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Golf in Wales

By: Byron Kalies


Opening Day of Newport Golf Club (1903 - courtesy of Wales GC)

Editor's Note: This is a first in a series of articles by Byron Kalies, a Welshman who will be releasing his new book, "From Tenby to Celtic Manor: a Cultural History of Golf in Wales," in spring 2010. With this installment, Byron discusses how the game established its deep roots in his native country.

Golf in Wales will not begin and end with the 2010 Ryder Cup. There are other courses in Wales apart from Celtic Manor. There are also golfers in Wales not called Ian Woosnam. For a country the size of 8,000 square miles (smaller than all American states apart from Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island), and a population of just under 3 million, there are 176 golf courses. This is perfectly adequate for our needs - after all, we're not Scotland are we?

However, the Ryder Cup will come to Wales in October 2010 and, for a week or so, Wales will be the focus of the golfing world. For any golfer that has been trapped in a bunker for the past decade or so, the Ryder Cup is a three-day competition between teams representing Europe and the U.S. It is the world's third-biggest sporting occasion, surpassed only by the Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup and watched by billions around the world. In 2010 the matches will be played on Celtic Manor Resort's new "Twenty Ten" course in Newport, Wales, the first facility specifically designed to host the biennial event.

Llandrindod Wells Ladies Day
(1910 - courtesy of Llandrindod Wells)

Sir Terry Matthews

In the same way that the coal barons of Cardiff and Penarth bought and developed land in Cardiff and Porthcawl for their sport a century ago, Sir Terry Matthews has virtually single-handedly done the same with his golf resort. Sir Terry Matthews is Celtic Manor Resort.

Matthews, a high-tech entrepreneur, has dual Canadian and British citizenships. He was born in Newport, Wales, in 1943 and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He commutes regularly between both countries and became Wales' first billionaire when he sold Newbridge Networks to Alcatel for over $7 billion.

Thirty or so years later, Sir Terry was driving back from Cardiff to his home in London and saw the old hospital where he was born up for sale. He purchased the derelict Manor House in 1980 along with the surrounding woods and fields. In the following decades he built the resort and hired the world's best golf course designers, including Robert Trent Jones Sr., to fulfill his dream of bringing the Ryder Cup to Wales for the first time in the event's 82-year history.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the resort has a 19th-century, 69-bedroom four-star hotel; a 334-bedroom, 32-suite luxury five-star hotel; two Presidential suites; a 1,500-delegate conference suite; an exhibition hall; 40 function rooms; five restaurants; four bars; two health clubs; a shopping center; two tennis courts; a golf training academy; and three golf courses, one of which, the "Twenty Ten," was built for the Ryder Cup.

Modern-day Aerial View of Llandrindod Wells
(courtesy of Llandrindod Wells)

Resilience

The story of golf in Wales is one of resilience, and is imbued with a sense of not giving in. In a number of ways golf in Wales echoes the story of the country and the culture. For the past century and a quarter, every Welsh golf club has risen, fallen, risen, fallen - but survived. Virtually every one of the existing clubs has had to endure two World Wars, economic depressions, recessions and now, a world-wide credit crisis. Yet the feeling is that most clubs will get through it - somehow.

Rhosgoch

Perhaps the best example for me was the story of the smallest club I visited, Rhosgoch, Powys, while researching my book, "From Tenby to Celtic Manor: a Cultural History of Golf in Wales." To get there I left the main Brecon to Builth Wells road and took a sharp right turn. I climbed the narrow road past Llandilo Graban, heading upward into the mountains overlooking the Wye Valley. I thought I'd taken the wrong turn as I passed field after field and more small villages: Llanbedr, Painscastle. Then I make another corner and find Rhosgoch Golf and Leisure Club.

This club is an example of the diversity of Welsh golf clubs. The nine-hole, 2,500-yard layout is a neighborhood center and a members' club, while serving as the social focus of the community. There are 50 to 60 adult members and about the same number of juniors. On Saturdays, children from Rhosgoch Primary School play the course. Throughout the summer they receive lessons from a visiting professional, and compete in a monthly tournament.

The members run the bar, mow the greens, tidy the bunkers and put the flags on the greens. Norman Lloyd - the club secretary, club steward, bartender and anything else that needs doing - told me that the mower they bought a few months ago involved a bit of a journey as they had bought it on eBay. The facility was formed as a proprietary club in 1984. In 1998, the owner went bankrupt and 16 members bought the property. Since then it has been run as a community facility, with the land leased to the members, most of whom are farmers, builders and manual workers, all local.

The sign at the bar says: "There is no dress code; all that is required is respect for the course and courtesy to fellow golfers."

Tenby's Greenkeeper (circa 1888 - courtesy of Tenby GC)

Origins of Golf in Wales

The last 50 years of the Victorian Era (1850-1900) were a time of dramatic change for Wales. The population virtually doubled in this period. The Industrial Revolution hit the country and the people moved from the countryside to the towns. Suddenly, Welsh men and women had more time - especially the wealthy, and they began looking around for something to do with their leisure hours.

Golf and sport, in general, were symbols of the changing times. In 1876, the Football Association was formed in Wales. In 1881, the Welsh Rugby Union was founded. These sports were the activities for the working classes. In 1895, the Welsh Golfing Union was created after a meeting involving seven existing clubs: Tenby, Porthcawl, Swansea Bay, Glamorganshire, Caernarvonshire, Borth -Ynylas, Aberdovey and Merionethshire.

