What do you think of when you things about Wales and golf? Ian Woosnam. Royal Porthcawl. Maybe it's Jamie Donaldson, the Welshman who secured the winning point for Europe in the 2014 Ryder Cup. Perhaps it's the 2010 Ryder Cup, where Europe defeated the U.S. by a point at Celtic Manor.
On a recent trip to The Open, the fearless foursome of GolfChannel.com's Rex Hoggard, Ryan Lavner, Mercer Baggs and Jay Coffin visited Wales and discovered that there's so much more to this charming country, one that often gets overlooked.
"What we love about Wales is that it's like stepping back in time," said Maura Nolan, owner of Irish Links Tours and Travel, which organizes travel experiences to Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Spain, Italy and South Africa. "Much of the coastline is dotted with wonderful links that are still relatively undiscovered and uncrowded.
"The people are friendly, the natural beauty is stunning, the ancient castles are majestic and the cozy, local pubs are welcoming."
Here are dispatches from the group about some of the most memorable experiences from the trip, where we played (in order) Conwy, Royal St. David's, Aberdovey and Nefyn & District:
By Mercer Baggs
The rain came almost as suddenly as we put the van in park. Before we could decide if we should go into the clubhouse, it really started to pour. Welcome to Wales.
Fresh off an Orlando-to-Manchester direct flight and a slightly harrowing journey down roads unaccommodating a larger vehicle, four of us arrived at Conwy Golf Club in North Wales.
Rain? Check. Cold? Check. Wind? Check. Away we go.
We donned rain gear, scarfed down a bacon sandwich and headed out to the first tee, sans range balls or practice putts. The first hole, a par 4, had out of bounds to the right. Needless to say, I hit a rope hook, ending up in the fairway of the adjacent hole.
But, I salvaged par. Then did so on the next hole. And the next. Not a bad start for a 9-handicap with a tight back and no warm-up.
The rain quickly cleared and the sun emerged. By the end of the day my face and balding head, which were uncovered, were sun burned and wind whipped.
Walking 18 holes for the first time in a year was a reminder of how enjoyable it can be. While the course was plenty busy there was rarely a wait and we finished in less than four hours. It would be nice if that was more of an option in the U.S., at least when it's not 102 degrees.
We played the course from the yellow tees at just under 6,400 yards and a par 72. The back tees were listed at 6,936.
A lot of the front nine looked similar, which could be because there were six par 4s in the first eight holes. The first par 5 wasn't until the ninth, the beginning of four in a six-hole stretch.
The landscape of the course was intriguing. On one hole, like the par-3 sixth, you were staring at mountains, and on the next, the par-4 seventh, you were beachside.
The best thing about the course, aside from its physical attractiveness, was its fairness. There were birdie opportunities (of which I made none), and plenty of chances for par (of which I made 11). And, if you got into the wrong spot, double bogey was in play (of which I made 3).
Added up, it made for a 10-over 82. A pretty good start to a weekend of four courses in three-days.
By Ryan Lavner
At 8:30 a.m., the visibility was less than a mile, the parking lot was empty, and Royal St. David's Golf Club was silent — save for the whooshing of our rain pants.
The locals knew better, of course. The forecast had called for the storm to clear before 9 a.m., but there we were, four schlubs with carry bags, desperate to head out to the first course in our 36-hole day.
For six holes, we played through some of the worst rain I've ever experienced on the course – sheets of rain so intense that it puddled on the fast, firm, fescue fairways and penetrated our raingear.
But a strange thing happened as we slogged through the opening nine at Royal St. David's.
I had fun.
Look, no one enjoys playing golf in the rain. It's annoying. Gloves become useless. Grips don't stay dry. Waterlogged golf shoes are ruined, and so are scores.
And yet, weathering the elements is an accepted and appealing part of links golf. Much of that, I think, has to do with course design. Even in a torrential downpour, the course remains playable – it just requires creativity with shot selection (my 4-iron went both 305 yards and 155 yards on this day), and certainly more patience. That won't help you in the States, where the game is played almost exclusively through the air, where the punishment for an off-line shot – bunker, water, hazard – is severe. Not only will you get soaked, but you'll be fishing in your bag for another ball, too!
The first six holes at Royal St. David's played brutally difficult for us – and likely would have in perfect weather as well, with a pair of 440-plus-yard par 4s – but surprisingly there wasn't a comedic element to the proceedings. Into a downpour, we just kept our heads down and punched away, hoping for par, settling for bogey and trying to stay away from doubles.
