In 2014, the Senior Open Championship heads to Royal Porthcawl in Wales and this is welcome news on the heels of a very flat event at Royal Birkdale, Bernhard Langer’s 18th hole adventure and subsequent very-cool-looking playoff with the Birkdale clubhouse glowing in the dark notwithstanding. The Senior Open clearly needs some new life injected and going to such a superb venue as Royal Porthcawl for the first time next year will definitely help raise that event’s profile. But could the Open Championship itself use some “new blood” on the rota especially considering the membership controversy? Is Royal Porthcawl a candidate for a future Open? One would have to think that in the back of someone’s mind somewhere on high this is a test run for the big show sometime down the road.
Simply from a golf course-quality standpoint, the answer is an obvious yes. For this observer the one course that Royal Porthcawl calls most to mind is the one that just hosted such a memorable Open itself, Muirfield. The layout is similar, somewhat circular with the wind coming in play from all directions. It’s a straightforward course, one that the pros will appreciate and enjoy save for the somewhat hogbacked fairway on 9 that is a bit reminiscent of 9 at Turnberry, one slight “blemish” much like Muirfield has with its blind tee shot on 11. The bunkering is certainly similar, deep monsters such as the cross bunkers on 16 that very much conjure up images of the cross bunkers on 17 at Muirfield which Tiger Woods fatefully attempted to carry on his second shot with a 3-wood in round 3. And the atmosphere is similar, one of confident prestige from the moment you enter the club property. Royal Porthcawl is one of the very best “clubs” in the British Isles and though its tournament history does not have the highest of profiles it has hosted events such as the 1995 Walker Cup, the first to be held in Wales. On that occasion, Great Britain and Ireland scored a memorable victory led by a huge upset in singles play–Gary Wolstenholme beating the great Woods 1-up on the 18th green, in Woods’ only Walker Cup match appearance and perhaps setting the tone for his subsequent Ryder Cup record.
Does Royal Porthcawl look the part? Emphatically again, yes. At Royal Porthcawl you have the added bonus of beautiful “Rest Bay”, an inlet of the Bristol Channel, being “right there,” unlike Muirfield which is set back somewhat from the sea. The first three holes at Royal Porthcawl run along the shore, kind of a reverse Royal Troon with the sea on the left side rather than the right. Then the course turns inland onto higher ground and spectacular views are afforded for most of the round. Those views often go unnoticed though, because the deep menacing bunkers divert the attention and they intimidate right from the start. The first is a shortish par-4 and a birdie opportunity, a miss left off the tee into the bunkers can spell immediate disaster.
The 18th hole at Royal Porthcawl calls to mind St. Andrews with its own “Valley of Sin,” this one a true area of brush and sand that can’t be carried from the tee and has to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps if it played hard downwind, I suppose it’s conceivable to run one through this valley but the reward can’t possibly be worth the risk. I remember when I first read about the Old Course at St. Andrews’ Valley of Sin as a young lad of age 14, and the vision that came to my mind was exactly what you have here at Royal Porthcawl. In the ’95 Walker Cup, Woods and Wolstenholme came to 18 in their singles match all-square despite Woods outdriving Gary by 75-100 yards throughout the day. On 18 though, Woods didn’t have this advantage as he had to lay up short of this brush. His 4-iron approach went through the green and Wolstenholme beat him.
Does Royal Porthcawl have the space to host an Open? The R&A would have to arrange use of some adjacent fields but assuming that they can get past that hurdle there are acres and acres to work with just beyond the Royal Porthcawl boundaries which are usually marked by a stone wall, such as here to the left of the superb par-5 5th hole up to the far corner of the course. I would have to think that if Merion of all places could get this done, then certainly the locals would move mountains to have the Open visit the south of Wales.
