From the Golf Journal Archives - Aberdovey: In Search of Darwin

Feb 24, 2012

A visit to “the best-kept village in Wales” brings memories of Bernard Darwin, most respected among golf writers, and a trek around the course he loved best.

By James Finegan

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1992 issue of Golf Journal.)

It is an informal parking area – hard-packed clay, a dusting of fine stones and cinders, and, on the periphery, long grasses permanently beaten down by tires – but it serves the Aberdovey Golf Club’s purpose. And now, having lifted your golf bag from the car trunk and shouldered it, you find yourself crossing the single train track. Bernard Darwin’s presence is all but palpable, and you instinctively smile at the recollection of that tall tale he told in The Times some 55 years ago called “The Slices of Yesteryear:” “Who could rival the feats of one golfer of my acquaintance? He lived inglorious, a mere schoolmaster . . . yet at eight holes out of the first nine at Aberdovey (the course was not then as it is now) he sliced his ball from the tee into 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 Bath and Aberystwyth. . . “

In his seminal The Golf Courses of the British Isles, published in 1910 and enhanced by Harry Rountree’s evocative watercolors, Darwin opens the chapter on Wales in forthright fashion: “There are several very excellent courses in Wales, but I am quite determined to put Aberdovey first – not that I make for it any claim that it is the best, not even on the strength of its alphabetical preeminence, but because it is the course that my soul loves best of all the courses in the world. Every golfer has a course for which he feels some such blind and unreasoning affection.”

A grandson of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, Bernard came to Aberdovey early, as a boy of 12 or 13, in the late 1880s. It was a hard day’s train trip from his home in Cambridge, but the fledgling golfer “just thought and thought of the joys ahead of me and looked up at the rack to see that my clubs were safely there.” He knew every stop along the way. “With Llanbrynmair it is time to take the clubs down from the rack; with Cemmes Road one can sit still no longer.”

Darwin stayed with his maternal grandmother during these summer visits, and it was his uncles Colonel Arthur Ruck and Major Richard Ruck who in 1886 introduced golf to Aberdovey. Darwin wrote that Colonel Ruck “borrowed nine flower pots from a lady in the village and cut nine holes on the marsh to put them in.” Shortly before she died, at the age of 100, Bernard’s cousin, the novelist Berta Ruck, is alleged to have stated, “Bernard has said they were flower pots. He is wrong. They were jam jars.”

Over the years, Darwin – eight times a member of the English team in the matches against Scotland, semifinalist in the 1921 British Amateur, member and captain of the first British Walker Cup team – would win the club’s stroke-play championship seven times and its match-play handicap championship three times, the latter while playing off a handicap of plus three or four. In 1920, he reached the final of the handicap championship again, only to lose to a man of the cloth, “to whom I had to give rather too many strokes. When he beat me on the 17th green, my then-small son exclaimed passionately, I shall pray for his damdedation!”

Though he had studied law at Cambridge and had practiced as a solicitor for eight years at the Temple, when the opportunity arose to write about golf for The Times and for Country Life, he promptly seized it – and promptly transformed golf reporting from little more than columnar names and numbers into literary journalism. His approach and style were highly personal. And, though a becoming modesty invests much of his work, he did not attempt to conceal his prejudices and peeves and partisanship (“I positively dislike having to wish an amiable young gentleman from Oxford to miss a short putt, especially with his mother looking prayerfully on, but duty is duty”). Still, because he seemed rarely to lose his senses of humor or proportion, he emerges as large-spirited and cheerful, a man certain that golf is the most complex and wonderful of all games and that to immerse oneself in it must be, incomparably, the best thing a man can do.

My wife and I had not been to Wales for 18 years. What’s more, I must confess that our arrival in Aberdovey now, on this last Saturday in August, had none of Darwin’s romance of railroading about it. Accompanied by our 24-year-old daughter, whose affection for the game rivals that of her father’s, we drove from Heathrow in just under five hours.

The Maybank Hotel is small – only five guest rooms, a dining room, a minuscule bar, and a sitting room. Once the home of a prosperous burgher, it fairly claims three virtues, which can be summed up in six words: moderately priced, splendidly situated, good food. The Maybank commands one of the loveliest vistas any traveler could conjure up: the world of the Dovey estuary, an enchanting turn-of-the-century watercolor of sailboats and white cottages, of salt marshes and sand dunes and tawny beaches, of green hillsides and, beyond the estuary mirror of gray/blue water, the vast sweep of Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea.