By the time we made the turn, the weather had cleared and the locals returned. The back nine played relatively easy, by comparison, and we all hit good shots and made pars, but that's not what I'll remember most.
I'll remember the puddles in my shoes. I'll remember the par-3 fourth hole, where I removed my rain-soaked glove and attempted to hit a 6-iron, only to lose my grip and dropkick my tee ball into shin-high rough 50 yards off the tee. I'll remember my colleague heading back up the hill to the lovely Cottage Castle in Harlech and dumping his socks and shoes in the trash.
I'll remember playing in a blinding rainstorm ... and not even really minding.
By Jay Coffin
Paul McCartney found inspiration for writing "The Long and Winding Road" while in Scotland, but he sure as hell could've found similar inspiration while on the 40-mile trek from Harlech down to Aberdovey.
A two-lane road the size of one while driving a 9-passenger van created several white-knuckle moments, but once we grabbed sandwiches and went directly to the first tee, the mind was immediately at ease.
It was impossible to believe that this was the same day that began with playing the first six holes at Royal St. David's in torrential rain. Here we were, hours later, with only a wee breeze and temperatures in the mid- to high-60s. Delightful.
Although the breeze was wee, it did change directions probably four times during the round, something the locals say is commonplace. Just when you thought you had it all figured out, it'd change again and keep you on your toes. This made the par 3s particularly challenging because all four (each one fantastic) face a different direction.
The blind par-3 third hole is Aberdovey's most famous hole, but the par-3 12th green that sits well above the tee box and borders the beach is more memorable.
Aberdovey, founded in 1886, is a classic out-and-back layout that sits within Snowdonia National Park. It's adjacent to a railway that runs frequently and gives the whole round a neat vibe.
There are eight par-4s that can play over 400 yards from the big-boy tees but with the aforementioned changes in wind direction it's all you can handle, but isn't unmanageable.
There are only three par 5s on the par-71 layout, the first coming on the seventh hole. Then, when it's crunch time in your match, you're smacked with them on 13 and 15, before closing with three par 4s of varying lengths.
Aberdovey, splendid in its coastal setting, was beyond special.
After the round we went into town for fish and chips. While ordering a beer I spotted a dog, in a chair, sitting at the bar; the perfect end to a memorable day.
By Rex Hoggard
The road into Nefyn is like many in Wales, narrow and nondescript. It's the perfect foil for what awaits as you clear the last rise and are greeted by shards of emerald green fairway etched against the Irish Sea.
You can see the sea from all 27 of the facility's holes, and it wouldn't be a reach to proclaim the cliff-side layout the Welsh Pebble Beach, with idyllic views beyond every craggy corner.
But it's not those views or the Nefyn lighthouse – a squat building manned daily by a member of the Welsh National Coastwatch, a cheerful gentleman who was more than willing to point our wayward group toward the fifth tee – that are the defining characteristics of Nefyn.
Nor is it the iconic Ty Coch, or Red House pub on the beach adjacent the sixth green on the Old course, that you'll remember after a round at Nefyn.
As scenic as the holes may be, with views of the entire Snowdonia mountain range and even as far away as the Wicklow range in Ireland on clear days, there is a price to be paid for all that beauty, and that's what truly defines the club located in northwest Wales.
Beachgoers, grandparents, children in strollers, dogs and even the occasional car traverse the narrow lane that bisects the first and ninth fairways of the Old nine, and none seem particularly concerned with the relative proficiency of those desperately trying to hit a fairway.
There's a notice posted next to the ninth tee on the Old loop, "Do not drive off until it is safe to do so...The pedestrians walking on the road are probably not golfers and are therefore unaware of the danger of a miss-hit golf ball."
On this clear summer day those enjoying the flora and fauna didn't seem particularly interested in the American foursome nervously awaiting the road to clear. It never did.
As challenging as Nefyn's 27 holes may be, and at just 2,500 yards the Old course plays surprisingly long with plenty of elevation changes, there's nothing quite as intimidating as a tee shot that can cause serious damage to more than just a scorecard.
Just two hours south of Liverpool, Nefyn and the other courses on our group's recent trip are well worth the journey, but be forewarned, some shots are not for the faint-hearted.