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Royal Porthcawl: The Essence of Links Golf

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Set along the Welsh coastline, Royal Porthcawl stands as one of Great Britain’s premier seaside tests. Founded in 1891, it earned “Royal” status from King Edward VII 18 years later in recognition of its swift growth and excellent design. The course has challenged golf’s best in prestigious events like the Walker Cup, Curtis Cup, British Amateur, and Senior Open Championship. Its windswept terrain and cratered bunkers demand creative shotmaking, while spectacular vistas showcase the Bristol Channel’s natural beauty.

For all its accolades and championship pedigree, Royal Porthcawl retains an old-world charm. The clubhouse exudes more 19th-century estate than a modern resort, filled with artifacts that transport visitors back through time. Beyond world-class golf, it connects to the game’s origins amid dunes and linksland.

After playing the 2017 Senior Open, Phillip Price called the course his favorite Welsh course and noted, “I remember playing the front nine and thinking, ‘This is proper links golf.’ With strong winds, you’ve got to hit good shots. It’s real, old-school links, and if you don’t play well, you get into a lot of trouble.”

In this post, we’ll travel to Wales and learn the origins and history of Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. We’ll review the notable events and memorable moments it has hosted, take a detailed walk through the course, and finish with suggested further reading and videos that bring the course to life. As always, the adjacent images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Origins of Royal Porthcawl

Royal Porthcawl Golf Club was founded in 1891 in Porthcawl, Wales when a group of businessmen was granted permission to build a 9-hole course. The original nine was laid out on Lock’s Common by Charles Gibson, the Royal North Devon Golf Club professional. In 1895, nine holes were added to create the first 18-hole course in Wales.

The two nines were deemed too far apart, and ultimately, the land that made up the original nine was abandoned, with a full 18 holes and a new clubhouse designed on the new site by Ramsay Hunter, a Scottish greenkeeper who had earlier laid out Royal St Georges. The new course grew quickly, and Royal Porthcawl was only the second golf club in Wales after Royal St. David’s to be granted the “Royal” title. This prestigious honor was bestowed by King Edward VII in 1909 to recognize the club’s quick growth and excellent course layout in its early years.

In the early 20th century, renowned golf architects Harry Colt and John Henry Taylor made several design changes to the course. In 1925, Colt was brought in to redesign the layout completely. He modified the course to improve playability and strategy while retaining the natural terrain and beauty of the seaside links landscape. Taylor also contributed design elements that year.

After a 1933 evaluation by The R&A Championship committee for potential inclusion in their Championship rota, significant modifications were made by Tom Simpson before World War II. These changes had just settled when World War II began, raising fears the course might be repurposed for farming. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, but members faced whisky rationing, limited to one tot daily at the secretary’s discretion, making the secretary extremely popular during this period.

royal porthcawl origin

Notable Events

Royal Porthcawl has hosted several notable amateur events, including the 1964 Curtis Cup and 1995 Walker Cup, and seven British Amateurs (1951, 1965, 1973, 1980, 1988, 2002, and 2016). It has also been home to many professional tournaments, such as the Penfold Tournament, which ran annually from 1932 until 1974, attracting top players such as Henry Cotton, Fred Daly, and Arnold Palmer. Percy Allis, a former assistant at the club and father of the legendary golfer and commentator Peter, won the first.

In 1961, Royal Porthcawl hosted the Dunlop Masters, won by legendary Australian Peter Thomson. From 1980 to 1982, the club held the Coral Welsh Classic tournament on the European Tour. Winners included Sandy Lyle in 1980 and Des Smyth in 1981.

The club has also hosted the Senior Open Championship three times, with Bernhard Lager (2014, 2017) and Alex Cejka (2023) winning the respective titles. In 2013, architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert were brought in to refine the course ahead of The Senior Open. Ebert changed several greens to improve pin positions and playability, while Mackenzie oversaw improvements to bunkers. The updates were well-received and enhanced Royal Porthcawl’s stature as a championship-caliber links while maintaining its traditional character and charm. Porthcawl is scheduled to host the Women’s Open for the first time in 2025.

notable events royal porthcawl

Did You Know?

