Despite an impressive shoulder-turn and a gritty determination in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, I can’t claim to have captured many course records during my so-far spectacularly disappointing career. But after ascending the steep hill at the back of the 18th at Celtic Manor’s glorious ‘2010’ course, I was greeted with a curious combination of admiration and startled disbelief. However, it wasn’t my score that was creating the palpable stir but the time it took to play the round. Rather than asking to see my card, the few who were hanging around the clubhouse were either staring disbelievingly at their watches or up at the Longines clock.
Having teed off at eight in the morning, my playing partner and I had broken through the almost mythical three-hour barrier and had shot round in two hours, 53 minutes and 19 seconds. Not only that but we had done so without the assistance of a buggy. We hadn’t rushed as this modern masterpiece demanded our full attention throughout the 18 holes but, undoubtedly exhilarated, we accelerated.
Another factor that may have subconsciously urged us to hurry was that we very nearly missed our tee time altogether. Staying in the very splendid Celtic Manor hotel we erroneously assumed we could more or less tumble out of bed and onto the first tee. It was as basic an error as not consulting the course guide before driving off and then complaining when you splash into the lake you didn’t know was just around the corner. We didn’t know there was a shuttle service from the hotel to the course and that the distance between the two was not insignifcant.
It didn’t matter to me because I only take two practice swings before teeing off but my playing partner was genuinely upset at not being able to avail himself of the superb driving range behind the first tee. It’s one of those smart ones where the balls are heaped up in neat pyramids. And, much more importantly from his point of view, you hit off good old-fashioned grass not ghastly mats. A published author of more titles than even Tiger has won, he is presently penning the definitive guide to ‘The Great Driving Ranges of the World’ and vowed to return to test this one after the round. Evidently unsettled at not being able to hit balls before the off, he shoved his opening tee shot to the right of the first fairway.
While he was fretting about not having warmed up, my mind inevitably wandered back to the first day of the 2010 Ryder Cup. I was there and it was wet, very wet, but the crowd and the atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever experienced on a golf course… and I’ve played in more mid-week Stablefords than Ian Poulter has pairs of trousers. “There are only two Molinaris,” sang the spectators in the stands behind the first tee. To now be playing the same course nearly five years later was a huge thrill and to split the opening fairway was an enormous relief. Who needs practice?
More impressive even than my drive at the first was the condition and presentation of the course. There is surely no word in Welsh for ‘drought’ and the upside of a damp climate is vivid green grass. Neatly mown in perfect stripes, the fairways looked a picture and felt like velvet underfoot. With imposing mountains providing a dramatic backdrop, the River Usk tumbling through and ornamental lakes augmenting the already considerable visual appeal, the course is both wonderfully easy on the eye and appealingly atmospheric.
Perhaps the unkindest criticism one could make of it is that it looks more American than Welsh. But that in truth is testimony to the fact it is carefully manicured rather than wild and natural. There is surely no conflict between challenge and aesthetics. The ‘2010’ course provides both in abundance to which should be added that indefinable extra ingredient which all courses that have hosted major tournaments undoubtedly offer.
After beginning with a few ‘linksy’ holes, the course weaves around several very attractive lakes before climbing into the hills to reach a dramatic climax up the memorable last. It left me breathless for all sort of reasons but mostly because it is, quite simply, breathtaking.
Recovering overnight in the adjoining hotel was every bit as enjoyable as the golf. Perched high on a hill overlooking Newport, it offers all the comfort and luxury a weary golfer deserves including splendid bars and a choice of quality restaurants. Also on offer are a wide range of alternative activities including fishing, archery, shooting, swimming and something that involved clambering through the treetops. Although the spa part of the spa and fitness centre had considerable appeal, ever the conscientious one, I felt obliged the next morning to tee it up again – but where?
There are two other genuinely top-notch courses at Celtic Manor; the Roman Road and the Montgomerie. It would be nice to think Julius Caesar had a hand in the design of the former as perfectly straight fairways and rectangular greens would offer a refreshingly novel experience. But the truth behind the name is more prosaic than mosaic. Opened in 1995 (AD), it was the very first Celtic Manor course. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr, who obviously had Celtic connections, it overlooks the Severn estuary and enjoys views across to Somerset and Devon. When he plotted the course, Mr Jones took great care to avoid disturbing the remains of the many Roman roads that criss-cross over it.
Despite its considerable appeal, I opted for the Montgomerie because it was here that the gruff designer enjoyed his finest hour. Partly because we were warned there were some challenging climbs and partly because we hadn’t fully recovered from the previous day’s exertions, my playing partner and I opted for a buggy. Although glad we did, the two in front of us, who were commendably buggy-less, appeared to be coping all right.
Because the course enjoys considerable elevation, there is no shortage of lofty tees and dramatic views. Trees are very much more in evidence than they are on ‘2010’ and the clear definition they provide has created some truly spectacular holes which wouldn’t look out of place in the Highlands. Indeed, my partner, who ventured into the woods rather more frequently than he would have wished, thought it rather reminiscent of Gleneagles. Although there is a lot less water here than on ‘2010’, the trees and the particularly penal bunkers provide all the hazards a masochist could reasonably want. Beautifully presented and in excellent condition, just like ‘2010’, it provides a striking and memorable challenge.
Why We Like It
It’s not often you find three great courses in one location. Throw in a truly outstanding hotel and a chunk of Ryder Cup history and you can see why Celtic Manor is so popular with golfers looking for something rather special. From time to time there are some truly outstanding deals to be had here. Take advantage of one of these and have a “Wales” of a time!
Golf writer Clive Agran, 65 and a journalist for more than 40 years, Clive Agran still wonders what he’ll do when he grows up. Nicknamed ‘Silky Swing’, he travels the globe looking for the world’s best golf courses.