Sunday morning we explored the village, shoe-horned between the estuary and the steep hills that mark the end of the Cambrian mountain range. Simply stroll the sea front and you take it all in: the cottages, the small hotels and B&Bs, the shops, the pubs, the banks, the churches. Most commonly the structures are stone, painted white, never more than four stories high, often boasting a small flower garden in front. In recent years Aberdovey has more than once been voted the “Best-Kept Village in Wales.” Today it functions principally as a seaside resort, so tens of thousands who had known of the village only because of the sweetly haunting 18th-century ballad that was long a music-hall favorite, “The Bells of Aberdovey,” now know it firsthand.

When the three of us reached the golf club that afternoon, John Davies, the professional, gave me a copy of the club’s history. Then we examined the photograph of Bernard Darwin, which hangs in the dining room along with several of his pieces from the Times in which he wrote about Aberdovey. Darwin served as the club’s first captain, from 1897 through 1899, and was reelected in 1904 and again in 1908. In 1924 he was elected president. In 1944, by which time the initials CBE (Commander of the British Empire) were appended to his name, he was once more chosen president. This tenure lasted until his death, in 1961.

If the village nestles in that narrow space between the hills and the water, the golf course is likewise a tight fit; this time, the corset is formed by the railway on the north side and the sandhills on the south. Lying on a long strip of all-but-treeless duneland, like St. Andrews and Nairn, Aberdovey requires little climbing — the only shot that plays truly uphill is a medium iron to the 12th, a par 3. The fairways are patchy and firm. For more than 100 years now, the course has been simultaneously a playing field for members and guests and a pasture for cattle and sheep. Five or six greens were defended by low, low-voltage electrically charged wires, which do discourage the animals and only rarely deflect a chip shot.

The greens, benefitting from a watering system that, alas, does not encompass the fairways, are excellent putting surfaces, true and nicely paced, full of subtle borrows that take a bit of knowing. Bunkering is moderate. There is little gorse and no heather. But the long bents make the rough a place to be shunned like the plague, so throttling are they whether framing the generous fairways or serving as shaggy surrounds for the greens and in the bargain giving the links the well-nigh primitive aspect I find so appealing.

Wind is the chief impediment to a good score. The first nine measures only 2,919 yards, but into the prevailing brisk breeze off Cardigan Bay, that 2,919 plays rather like 3,419, and the par of 34 more like 36 or 37. Happily, the reverse is true coming home, where the 3,526 yards feels like 3,200, and even I can reach the 477-yard 15th, a par 5, with my second shot if I summon a pair of strong swings.

While scarcely studded with great or unforgettable holes, Aberdovey, with its rough-hewn (actually, unkempt) appearance, its bedeviling winds, and its demand that we make sound strokes from irregular lies on often hummocky fairways, yes, Aberdovey, endearingly old-fashioned, is a links of great naturalness, which Darwin spoke of as “the supreme virtue of a golf course.” Here it is that we play the game on a links, again to quote Darwin, “looking for all the world as if some golfing adventurer had merely to stroll out with a hole-cutter, a bundle of flags, and perhaps a light roller, and had made the course in less than no time.”

That evening, after dinner and a pleasant walk in the village, when the ladies turned in I turned to the wonderful little book John Davies had given me, Richard Darlington’s Aberdovey Golf Club: A Round of a Hundred Years. The Aberdovey chronicle includes accounts of the clubhouse burning down (exploding whiskey bottles added to the drama) and then, many years later, of the pro shop burning down. Over the first half of this century, the battle of player against par often seemed secondary to that of income versus expenses. In 1905, for instance, Aberdovey withdrew from the Welsh Golfing Union because that body had asked the club to be host to the national Team Championship at what was for Aberdovey the most lucrative time of the year. Rather than sacrifice all those guest green fees while incurring the expense of prizes and entertainment for the competitors, the club resigned from the Union, not to rejoin it until 1913.

In 1909, in an attempt to raise money, a “Warm Winter Meeting” was advertised for the Christmas holidays. Colonel Edward Ruck, then secretary of the club, had come up with this novel notion, even advertising it in India as ideal for people coming home on leave from that semi-tropical climate. Standing squarely beside the colonel was a Miss Crewe, who, as it happened, ran the neighboring Trefeddian Hotel. The concept, however, was not warmly greeted by the marketplace.

