Portmarnock Golf Club is situated on its own sandy peninsula, approximately two miles long and covering some 500 acres. In 1893, William Pickeman, a Scottish insurance broker, and his friend George Ross, rowed across the sea from Sutton to the peninsular and immediately realised that this was prime golfing terrain. In those days, the peninsula could only be safely reached by boat.
The land belonged to the famous distiller, John Jameson, and from around 1850, the links was used as the Jameson’s private golf course. Nine “proper” holes opened for play in 1894, Scotsman Mungo Park (winner of the 1874 Open Championship at Musselburgh Old course) directed the course design and became Portmarnock’s first professional. Two years later another Scot, George Coburn, extended the course to eighteen holes. Pickeman was the driving force behind Portmarnock’s beginnings and went on to design other courses in Ireland.
There is nothing man-made about Portmarnock; it’s a natural links, and considered to be a very fair golf course. With water on three sides, the course is at the mercy of the wind. Laid out broadly in two loops of nine holes, you are invariably playing in different directions. Measuring just less than 7,500 yards from the back tees, it is a formidable test of golf. You will need your very best putting game because the greens at Portmarnock are lightning fast and true. Or in the words of Bernard Darwin: “Perhaps the outstanding beauty of Portmarnock lies in its putting greens. They are good and true, which is a merit given to many greens, and they are very fast without being untrue, which is given only to a few, and is a rare and shining virtue”.
There are delightful views to the south of the Ireland’s Eye (a small island), home to important seabird colonies and the Hill of Howth (once famous for its electric trams). On a clear day looking northwest, the Mountains of Mourne are visible.
Portmarnock has hosted a number of important events including—on 19 occasions—the Irish Open, the Canada Cup and the Walker Cup. The closing five holes are especially brutal. Bernard Darwin once commented: ”I know of no greater finish in the world than that of the last five holes at Portmarnock”. The first of these closing holes, the 14th, requires an accurate approach shot to a narrow green, or in Joe Carr’s case, an accurate drive. Apparently Carr, an amateur, made a hole-in-one on this 385-yard par 4. How on earth did he miss those greenside bunkers?
The par three 15th, measuring 190 yards from the medal tee, plays along the seashore. Any hint of a left to right shaped tee shot will almost certainly end up on the beach, whilst the green is protected at the front by three fearsome bunkers. Ian Woosnam almost came a cropper on this hole in the second round of the 1988 Irish Open. His opening tee shot ended up in the sea, but playing three off the tee, he somehow managed to find the edge of the green and then he holed a 40-footer for a bogey. Clearly inspired by this miraculous save, Woosnam went on to win the title.
If the R&A wants to host the Open Championship at a golf course in Ireland, then Portmarnock should be the first choice. It has length, a routing somewhat equal to Muirfield’s in that the course moves often in a different direction, well placed bunkers, a good clubhouse, room for spectators, a course subject to wind conditions, fast greens and many excellent golf holes. They could also grow the rough high enough to make it truly penal. It would, however, still likely need to strengthen the finishing holes.
The first two times I played Portmarnock I did not agree with the esteemed Bernard Darwin regarding the final five holes at Portmarnock. Other than 15, I did not believe they had enough “drama” and strategy to them. At the time the yardages were 376, 174, 528, 432, and 376. Now the yardages are 394, 203, 575, 480 and 453. Technology has meant the first three play roughly the same; the real improvement has been made to the final two holes.
I do love the routing at Portmarnock. There were obvious options for this really good, “secluded” piece of land and the architects could have built the course in more traditional layouts of holes running parallel to each other. Instead they built a course moving in all directions with holes 1-3, 12 and 13, and finally 17 and 18 going the same direction. All of the other holes either reverse course or go off at an angle to the previous hole. It is a clever routing and one that should be praised because it could have been done very differently.