Royal Porthcawl has hosted several prestigious amateur events over the years. It is one of only three clubs to have hosted both the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup, the premiere amateur team competitions for men and women, respectively. Royal Porthcawl is in an exclusive group with The National Golf Links of America and Merion Golf Club. Pine Valley is set to join this group when it hosts the Curtis Cup in 2034.

One of the most memorable matches at Royal Porthcawl occurred during the 1995 Walker Cup. In a surprise upset, 19-year-old Tiger Woods was defeated by career amateur Gary Wolstenholme in a dramatic come-from-behind win. Woods held a 4-up lead with just seven holes left but ended up losing 2 & 1. Tiger beat him the following day 4&3, but GB&I won the Walker Cup 14-10. It was the only Walker Cup appearance for both players.

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The Course

Royal Porthcawl plays 7,137 yards with a par of 72 and contains a mix of classic seaside links and inland holes on higher ground with a heathland feel. Notably, Harry Colt was involved, considering his expertise in heathland design at Swinley Forest and Sunningdale, among others. The course features crater-like sod wall bunkers, large undulating greens, and the absence of sandhills promotes spectacular seaside views from every hole on the course.

Outward Nine

A short opening hole plays against the prevailing wind. The strategy is to drive down the right side of the fairway to avoid slopes towards the sea on the left, leaving a short iron approach to a large green with challenging undulations. The 2nd requires a long drive to the right side of the fairway. The second shot demands nerve and accuracy to the green, with out-of-bounds lurking left.

The 3rd features a tee shot over fairway bunkers, followed by a challenging long second shot over a valley to a plateau green well guarded by bunkers and out of bounds on the left. Club selection is critical at the 200-yard 4th hole, the longest one-shotter on the course. It plays into the prevailing wind to a steep, terraced green.

The 5th hole contains five bunkers, a unique drystone boundary wall, and an obscured water hazard, offering a risk-reward decision off the tee. At the 6th, it’s advantageous to position the tee shot to the right half of the fairway to open up the second shot to a large green well-guarded left and behind by bunkers.

The short 7th features a narrow green surrounded by small mounds and bunkers, making it easy to miss. The par-5 8th plays into the wind with cross bunkers short of the green, out-of-bounds left, and a large but heavily bunkered green. The outward half concludes with a classic short par-4, requiring a well-placed tee shot. The second shot is to a severely sloping and bunkered green with hazardous putting in the wind.

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Inward Nine

The inward nine starts with a 333-yard par-4 with an elevated tee that provides views over the Bristol Channel. A tee shot to the left side of the fairway is advantageous for approaching the long, narrow green with bunkers on both sides. The par-3 11th benefits from the prevailing wind for the tee shot towards a plateau green that appears longer than its yardage due to surrounding bunkers.

The 549-yard 12th is a par-5 that offers up a birdie chance with a strong drive clear of the bunkers. The par-4 13th plays 421 yards and features a difficult dogleg against the prevailing wind, with deep grass swales flanking the fairway to a well-bunkered green. The final par-3 comes at the 14th, with a plateau green protected by deep bunkers and rough, where crosswinds present a challenge.

A tough finishing stretch starts at the 15th, a long par-4 played against the prevailing wind from an elevated tee to a ridge’s brow green. The prevailing wind helps the tee shot again at the par-4 16th, but cross bunkers and a long bunker on the right complicate the approach. The 17th presents a blind drive to a narrow fairway lined with rough. Avoiding the bunkers is key to a good score.

Club selection is critical at the downhill 18th, a classic finishing hole affected by the wind coming off the sea. The second shot is played over a deep grassy dell to a three-level undulating green that runs from away from front to back. The approach is played to a backdrop of sea and sand, which, while spectacular, brings doubts into a player’s head about how aggressive they can afford to be.

Visit Royal Porthcawl online at https://www.royalporthcawl.com/.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Tiger Woods @ 1995 Walker Cup
Every Shot at Royal Porthcawl
Royal Porthcawl
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