Nefyn & District Golf Club - Out on a limb!

Jake Barrowin Golf

Nefyn and District Golf Club is in Peter Alliss' top-10 courses globally because of the views on its breathtaking, world-famous peninsula - but none of the members play those holes.

Nefyn's relationship with Mr. Alliss began decades ago when he played a round with a Welsh celebrity colleague and has stayed strong to this day. He is an honorary life member and, with trademark hoarse brevity and colour, narrates the flyover posted to the course's social media content.

It is perhaps wisest to simply let the great commentator's words speak for themself. Of this course, with its coastal winds, mixed soil profiles and long carries, he said:

"The most majestic holes stretching out, seemingly ending up in the middle of the Irish Sea. I urge you to go on a calm day, which is probably only six times a year, but the welcome and sheer beauty take your breath away. I played there many years ago with Dai Rees, just for fun, and it was magical."

Mr. Alliss' compliment to the prestige of Nefyn's layout is emphasised by some other courses on his list: whilst legendary The Old Course at St. Andrews is at number 6, and the world's most exclusive course, the several-thousand-dollars-per-round Cypress Point Club, is at number 10, Nefyn falls above both at number 5.

The course's Head Greenkeeper has been the same man for thirty-one years, Richard Jones, 52. He had briefly worked in a bank, but "didn't like that at all."

He told me that the fame of this nine-hole stretch results in a (sometimes helpful) behavioural dichotomy between visitors and the membership.

When playing Nefyn, one often plays a compulsory front-nine, followed by a choice of either the 'Old/Top' back-nine on the peninsula, or the 'New/Bottom' back-nine based on some ex-farmland on the flat terrain just inland.

The nine holes spread across that beautiful rocky outcrop are so popular with golf tourists that those who golf there daily opt for the newer nine holes, simply to beat the traffic.

Richard emphasised that this makes the course traffic average out nicely, and rounds are comfortable, as it represents a fair balance of quality between the two back-nines: the Old is picturesque and risk-reward; the new is built to USGA specifications and is of championship quality.

One of the main reasons for the influx of visiting golfers to the Old nine is one famous shot: the drive from the fourth tee is a 230-yard carry over a chasm of jagged rocks and crashing coastal waves.

There is a lay-up alternative with roughly a five-iron, but it is to the far-right end of the fairway, which ends with its small green at the left-hand edge.

This lay-up leaves fully two shots instead of a mid-iron, so "the Tiger line", as Richard put it, is the heroic slog across the liquid gully.

At the far end of this narrow ocean walk is a raised clubhouse-like structure, which acts as a station for the Welsh volunteer coastguard, and it is manned daily.

Just 200 yards away, on its opposite lip, is a new Royal National Lifeboat Institute dock, containing a single boat which set the charity's coffers back nearly £3 million.

And around a blind corner of rocks on this side of the cliff is the small village of Porthdinllaen, which is based around the Ty Coch pub, and is completely owned by the National Trust, due to the area's ecological fragility, aesthetic beauty and varied wildlife.

Another factor in the National Trust's commandeering the site is the iron age fort ruins which lie atop the headland, from which two of the original walls can be viewed.

A commemorative information board lies beside the third green, depicting where, in relation to the course's current layout, the extremities of the fort would have lain.

This green, along with a couple of the other greens and tees, were recently scorched by saltwater, because of the months of storm which ravaged the west coast during the 2017-18 winter.

These storms meant that the heavy rains and winds almost never stopped battering the course. When this occurs, huge waves crash against the rocky cliffs and shoot into the air, being spread across the peninsula.

The team have Toro irrigation systems built into the greens, so their priority was to soak the salt out of the surface but, given the volume and persistence of the weather, it was futile and those areas have little-to-no grass on them.

Only poa annua survived. On this interesting turn-up, Richard said: "All that's left is poa. It's the hardiest to salts, and that just shows you that you can't believe everything you hear."

This aligns with a quirk of another of the clubs on that Peter Alliss list: the greens at the 'best course in the world', according to many magazines, Cypress Point Club, are exclusively annual meadow grass. Depending on weather, then, it surely has its uses.

All this aggressive coastal weather results in quick erosion on sites like the Llyn Pensinsula (the larger one from which the Nefyn one branches). It leaves behind it rough, unsettled-looking terrain, and occasionally interesting landforms.

In the case of the seventh hole on Nefyn, there is a huge pothole to hit over, through which a tiny cave is visible and the sea can be heard.

What appears to have happened is gradual erosion wearing the lowest level of rock from the bottom of the cliffs, until a part of the surface buckled without enough support, allowing a 40 x 20 foot void to appear in the Earth. The effect is dramatic. You don't want your ball to go down there.

Whilst managing a course with such topographical features and of such renown should be a dream, for Richard, "it has been a difficult twelve months."

This is because he badly damaged his knee whilst in the Alps last year and, although the immediate damage was fixed, ligament, tendon and cartilage still aren't in the state they should be, and he said: "I currently struggle getting around anywhere which requires walking long distances."