Along with Chicago Golf Club, Portmarnock is often mentioned as the best course built on flat land. It is certainly as flat as Chicago or Metropolitan in the sandbelt of Austrlaia. Wind from the Irish Sea and Dublin Bay are nearly a constant factor here, so much that if you were to play here on a day when the wind was not blowing, you might miss out on one of the primary defenses of the golf course. For me, that is the difference that puts Chicago GC ahead of Portmarnock for “best flat course.” In the absence of wind, Chicago GC offers a more challenging layout with an even better variety of holes and far superior green complexes. I put Portmarnock ahead of Metropolitan although Metropolitan has superior green complexes due to the bunkering going right to the edges of the greens.
I find it harder to remember the holes at Portmarnock even though I have played it multiple times. I think that is a function of being on flat land where there are less memorable features surrounding the holes, the lack of elevated tees, water, not many high dunes, etc. In this regard, one wonders if Pormarnock would have been better served when first built with the use shovels to manufacture dunes to create some elevated greens such as the par 3’s at Muirfield or even a blind tee shot such as the eleventh at Muirfield.
I have never played Portmarnock well but that does not influence my assessment of it. I have about 200 golf courses I want to play, of which seven are in Ireland. Maybe on my next visit I make sure I add Portmarnock in order to possibly repair my reputation on it. In a “normal” wind I do not think Portmarnock to be overly difficult if one chooses the right tees and can stay out of the rough, but I have only played it in an above average wind of 20 mph with gusts above that. I am often in the rough there even if only a few yards off the fairway and I find the rough to be more difficult here than at many other links courses.
My American friends, some of whom are scratch, that I have referred to play Portmarnock think highly of it, but they find it less memorable than the other “name” courses in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and locally they preferred The Island and County Louth.
Looking at the other reviews it appears only a few reviewers through the years have not given it a high review. I do not understand the person who gave it a rating of two. I cannot see a rating lower than 4.5 and wonder if “cost or difficulty” played a part in their rating. It looks as though conditioning has been a common issue through the years and that is a fair comment for a rating. Additionally, the comments from some reviewers regarding not having many (or any) memorable holes I understand given my earlier comment about the flatness of the course. Many of the fairways lack the undulations, valleys, or ripples so prevalent throughout the courses in Ireland and the UK.
The starting hole is memorable only due to the Irish sea down the entire right side. There are three bunkers left on the par 4 fairway to catch the person who plays away from the water as well as three bunkers short of the green. The green is disappointingly flat and its only characteristic is its size.
The second is a par 4 slightly dogleg left with a narrower fairway than the first. It is well bunkered near the green with seven bunkers including a large one fronting the green forcing you to fly the approach shot into the green even though it is set back far enough that you could land a ball just over it. The green is nicely two tiered.
The third is a severe dogleg left with tidal waters/beach on the right side and slightly raised mounds down the left side of the fairway. Another large bunker fronts the green but is well short of it. There are three bunkers near the green.
The fourth hole is a longer par 4 that is nicely defended with nine bunkers beginning halfway down the fairway and continuing to the front of the green. The green sits slightly back to the left with some grass protecting the left side. It is a very good golf hole.
The fifth should be a memorable hole for this par 4 that when I first played it was 363 yards and now is 444. There is a blind tee shot down one of the few areas on the course where there are some mounds. The fairway on the other side of the mounds feels like it is in a bit of a hollow leading to a kidney shaped green. There are two bunkers on the right front of the green to be avoided. One can use the mound to the right of the green to push a ball back onto the green.
Another blind drive follows on the longest hole on the course. This hole seems to go forever as you play towards the Irish sea after completing another blind tee shot. It is a slightly uphill green, but not enough to add an additional club. Wind is the key variable on this golf hole because it can take a ball over the mounds near the green.
The par 3 seventh and par 4 dogleg left eighth are not memorable golf holes for me. They are solid holes but not special.
The ninth is a nice par 4 heading back to the clubhouse with a more undulating green.
The tenth is a short par 4 dogleg right that has a lovely elevated green with fall offs on all sides. For me, this is the best green to this point in the golf course.
The tee shot on the longer par 4 eleventh threads some bushes to this green guarded by some small pot bunkers. It is a well-designed hole but with another disappointing green.
The stretch of holes from twelve through sixteen are very good.
