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.
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.