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On Portrush coastal road
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"Portrush stands on a rocky promontory that juts out into the Atlantic, and, if I may allude to such trivialities," wrote Bernard Darwin in, The Golf Courses of the British Isles, "the scenery of the coast is wonderfully striking. On the east are the White Rocks, tall limestone cliffs that lead to Dunluce Castle and the headlands of the Giant's Causeway. On the west are the hills of Inishowen, beyond which lie Portsalon and Buncrana and the links of Donegal."
Since its foundation in 1888, Royal Portrush Golf Club has undergone a transformation in more ways than one. It was originally a 9-hole course, known as the County Club. The following year it was extended to 18 holes. In 1892, its name changed to the Royal County Club, with the Duke of York as patron. In 1895, the Prince of Wales came along and the name finally changed to Royal Portrush. Why who knows?
However, the biggest transformation came along when Harry S Colt redesigned the course in 1932, including two holes in an area known as “The Triangle”. Just before the Second World War, when it became apparent that the clubhouse would have to be relocated, the professional at that time, a Mr P.G. Stevenson, designed the current 8th and 9th holes, allowing the old 1st and 18th in the Triangle to be released. It would take until 1946 though before club members moved to their current premises, the former Holyrood Hotel.
The Dunluce links is named after the ruined Dunluce castle that overlooks the course. It was the venue for the first professional golf tournament in Ireland, won by Sandy Herd in 1895. Until 2019, The Open Championship has been held outside of Scotland and England only once; that occasion was here at Royal Portrush in 1951 when Max Faulkner triumphed. Faulkner was the last British Open champion until Tony Jacklin lifted the claret jug in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. More recently, American Pete Oakley won the Senior British Open here in July 2004.
In 2014 it was confirmed that Royal Portrush would return to the Open Championship rotation in 2019. 2011 Open Champion, Darren Clarke, was thrilled to hear that his home club will stage the tournament. “It is wonderful for the area, for Northern Ireland and the whole of Ireland that one of the biggest sporting events in the world is coming here," he said. “It's just massive, with pictures of Royal Portrush being beamed around the world to people who haven't seen how beautiful it is.”
Royal Portrush is certainly beautiful and it has one of the most dramatic entrances to any golf course. As you wind your way towards the course along the coastal road, the crumpled, undulating links land suddenly appears in front of you, flags fluttering in the breeze. It's a classic seaside links, located in an evocative setting on the north Antrim coastline, blessed with magnificent ocean views. On a clear day (from the 3rd tee) you can see the Paps of Jura and the island of Islay.
The fairways nestle in natural valleys between towering sand dunes. The small greens blend perfectly into the landscape, one of Colt’s masterstrokes. The greens are generally protected by natural grassy hummocks rather than sand bunkers, further adding to the understatement.
The most spectacular parts of the course are down by the shore. The 5th hole (called “White Rocks”) is an absolute stunner. It’s a short, downhill par four with a left to right dogleg. The elevated tee provides a platform to soak up the vista. The green is perched on the very edge of the course some 50 feet above the seashore. The 14th, called “Calamity”, is a 210-yard par three; a deep chasm to the right of the green makes it a nervous tee shot.
The Dunluce is a seriously tough cookie and requires solid driving to hold together a decent score. It will intimidate many golfers; the rough is penal (and sprinkled with heather and briar). It has very few bunkers but frankly, it doesn’t need them. The course has enough natural hazards to wreck a card, not to mention the ever-present wind. However, at all costs avoid "Big Nellie" at the new 7th—it's one of the biggest bunkers in Ireland.
A trip to the Giant’s Causeway may provide some respite after a gruelling round, followed by a nip of whiskey at nearby Bushmills, the world’s oldest distillery. Failing that, you could head directly to the first tee of the Valley course. It may be the second course at Royal Portrush but it’s a little cracker.
In preparation for the return of the Open, architects Mackenzie & Ebert proposed a number of course changes to the course, the most significant of which is the replacement of holes 17 and 18 on the Dunluce with two new holes, located where the current 5th and 6th holes currently lie on the Valley course. These new holes could be played between the current 6th and 7th on the Dunluce, though they could also be fitted into the new routing between existing holes 13 and 14.
The new hole 7 is a par five, played over much of the existing 6th on the Valley course, but in the opposite direction. The famous “Big Nellie” bunker from the current 17th on the Dunluce has been recreated in the dunes to the right of this new fairway. The new par four 8th is then played from close to the tee boxes on the existing Valley hole number 5, back to a green perched in the dunes at a slightly higher elevation.
Although the four par threes remain untouched, except for mowing the green further out at the back of “Calamity Corner”, additional tees and bunkers at several holes have been added, as well as extending the greens at holes 5 and (the newly sequenced) 15.
