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Irish N.E. finest

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All founded around the 1890s
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All five courses reviewed are 'Running-Golf' links courses.
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North & East coast of Ireland
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Reviews of the 5 finest Irish courses north of Portmarnock.

Royal Portrush, The Island, County Louth, Portstewart, Royal County Down.

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Review

This is a review of the five finest Irish courses north of Portmarnock. Is it possible to have five days of more enjoyable golf than at these Clubs?

The Island at Donabate, Dublin and County Louth at Baltray, where I last played both exactly fifty years ago in 1965, and the other three are Royal County Down, Portstewart and Royal Portrush, that I last visited twenty-one years ago.

All five courses are rated as offering a ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ 5-star FineGolf feeling in their own different ways and all five are committed to and being successful in presenting running-golf on fescue/browntop bent fine grasses, while each has improvements they are working towards.

Which of the above presented the finest greens and fairway agronomy?

Undoubtedly Royal Portrush, where Graeme Beatt, the young, newly-appointed course manager has arguably the best greenkeeper job in GB&I, if he can manage the amount of advice that will be provided over the coming years from a phalanx associated with The Open Championship!

royal portrush golf club, harry colt, open championship,He and his Club with Martin Ebert’s advice are delivering a number of design changes, for example making ‘Stevies’ (the pro here from 1922 to 1977) eigth green more Colt-like while the need to tackle its overly lush ryegrass roughs is recognised, as it coasts up to hosting its second Open championship in 2019.

The jovial and colourful Max Faulkner won its first as long ago as 1951 to stop Bobby Locke taking three in-a-row. Another jovial Open winner Darren Clarke learnt his golf here. One can only believe that the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ were the reason for the length of break, as many say it really is the finest course Harry Colt ever designed.

Frank Pennink described it as ‘spectacular, breath-taking, but also architecturally sound and subtle’. It has views across to Islay and the Giant’s Causeway and at the opposite end of the spectrum to Castle Stuart, it might claim to be the tightest driving course with the denseness of its rough, on The Open rota. Indeed to stay on the fairways in running-golf conditions is an accomplishment, irrespective of the strategic side you want to be on to make your next shot easier!

Darren clarke, royal portrush, Fred daly

Two members, Open championship winners, Fred Daly and Darren Clarke

I of course remembered the destructive ‘Calamity Corner’ but not the specifics of the other holes and so it came as a complete surprise to find such a variable, intensely challenging course with gorgeous tight, firm turf.

Interestingly, two of it’s superb short holes that don’t need bunkers for defence, will complement the third hole at Royal St George’s, in being the only short holes without bunkers on the Open Championship rota.

Some members are unsure about the loss of the uncharacteristicly flat 17th and 18th holes, that are set within sight of the fine clubhouse’s balcony. These holes are proposed to accommodate The Open’s tented village, though it seems the two holes to replace them, out at the end of the course, with the ‘Big Nellie’ bunker transposed, will be more in the style of Harry Colt’s other wonderful sixteen holes. I myself obtained my first birdie of my Dunluce round on the 17th and almost hit over the road at the 18th thereby perhaps showing up their comparative weaknesses, ie the plain simplicity of the 17th and the future danger for the 18th as balls are hit ever greater distances.

It should be remembered that if the interview with The R&A’s recently retired CEO and The R&A’s response to REAL Golf’s recent experiment with a restricted ball, is anything to go by, the authorities sadly have no intention of making any further restrictions to the ball, whether initially bifurcated for just the top tournament amateurs and professionals or not.

county louth golf club,The course managers Paul Malone at County Louth and David Edmondson at The Island are both pressing on with lots of fescue over-seeding, while Paul (like Paul Larsen at Royal St George’s) is also taking out the weed grasses of Yorkshire Fog and Ryegrass from greens and fairways. They look patchy and brown after the ‘Rescue’ application but if the slit-seeded fescues become established with a natural rather than chemical soil biology underneath, the improvement in the running-surfaces all year round will attract golfers in large numbers.

The County Louth course was re-designed by the brilliant Tom Simpson in the 1930s and with Cruden Bay is his very best work. He used only fifty bunkers (Royal Lytham and St Annes for example has over 200), the natural movement in the ground giving sufficient hazard.

