NEWPORT, Wales -- There's a logical reason why the original golf course at the magnificent Celtic Manor Resort in South Wales is known as the Roman Road.
The Robert Trent Jones design takes its name from the ancient east-to-west highway of Roman Britain, which crosses its well-manicured fairways to the former Roman fortress town of Caerleon. The town, which is in full view from several fairways on the Roman Road golf course, was once home to 5,500 soldiers.
These ancient warriors couldn't begin to comprehend the level of luxury, service and variety of amenities that have sprung up on these nearby grounds some 1,700 years after their occupation.
Among the many pleasant distractions to be found on these 1,400 acres, golf is chief among them, and the story begins in 1995, with the creation of Roman Road.
Roman Road, once named by the magazine Golf Monthly as the top inland golf course in Wales, is mostly bordered by woodlands.
The hardwoods that frame the playing corridors work nicely with the long views of both the nearby resort hotel and ancient town of Caerleon and make for a nice juxtaposition. It's only 6,500 from the back tees, playing to a par of 70.
So it's not length but expansive bunkering and difficult green complexes that give the course its rigor.
Much of the interest on Roman Road comes on the inward nine. The 10th hole is a severe downhill dogleg to the right, and too bold a play from the tee might result in running out of fairway. The approach must carry over a deeply wooded ravine to an elevated putting surface.
The 12th is a left-leaning dogleg that is bunkered on the corner, and booming tee shots launched downwind can bounce on the rock-hard fairways nearly all the way to the putting surface.
The 14th seems to offer a wide landing zone, but anything too far left will scuttle down towards the reed-framed pond, wreaking havoc with what should be a simple enough flip wedge to the green.
The trouble around the greens is due mainly to the steep falloffs towards the back and sides. The prudent play is to miss short, where chipping the ball mainly uphill towards the flags is the best way to post low scores.
"The greens are kept at medium speed, because with all the undulation, things could get either silly or frustrating for our typical resort golfer," offers Jim McKenzie, Celtic Manor's head superintendent.
McKenzie is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and came to Celtic Manor from a similar position at the venerable Wentworth Club in England.
"Roman Road originally stretched more than 7,000 yards, but the course has been reconfigured a time or two to accommodate the resort hotel and other additions to the infrastructure," McKenzie said. "We've had to chop a hole out here or there, as we were adding the Montgomerie Course and then our Ryder Cup venue, the Twenty Ten Course.
"But Roman Roads, even at 6,500 yards remained tough enough to host the Wales Open three times, and nobody was able to break 60, which was the popular belief coming into the event."
Although the topography at Celtic Manor isn't particularly harrowing overall, McKenzie acknowledges that.
"Wales is a nation of steep hills and plunging valleys. It's the setting of the famous novel and subsequent film, 'How Green Was My Valley.' Our Montgomerie Course, which most visitors consider the third option, suits the traditionalist, with its pot bunkers and old-fashioned signage.
"Roman Road is a more modern-looking golf course, and looks and feels more like an American-style course than the others. And of course the Twenty Ten, which took over from Roman Road as the home of the Wales Open, will always be branded as the Ryder Cup venue and will maintain enduring popularity for that reason."
Wales was recently voted as one of the world's great undiscovered golf destinations. Golf tourism has benefited greatly from the impact and visibility of the Ryder Cup.
"Our profile is certainly raised, but far too many people automatically opt for Scotland or Ireland when they plan a golf trip to the UK," McKenzie said. "We are trying to teach them there are all sorts of great opportunities to visit Wales, and people are starting to understand that."
The Twenty Ten course as the most recent Ryder Cup venue is obviously the pinnacle of golf experiences at Celtic Manor. But as a secondary option, Roman Road offers some interest, some unusual shot-making opportunities (in other words, curiously blind tee shots, severe uphill approaches) and some inspiring vistas.
It's definitely worth a play after a tour of Twenty Ten.
But perhaps the best course of action is to go exploring outside the confines of the resort, and experience some of the classic links courses of Wales, such as Royal Porthcawl and Pennard.
Each are within an hour's drive and provide the authentic, rough-hewed essence of the game that makes the British Isles so attractive to American golfers in the first place.
June 15, 2011