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Aberdovey

Yardage
6507
Par
71
SSS
73
Built
1892
Architect(s)
Dicky Ruck, Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler and James Braid
Nature:
Darwin's favourite. A long strip of seaside golf on fine turf between sandhills, marshes and tall hills.
Location/Address:
North side of Dovey Estuary, Mid West Wales. LL35 0RT
http://www.aberdoveygolf.co.uk
Secretary
Tim Priestland
Telephone
01654 767493
Professional
Andrew Humphreys
Green Keeper
Meurig Lumley
Access Policy:
visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcomed
Open Meetings:
Many, see Club website
Fees in 1960s
30p
Fees today
£70 - 2021

Review

Aberdovey is only half a mile distant as the crow flies from the oldest course in Wales, Borth & Ynyslas. Both are holiday destinations either side of the Dovey Estuary in Midwest Wales.

Adam Ruck at Darwin’s grandmother’s house showing the huge yew under which Bernardo played.

I was privileged to play with Adam Ruck, the great grandson and great great nephew of the Club’s 1892 founders, Arthur, Edwal and Dicky (later Maj. Gen. Sir Richard) Ruck. Dicky, Aberdovey’s first architect, champion and President, also founded the Welsh Golfing Union in 1895. The Rucks’ nephew Bernard Darwin, born in 1876 and later the doyen of golf writers, was openly, utterly sentimental about this course on which he grew up and to which he continued to return right up to his death in 1961.

A young Bernard Darwin

Darwin spent many of his early holidays in Aberdovey and was present on the links when flower pots were used for the first holes in the mid-1880s. He was enormously proud that at age fifteen he was among the first members of the formally created Club, to which he returned every December staying with other kindred spirits at the house of a generous schoolmaster. This ritual became for Darwin an annual pilgrimage (a day’s train ride from London) for some forty years, and reminds me of my own annual pilgrimage to Dornoch (only seventy miles from John O’Groats) since 1985.

Either Peter Burles, the centenary captain, or his amanuensis Geoffrey Piper wrote in their wonderful book Bernard Darwin and Aberdovey, published by Grant Books of Worcester in 1996:

“We at Aberdovey will forever owe him a debt of gratitude for the way he put our course on the map all those years ago”.

 

 

Darwin’s first great work in 1910 ‘Golf courses of the British Isles’ a classic of golfing literature, contains the famous reference to Aberdovey being “the course that my soul loves best of all the courses in the world” and this despite the book including his other more famous favourites of St Andrews, Rye, Sandwich, Hoylake and Woking.

Welsh Lady Champions meet the famous Barton sisters in the final of the Ranelagh foursomes

By 1901 Aberdovey had hosted several Welsh championships and the British Ladies Championship but this did not stop ‘The great revulsion’. That was how Darwin referred to a campaign led by low handicappers (‘tigers’) on behalf of their ‘rabbit’ brethren to rescue the course from the over-zealousness of famous architects, primarily James Braid, who had been engaged to ‘strengthen’ the course for the Welsh Championship of 1931. Two years later, tigers and rabbits alike voted for the course length to be reduced from 6555 to 6100 yards.

Granted, today, with the ever present need to combat the length the ball is being hit, the course is back to 6535 yards but nevertheless this 1930s event highlights Aberdovey expressing its sound instincts for strategic play and not slogging length.

Darwin comments:” I hope, however, that the news of it (i.e. the Great Revulsion campaign) may make golfers reflect a little on some obvious truisms, such as that length of itself is worth very little, that golf is played for fun, and that the mental part of golf is at least as good fun as the physical. It so happened that we had at Aberdovey several holes that were played in rather open country and called for very long wooden club shots. Very few people could hit those shots far enough to get up in two, and at the same time there was no great skill required in keeping out of trouble, nor was there any particular problem to be solved in the matter of alternative routes. In short, there was nothing to think about except the depressing and obvious fact that we could not hit quite far enough.”  The Times (Jan 21st, 1933).

Aerial of Aberdovey links

Aberdovey is an attractive holiday destination, with sailing available nearby as well as golf and it contains many second homes belonging to the English, the course being the closest golfing links to Birmingham. Its fairways, which are of fine grassed rugged turf, are hemmed in between the dunes and railway line. The course is out and back but it also runs in a curve around some dominant hills and so the wind is continually shifting to provide a new angle of play. The first nine is the shorter (par 34) and often easier and one is happy to have the wind at one’s back coming home.