It has hosted Amateur, Ladies and professional tournaments,  is the home to the East of Ireland Championship and again was used for the Irish Open in 2004 and in 2009 when Shane Lowry won while still an amateur.

County Louth Golf Club

The thirteenth inside the high dunes alongside the beach.

Sited on rolling links land inside the high dunes along the beach, it misses having the Wow! Factor of the views of each of the other four courses. Nevertheless the creativity of the green complexes and strategic bunkering here are quite exceptional. There are so many wonderful holes, so, as I don’t like sloggy par fives, I pick out the 540 yard third hole as an outstanding three shotter where your second is best placed to the left to give an easier pitch to a delightful plateau green.

Similarly, although the 440 yard par fours are usually the finest holes and there are plenty here, I loved the two short par fours neither needing a bunker and each driveable by the tiger, where the straight fourth’s fairway, resembles a choppy, thunderous sea and demands creativity if one is going to have a chance of a birdie. On the fourteenth, a big drive from a panoramic high tee is needed to set-up an exacting pitch to the tiny green, falling-off in three directions, and this short dogleg can only be called a masterpiece.

The weakish short par three seventeenth is being replaced to a new setting with some magnificent cedar trees as a backdrop with advice from the Dane Philip Spogard.

Both clubs have impressive new clubhouses since my last visit in 1965, County Louth having acquired a nearby small hotel and now provides a traditional, good value, twelve-room Dormy House within its clubhouse, that can be highly recommended.

 

the island golf club, eddie hackettThe Island, which actually is on a peninsula that gives handsome views of the Broad Meadow estuary on one side and across salt-marsh to the Irish Sea on the other, has been drastically re-routed and no longer requires an approach via a six-seater ‘phut-phut’ ferry across the water from Malahide!

There are courses like Lahinch on the Irish west coast that are known for their quirkiness and The Island is similar. Some of the old quirkiness has gone, for example The Sahara, a par three blind shot straight over a high dune, which is the one hole I distinctly remembered, is no longer here.

Frank Pennink described The Island in 1962 “as too short for championships, its charm undeniable and conforming to the earliest traditions of golf, the conflict between men and nature”.

Hole two ‘Caul’s view’ is one of only three holes in GB&I named after a greenkeeper (the others being Carnoustie’s eleventh named after John Philp who led the renaissance of that course and the 18th of the Old course St Andrews after Tom Morris). Paddy Caul, here for some forty years was heavily involved in all the major re-developments of the course from the 1970s to 2000, that brought it up to true championship standard. Eddie Hackett, Ireland’s greatest course architect was involved and later Fred and Martin Hawtree, though the Club’s many distinguished members understood how best to blend the high dune terrain, now with few actual blind shots but nevertheless not losing its quirky feel and charm.

the island golf club,

The thirteenth green with Malahide behind

The drive at the fourteenth must be one of the most terrifyingly narrow in golf with a prevailing breeze over one’s left shoulder and salt-marsh all the way up the right. The bumpy left-hand rough is well trodden and to think it used to be the opening hole!

I was invited to join up with three members at the sixteenth green and immediately I played a raking, fading one iron that never got higher into the wind than six foot off the ground, to the seventeenth green to give me a ten foot birdie putt that happily dropped. Following this shot, I shall never forget Hugh Duffy’s comment, after reminding us of Trevino’s view that only god can hit a one iron, he was pleased to have now discovered what God looks like!

My second outstanding shot of the week was with the same one iron at Portstewart’s strong, dogleg, par five seventh hole, where I pierced a tunnel of uphill narrowing fairway to give a five foot eagle putt that also dropped. The enjoyment of playing at Portstewart was certainly a factor in getting my head in focus that allowed me to accomplish that shot.

Portstewart golf clubPortstewart was never in the old guide books of the very finest courses, though founded soon after its next-door neighbour Royal Portrush in the early 1890s and despite having hosted numerous professional and amateur tournaments. It was not until 1991 when the new seven holes of the Strand course opened among the valleys of the high dunes and buck-thorn that Portstewart really came of age. Not only is its agronomy of the finest fescue order but the design is now up among the very finest, with the buck-thorn thankfully gone.

The par five fourth, called ‘Thistly Hollow’ is quite outstanding as a risk/reward par four for the long hitter. From a high tee, across a dogleg, to threading through a valley with a plateau green with a false front, there are many ways of playing it.