Mackenzie and Ebert commented as follows:
"As part of the course review exercise, investigation of the evolution of golf at Portrush was undertaken to assess how the layout had changed over the years and especially since Harry Colt laid out his final design for the Dunluce Course in 1932. That highlighted a fundamental issue. When Harry Colt designed the Dunluce in 1932, the clubhouse was over 1,200 yards away from the present clubhouse in the town of Portrush. Two of his original holes - the key 1st & 18th holes – had been lost. They provided a link from the old clubhouse to the current 17th and 18th. The existing 8th and 9th holes did not exist. Although Harry Colt was consulted over the addition of the replacement 8th and 9th holes, they were the conception of the Club’s professional, P.G. Stevenson, and Colt was not involved with the detail of the holes. This shows that Harry Colt was open to adjustments to the course required by changing circumstances.
The Club found themselves at another juncture of its evolution with the opportunities presented by the possibility of The Open Championship coming to Royal Portrush again. The Championship has grown in scale tremendously since Max Faulkner lifted the Claret Jug when the event was held over the links in 1951. If The Open was to make a return, The R&A were clear from the outset of the negotiations that sufficient room had to be available in the right areas to allow all of the usual infrastructure to be put in place to support the Championship. Following an intensive study of all options, the inescapable conclusion was drawn that the existing 17th and 18th holes of the Dunluce Course would have to be made available for the majority of the tented village area.
Following a detailed study of the opportunities to replace the 17th and 18th holes, the conclusion was that two replacement holes for the Dunluce could be forged from the area of the old 5th and 6th holes of the Valley Course. This will provide a tremendous arena for two dramatic and iconic holes which should quickly achieve world fame. The knock on effect was that replacement holes were required for the Valley Course. In fact three new Valley holes have been formed with the last of them giving incredible views to the beach and the sea, something which the old course did not enjoy. The Valley element of the project also involved the restoration of one of the original holes at Portrush.
It will be fascinating to see how the world’s best players handle the reconfigured links in July 2019."
Fittingly is was Irishman Shane Lowry who dominated the final two days of the 148th Open championship to win his maiden major title by six shots from England's Tommy Fleetwood amid exuberant scenes at Royal Portrush. Tough weather conditions on Sunday saw every contender fall away, allowing Lowry to cruise home for a comfortable victory.
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a day with Martin Ebert (architect) at Royal Portrush to play for the second time and see the course as it will be presented for the Open Championships. I won’t go deep into the changes as I’m sure most people have read about them, but in short the arguably two less interesting holes at Portrush, 17 and 18 are being replaced by two fantastic holes that occupy wonderful terrain from the Valley Course, their second 18 hole course. The new holes are fabulous, extremely challenging and as mentioned really fit into the routing. With this new addition and some other very thoughtful changes including the moving, reshaping and addition to a couple greens which have been marvellously done, Royal Portrush is simply phenomenal and most certainly looks to make a move up the rankings. What a wonderful test of golf. Jump on any chance to play here.
We played Portrush in May as part of an East Coast and Northern Ireland golf trip. I find this a really hard course to rate, you can see what people love about the course, a fair layout, good location and some standout holes but for me I couldn’t fall in love with it.
The 4th hole (Fred Daly’s) and the 14th (Calamity) are two of the great holes in world golf and they were an absolute joy to play. Outside of them I can’t remember another hole for a positive reason.
The gentle opening 3 holes don’t get you fired up and the closing pair make you wish for the clubhouse. There was just a general lack of drama for such a highly ranked course. That being said it’s all change and there is plenty of evidence of the new holes for (The Open) being a fantastic addition to the links. The construction work was in full swing when we were there and the club do offer a fair discount to cover the inconvenience of having bulldozers humming around.
My advice would be to wait until after The Open as this will be a far better course and in the meantime skip up to Ballyliffin and play one of the great Irish links. For our group the County Down vs Portrush comparison was a non conversation with County Down superior in almost every facet.
Royal Portrush will host the Open Championship in 2019, adding two new holes and some new tee pads for the event. Even with added length, it seemed to me that the greens (and, of course, wind) will constitute the Dunluce course’s best defense. As of May 2016, there’s only one fairway bunker that would threaten a drive: the one at the current # 7. (The holes will be renumbered for the Open, but I’m using the current numbers.) As the course does feature doglegs at 2, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 16, (as well as the second of the new holes) there will be opportunities to drive through the fairway—or come up short. But there’ll be plenty of times when something less than driver will be in use from the tee—even when the planned length is added—and this will mitigate the severity of this challenge.