Gordon Irvine MG

Dicky Ruck, Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler and James Braid have all had a hand in designing the course and though there was some decline towards ‘feed and water’ Poa annua greenkeeping, the Club had the sense to engage Gordon Irvine MG as adviser and appoint a course manager from FineGolf’s ‘Pantheon of the Finest Greenkeepers’.

The drive at the fourth showing the marrum topped bunkers.

This greenkeeping leadership, for a time, renovated bunkers with stand-out marram grass tops (for example on the fairway of the fine dogleg fourth hole that hugs the dunes), mowed the greens’ run-offs to allow the ‘bump-and-run’ or putting as recovery shots, the team also over-seeded with fine grasses to reduce fertiliser, pesticide and water inputs thus giving firm greens and started the move away from predominantly annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens using Conservation Greenkeeping. The subsequent greenkeepers following their lead are continuing to bring the play back to firm running-golf.

Another crucial factor has been the time the Chair of Green has spent with his patient, diplomatic handling of the relationship with the environmental ‘climate emergency’ activists of ‘Natural Resources Wales’ (acting on behalf of the Environment Agency and pursuing their national policy of  returning the land to the sea or what they call ‘managed retreat’).

Both courses Borth & Ynyslas and Aberdovey, on the Dovey estuary, have been restricted in recent years by Natural Resources Wales (NRW), who have no legal responsibility for managing the coast line but because they have now called it a ‘Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI)’ these activists now have the power to not only refuse some great tee design ideas but crucially made it :

  1. difficult to clear the ditches of vegetation which inhibited the flow of water off site through the drainage ditches. This undermined the correct conservationist policy, which is the development of fine grasses across the fairways and roughs. In contrast, it helped the site have year-round wet conditions. It seems to FineGolf that this local NRW decision-making was driven in part by the national ‘managed retreat’ policy that effectively was turning this part of the golf course back into a bog.
  2. difficult to continue the traditional annual bulldozered building up of the beach shingle that provided a defence to the course from erosion by high-tide storm-surge, thereby leaving particularly the twelfth hole unprotected. Again a decision driven most likely by the Environment Agency’s centrallised ‘managed retreat’ policy.

The 12th green in 2014 showing the beach shingle, that before NRW, was used as a defense against high-tide storm-surge erosion.

Sure enough, in January 2014, half of the distinctive twelfth green sited atop the coastal dune, the most visually distinctive of the par threes, was lost to a storm, requiring expensive renovation, to which the NRW are nor legally required to make any financial contribution.

One of the ditches that the NRW preferred clogged-up.

The course has always been drained via the 130 year old ditches and the water level of the water table on the course was set by a culvert in front of the 9th tee – installed, probably before World War One. The Club’s drainage contractor has now replaced this culvert in 2018/9, and following earlier FineGolf crticism of NRW’s local bog creating policy at Borth & Ynyslas and Aberdovey, the Club gained NRW’s consent for this work, thereby lowering the water table by approximately 300-400mm. The re-lowering of the water table allows deeper, more effective fairway drainage, and gives a greater gradient for more rapid water-flow off site.

Until the national golfing authorities persuade the government to remove environmental decision-making from the activists…

…who lack accountability and return it to those who know best, who have been looking after these courses for everybody’s interest and benefit for over 130 years, golf and the fragile local economy will continue to suffer unnecessarily.

The approach at the second.

The early and late holes are the most characterful with natural bumps and hollows, with perhaps the sixteenth being the most tantalisingly simple at a mere 290 yards, though it is often a card wrecker.

The approach to the eighth green

Alternatively, on the further out, flattish holes of the marshes, there is plenty of fairway space, while the seventeenth and eighteenth are classic long par fours requiring precise drives to set up long irons down the prevailing wind that need to be threaded into large greens.

Looking inland from the 6th tee.

It is a pity the fifth, thirteenth and fourteenth tees are not allowed by the NRW to be on the high beach-side dunes so as to give dramatic ‘risk/reward’ dogleg drives. Nevertheless, at the thirteenth, an approach past the deep, well positioned bunkers protecting the interesting green, offers the longest hole (540 yards) downwind an interesting green approach.