The twelfth is a medium length to short par 3 playing back to the Irish Sea. It is a fine hole, much better than the seventh. There is a good amount of slope to the green from right to left and back to front.
The long par 5 thirteenth has sixteen bunkers on it. They are small and seemingly are everywhere, on the tee shot, on the approach shot, by the green.
The fourteenth is a medium length dogleg left par 4 with a rolling fairway and a green tucked into the small mounds. It is a good green with undulations, sloped back to front. Pot bunkers guard the front and right side. This is a very good golf hole due to the green.
The fifteenth is considered to be one of the finest par 3’s in the world. It certainly has the length from the “elevated” back tee at 203 yards. The taller grass, beach and sea are hard on the right side. The green is raised and fronted by three bunkers. It is a good hole, but I actually do not think it is in the discussion of one of the best par 3’s in the world.
Ten bunkers await on the long par 5 with three of them being cross bunkers that should not come into play. It has a relatively small green for the length of the hole and the three pot bunkers right of the green and the single one to the left provide adequate defense. This is another very good golf hole.
The seventeenth, once 376 yards and now 480, has eleven bunkers. It is a very good golf hole not so much due to the added length but due to the placement of the bunkers. Hard to believe this hole was once a short par 5.
The concluding hole is a nice long par 4 with the green situated in a bank of smaller sand dunes. Three bunkers guard the right side of the fairway for the tee shot while three bunkers guard the front of the green.
As mentioned, I think this is a course suited to host “big” tournaments. I certainly wish the Ryder Cup had been held here as opposed to the K Club. I can’t speak to Adare Manor as I have yet to play it although I know the conditioning there and obviously the accommodations are first class. This course is one of the better links courses one will play even if due to the flat land and relative flatness of the greens every hole might not stick in one’s memory. It is worth playing more than once and as many as ten times. It is a very good golf course for its members.
R&A to host the Open Championship in Ireland? Are you serious? Do you realize that you are speaking about a separate and independent country that is not part of Britain? Do you really think that Ireland would host the British Open? Wow. Maybe Mexico can host the US Open?
“The Open” is NOT the “British Open”. This famous and eldest golf championship is regularly and incorrectly labelled the “British Open”. The major championship’s correct name is simply “The Open”.
Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland, hosted a wonderful Open earlier this year. Northern Ireland is one of four sovereign UK countries (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
If the R&A decided to host The Open in the Republic of Ireland, Portmarnock would certainly be a marvellous choice.
Kevin, I lived in the UK just outside of London for five years and still make two trips a year to the UK/Ireland. I know and have played with a fair amount of R&A members, including a few on the competition/tournament committee. I am well aware that it is an extremely unlikely scenario that an Open would be staged in Ireland, One reason alone is the many number of great courses in the UK. I would state that Portmarnock is definitely the equal of a couple of courses currently staging The Open such as Royal Liverpool.
I made the comment as a "wouldn't it be interesting if...." but also because I believe Portmarnock Championship is at the level where it could.
As for Mexico hosting the US Open, it does not have a course even close to being worthy of it. Diamante Dunes is the best Mexico has to offer and despite it being a top 100 course per Golf Magazine, no way would it challenge the world's best players. The USA has hundreds of golf courses that could host a US Open. In addition, much like the Olympics in Brazil that kept many of the top pros from competing, Mexico has a much more serious issue with player and fan safety that is getting worse by the day.
If Scotland were to vote to be separate from the UK, what might that mean for future Open locations? Would they be held only in Scotland (maybe we would see The Open at Royal Dornoch?) or would they move around. The last vote was somewhat close and as Boomers pass away, the younger generation in Scotland appears to want a connection to the EU.....
But one never knows. The past is not always a good indicator of where golf will go if it wants to continue to grow.
Is nobody aware that Portmarnock hosted the R&A's Amateur Championship this year?
