Cymru Culture

Articles / Erthyglau

Great Welsh courses: West Monmouthshire Golf Club

(September 01, 2015)

Off the beaten track

West Monmouthshire Golf Club

West Mon - 6th green
West Mon - 6th green

It was windy. Standing on the 9th tee I could feel the wind through my red Primark backswing performance jacket. And I'm sure my brother, in his Galvin Green Malone limited edition polo shirt (short sleeved), could feel it too. It was windy.

"How come the wind blows into your face on every hole?" John wondered. "Because it does," I replied enigmatically, with the insight gained only by someone who had played the course before.

Pensioner Dave nodded and hit his tee shot. Short and straight. I hit my shot short and straight also. John's shot was long and straight too. We waited in anticipation. So far, we had never all been on the fairway at the same time (well, not the same fairway).

Andy hit his drive. It started straight then went left … and left … and left, bounding over sheep, fairways, rough.

"I'm not looking for that," came the sympathetic response from Pensioner Dave. John commiserated with Andy, "See you on the green." I shrugged, and went to help him look for it. We battled on.

West Mon - walking down the first fairway
Walking down the first fairway

I had driven from Newport where it was a glorious spring day - 22 miles, 22 years and 11 degrees ahead of Nantyglo. To be fair, it was quite pleasant when we arrived at the car park and there was some debate about what to wear. Having played the course before, I opted to wear everything I had in the car.

West Mon - close to the 2nd greenThe first two holes had been deceptive. They were fairly flat along the valley floor. The third was a long, long par five up the mountain. It was marked on the card as, 'Long Pull'. This hole could be described as 'challenging'; an almost vertical tee shot up the steep, steep slope of Mynydd Carn-y-Cefn, the mountain separating the Ebbw Fach valley from the Ebbw valley. Apparently the intense steepness is a result of the action of glacial ice in the Pleistocene era which started around two and a half million years ago; "when Pensioner Dave was just a boy," as John remarked.

Monmouthshire County Champion 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1925, V.H. Smith wrote an understated article describing each hole in the 'Ebbw Vale Works Magazine' a few years after the course was founded. He described the 3rd (Long Pull);

"Hole 3. Longest hole on the course. Requires a good tee shot which must clear ravine. Good second shot of 150 yards carry required to carry a hazard forty yards wide; all difficulties now being overcome a good iron shot will reach the green."

Thirty minutes later we met on the green feeling like we had conquered Everest – quite fitting in a way, as George Everest (after whom the mountain was named) was born only about five or six miles from here, near Crucywel. We had each taken a variety of routes to the flag and no-one was likely to complete the hole in single figures without holing a twenty foot putt.

It was windy. We moved on.

West Mon is a course where the wind blows hard – always. It is rough, ragged and the fairways are sheep-lined. It is a traditional valleys course. It is harsh and unforgiving … and proud of it. A few are still left in the south-east ex-mining valleys. To the untrained eye the course looks like someone just went out one day with 18 brightly coloured flags and placed them around the mountain at random intervals. This isn't entirely true.

The course was designed over a century ago by a remarkable Scottish professional golfer, Ben Sayers. Born in Leith, Scotland, Ben had been an acrobat in his earlier life and took up golf aged 16. He was only 5 feet 3 inches and his life was taken up with his sport. He had every job you could imagine concerned with the sport. He was a golf ball maker, golf club maker, caddy, course architect, professional, and coach. He was second in the Open, twice, and unlucky not to win.

In 1906 he designed the West Mon course. The terrain must have been familiar to him, having been brought up on the links courses of Scotland. West Mon has the feel of a traditional Scottish links course, without references to the sea: windswept; sparse on vegetation; and generally left to nature to manage. The only thing missing from a links course is the sea; a long way from the top of Mynydd Carn-y-Cefn.

Once we reached the 3rd green there were a few holes of relative flatness across the mountain top toward Ebbw Vale in the next valley; excellent holes that can feel 600 yards long or 300 yards long, depending on the wind direction. The greens are in amazing condition; true and green. For all the natural hazards of the course you can use as an excuse, you can never blame the greens.

West Mon - 3rd green in sight
3rd green in sight

The course is littered with sheep; tough sheep, tough sheep that own the course. On the par 5 eleventh hole John hooked a drive straight at the rear end of a grazing sheep. I thought the force of the stroke would have stunned a fairly bulky human being, and killed many small cows. The sheep stopped grazing. She turned around and stared at John with a patronising 'is that the best you've got?' look, turned back around and continued ruminating.

Walking across the mountain top with the greens and fairways subtly fashioned across and around the few features, it is easy to imagine it unchanged from a hundred years ago. It is an incredibly natural golf course. There aren't too many modern day 'features' to 'spice-up' the course – no 'risk or reward' holes, no 'signature holes'.

