Where Dragons Play
The 2010 Ryder Cup shines a spotlight on Wales — the next great golf destination.
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Hole 17 on the Twenty Ten course could easily be home to a dragon like those carved into the pillars of the Resort Hotel lobby.
Rampant red dragons will join birdies and eagles in golfers’ dreams this year as the Ryder Cup Matches make their debut in Wales, an enchanted land where it is easy to imagine fire-breathing lizards (the country’s symbol) flying down the fairways of some of the finest golf courses in the world. I swear I saw a dragon or two when I played the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort, the site of this fall’s biennial competition between America’s and Europe’s top golfers.
When I hopped across the pond for a look at the course where Tiger Woods and the rest of the American team will defend their title, I discovered an easily-accessible golf paradise any Hudson Valley golf traveler should add to their must-play list. Wales has pretty much played fourth fiddle to Scotland, Ireland, and England as a premiere golf destination, but that time is over. Golf in Wales is affordable, the clubs are friendly and accommodating, the courses are challenging, varied, and seldom crowded. There are some fascinating places to stay and the food was fabulous. What more could you want from a golf destination?
But if you’re going, hurry before the word gets out. The Ryder Cup will bring Wales into the golf world spotlight, which was the reason Sir Terry Matthews built the Twenty Ten Course at his Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, just a few minutes from the capital of Cardiff. The course was designed expressly to host the event and promises to provide a stern test for the teams and great vistas for the spectators. The Usk River valley shapes the experience. It serves as a wind tunnel for the sea breezes sweeping up the Bristol Channel and brings water into play on nine of the eighteen holes. Add fairways without a single level lie, rough so thick and high you can’t see your shoes (much less your ball), and you have a world-class golf challenge.
The course has plenty of length, too, measuring 7,493 yards for par 71. The bunkering was designed with today’s big hitters in mind, so no one is going to bomb and gouge their way around the course. Fortunately, multiple tees not only give us hackers a chance to enjoy the track, but also gives the set-up committee options to make several of the par four holes drive-able, although pin-point accuracy and some luck with the wind will be required to take advantage. The sharp right dogleg 377-yard fifteenth hole will be particularly interesting because there is a small gap high in the trees allowing a 270-yard tee-shot straight at the green for the most intrepid players.
The three finishing holes rank with the best championship venues in the world. They all play directly into the prevailing wind and are further complicated by tough bunkers and heart-stopping elevation changes. The16th is a 508-yard par four with a narrow fairway guarded by bunkers on either side. A tee shot even slightly right will end up rolling over a steep embankment. The 17th is an uphill par three measuring 211 yards to a long, narrow green protected by bunkers deep enough to hide a herd of Welsh cattle along the entire front right side.
The finishing hole is a classic risk-and-reward par five. At 613 yards and playing only slightly downhill, it will given even the longest bomber a second shot to think about if he hasn’t closed his match out before he gets there. Even if he carries the bunkers on the left by flying his drive 331 yards, he’ll be left with a downhill lie to a green fronted by a pond that stretches across the entire fairway. The green is elevated, too, with a steep shaved bank that will send any short shot back into the water. My favorite feature of the hole is a big old gnarly oak behind the green that’s probably been there since before the colonies stuck their finger in King George’s eye.
There is more to golf at Celtic Manor than just the Twenty Ten Course. The Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Roman Road Course has enough elevation change and highly contoured greens to challenge the best players. At 6,515 yards, it’s long enough, too. The Montgomerie Course is a 6,371-yard par 69 layout that features punitive pot bunkers and a few other delights added by designer Colin Montgomerie, who happens to be the captain of the European Ryder Cup team this year.
Dining at Celtic Manor is as adventuresome as the golf. The top spot is The Crown, where the prix fixe menu features seared scallops, curried sweetbreads, and cauliflower panna cotta among the many options and amuse bouches are served before every course. For less formal dinners, the Olive Tree has a sumptuous buffet of contemporary European cuisine each evening and the Rafters in the Twenty Ten Clubhouse presents dishes based on local Welsh ingredients. The Lodge Brasserie overlooks the 18th green on the Roman Road Course and the Patio at the Manor House has a relaxed setting and traditional Italian fare.
Need to un-kink after your round? Head for the Forum Health Club in the Resort Hotel with its 34-station gym, 20-meter pool, whirlpool, saunas, steam rooms, and luxurious marble changing rooms. For the ultimate in un-kinking (or a place of refuge for the non-golfers in the group), the Forum Spa offers the latest in therapies including massages and facials, hydrotherapy, and manicures and pedicures. For total indulgence, try the Rasul Mud Ritual, a 45-minute exfoliating experience. There’s another full gym and spa in the Lodge, too.
If your game needs a little tune up (or a complete makeover), take advantage of the Celtic Manor Golf Academy. Its staff of teaching professionals gives lessons in state-of-the art swing studios, practice greens, and short play areas, then let you practice what you learned in the 28-bay two-tier driving range.
When you want a break from golf, take advantage of the 1400 acres of parkland surrounding the resort for a hiking or mountain biking adventure. The concierge will also help you schedule a half- or full-day of clay pigeon shooting, salmon fishing in the River Wye or fly fishing on the River Usk. Horseback riding is available, too.