"But, it is what it is. I try to make the best of a bad deal. Including me, there's a staff of five, and two casual summer staff, which helps a lot. That's over the 27 holes, our driving range and two putting greens. We run 29 greens in all."

"And that hard time has been to do with the conditions as well. The holes which jut right out into the ocean are a mess. They've been absolutely devastated."

"We've had the sea over three or four times during the winter. It's such deep water that anything round from a westerly to a northerly storm send waves in to hit the rocks and they just take off."

"[He points the greens out in a picture on his phone]. That's the green there. And you can see the waves looming up above it ready to come down onto it."

"It was, I think, originally a nine-hole course. When they started playing out on the headland, it was because it was no use for agriculture. Then, slowly, parts of this farm next door have been bought and developed upon by the golf club."

Another quirk for someone managing the course is its extreme variance in soil types, which is due both to the land dropping away to the sea and to the history of farming just a few yards inland.

Richard told me: "It's a strange mix. On the first nine, we have one green which is USGA-spec. All the others are mixed original soil and rootzone, which were done twenty years ago. Then they were re-turfed about ten years ago due to thatch build-up."

"All the new ones in the land are USGA-spec, and we rebuilt four of the older ones quite recently. The ones getting battered by the water are some of the new ones."

"The theory was that, being built on sand as they are up there, we would be able to flush them through with fresh water when they were spoilt."

"They've held up well. They're into their fourth winter, and it was fine for the first three, because the storms were generally south-westerly until this year. But, as you'll see, this year they've been hammered. We've had one storm after another, which has been a killer blow for us."

"And that's where it gets unusual. The holes right here up to the cliff edge [right by the clubhouse] are pure sand; absolutely pure sand. Then, a little further south, it's fertile sandy loam. Then, you head out onto the point and its grey-coloured clay."

"You can see the cliff edge though, and that's that pure sand again. Unfortunately, that's on a lower level of the base [it was only visible due to the erosion of the cliffs], so we don't have the luxury of working with that on those holes."

The club worked with John Deere equipment for six years on a contract. They recently returned to a Toro contract, as they had done until then.

"There was a perception upstairs that Toro would be nice and cheap," Richard said, "and that I seemed to be having no trouble when working with Toro kit. They're very reliable machines."

"I've had a great relationship with John Deere. We get on very well, both with the dealership down the road and Max at their headquarters. So, we couldn't write off being with them again in future."

His main aim in recent years has been to reduce thatch, as was the case with those greens, and as is the case with many head greenkeepers, Richard has been working in the last few years to help members understand aeration regimes' benefits.

When he took over the leadership of the team, he declared it his primary aim to reduce thatch levels in the course's many greens.

The team did a great deal in 2017, but some members perceived that 'too much' had been done, because the tine holes were visible on colder mornings.

This, he said, was exacerbated by a severe attack of leatherjackets that year, coinciding with the withdrawal of chlorpyrifos. Richard described this as "a perfect storm".

"I did a lot of work in September and October, and the crane flies laid their eggs in the aeration holes. Every core taken for sampling last year had big, juicy leatherjackets in them."

"To satisfy that worry, we didn't punch large holes in the autumn just gone. We held back with the verti-drain and undertook that twice in January and once in February instead."

"We micro-tine on a monthly basis and solid-tine throughout the season on a fortnightly basis. Our contractor also comes in four times a year with twelve and six inch tines."

"We talked about nematode introduction this year for those leatherjackets, but the temperatures dropped, and I had left it too late. Luckily, the infestation wasn't as bad this year - last year these windows were covered in crane flies. I'd never seen anything like it."

Since Richard took over, the team has switched to mostly using liquid fertiliser, with one granular spread at the start of the calendar year. He likes to feed it once per month but does so by eye.

He said that liquid feed is fine even with the high sand content. "My first purchase was a sprayer," he said, "and, if it washes out, that counteracts it. I also use wetting agents, two different ones for greens versus tees, aprons and fairways."

The club has White Moss sand in its bunkers, which still looked somewhat fresh and loose not long after the storm that had occurred just a few days before, in the last part of February.

The coming year's renovation is on the same basis as the delayed aeration, to be held back. The club hopes that it will build some immediate trust with the membership that no machinery-related disturbances will occur for a substantial period.

Along with this, Richard said he wouldn't want to lay any new turf on the damaged greens right now anyway, as it's only when it gets to summer that additional storms are unlikely, and these would disturb any work in progress were they to coincide.

"The turf is coming in the last week of March [interview was 6th March], and we're going to drill-seed the affected areas," Richard said.

The club has a brand-new Triflex mower sat in the shed, waiting to cut its first blade. "That's for obvious reasons", he said. "It's been minus-whatever for weeks now."

Grass in the greens contains a lot of poa annua, but Richard has been trying to introduce both bent and fescue. In season, they go as low as 3.5mm on the greens.

And, whatever it means, the resilience of the poa this has encouraged in the front-nine - the only blades of grass the saltwater didn't manage to kill - must surely have some kind of significance.

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