Confronted with the need to cut operating expenses in 1929, the club replaced two men, the professional and the steward, with a man who could do both jobs and also “take charge of and maintain four greens.” This nonpareil’s name was Ashley Davey, and he assuredly gave the club its money’s worth, as his son Eric, who did much of the research for the club history, made clear: “For a wage of £2 per week my father provided all the staff for the clubhouse and the shop. My eldest sister was in charge of the bar and the catering, helped by my younger sister and, at busy times, by a maiden aunt who was an expert cook, a girl from the village for waiting in the dining room, and a part-time washer-woman for the laundry. My father fetched in my elder brother Cyril to be his assistant in the shop, and at holiday times I also was roped in to work, when I was not caddying. So where necessary the Club was in fact getting the services of up to eight employees for the £2 per week.”

Another club decision, in 1933, may well have been a landmark: Anyone winning a tournament had to pay to have his name engraved on the trophy.

The strain on the club’s finances in 1943 and 1944 – both World Wars prompted sharp declines in membership and income – resulted in various economies, “two of which,” Darlington tells us, “show how desperate the Committee were”: Ladies were allowed into the men’s lounge on weekdays during the winter months to save heating the ladies’ lounge, and it was decided to stop taking the Times (try explaining that to Bernard Darwin!), Punch, and The Illustrated London News and to take only Picture Post instead. But perhaps another decision, made in 1960, illustrates how prosperous the club would later become. “It was felt,” writes Darlington, “that the time had really come for the clubhouse to have electricity.”

The town’s prohibition against golf on Sunday had frustrated the club since its founding and caused a decline in membership during the first quarter of the century. In 1927, the line was clearly drawn between God and mammon. With income down sharply again, the season was a financial disaster. In September the General Committee called an emergency meeting and voted unanimously to open the club at once for Sunday play. This triggered a stormy public meeting in the village, condemning the club’s decision and demanding that it be rescinded.

The club held its ground; October 2, 1927, marked the beginning of Sunday golf at Aberdovey. Protest demonstrations prevented or disrupted play (one righteous farmer tethered a spirited Welsh mountain ram at the 17th green) for several Sundays till the club won a court order restraining the “obstructionists and trespassers.” The bitterness endured for some months, though it was wryly observed that a number of the younger protesters were not averse to picking up a little extra pocket money by caddying on Sundays.

Divisive as it was, the Sunday golf issue was nothing like so thorny as the matter of grazing rights. For hundreds of years sheep, cattle, and horses roamed what became the golf links. In 1920, the club won a victory of sorts when it got agreement from the Town Council that 11 farmers had the right to put on the course a total of 59 head of cattle or 118 sheep (no horses). This limitation was consistently ignored. In 1966 the grazing problem almost caused cancellation of the Welsh Amateur Championship. Some weeks prior to the tournament, three sheep were killed on the railroad because either the fence near the clubhouse was broken or the gate had been left open. The farmer sued and the club denied liability. Predictably, the other 10 farmers sided with the plaintiff, vowing to refuse to remove their animals from the links for the tournament. The club stonewalled until the Sunday before the championship, finally agreeing to pay £44, including legal expenses. The sheep were promptly led off. Apparently it is one thing for the average Aberdovey member or guest (I had to play a chip shot from just off the ninth green while a cow chewed her cud through my backswing) to wend his way through livestock, but competitors in the national championship were not to be subjected to this same animal magnetism.

It was after midnight when I turned out the reading lamp, quite possibly the only light still on in Aberdovey. Or so it seemed as I peered out into the darkness of village and estuary, with the surface of the water reflecting only meagerly a distant cloud-shrouded moon.

The next morning, I breakfasted alone, then drove slowly through the quiet village to the golf club, where I joined secretary John Griffiths in his small and splendidly cluttered office (two extra pairs of shoes peeped out from beneath his old desk). A warm, easily met man in his mid-40s, slim and with blond-gray hair, Mr. Griffiths told me that the club has about 800 members, with a high proportion from the Midlands. Of the 500 more or less active players, some 200 are local.

“Ladies can join the club independently,” Mr. Griffiths said. “And there is no rule prohibiting ladies’ play at specific times, but they do tend not to come out at, say, nine o’clock of a Saturday morning. And though we do have Social Members, I’m afraid Aberdovey is not at all a social club – it’s a golf club. You can get bar meals, and once a year there is the club dinner dance, but that’s held at a local hotel.”

