Royal St David’s is a course that inspires return visits. Perhaps it is because the first recorded activity to take place on the morfa beneath Harlech Castle involved a boomerang. According to legend, one Harold Finch-Hatton, recently returned from Australia, was indulging in his favourite new pastime when he was spotted from the town that lies almost vertically above by William Henry More, a member of the local squirearchy. An intrigued More demanded an explanation that was duly provided. But a few days later the old man was truly flummoxed by the sight of Finch-Hatton indulging in an even more curious pursuit involving a stick and a ball.
Finch-Hatton told him how apposite the land was to a golf course and More, his mind open to the commercial potential such a feature would offer to the economically depressed town, was soon convinced. Shortly afterwards, in 1894, the two men staked out what would become the championship layout famous worldwide today.
Since Scotland had St Andrews, and England this year’s Open venue Royal St George’s, the naming of the Harlech course was as obvious as it was inspired. Within the space of a few years, it was firmly established among the elite golfing venues outside Scotland.
A romantic story, and perhaps one gently embellished over the years. But then St David’s is a dreamy kind of place, divorced from the rest of Wales by the Snowdonian mountains and overlooked by the 13th century castle that dominates the small town of Harlech.
Since it was built, the tide has receded a few hundred yards, leaving a belt of land fit for few other uses – but one which was made for golf. The castle was commissioned by King Edward I to prevent the Welsh from challenging the sovereignty of England.
Nowadays it is Royal St David’s that does the challenging, with golfers from all around travelling to test themselves against what is often described as the world’s toughest par-69 layout.
And it is tough. Unremittingly so, especially on the back nine that is without the solace of a single par five. The 3,129 yards it comprises may not sound fearsome, but allied to a par of just 33 it certainly is.
With two of the three short holes over 200 yards long, the 11th, at 153 yards, is the only hint of respite. Five of the six par fours measure over 400 yards and the other, the 16th, is played from an elevated tee that often faces directly into the wind and so hardly offers any easy pickings.
Although some 300 yards longer, the front nine is where a good score must be made. Back-to-back par fives offer at least one birdie chance and, depending on the wind, the 2nd is usually the easiest two-shotter on the course.
Although traditional in style, one of the great delights of St David’s is that it is an unconventional links, perhaps because it was not designed by a renowned architect. For example, only on the isolated 16th tee, set atop towering dunes, is the Irish Sea clearly visible. Elsewhere the same dunes obscure the ocean, which is heard more than it is seen.
Despite this, it is a beautiful place to be, with the proud castle overlooking the whole course and Snowdonia rising steeply behind it. Secondly, St David’s does not feature too many deep bunkers. They are still to be avoided, especially in the later holes, but it should be possible for an average sand player to effect an escape at the first attempt.
Then there is the layout. The 9th green, while lying at the furthest point from the clubhouse, does not mark the beginning of the journey back to the comforts of the homely clubhouse. Rather the course winds its way back, meandering one way then the other, meaning wind direction must be continually reassessed.
And the last hole is a par three, incredibly unusual for a links, and the 7th and 8th are consecutive par fives. Blind shots are not common, either, with only the tee shot at the short 14th and the approach to the 15th requiring trust to be placed in a marker post.
These two holes, and the pair that follow, are markedly different in character to the other 14, which are predominantly flat. Suddenly the fairways are uneven and periodically interrupted by rough ground.
Greens are sunken beneath ground level and ugly bunkers await, partially hidden behind mounds. But reach the final green and the equilibrium is restored, with its parkland-style atmosphere coming as something of a surprise.
Since St. David’s was built, the tide has receded a few hundred yards, leaving a belt of land fit for few other uses – but one which was made for golf.
Indeed were it not for the castle – looking as impregnable today as it did 700 years ago – it would be easy to lose your bearings as you play round.
In fact, the castle and the rest of the town are set well away from the links, or as the locals prefer morfa, meaning Harlech is split into two levels. Driving from the golf club to the quaint town, while only a short journey involves a first-gear trip slaloming around some of the tightest corners this side of Monaco. Coming back down again can be hair-raising – and it’s not the time for your brakes to fail.
From the bottom of the hill, park up, unload the boot and wander across the railway line – always a reliable indicator that high-calibre golf is nearby – to the squat clubhouse. Like most clubs in Wales, the welcome is warm.
It is only recently that this particular part of the country (generally described as the north) has come to the collective attention of holidaying golfers.
Better still, by jumping on the train it is entirely possible to park at St David’s and be deposited next to the 1st tee at Aberdovey just a couple of stops down the line. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the course at the top of the list of priorities for most visitors to experience.
They are rarely disappointed. And if they are, it will be on account of the weather. Like any true links, Harlech is not the place to be when a squally shower passes through and it is rare that anything less a fresh breeze does not rush across its exposed fairways.
As you would expect of a championship course, there is no gentle start that allows a few looseners before the serious stuff begins. At 443 yards off the back markers, two solid hits are required to reach the green, but in its favour the fairway is one the wider ones.
The 3rd is not quite as straight but longer, narrower and better protected while the short 4th needs a shot that carries every inch of the way to find the green set on a plateau.
The 5th and 6th represent a change of character. Both medium length par fours, they move inland, playing towards the mountains and bring to mind the character of Ganton, the famed inland course that plays like a links.
Then come St David’s only two par fives, one after the other. They run parallel, meaning if there is any wind one will play much longer than the other. It works perfectly, because on any given day one will be in reach and the other won’t.
The 7th, in particular, can play very short downwind with long hitters able to cut the corner of the dog-leg and leave little more than a short iron in. After a second short hole to complete the outward half, the 10th starts the back nine in exactly the manner in which it continues.
It’s a long par four with thick rough making the fairway look like an island with an insidious ditch running down both sides and eventually across the fairway. Five is a perfectly good score here.
The short 11th, played to a green surrounded by hillocks, offers a good chance of a two but can just as easily cost a five before another stern two-shotter must be negotiated.
The elevated tee only seems to make every one of its 436 yards apparent and it’s no use expecting light relief on the next. The 13th is longer still and a cluster of bunkers around the green mean the long-distance approach must also be accurate.
Next up is a long, blind par three, the first of the holes in the dunes, before what is commonly acknowledged as St David’s finest moment.
The 15th is simply stunning: almost certainly the finest hole in Wales. Visually dramatic, the fairway snakes between dunes and bends to the right. Because the tee is set at an angle to the fairway, the further right the tee shot, the longer the carry is to reach the short stuff. But the further left the drive, the longer the approach will be.
The fairway eventually narrows before disappearing, making for an intimidating second over rough ground. The green itself is sunken and surrounded by hillocks, and it is a wonderful feeling to walk towards it and eventually spot your ball on the sanctuary of what is actually quite a large green.
Following it is a tough act to follow, but the 16th is another fine hole. Offering the best views of the course and surrounding area, the elevated tee shot must find the fairway, preferably far enough to carry a large hollow and so give a view of the green.
With 11 bunkers, the 17th is yet another long, tough par four, so the 18th comes as a welcome relief. It isn’t easy by any means, but there is a generous area short of the green from where a par can still be salvaged. The chances are, you’ll need to.