The story behind the three famous paintings of Conwy Golf Club

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 20, 2011 19:13

Leading Golf Course architect and former president of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, David Williams, is leading a campaign to explain the link between three of the most famous images of golf known throughout the world and their origin at his home club of Conwy (Caernarvonshire) in north Wales.

The three paintings are entitled ‘Difficult Bunker’, ‘The Drive’ and ‘Putting Green’, but as their location is very rarely given, few observers know that they are of an existing thriving golf course over 100 years old, and merely think that they are works of imagination.

Painted in 1893 by the late Victorian artist Douglas Adams, copies of the three paintings can often be found in golf club houses throughout the world. In his 1992 book Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland, Donald Steel, recent president of the English Golf Union, started his entry for Conwy (Caernarvonshire) Golf Club with the words: “Without perhaps knowing it, golfers have seen more of the links of Conwy which lie on the Morfa peninsula than they may think, for the walls of many clubhouses carry old paintings of the old course without, for some reason, identifying the subject.”

The paintings, either individually or together as a group, have been displayed in golf clubhouses throughout the United Kingdom for many years, including at such renowned venues as Wentworth and Sunningdale. With the massive increase in new courses in the UK over the last 15 years, with over 700 being constructed, many of their clubhouses sought to create a traditional golf club atmosphere, and often it is by the use of historic prints adorning their walls. Rather than have images of known courses, the three Douglas Adams paintings are very often selected, and therefore can be claimed to be increasing in popularity during the last few years.

However, it is perhaps in the United States of America that the paintings are held in the most renown. As David Williams explained: “I first became aware of the significance of the paintings when, during the 1980s as the consultant golf architect to the PGA European Tour, I visited the United States with Brian Huggett to view the Tournament Players Courses (also known as Stadium Courses) which were then being created throughout America, as part of our research into designing similar venues throughout Europe. One of the first courses we visited was the then newly-built TPC at Eagle Trace near Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Imagine my complete surprise when entering the magnificent vast walnut-clad foyer of the club to see only one large painting ‘The Drive’ – of my home course! Also knowing its origin, Brian turned to me and said ‘David, it looks as if they knew you were coming!’

“During a further visit to the USA over ten years later, as president of the British Institute of Golf Architects, I led a small study group to the north-eastern corner of the USA, visiting and playing such renowned courses as Pine Valley, Baltusrol, Beth Page, The National, Maidstone and, generally regarded as everybody’s favourite, Shinnecock Hills.

“The culmination of the study tour was a two-day visit to the headquarters of the United States Golf Association at Far Hills, New Jersey, some 50 miles from New York. The USGA is the American equivalent of The Royal & Ancient and, as such, with The R&A, regulates golf rules, equipment and golf events throughout the world. Their museum and library in Far Hills is generally regarded as the leading golf museum in the world, and contains many of the most famous implements in golf history and folklore, including the club used by Alan B. Shepard when he became the first ‘golfer’ on the moon. The museum also contains many of the clubs used to hit golf’s most remarkable shots including Ben Hogan’s one iron, Bobby Jones’ putter, and also Jack Nicklaus’ putter.

“However, all visitors to the museum see, as the first images, the three Douglas Adams paintings of Conwy which are the only exhibits displayed in the lobby. Yet, although given their correct individual titles, there used to be no location given, as even the USGA believed they were works of imagination rather than reality.

“During the visit, I explained the location of the paintings to our host, USGA Green Section national director Jim Snow, who explained that he had copies of all three paintings above his dining room fireplace! I also wrote to the museum curator following the visit and sent to him modern photographs from the same viewpoints as the paintings, as well as a panoramic photograph linking the three paintings.

“A couple of year’s later, the institute made a further study tour to the south-eastern states including the Carolinas and Georgia, when many historic and renowned courses including Augusta National, East Lake, Atlanta Country Club and Pinehurst No.2 were visited and played, the latter only days after the US Open (won by the late Payne Steward) had been held at the venue.

“Arriving at Pinehurst airport, the only painting greeting all visitors in the Arrivals Lounge is one of the Douglas Adams paintings of Conwy. Pinehurst itself, with over a dozen magnificent courses, is the American equivalent of St. Andrews, being steeped in golf history and containing streets lined with golf memorabilia shops. Almost all without exception contain copies of the Douglas Adams prints, which were described to me as “the three most famous golf paintings in America”.

“They are also widely displayed throughout Europe. For example, a few years ago, the European Institute held its AGM at Castello de Caramati on the shores of Lake Como near Milan, and played its annual President’s Cup over the course of Villa D’Este, the second oldest course in Italy. Wishing to thank the secretary of the club for his hospitality and the courtesy of the course, on entering his office I saw he was sat beneath one large painting – the Douglas Adams painting of Conwy.”