I am a late comer to the history of golf, and many of you readers will have more experience of Darwin. I hope you will indulge my failing to resist running through a few quotes, taken from the Burles/Piper book, from the great man who epitomised and put into his own beautiful, humorous, deprecating words what it is that exemplifies so many of traditional golf attitudes and values that FineGolf believes can not only give enjoyment but also should influence the future for recreational golf.

Trains. Aberdovey station adjoins the clubhouse, and Darwin loved to travel by train. On occasion when bringing his family on holiday to Aberdovey he would take the train while he packed off the family in a car.

“There is a wild rush of small boys outside our carriage window, fighting and clamouring for the privilege of carrying our clubs. Nunc dimittis – we have arrived at Aberdovey.”

The view across the Dovey Estuary to Borth and Ynyslas

Flower pots. Having lost his mother at birth, Darwin spent many of his childhood holidays with his maternal grandparents at Aberdovey and witnessed the creation of the course. “It is hard to believe that there was then no golf at Aberdovey, but such was the surprising fact. There were fine sandhills on what was afterwards the golf course, and there were still taller and more ravishing ones at Borth & Ynyslas (founded in 1885). Some years before 1892 my uncles had made a nine hole course with Mrs Timber Jones’s flower pots for holes, on which they, my father and I and two or three others played.”

The famous photo out of Cader bunker showing names of the founding members

Expensive PR. “My enthusiastic uncle had sent for a photographer from far away to portray the links and make them known to the world. Unluckily at that moment came what is rare in Merioneth, a hard frost and a fall of snow. The photographer could not be put off and my uncle made the best of a bad job. We congregated in Cader bunker with our skates thrown down on the ground; my uncle was pictured playing a full shot with a driver out of the snow clad bunker in exactly the wrong direction”.

The true Cader tee-shot showing the caddies waiting to indicate the outcome.

In the blood stream. Darwin had a particular affinity with the third hole, a 167 yarder named ‘Cader’, named after the local mountain and a tall sandhill that stood between tee and green; and ‘Crater’, the fifteenth, named after its green. The fact that by the 1940s the Cader sandhill had shrunk and the crater green had been turned into a raised two tier one, did not stop Darwin from continually using them as examples in his Aberdovey meanderings.

Bernard Darwin later in life.

That was a hole. “There is the short hole at the end – is it the ninth or tenth? – quite unchanged in one sense and wholly changed in another. Once the bunker was a real bunker, vast and yawning, and the sand was full of little bits of slate, and there was an overhanging black-boarded edge. Today (1926) the sand is grass-grown and the boards have been supplanted by a kindlier bank, and we can play it all too easily with an iron and get a four anyhow or nohow. With a gutty ball, a heavy cross-wind and a wooden club, that was a hole. When the great Braid came there he called it one of the very best of short holes, and he did not flatter it. Alas! its time has gone by and it is but a shadow of its old self.” It is worth pointing out that the ninth has been restored to most of its former glory and is still a fine challenge in a cross or head wind. If there’s a hole that’s a shadow of its former self it’s Cader, which could now be more accurately renamed Crater after the design of its green.

The drive at sixteen next to the train.

Ancient characteristics. “There is the sixteenth, still a great hole, with the railway on the left and the sandhills on the right. The cart ruts into which one hooks under the railway line are no longer six inches deep, but one cannot have everything. I really think it must have been rather an amusing and original place in ancient days. Was there, I ask people from other places, ever another course where a poor lunatic gentleman dug a trench across the course to mark his record drive and it was left undisturbed? Where else were there crenelated walls to the bunkers like the battlements of a sham baronial castle? Where else were foursomes played against Colonel Bogey and Professor Goblin? I say nothing of visitors having their matches made for them by the charming old lady who sold them their lunch, nor of their getting their lodgings from the secretary, their wine from the chemist, and their golf lessons from the foreman of a timber yard.” The Times (1926).