I wondered about the overall skill level among the members. He scanned the handicap sheet on his desk, which disclosed a majority in the 16 to 25 range. “I see you’ve noticed my little computer with a printer for the handicaps,” he said. “The player’s score is fed into it as soon as he comes off the last green so his handicap can be instantly updated.” All I could think of as he spoke was that this clubhouse got its first taste of electricity in 1960!

“Now I don’t know that the club, at least over the last 25 or 30 years, has produced any world-class amateurs,” he continued. Then, hesitating for a moment, he smiled. “Still, we do have one member – he’s actually an Honorary Member – who is an exceptional player. But Ian Woosnam is not an amateur. He comes here whenever he gets the chance. His home is in Shropshire, a little more than an hour away. He loves the course because of the shots it demands, particularly in the wind. It was after he played so often here in January and February of 1987 that he won the European Order of Merit and a half-dozen tournaments, including the World Match Play. He told us that if he could just keep up his winter form he would have a great year. And he certainly did.”

When I asked whether from his point of view there is a golf boom today, he said, “Yes, indeed. We’re feeling it keenly. During the last three years guest play has actually doubled. And as for starting times, we now have them every day of the week throughout the year.” Rather a far cry, it struck me, from the days when Darwin could write that he thought Aberdovey was at its best in winter, “perhaps because I love it so much that I selfishly like to have it to myself,” and that “September is a divine month there, when there are but few people left, and so is June, when there are none at all.”

That afternoon for some reason, we were more conscious than yesterday of the distractions – beachgoers parading back and forth across the links, kite fliers atop the very pinnacles of the dunes, boys tumbling down the sandhills in great hilarity. Never doubt it: The sense of remoteness, of blessed solitude, that characterizes a round at Cruden Bay, for instance, or Machrihanish or Brancaster, is not what captivates us at Aberdovey.

The breeze was much lighter, and the relative calm enabled me to pay closer attention to the individual holes. Perhaps it is the one-shotters that are the most memorable. Set in the dunes and totally blind, the 173-yard third is downright thrilling, the green somewhere on the far side of a rise covered with sand and long bents, steep falloffs everywhere promising disaster for the errant stroke. Enormous fun, but a potential card-wrecker. The fifth, playing to some 200 yards from its elevated tee in the sandhills, and the 160-yard ninth, where a broad bunker appears to blockade the large, undulating green, but, deceptively, is some 15 paces short of it – both are honestly testing.

Which brings us to the last of the short holes, the 149-yard 12th – and what a joy to arrive there. When we climb to the generous plateau green atop the sandills, then, for the first and only time in the round, do we command the world of Aberdovey – the broad estuary, the grand beaches, the beguiling village, the dark green hills both near and distant, and, of course, Cardigan Bay itself, that white-flecked arm of the Irish Sea.

We approached the 18th green in the gloaming. Lights had blinked on by now in several of the hillside cottages above the village, and what had been a long, lazy twilight was suddenly fast fading. The flagstick was a necessary guidepost as we struck our lag putts on the home green. Then, in minutes, the round was over. We would head north to Harlech in the morning, but not, I think we all knew, without a pang, for Aberdovey is a place to cherish.

What was it Bernard Darwin had said in summarizing his feelings for the links? “About this one course in the world I am a hopeless and shameful sentimentalist, and I glory in my shame.” But what he wrote about the Dovey Valley may be even more revealing. In this passage from a book of reminiscences called Life Is Sweet, Brother, he begins by speaking of his cousin Berta Ruck, who as a child had lived in Aberdovey but had later moved away:.. “the last time I saw her there I thought the valley was beginning to exert its subtle influence .... The spell is strong. Stand at sunset on the little promontory by the old croquet lawn at Pantlludw [his grandmother’s home], deep in moss, with a long slope of treetops below you, looking down on the Dovey as it runs to the sea, and it is very strong indeed. I even wonder sometimes if it will ever catch me by the throat. I hardly think so, but it is a bewitching spot, the blood is in me, and I used once to play rather well at Aberdovey. So you never can tell.”

Those who attended college at Cambridge, like Bernard, and Oxford universities may play for the President’s Putter, an annual winter competition held at Rye Golf Club, on England’s south coast. (USGA Museum)

The Road Hole at St. Andrews holds its terrors for even the cigar-chomping Darwin. (USGA Museum)

A grandson of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, Bernard came to Aberdovey early, as a boy of 12 or 13, in the late 1880s. (USGA Museum)