, reaching the green is a feat in itself while downwind trying to hold it with a shot coming in fast and flat is equally challenging. The 16th is similar, again featuring cross bunkers that prevent a significant advantage being claimed when playing downwind.
After the final par five, which like two of the other three climbs uphill throughout, comes the highly unusual closing hole.
Downhill all the way and crossing the 1st fairway, even the green slopes towards the sea and it is hard to know which wind makes a closing par more attainable. It is a hole that must be thought through before you find trouble because each mistake seems to lead unavoidably to another. The final one is often a three putt on what is a treacherous green.
It was here in 1995 that Gary Wolstenholme consigned a youthful Tiger Woods to a singles defeat in the Walker Cup. The canny veteran proved once and for all that Porthcawl is a course to be tackled with brain more than brawn.
Alongside Padraig Harrington, among others, he and the rest of the GB&I team recorded a famous victory over the Americans.
On a course that dates back to 1895 in its present location, this remains a notable highlight, although British Amateur Championships and Ladies’ European Tour events have also been played here. Harry Colt and Tom Simpson are largely responsible for the current layout.