Although he painted these three extremely well-known paintings, very little of the actual life of Douglas Adams (1853-1920) is known, and he is rarely included even in exhaustive lists or biographies of British Victorian painters. It is known that at one time in his life he resided in a house in The Haymarket in London, exhibited in the Royal Academy between 1880 and 1894, and also shared a Primrose Hill studio with other artists. He was generally a landscape and wildfowl painter, and very often painted sporting scenes. Many of his paintings are of field sports including hunting, shooting and fishing, as well as other pure landscapes painted in the Victorian tradition. In fact, one biography described his favourite subjects as “Scottish panoramas including lochs and coastal views”, leading to many to believe that the golf paintings were similarly either of a relatively unknown Scottish course or works of imagination based on an existing Scottish landscape or background.

Conwy (Caernarvonshire) Golf Club is extremely proud of its association with the paintings, although it is fair to say that, at the present time, the club does not make the most of that association. Although the paintings are displayed in the dining room of the clubhouse, at present there is no direct link or description. Encouraged by Aled Jones, a committee member in charge of promotion within the club, it is intended to create a more permanent display explaining the background, and pointing out the precise locations.

The club itself was formed in 1890 and is generally regarded to be the second oldest golf course in Wales. The paintings, undertaken only three years after the formation of the course, were therefore of a relatively new layout and of the only course in north Wales at the time. Photographs have been taken from a similar viewpoint as the three paintings, and although the foreground has changed as the course has been modified in the intervening 100 years, they clearly show the characteristic background.

Starting from the south, the background of ‘Difficult Bunker’ shows the outline of the hills to the south of the course generally forming parts of the northern Carneddau range, the most northerly extent of Snowdonia, the section closest to the course being known locally as Conwy Mountain. In the mid distance of the painting can be seen The Ship public house which stood until it was demolished in the 1980s to make way for the A55 Expressway, which also affected part of the course. Looking in a westerly direction, the Isle of Anglesey (known in Welsh as Ynys Môn) is in the background.

‘The Drive’ is the most well-known painting of the three, and often the only one exhibited. Since the centenary of the painting in 1993, it has been used on the front of the club’s scorecard and also on other club equipment including membership tags. The location is in the vicinity of the existing second tee and third fairway, and shows the River Conwy in the middle distance and the characteristic outline of The Great Orme beyond. Observers originally suggested that this painting had been reversed and showed the Penmaenbach hills in the distance but, as can be clearly seen from comparison of painting and photograph, it is the correct way round with the River Conwy and Great Orme beyond.

Until the last 25 years, the location of ‘Putting Green’ could easily be seen to the north of the old clubhouse looking out towards Conwy Beacons and the River Conwy. However, the construction of a marina and associated housing following the building of the A55 Conwy tunnel now occupies the inlet seen in the painting, and it is therefore difficult to re-create the siting precisely. However, the background is clear. The Great Orme is to the left of the picture dominating the emerging resort of Llandudno, whilst the slightly rising ground occupied by the village of Deganwy can be seen on the right edge of the painting.

As one of the leading links courses in Wales, Conwy (Caernarvonshire) Golf Club, at almost 7,000 yards off the championship tees with a par of 72, is one of Wales’ leading venues, and has regularly hosted major amateur events including, in recent years, the European Boys Championship and the Home Internationals.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 20, 2011 19:13
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  1. walt g April 13, 19:37

    I just purchased this Original 1st printing of The Difficult Bunker from of all places a good will store in Lakeland Florida. And I am very interested in knowing its value and if there is someone that would be interested in purchasing it from me.

    Reply to this comment
  2. bob adams August 8, 22:19

    Really enjoyed the article, I am a relative of the artist and am very keen to find out everything I can. Played the course yesterday for the first time and it certainly was a special occasion.

    Reply to this comment
    • Hugh Berridge November 23, 12:09

      Do you know the name of the river that your relative, Douglas Adams, painted in the print entitled ‘A Tight Line’? It is in Connemara. Thanks.

      Reply to this comment
    • amber July 31, 12:38

      Hi Bob
      i am an artist fr NB canada.
      i have an original oil painting of Douglas Adams
      Im not sure how it got to NB though

      Amber Lounder

      Reply to this comment
    • Tom July 12, 18:49

      Hi Bob,

      I recently purchased a beautiful Douglas Adams Oil – 24″x30″. Still need to authenticate it. Any info you might have on him would be greatly appreciated. Painting is landscape . . . tall trees by river with two fox & hound hunters .

      Reply to this comment
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