Golf was not a new sport for the Victorians, as there were reports of golf being played in Scotland as early as the 12th Century with shepherds knocking balls into holes with sticks (or knocking "chuckies" into "hawls" with "crummocks"). Eight-hundred years later, the chuckies may well now be Titleist Pro V1 and your "crummock" could have a polymer-cord, hybrid-black grip. Yet, essentially, it's the same game: your task is to get the pebble into the rabbit hole with the least number of "cloots."

The Coming of the Railways

By 1900, the largest impact on the game in Wales was the arrival of railways, which were used to transport coal, iron ore, goods, food and people. Railroads affected every part of Welsh life, with the Industrial Revolution giving holidays for the middle- and working-classes. Three seaside towns in particular were established as tourist centers: Aberystwyth, Swansea and Tenby. Not surprisingly, golf clubs sprang up around these and other tourist areas in Wales.

The tourist industry, although a large contributor to the boom in Welsh golf, wasn't the only reason golf became a viable activity in the country. The other and perhaps more important driving force behind establishing a golf club was that like-minded business people wanted to play a course just among themselves. This was the mark of elitism in some towns, with waiting lists growing for interested members and a rigid selection process for who would be accepted to join the exclusive gentleman's club.

The people running the courses and playing golf in the first half of the game's Welsh history have been stereotyped, rather unfairly, as "the silly trousered brigade." This alludes to the dress code and attire golfers traditionally had to wear. Whilst there was an element of "us and them," it often belied a great deal of hard work and financial commitment that went into creating and maintaining a golf club, especially in the financially difficult years between the world wars.

Boom & Bust

The boom years of the 1960s and '70s were great for golf in Wales. Demand outstripped resources and this period was a time when farmers and other landowners decided the game could help secure their futures, so more and more clubs opened and fields converted to driving ranges. Farms were changed into golf courses and the number of players increased exponentially.

However, the boom of the past 30 years has started to wane, with the international credit crunch affecting all aspects of life, and many golf clubs are facing real difficulties. A number of them had, to some extent, become lazy and complacent with full membership rosters and long waiting lists. If operational or capital costs went up, the club simply increased the fees, with some complaining by the members, but not much. After all, there was nowhere else for golfers to go.

However, as costs have continued to rise over the past decade and more clubs have opened, the waiting list numbers began to diminish. To address the situation, a number of clubs underwent transformations by realizing they were businesses and began acting as such. Yet for some clubs, especially over the past year or so, times have been very difficult. Yet all seem to be aware of the dangers and are working hard - and smarter - to keep golf alive.

Golf clubs are social centers for many towns and villages across Wales and no longer places where only the well-off go to quaff their "G and Ts." It's a sporting area, a community meeting place and often the focal point for residents.

Values

Socially, golf clubs have generally realized that this is the 21st Century and that Victorian values are a thing of the past. The early disputes involved playing golf on the Sabbath and allowing drinking in the clubhouse. Today, this all seems a bit silly. Yet the same battle has been fought concerning the roles of women and youngsters. Most clubs say that this kind of discrimination is passť, yet females and juniors are often treated very differently. They have special times set aside to play, are not allowed to sit on all committees, and not allowed to enter competitions.

More and more clubs have had to realize that excluding women and youngsters is not just morally wrong but financially ridiculous. Today, many clubs are encouraging groups that were previously excluded, and not just women and children.

Future

In 1888, one of the factors behind the opening of Tenby Golf Club was to attract visitors to the town. Once there, they would stay in the hotels, spend money in town and play golf. There is obviously an element of that at Celtic Manor Resort. It's easy to forget that this place is a golf club, with several hundred members, monthly competitions and Gareth Edwards as the honorary captain. It's a golf club and more, unlike any club I've ever visited in Wales. There are estimates it cost £200 million to build, and that looks like a fair assessment. The impressive venue is cathedral-quiet, non-sexist and non-ageist. As a lady or a junior, you can play the same times as the men. But it costs a lot of money to join. It's almost too perfect.

Byron Kalies is a native of Wales who has been writing professionally for six years. He recently completed his travels around Wales while researching the book, "From Tenby to Celtic Manor: a Cultural History of Golf in Wales." The book, published by Carreg Gwalch Books, will be available in spring 2010.

Byron has also published two management and training books, including "25 Management Techniques in 90 Minutes" (MB2000, 2005) and "A Trainer's Diary" (HRD Press, 2008). Byron has written articles and columns for a number of national and international publications, including: Advant Edge (U.S.), Business Day (South Africa), Career Times (Hong Kong), C.I.O. (U.K.), The Guardian (U.K.), Golf Today (U.S.), Management First (U.K.), Management Today (Australia), Marketing Magazine (N.Z.), Public Servant (U.K.), The Age (Australia) and The Scotsman.

Byron can be reached at: Byron Kalies, 3 St. David's Close, Libanus Fields, Pontllanfraith, Blackwood, South Wales, NP12 2FE. Telephone: +44 (0) 1495 222516l; email: byron@byronkalies.com; Website: www.byronkalies.com; Twitter: www.twitter.com/byronlk.