The new holes were designed, constructed and managed by the present secretary Michael Moss, the present course manager Bernard Findlay and the then green convenor Des Griffin. The whole course is breathtaking both in its golf challenge and in the beauty of the views and scenery.

portstewart golf club

Portstewart’s clubhouse

Its first hole, one of the originals, competes with Machrahanish Old for the accolade of the best opening hole in world golf. On the high first tee there is an experiment where a new variety of dwarf ryegrass has been used mixed with fescue grasses and with its paler colour than older, tufty ryegrass it is hoped this will protect the fescues and allow greater wear.

When one has taken in the panorama of the enormous dunescape and the long Portstewart strand beach, one plays down to a strong right hand dogleg with a flat fairway and green, giving what actually is a gentle opener if one avoids the temptation of the risk/reward across the corner.

We stayed in a new, high quality, modern-design B&B on the seafront, called ‘On the beach’, where Glenda’s personal attention to detail has already gained her awards.

Finally but of course not least we come to Royal County Down, a course viewed by some review sites as the finest course in GB&I. The American Golf Digest has it as the greatest in the world, with Dornoch as 5th, St Andrews Old 8th and Muirfield as 9th.

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It does have almost everything. The scenery is to die for under the shadow of Slieve Donard the highest of the dominating Mourne Mountains and a wide long beach seen from half a dozen tees. Whereas blind drives have been extinguished at many of the finest courses and particularly at the Open Championship venues, RCD which has continuously hosted from its beginnings in the 1890s, all the top amateur and professional tournaments except The Open Championship, continues to embrace them with numerous blind drives over white stones on high dunes and with often daunting carries. It is not until the seventeenth that one has a seemingly more simple open drive but even then beware the pond!

The pressure for accuracy is continuous not just in driving (although the rough is beautifully wispy and fine if you are not in the plentiful gorse and heather) but in playing to the small greens often with profound, well mown fall-offs.

The adjectives lovely and gorgeous are more often used about RCD than anywhere else. Its history, its design, its environment and scenery, the quality of its membership and the challenge of its golf put it on a pinnacle. Nevertheless there is a flaw.

The agronomy of the greens here unfortunately is annual meadow grass (Poa annua)/Browntop Bent. One wag thought this was lucky, as they being more receptive than the other courses we played, it made it easier to hold one’s ball on them! This was a regrettable remark from somebody more focused on maintaining a handicap than the competitive match-play fun to be had from needing to use one’s imagination in creating interesting shots across firm surfaces rather than yardage calculations, even if he was correct.

royal county down

The famous par three fourth hole, in god-like sunshine.

The late Brian Coburn, the founder of the increasingly successful Irish Links Initiative, was Greens Convenor here and initiated a fescues/browntop bent overseeding programme that I am told is similar to the Royal Birkdale 15 year strategy to improve the botanical nature of their greens while minimising disruption to the members and visitors.

The fact that three different golf clubs play over the links may create a somewhat more complicated structure for communication to members and the tradition of most clubs is to duck any attempt at agronomic explanation to visitors.

Nevertheless my experience of talking to those who have achieved species change from weed to fine grasses successfully, the club leadership giving clear communication of the future vision for the club is as important as the actual technical greenkeeping issues involved, as sensible people put up with some disruption in the short term if they know it is for a good reason, which in turn will make them even more proud of their club in the longer term.

Everything about RCD is of exceptional ‘laid-back’ quality (apart from the tepid showers that evening!) and in a similar way to the MCC deciding to invest heavily to maintain Lord’s as the one ground that everybody wants to visit and play at in the Cricketing world, so I am assured, RCD is investing heavily in the greenkeeping machinery to help take this world-class course forward into the ‘Running-golf’ future.

The fact that I could not find a mention of greenkeeping in its magnificent 214 page, recently published 125 year anniversary history book, though perhaps hints that part of the culture is a taking for granted rather than a recognition of the importance of greenkeeping.

RCD is crucial in attracting golf tourism to Northern Ireland. Many of the American visitors are daily coached-in from Belfast while the economy of the town of Newcastle gains from the average of some 90 to 100 visiting golfers per day during the season. We stayed with Eileen at The Golf Links Hotel, and we have seldom come across better quality value.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2015

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