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Aberdovey, Wales: a golf course steeped in history

Adam Ruck heads for Aberdovey, a golf course in Wales that was not only played but laid out by his forefathers.

By Adam Ruck


Aberdovey is 'one of the best Welsh courses'

Halfway up the Welsh coast, Aberdovey smiles prettily across the mouth of its estuary, facing due south and, with luck, the sun. It is an unusually colourful scene for slate-grey Wales, the houses of the seafront terrace painted all the colours of a Sicilian ice cream and topped by a whimsical bandstand perched on a rocky spur.

Fishing boats, dinghies and windsurfers ply to and fro, and two-carriage trains rattle through, bound for Harlech and Pwllheli on the beautiful Cambrian Coast Line. One of the best Welsh golf courses sets off from the station, following the sweep of the beach between the railway and a chain of mighty sandhills that shelters the golfer but, crucially, not the ball.

Hills rising steeply behind the village protect Aberdovey from the north wind, and it was the mild winter that drew my Victorian ancestors from their home near Machynlleth, nine miles upriver  annually "uprooted", as my great- great-grandmother bitterly wrote, on doctor's orders. Their son, Arthur Ruck, who spent the 1880s with his regiment at Liverpool, brought his young family here for the long winter leave. He had taken up golf at Formby, so he brought his clubs, too.

With three months to fill, and perhaps the desire to spend less time with his family, my great-grandfather found a good piece of common land and, using nine flowerpots for holes, made a course where he introduced golf to a handful of locals, relatives and friends. These included his brother-in-law Frank Darwin (son of Charles), and Darwin's son Bernard, later to become the founding father of golf writers.

This was in about 1882, when Bernard Darwin was about six, and, although Tenby and Cwmbran may have been playing the game earlier, as far as he was concerned it was from his Uncle Arthur's flowerpots that Welsh golf grew.

Arthur Ruck's brother, Dicky, a good sportsman and FA Cup winner in 1875 with the Royal Engineers, soon took over as prime mover of golf at Aberdovey, using his engineering skills to lay out the first 18-hole course and his leadership to found the club in 1895.

By the turn of the century young Darwin was sweeping the honours board off a plus 4 handicap. He remained loyal to Aberdovey, returning by train for summer and winter golf and describing it with shameless sentimentality in his journalism and copious autobiographical writings. Any "improvement" to the course was an excuse for a nostalgic essay.

Golf and family holidays by the sea have changed less at Aberdovey than in most other places, but it goes without saying that today's pilgrim finds a course that has had many of its quirks ironed out by a parade of fashionable architects  Braid, Fowler, Colt  that continues to this day.

Coastal erosion is a constant worry, and for the moment we are denied the thrill of driving off our high tees, with golf holes rolled out beneath us to the left, and an immensity of sand, waves and the full sweep of Cardigan Bay, from Bardsey to St David's, to the right. The sea is always close, but the dunes permit only occasional glimpses until the 12th green, a superb belvedere rewarding one of the toughest shots on the course, on a windy day.

The layout is usually described as an old-fashioned "out and back", but it is not quite that simple. Short holes cross the course, and in his A Round of Golf Courses (1951), Patric Dickinson likened it to "a badly tied bow tie, with the knot at the 3rd and 16th holes, like Scylla and Charybdis waiting to shipwreck golfers". The 3rd is the infamous Cader, a hit-and-hope short hole where in the early days only a fool or a millionaire took a new ball. While the golfer went through his nervous waggles on the tee, the caddies took up their station atop a mountainous sandhill, ready to pronounce their verdict, shrill as a seagull's cry: "On the green!" or "In the soup!"

Since then the cavernous bunker has become a grassy bank, the green a generous crater. The wind, the trampling of caddies and the hacking of furious golfers have all taken their toll on the great sandhill. Cader may no longer strike fear into the heart, but it remains a charmingly old-fashioned bit of golf, and it can still shipwreck the golfer who miscues.

Hope and anxiety hold hands as we knock a ball over the top and hurry after it. Hours later, a stream of children trailing surfboards and cricket bats delays us on the 16th tee, whitening the knuckle as we prepare to launch a ball over a bend in the railway, aiming as close to disaster as we dare, and closer than we ought.

But is it really tough enough, in the modern age? The quest for improvement never ends, and the latest campaign has brought new back tees  the "Darwin tees", no less  to give Aberdovey a new, sharper set of teeth.

New bunkers have been dug and old ones roughed up around the edges for the fashionably frayed look. An expensive no-grazing agreement has banished the most profitable 17 cows in Britain, and electric fences around the green have gone with them. The fairway is neater as a result, the rough heavier, and a summer round at least 20 minutes longer. Progress? No doubt. The changes have won Aberdovey the prestigious award of the Welsh Amateur Championship next July

Those of us who miss the grazing livestock can visit in winter, when a flock of sheep has the run of the course; their footprint so light that electric fences are not needed. Golf at Aberdovey began as a winter pastime, after all. It was the mild winter that brought my ancestors there, and we often leave our little house near Machynlleth under a frost to find Aberdovey in shorts and sandals. Sunbathers on the balcony of the Britannia's Look-Out Bar stare at our thick jerseys as if we were time travellers from another season. Friends who follow Darwin's example by visiting Aberdovey for golf every New Year say the same: shirtsleeve order, as often as not, and no need for that aberration, the winter green.

So before you book a flight to Florida, spare a thought for Aberdovey, on the Welsh Riviera.

Aberdovey essentials

Green fees from £25 (in a winter fourball) to £50 (morning round, until Oct 31). www.aberdoveygolf.co.uk. Bernard Darwin's golf books are out of print but can be consulted in the reading room at Aberdovey Golf