Is the overall population base enough to support an Open? Obviously the 2010 Ryder Cup was held in Wales and not that far from Porthcawl either. But even if you argue that the Ryder Cup is a one-off type event where people come in from places far-flung, consider that 75000-seat Millennium Stadium is just down the road in Cardiff, which is Wales’ largest city having a population of over 300,000 (not too far off from Edinburgh’s roughly 500,000, near Muirfield), and has hosted events such as the Rugby World Cup Final and some FA Cup championships while Wembley in London was being renovated. Cardiff is only 120-odd miles from London as well so there are obviously more than enough people in this part of the UK to support an Open. Cardiff is full of hotels obviously and even the seaside village of Porthcawl has some lovely spots along the promenade just a short walk from the course, hotels that were used as official accommodation during the Ryder Cup in 2010. But what I would envy the most are those that have the amazing club dormy rooms just a few steps from the first tee!
With this “string of yes’s”, what drawback could there possibly be to the R&A taking the Open to Wales, where it has never been contested? I can think of three, and they happen to be three of my favorite things about the course itself. The Bristol Channel, the 18th hole, and the first tee.
The Bristol Channel is just steps from the back of the 18th green! What a view it would be during the Open with grandstands on either side but instead of the clubhouse right behind the green a’la Muirfield and Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, you have the sea which would be full of boats and ships during the Open, it would be unique and distinctive and oh-so-memorable.
But you may have to have a grandstand back there, because of one of Royal Porthcawl’s other unique features. The first tee crosses directly over the 18th fairway, on the far side of the “Valley of Sin” close to the green. This means that one of the prime huge grandstands which would normally be to the left of the approach to 18 green would seemingly have to be built on top of that tee. Though the club has numerous tee boxes stretching up the 18th fairway, the far one making the hole a bit of a dogleg, the initial thought would be that they have to take that tee farther up but that would really sharpen the angle and perhaps make for an unacceptable opening hole. There’s even a tee box of some sort down by the beach, making it a slight dogleg the other way but I don’t see that one as a possibility either.
Because, there’s another obvious problem. The fairway on 1 gets in the way of a grandstand on the right side of the 18th fairway as well near the green. Granted, I’ve only been to Royal Porthcawl one time and I don’t know every blade of grass there by any stretch but it’s hard to envision how you set up the first hole at all with the grandstands that are normally needed around the 18th fairway and green of an Open.
Which brings us back to the left side of the 18th green, very close to the clubhouse. The first tee notwithstanding, an Open-worthy grandstand seems hard to squeeze in here without being built literally on top of the clubhouse. The clubhouse is not a huge structure though and this might be within the realm of possibility.
OK now we’re talking–let’s look at possibilities. Assume they can get that done, and they can build a functional grandstand either on the beach or squeezed between the edge of the beach and the 18th green, and that this would still leave a view of the sea because 18 plays downhill, or that they don’t need that particular grandstand after all. Put the main grandstand on the right side of the 18th higher on the hill to take advantage of the high ground. The stands could start at the Valley of Sin’s closest point to the 18th green, and stretch all the way back to the beginning of the fairway. The views would be great down towards 18 and the sea and fans would have great views of the second shots. Same thing on the left side.
For the first tee, the club could actually use the more straightly-aligned tee which would minimize the distance to the right that they would have to start the grandstand. Given that these are the best players in the world, you wouldn’t have to give them all that much room to the left either in terms of having the grandstand in the way and you could end up still having a decent stand just to the right of the 18th green. It would make for a unique “gap” in the grandstands on 18 that is not duplicated or anything close to duplicated anywhere else on the Open rotation.
Unfortunately, no amount of optimism about finding a solution here makes the answer to the question of whether Royal Porthcawl can hold the Open an unequivocal “yes”. But here’s hoping that they do find a way to bring the Open here sometime, and sometime soon. It would be a waste of a lot of great links space if the Open were never, ever again to deviate from the current established rotation. The Open being held at the Old Course at St. Andrews once every five years is once every five years too often in my opinion. Make it once every 10 years, which would make Opens at St. Andrews that much more special of occasions, and open up another spot each decade so that the Open can go places, places like Royal Porthcawl!
overhead shot courtesy Google Earth other photos copyright Jeff Flynn