Naming of holes. “Generally speaking, I believe it is in vain solemnly to christen the holes of a course. Such names will soon be forgotten. Only those remain, as a rule, that have some geographical appropriateness. ‘The Maiden’, ‘Hades’ and ‘Suez Canal’ have stuck at Sandwich: the ‘Sandy Parlour’ at Deal is in jeopardy because the green has changed, though the name is not yet forgotten. The same may, I imagine, be said of ‘Majuba’ at Burnham. Every here and there an old name sticks, but people do not now use them for conscience’ sake, because they believe it is their duty and the tradition of the game to do so. It is perhaps a little sad but there is nothing whatever to be done about it”. The Times (1952).

Bernard Darwin driving without topping the ball.

Topping the ball. “I have gradually worked myself up into quite a poetical mood about topping. Moreover, say what you will about it, it is a manly vice. I have seen Mr Bobby Jones top a drive: I have seen Harry Vardon: I have seen Mr John Ball several times – yes, and hit his ball very hard indeed right upon the top of its head. I never remember to have seen any of these three supremely great men play a really weak or contemptible shot in all their lives, but I have seen them top. Topping has to be punished, or at least our forebears thought so, for they built bunkers across the course, but a crime does not necessarily deserve scorn because it deserves punishment. We have hung murderers because it will not do to have people going murdering about the place, but sometimes we think a murderer rather a fine fellow. I have got something of the same feeling – perhaps it is a fellow feeling from old times – towards the man who tops his tee shot now and then. He may lose the hole, the match and half-a-crown, but he does not lose his honour”. The Times (1929).

Scoring well. “To do a low score at Aberdovey a man must either be keeping his iron shots ruled rigidly on the pin, or he must lay a number of little chip shots from off the edge of the green within holing distance; this moreover, is not a particularly easy thing to do, since the greens are full of natural dells and hillocks.” This is an interesting observation and now that the aprons and run-offs are in better order it does give the golfer the chance again to play the percentage bump-and-run shot to these smallish greens.

Bernard Darwin sitting

Wet weather. “James Braid had not set the fashion of wearing policemen’s waterproof trousers, which has doubtless saved many lives. It was a case of soggy flannels that wreathed themselves round the legs, or knickerbockers, the knees of which came to feel like twin lakes. How our shoes did squelch, especially if we sliced into the swampy country of the ‘leeks’ at the seventh and eighth! How icy was the first trickle that definitely insinuated itself between the collar and neck! How slippery grew our grips, and how puddingy the soft faces of our drivers, battered by the flint-hearted gutty! Our clothes had golden streaks on them where we had tried to wipe off sand from our fingers after teeing the ball, and I seem to remember tipping up the tee box in the vain hope of finding sand that was less like treacle. If there were no puddles in the boxes, there certainly was one at the crater green, where, indeed, we were lucky if we could hole out. Still, that was the fifteenth; we were getting near home by that time, and the sensation of noble endurance, which had only just kept us alive at the turn, was now making us throw out our chests and think that this was the sort of thing which had made the British what they were. Soon came the changing into clothes which had got wet the day before and were now dry with strange crinkles in them, and then the tea. I suppose that, after all, it was rather good fun, though I am afraid that this time I shall not have the courage – but then, of course, this time it will not rain.”  The Times (24th August, 1929).

Respect for Darwin. In another 1929 edition The Times carried the briefest of reports of the later stages of the US Amateur Championship in which Bobby Jones and Cyril Tolley had surprisingly been defeated. It is an interesting reflection of the priorities of The Times at the time – and of the importance attached to Bernard Darwin’s column – that the US Amateur figured considerably less prominently than the account of Aberdovey’s ‘Children’s Championship’!

Slicing. “Who could rival the slicing feats of one golfer of my acquaintance? He lived inglorious, a mere schoolmaster; he was not a great player and would be reckoned to-day a contemptibly short hitter; yet at eight holes out of the first nine at Aberdovey (the course was not then quite as it is now) he sliced his ball from the tee onto the railway line and in one instance – this is but incidental – the ball was carried in a passing train to Glandovey Junction, where it presumably changed for Borth and Aberystwyth. Over the sandy crest of Cader, over the sixteenth green, over the rushes and over the ‘leeks’ his ball soared and curved in a noble arc to find its appointed end. He ‘hath not left his peer’ “.  The Times (16th November, 1935).