Taking the Amateur championship to Portmarnock this year does at least show that the R&A are not against taking their tournaments outside of the UK. However, this doesn’t set any precedent because it has taken place at Portmarnock before. And we are talking about The Open - which is on another planet to its amateur equivalent. Returning to Mark’s original hypothetical point though, Portmarnock is an excellent course, one of my absolute favourites, and it could provide a worthy test if it were ever to host The Open
Portmarnock is a course that gets better every time I am lucky enough to visit. the most recent visit was now almost a year ago and somehow I had forgotten what a wonderful walk and test of golf this amazing course was. My only regret is not playing the short course or other course there. The routing does a wonderful job of keeping you guessing and changing directions in the wind. There are some wonderful green complexes on the par 3's that makes for crazy tee shots and very tricky putting. Wonderfull bunkering with the classic revetted pot bunkers that serve as serious hazards.
Add to all that a perfect mix of blind shots and raised greens that allow utilization of ground game and you have a perfect yet understated links that serves as a true test in the usual windy conditions.
My favorite holes are: the par 3, 12th with it's wonderful green guarded by 3 pot bunkers and a false front on the left side and higher green surface on the right. Always very tough to judge the distance on this one.
The par 5 16th with it's wonderful cross bunkering ridge and bunkering near the green and the par 4 18th which serves as an iconic finish with a wonderful green complex and the clubhouse as a backdrop.
“perfect yet understated” sums Portmarnock up admirably
This was the last stop in a 12 course tour of the Ireland, Scotland, and the UK and we got the full Irish here as the wind was up and they had let the rough grow for a recent amateur tournament. Thus this was one of the few places where going into the wind was brutal but going downwind was not a great advantage either as it was almost impossible to stop a ball if you landed it on the green. Not to mention the crosswinds taking the ball into the rough which, upon first inspection, appeared better than what I was in at Birkdale the prior day but was easily as bad if not worse in many places. Only downside of the course is being in the flight path of Dublin airport lessens some of the natural beauty of this seaside links but it's worth playing multiple times.
Hand on heart might have to say this is one of the top courses I’ve played. Done most of my golf in England Scotland just a handful in Ireland and never really wanted to risk Wales. It’s not flashy nice but is nice nice if you know where I’m getting at. We played the red & blue loops and didn’t bring the money for the yellow on the day as we didn’t know there were three sets! What we got though was 18 proper holes!!! Not too special looking but they kept your attention all the way around and were a “test”. You could see most trouble ahead usually find your wonky balls as well as bump your balls into openings for most greens. Couldn’t for the life of me stop shots on them downwind though not sure if the Irish grass is different but my shots had more topspin than usual. L.O.L. So lots of the holes were very good having said that I can’t seem to remember too many standouts. Most of them were just good on the whole. I did like the shot into 14? and then the change of direction at 15 by the beach and mostly it was a nice easy walk around the windy land. The clubhouse was quite a bit upmarket but the workers there were still very friendly. One waiter even made fun of my accent but he was only playing - and I also didn’t understand him too well either!!! We all said we would like to go back to Portmarnock but probably won’t now if this brexit means we have to pay to get in would serve our fourball right for voting for it L.O.L. It must already have been the most expensive round we’d paid for and pensioners aren’t always made of money!! There is something very enjoyable and testing about the course even though it is quite flat and bleak in most places. This tells me it must be a very good “track”. As I said one of the best courses I’ve seen and maybe even one of my favourite courses too. Cyril
Maybe the best conditioned course we played on our most recent trip? The greens looked and rolled lovely. There was a nice definition to the cut of the fairways and the tee boxes were neatly clipped. Of course you can always go to a garden centre if that's your first concern and fortunately the golf matched up well.
This really does feel like a traditional flattish, laid out right in front of you Open Rota course (Carnoustie, Muirfield, Hoylake, etc...) that you would have watched on the tele as a young fella. It lacks the terrain of RCD or The European Club, and some of the fun and drama that comes with the huge dunes.
Because of that, it's a solid 4.5/5 course, as opposed to a 5/5.5. Still the golf is excellent, with many bunkers both in the fairway and around the green to navigate, and with two looping nines, you get to tackle the wind from all manner of directions. 3-7 is a particularly fun stretch, where a nice tight draw will have you sitting in good shape and of course the 15th sitting hard against the beach is a fantastic one-shotter. It also has a tournament worthy finishing hole.
