Even those without knowledge of its (recent) history as host of the exciting 2010 Ryder Cup, will find the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort offers a wonderfully compelling round of golf. And that is a true litmus test.
NEWPORT, Wales -- Golf is a popular sport in Wales but pales in comparison to the twin national obsessions of soccer and rugby. So despite the Celtic Manor Resort's primary fame as the site of last autumn's dramatic Ryder Cup, it should have come as no surprise to find its expansively gilded lobby with soaring atrium filled with a boisterous horde of roughhousing rugby players.
These were a gaggle of high-spirited grade-school lads, so despite the property's general opulence and sophistication, these rug rats as ruggers were enjoying themselves every bit as much as their adult chaperones.
"This hotel is awesome," exclaimed one tow-head, whose jersey moniker was Greased Lightning. "The pool is great, the walking trails wind all through the woods, they are putting in a ropes course up in the trees that will be ready this summer and the adventure golf course is the coolest ever!"
Young Mr. Lightning and his cohorts were enamored of the tricky and exasperating mini-golf setup, but the big-boy golf on property is also quite cool, and Celtic Manor's Twenty Ten Course reigns supreme.
Celtic Manor's Twenty Ten Course, so named as it came to prominence during the 2010 Ryder Cup, is often described as having three distinct personalities.
It's hard to classify a parkland course as in any way links-like, particularly with actual world-class links courses such as Royal Porthcawl just an hour down the road. But the opening holes at least offer a links-type feel, with some side mounding and knee-length fescue roughs.
(Also adding to the same sensibility is the incredible firmness and draining capability of the terrain. During the Ryder Cup, about 40 percent of the monthly rainfall total fell from the sky in just 12 hours time, yet the course was playable for the participants later that day.)
The middle holes are reminiscent of Florida or South Carolina, with plenty of encroaching water either on the periphery or directly in the line of play. Not hard to understand, as part of the routing is attributed to the famed American golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, whose roots come from nearby England.
Two of the most memorably difficult in this segment are the 12th and 14th. They are both waterlogged par 4s with liquid trouble dotting the landscape tee to green. The biggest difference is that on 12, a tee shot leaking too far right will find its marshy denouement, while on 14, the same sad fate awaits balls pulled too far left.
The concluding holes, including the potentially driveable, par-4 15th, afford more elevation changes than what came previously, showcasing the bulk of nearly 90 feet of elevation change on property.
Other than resort owner Sir Terry Matthews, there might be no one more invested in the ultimate success of Celtic Manor than Jim McKenzie, whose official title is director of golf courses and estate management, which is a fancy title for head superintendent.
McKenzie has been on-site since 1993, before the first (of three) golf course at Celtic Manor -- Roman Roads -- was constructed. But even he suggests foreign visitors, Americans in particular, explore their golf options beyond Twenty Ten, Roman Roads and the Montgomerie Course, which comprises the trio found at Celtic Manor.
"Don't limit your golf to just the resort," explains McKenzie, a native Scotsman.
"Wales has some of the world's finest links, including Porthcawl, Tenby, Aberdovey, Pennard and many others, often found in clusters. Here you have the quality of the links of Scotland and England, and the fun, or 'craic,' found in Ireland. We offer the same thing but much more affordably."
And rarely in the UK will you find a more full-service, all-encompassing, modernly attractive hotel and resort than what you'll find at Celtic Manor, situated beautifully in the picturesque Usk Valley. It's a serene and self-contained world unto itself but conveniently located an easy two-hour highway drive from London's Heathrow Airport.
Going to the UK to play parkland (as opposed to links) golf is like going to New Orleans and grabbing dinner at Applebee's or Chili's. It can be serviceable, but there are other, more authentic experiences to be found.
That said, Twenty Ten offers a wonderfully compelling round of golf. It is a series of daunting holes all nestled deeply within a verdant valley setting.
It doesn't matter a whit that its place in Ryder Cup history is secure for all time. The course stands on its own estimable merits.
But pro golf aficionados will long remember that Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell rolled in a snake for birdie on the epic up-then-down par-4 16th, giving Europe a lead it wouldn't relinquish. That Hunter Mahan did his best 20-handicapper imitation by chunking a chip shot on the par-3 17th, ending the American team's hopes. And that the cucumber-cool Ricky Fowler secured an unlikely half in his final day singles match when he birdied the risk/reward, over-water, par-5 18th (his fourth birdie in a row!) in front of a throng of European partisans surrounding the green in the natural amphitheater below the clubhouse.
All those memories add luster to a round on the Twenty Ten.
But even with no prior knowledge of what transpired on these grounds during a rainy weekend in autumn 2010, any golfer will enjoy their round. And that's the true litmus test.
June 10, 2011