By Matt Cooper. Last Updated: 05/12/13 11:10am
"What do you make of our part of the world, then?" a jogger asked me on the final evening of my visit, as we watched the sun set over the Bristol Channel outside my hotel on the Porthcawl coast.
"Can I be honest?" I asked.
"When I first got an email asking if I wanted to go to Bridgend to play golf for five days, my first thought was 'not really'."
"And what do you think now?" he laughed.
"One of the best golf trips I've ever had," I said. "Really - I've loved every minute of it."
Coed Y Mwstwr
I'd arrived in Bridgend, South Wales five days earlier, to spend my first night at the Coed Y Mwstwr Hotel. The name means "whispering woods" in Welsh and it was about right in beautiful autumnal weather, with the golden leaves falling from the trees on the breeze.
After a quick lunch I headed a few hundred yards down the road to play the Coed Y Mwstwr GC (same name, no connection, but preferential rates available for guests). Just like its namesake. the parkland course was looking spectacular in seasonal yellows and browns.
A short, but teasing and undulating course with views of wooded valleys, the front nine has the wonderful backdrop of a 19th century walled garden. The brisk round made for a perfect warm-up for the trip to come, allowing me to iron out a few swing flaws.
That night, back in the hotel, I opted for local food - roasted wood pigeon followed by Breconshire venison. The building was once a Victorian gentleman's club and I think the members would have been shocked by the modern presentation, but well satisfied by the taste.
Next morning, after working off my excess in one of the best appointed gyms ever (a beautiful wooden hut in the hotel gardens), it was time to head up into the valleys.
The wider Bridgend region is mostly south of the M4 between Cardiff and Swansea, but it also stretches up the valley into what was once mining country and is now popular mountain biking terrain.
From the fairways and greens of Maesteg GC you can see the forests that the bikers adore, stretching up the hillside in all directions. But it doesn't quite distract you from the wonderful hilltop course which comes with all the classic James Braid challenges: sneaky short par-fours, tricky par-threes, uphill lies, downhill lies, sidehill lies and the odd blind shot too.
I was unprepared to enjoy this layout as much as I did. The only bigger surprise was the welcome: the clubhouse staff and members went out of their way to make me feel completely at home on a course they clearly feel passionately about and I understand why because it's a little gem.
That evening I headed back nearer the coast, stopping for the first of two nights at The Great House in Laleston. After another wonderful meal (mackerel pate followed by Thai fish cake) I moved into the cosy bar and fell into discussion about running with the owner Steve Bond.
Next thing I knew I had committed to a late breakfast and an early run amongst the locally famous Merthyr Mawr sand dunes. Popular with athletes and rugby teams for training purposes they are not only spectacular enough to pass for the middle east in the film Lawrence of Arabia, but include some of Europe biggest sand hills.
At dawn next morning I ran amongst the Merthyr Mawr dunes in awe. How had I never heard of them before? When I finally ran/jogged/stumbled to the top of the biggest I couldn't stand with awe or any other state for that matter. I slumped and stared around myself in wonder. A truly magnificent spot, but you rather hope Donald Trump never hears about them. He builds golf courses on beautiful land like this and the area already has plenty of places to play.
That afternoon I played one of them - The Grove GC just outside Porthcawl, receiving yet another friendly welcome, and enjoying a course which belies its background as farmland, the grass and green complexes being far superior to your average 1990s cash-chasing golf enterprise.
Heading back to The Great House I needed a sauna and another good meal (confit pork belly) before I ended the evening chatting to a Welshman who was returning to Laleston 30 years after he had emigrated to America. He proudly told me that back in the day he'd played rugby for the primary school, as fly half to JPR Williams' scrum half. Not a bad claim to fame.
Pyle & Kenfig
The 13th green at Pyle & Kenfig, hidden amongst the dunes. (© Crown copyright (2013) Visit Wales)
There's something a little bit magical about Pyle & Kenfig. Plenty of golf courses are set amongst dunes, but usually the fairways and greens are tightly knitted between the sand hills.
But at P&K the course stretches out into the rolling linksland and halfway through the back nine you feel quite alone. It's almost a little eerie, except that the course is such fun to play you're soon distracted from wondering about the haunted-looking dark house that overlooks the sea, the dunes and the golf course.
It's often said that the front nine and back nine differ here - specifically that the front nine is less links like. It certainly doesn't play so much through the dunes but I was more taken aback by the lack of difference. I thought it was a wonderful track and the players will love it when it co-hosts the strokeplay rounds of 2016 Amateur Championship.
Royal Porthcawl's second green and Rest Bay beyond. (© Crown copyright (2013) Visit Wales)
After spending my final night in Porthcawl itself, on the seafront at the Fairways Hotel, with excellent views of Cornwall and Devon across the Bristol Channel, I headed to the course which will host the Senior Open Championship in 2014, the first time a major has been held in Wales.
It is widely credited as the country's finest 18 holes and is raved about by almost everyone you mention it to. Layouts with such high praise can often be under-whelming.
But not Royal Porthcawl.
The fun starts in the locker room, which doesn't have fancy paintings to liven up the senses. Instead it has a landscape window which looks across the putting green and the ocean beyond. It was like a painting that was alive and I couldn't stop smiling at it as I changed my shoes.
The next three hours passed in a whirl.
Admittedly I got lucky - it was a crisp, sunny autumnal morning. There was a strong breeze, but there should be on links land. But there was hardly anyone else on the course.
Shot after shot was a pleasure to play. I grinned my way round, promoted it immediately to my top ten favourite courses and imagined an Open Championship held here (the Daily Telegraph recently reported that the R&A are considering it and Peter Dawson was actually at the course the same day I was).
There are a few problems - the 18th green couldn't accommodate Open grandstands for example - but the course itself? I have no doubts it would be a magnificent stage for the world's finest golfers.
And there was more to come because the clubhouse bar is just wonderful, with little wooden alcoves that jut out towards the sea, giving the impression that you're in the captain's quarters at the back of a big wooden ship. Members asked about my round and chatted about how the 18th hole conundrum could be solved to host the big one.
It was the perfect end to my trip.
Driving home I thought again of my initial doubts about the invitation. Like me, you might be blind to what this part of the world has to offer golfers, but you really shouldn't be. It's one of the United Kingdom's hidden golf gems.
Bridgend: great dunes, great food and great golf - who knew?
Links and further information -
There are great offers available at all five golf courses throughout the year. The hotels, too, are excellent value so this is a trip that offers superb golf without breaking the bank.