"I like it," announced Pensioner Dave, ever the traditionalist, "Hit it – find it – hit it again". He's a man of simple pleasures. It is easy to imagine him and Ben Sayers having a ten second conversation on the design of the course.

The course is tough. The weather is tough. The ground is tough. The sheep are tough. The people were tough. What Ben Sayers achieved in 1905 was to carve eighteen unique golf holes out of a hostile environment. They have hardly changed since the course opened. He did a pretty decent job of it.

Byron Kalies - West Mon - protection for the 10thProtection for the 10th

The course has a significant claim to fame in that it is the highest golf course in Great Britain. The tee to the fourteenth is the highest tee in Great Britain and has a spectacular view of south Wales.

Before you reach this peak though, you have to navigate the highest green in Great Britain – the 13th. This hole is truly amazing. It is a vertical 484 yard par 4 up and across the mountain against the wind - "It's always against the wind," the locals informed me.

We staggered toward the green like two pairs of Hillary and Tenzings. Low on food, oxygen and humour. We reached a green that had the temerity to have a series of subtle slopes and undulating borrows on it. It isn't enough to hit a perfect drive, two perfect woods and an immaculate wedge. You then have to relax, catch your breath and think.

Watching Pensioner Dave attempt to calm down after tacking his way up the mountain put me in mind of the biathlon, where competitors ski furiously cross-country for miles, then have to stop and relax enough to fire five shots at a target.

We managed it somehow and remarkably everyone scored a point.

Then we had a walk up to the highest tee in Britain. The tee is 1500 feet above sea level. It feels higher. Spectacular views of the Brecon Beacons are to the north, with the Sugarloaf mountain to the east. On the card it is called, 'High Tee' - really?!

Byron Kalies - West Mon - sheep-lined fairways
Sheep-lined fairways

From this point it is, literally, all downhill. The 16th hole is called 'Round House'. This is a theme for the club. Nantyglo is famous (in Nantyglo at least) for its round towers. On the badge of the golf club there's a yellow tower.

The story of the towers illustrates the attitude of the people in the area better than anything else:

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ironmaster brothers Joseph and Crawshay Bailey constructed two round towers to protect themselves against the locals, due to the unrest concerning high wheat prices and lowered wages. There was serious rioting in the village and the industrialists defended their property by building their round towers; the last castle fortifications to be built in Great Britain.

"Ah, the struggles between rich and poor, haves and have nots ...", I started to philosophise.

"We get it. Your shot."

Reaching the end of the round it is back to reality. Relatively flat final holes. Relatively less oxygen needed as we approach the short, squat, functional clubhouse. It's been tough. It's been fun.

The club is full of function rooms, people and some history. There are framed minutes of the first meeting, where a group of doctors and teachers established a golf course in 1906, with a membership of 183. The entrance fees were half a guinea per member, with subscriptions of one guinea for gentlemen and half a guinea for ladies. Initailly, there were 120 men, 54 women and 9 juniors.

 

West Mon - clubhouse from the 1st tee
View of the 18th and clubhouse from the 1st tee

"The prices haven't gone up that much," Pensioner Dave remarked to the secretary. The secretary pointed out that the current fees are probably the cheapest anywhere in Wales.

"Less than the cost of an 18 hole two ball at Royal Porthcawl," he proudly announced.

We concurred.

"I asked once how much green fees were at Royal Porthcawl,” he continued.

We waited eagerly.

"I was told that if you had to ask then you couldn’t afford it."

In the past few decades the financial crisis has hit clubs like West Mon hard. Closure of the steel works and high unemployment in the area have put a strain on the local economy, causing a subsequent drop in membership. Fortunately the members at West Mon are a hardy, resourceful bunch and the club survives on initiative, hard work and a good social scene. There have been cutbacks, but the club manages. There are few visitors and the number of golf societies visiting has declined across the whole of Wales.

"We don't get much passing trade," one of the members wryly informed me.

The club carries on. There is a community there. The social events held in the clubhouse and function room help a great deal these days. It is still about the golf though. The members are a tough breed, out in most weathers braving the elements.

I'm sure we'll be back there … when we've thawed out.

Byron Kalies, September 2015

From the comments book:

"It's bleak." – S. Morrissey
"I creamed a driver, mullered 2 three woods and still ended up 20 yards short of the green."John Daly describing the 3rd hole
"
It's cold."Captain R. F. Scott

West Monmouthshire Golf Club
Golf Road,
Nantyglo,
Ebbw Vale,
Monmouthshire,
NP23 4QT

www. westmongolfclub.co.uk

If you liked this, you will also enjoy these by Byron Kalies:
      Golf Clubs of the Rhymney Valley; Dectember 2014
      Anglesey Golf Club; September 2014

      Royal Porthcawl and Machynys; March 2014

Byron Kalies has had a number of golf books published (see www.byronkalies.com)

His latest book - It's About a Murder, Cariad - is now available on his website

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