The agony of change. “The crater green is going to disappear, nay, has actually disappeared already. I hereby say publicly that the new hole will be better than the old one ever was, and now, like Mr Pecksniff, ‘having discharged – I hope with tolerable firmness – the duty which I owed to society, I will retire to shed a few tears in the back-garden, as a humble individual.’….. There are really two questions. The first is whether a hole that existed for a long time and has been affectionately regarded does or does not earn a prescriptive right to remain as it was. The second is whether an intrinsically bad hole is sometimes better than an orthodox one, if it be amusing and unlike all the others on the course. I will not attempt to answer either of them, and, indeed, I feel despite my protestations I have been rather  ill-disciplined after all. Poor, dear old crater! Lightly lie the plateau’s turf upon thee! ”  The Times (3rd January, 1931).

A group of Darwins in the 1890s.

Lost length. “As long as we can reach a hole in the right number of shots with any club, then the hole ought to remain for us a good one. When we cannot reach it at all then something of the saviour goes out of it. That is why the wind can be so kind a friend and can make all the difference between bliss and resigned despair…

“Golfers accept this undeniable shortening of their strokes in different ways according to their temperaments. Some with gallant fatuity refuse to accept it at all. They constantly walk far past the spot at which their ball has finished and, when attention is called to it, retrace their steps in great surprise, murmuring that it must have had a bad fall. Similarly they persist in under-clubbing themselves at short holes, and finish in the bunker in front of the green. Others, on the other hand, become so humble that they are prepared to take driver at a hundred yards from the green…

“I myself have more or less, or so I flatter myself, passed through the first stage and have reached the second. On the day before, on which I was playing really well, it needed all the arguments of my kind amateur caddy to make me take iron when I wanted in my modesty to take a brassey. There is something to be said for this frame of mind; beyond the obvious truth that under-clubbing is one of the commonest of golfing vices. It has made me believe, and in fact I do believe, that I am hitting the ball just a little farther than I was on my last visit.” Country Life 1946.

“To my mind a bicycle is a most treacherous ally. To be sure, it gets one over the ground, but after a certain not very long distance it produces some odd and disconcerting effect on the wrists, whereby the player plunges the club-head deep into the ground or scalps the extreme top of the ball and generally does not know whether he is on his head or his heals. Such at least used to be my doleful experience, after bicycling from Machynlleth to Aberdovey or from Cambridge to Royston. The distance in each case was not great, eleven or twelve miles or so, nor did one feel a penny the worse for it until one tried to hit the ball; then how varied and desperate were the effects!” Country Life 1943.

Joyce Wethered in full flow at Aberdovey.

Miss Wethered was unquestionably the leading lady golfer of her day, and indeed was considered by more than one well-qualified judge to be the finest player in the country, man or woman. Her visit to Aberdovey was in 1933, the year she and Darwin were to win the Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes and Darwin remembers it: “The chief event one year was having the illustrious Miss Joyce Wethered to stay with us, and on the morning she came out to play her first round there had never been such a crowd seen on the links since Braid and Taylor had played there in the previous century. When she failed to put her tee shot on the green at Cader, Aberdovey felt that it had not bowed the knee.” ‘The World that Fred Made’ 1955.

Card and pencil. As Darwin was waiting one day at the railway station to depart Aberdovey he notes: “Those brutal creatures who were driving off had troubles of their own. In the pocket of each of them lurked two ghastly cankers, a card and a pencil; and they were setting out not merely on eighteen but on thirty-six holes of score play. So the grapes were hardly sour; it was with almost a single heart that I could profess myself thankful not to be in their shoes, shoes soon to be full of sand of those isolated and malignant little bunkers, the existence of which we only discover on a medal day”. The Times (9th September, 1933).

The fine clubhouse

A convenient overnight stay can be had at the Aberdovey Dormy House that is attached to the modern clubhouse which has upstairs reception rooms and a viewing gallery overlooking the eighteenth green and the wonderful view of this historic links. There is also a special Darwin room within which there are interesting memorabillia.

See ‘Bernard Darwin and Aberdovey‘ complied by Peter Burles and Geoffrey Piper, published by Grant Books of Worcestershire in 1996.

also the Club’s centenary book “Aberdovey Golf Club, A round of a hundred years”

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2021.

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