Definitely an enjoyable morning's golf and it and The Island would make for a great 36 hole day while in Dublin.
If Portmarnock was an intimate relationship, it probably wouldn’t be a one night stand. It’s not a thrilling one-off encounter with a piece of Eye-Candy. No Dumb Blonde or Derek Zoolander. It’s quite flat with few enticing voluptuous dunes. Yet it won’t impair your judgment or embarrass you afterwards. It reveals its charms slowly but surely. A tough nut to crack, but a partner that you would happily play a round with for the rest of your life. This was the conclusion I came too after being wooed by the subtlety of this place.
The opening holes are nothing too special - they even feel slightly similar - yet as they bend around the bay, they reveal their qualities and you are already starting to fall for the course. Bunkering is always in the right spots to create optimum playing angles. The 4th would be the pick of this initial bunch, although the opener is also good. A change of direction at the 5th brings a blind tee shot and some dunes. The first short hole at the 7th is a quality one and the 9th is a nice finish to the well routed opening holes (despite feeling anti-clockwise, I think they visited most points of the compass).
Another nice par 4 at 10, and then a great green site for the short 12th, my favourite Par 3 on the course. The 14th was another very good par 4 (Portmarnock is full of them), probably the best in fact, and then you get to the short 15th. My playing partner was actually in the same position as Mickelson in the Walker Cup (albeit playing his 3rd after flying out of the right hand bunker with his 2nd). It did admittedly seem less intimidating than on TV. After reminding him of history, he quickly ruled out the bump & run, and followed Phil’s example by getting up and down with a suicidal flop shot.
I felt the course tailed off slightly at 16 & 17 (although it could have been wind fatigue by then and my game was also beginning to stink), but raised itself again with a great shot into a raised natural grandstand in front of the pretty clubhouse at three last.
The conditioning was very good for April, and was playing firm enough that we had to run our shots into many greens. Trying to hold them with our average ball-striking was reminiscent of Dornoch at times. The rough was relatively friendly, though I imagine it might be very different later in the season. The hospitality from the staff was welcoming, relaxed, and down to earth. It was the friendliest place we played on our trip and so a pleasant surprise given some comments I’ve read.
Portmarnock might well be the least extravagant course I ever give a 6 ball to, but it oozes quality and slow burning fun. I’d go so far to say it’s a class act that makes other courses feel a little cheap and dirty. Portmarnock is a keeper and an experience I’d never get tired of
I played Portmarnock when the wind was up and got the full Irish golf experience. It is a pure links course set among the dunes with continual change in direction and holes of varied length and difficulty. The fourth hole played as a brute (the #1 stroke index hole) and I was unfortunately in one of the pot bunkers and it took me more than one stroke to get out. I found the finishing holes to be especially fun to play despite the challenging conditions. The greens are among the best conditioned in the British Isles, if not the world. I look forward to returning and playing with the wind down!
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Portmarnock is pure traditional links, sat on a spit of land and surrounded by water on 3 sides and is everything you want from this form of golf. It doesn’t scream for attention like some of the other Irish links, more stoic and self assured in its ability to thrill.
The course is straightforward in that fairways are wide and fair with everything is laid out in front of the player. This is a course that rewards good shots, penalises the bad but very rarely gives you a bad bounce.
Though very different to County Down, Waterville and Ballybunion it stands up to all these courses and in my opinion betters all but County Down. The 15th is also a gem of a par 3 running along the beach and to me is the best par 3 i’ve played in Ireland.
Only minor negative was the welcome, both the pro and the clubhouse staff were pretty unaccommodating and at some points outright rude. I understand they receive a lot of American tour buses (which must be annoying) but at €220 a pop for a round you expect to be treated as a member of the day rather than an inconvenience.
Played on a Thursday morning early in April 2016. Great course, good elevation, very few people on the course. Got lost a couple times even with the yardage book !
Staff was great, excellent lunch afterward in the Clubhouse with much memoribia of their history.