Along with wind, the course’s stoutest defense will be the hole locations. The greens are big enough and contoured enough that it shouldn’t be difficult for the R & A to find four challenging hole positions, though it remains to be seen if they’ll choose to do so. Among the most dastardly will be back right on # 6—where there’s a tiny corner; right side of # 7, where the green drops away precipitously and the very front of # 11, a short par 3 that often plays downwind……there’s bunker in front and the green falls away from the bunker.
Colt has many monuments that he has created and after he completed Portrush said that it represented his best ever layout. A great layout it is and will be looking forward to Portrush hosting the Open Championship again. I especially enjoyed the way the holes seem to just blend in so naturally weaving their way through the sand dunes. The green complexes were outstanding with tiered undulating greens. The condition of the course was excellent. I enjoyed the elevation changes offered by the links and even the flattish last 2 holes were a pleasure to play. While Portrush has relatively few bunkers the last 2 holes had several well positioned bunkers that also made them challenging.
All the holes were a pleasure to play as they all had their individual charm. Some of my favorites included holes 4 through 7. The 455 yard par 4 fourth and the 418 yard par 4 dogleg left 7th were the most difficult on the day we played. During the 2012 Irish Open at Portrush the 7th played the most difficult on the week. The most scenic was the 379 yard dogleg right par 4 fifth that had fabulous views of the Atlantic Ocean. The 185 yard par 3 6th named Harry Colt's has an extremely undulating green and no bunkers. This short hole played the 3rd hardest during the Irish Open.
I thought the 472 yard par 5 9th and 475 yard par 5 10th were the easiest on the links and excellent birdie opportunities. The 426 yard par 4 16th and the 457 yard par 4 18th were very challenging on the day we played. The 16th requires precision and ranked as the 2nd toughest during the Irish Open. The 18th just played long and was a nice challenge to end the day on Colt's masterpiece.
Royal Portrush was a pleasure to play and would highly recommend it to any golfer that enjoys the challenge of a Harry Colt masterpiece. Click here https://youtu.be/t_y5NQva9sE to see a You Tube slideshow of some pictures I took during my visit. Jim Brady
All golfers have a love / hate relationship with the weather. We love it when it gives us beautiful sunshine. We hate it when our 4 ball, booked months in advance, is cancelled due to a flooded course. Indeed, my own relationship with golf can be clearly defined by a landmark moment in my relationship with the weather. The day that I wanted to play more than I cared if it rained was a big moment for me. Up til that point I was a fair weather golfer. It was something I did when the sun shone. After that moment I’d play in anything. It was a sea change and it marked, for me, the moment when I emerged from the chrysalis of a fledgling golfer to the full bodied butterfly of obsession.
Golf was invented on the scrubby shorelines on Scotland and as a result we regard links golf as the true home of the game. And links golf goes hand in hand with bad weather. The new American prodigy may break records on every Stateside course, but we don’t really respect him until he can birdie the Road Hole in a force 9. As such we, as a golfing nation, have a yearning to play golf by the sea, and to test ourselves on the prestigious courses of legend. I am no different and though I have held off until my ability and corresponding handicap was such that even attempting it was worthwhile, I have recently been on a pilgrimage of sorts. You see, I was born in Northern Ireland, and we have some of the world’s very best links courses. We also have the world’s worst weather.
This year I managed to blag myself a couple of sponsors passes to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down and decided to bring my friend Rob with me as he is the only friend I have who would gladly spend 12 hours watching men we don’t know knock a small white ball round a field. In the rain. But, I knew that watching them play would simply ignite a strong desire to do the same and so we determined to get in a round the next day. We would be in Northern Ireland and surrounded by some of the best golf courses in the British Isles, but to be honest there was only one place we wanted to try. Royal Portrush.
This place is another legend. Built at the end of the 19th century as a resort to draw train bound tourists, the course as we know it today was largely designed some years later by Harry Colt, himself an icon of course design. Colt preferred to draw out the natural topography of the places where he worked instead of moving tonnes of earth, and in Portrush he found the perfect triangle of dunes on which to create a links masterpiece. The land was covered in undulations, kinks and hillocks allowing him to place greens in situations naturally defended but visually stunning. But that wasn’t all. Rather than route the course through the valleys of this landscape he chose instead to route it over them, often carving fairways along the ridges of the sand. The great canyon in the middle of the land he left for the Valley Course (boyhood club to one Graeme McDowell) which he completed a few years later. For the Dunluce he wanted the higher ground. He wanted the view. He wanted the wind.
The Dunluce Championship course at Portrush stands over the landscape, allowing visitors great arcing views from Inishowen in the Irish Republic in the west to the white sandstone cliffs of the north Antrim coast along to the east. In the distance the great ruins of Dunluce Castle add a touch of romanticism as the waves crash and roll in the long white strand of beach below it. As a site for anything it’s sublime. As a site for a golf course, it’s perhaps better than Pebble Beach.
Unusually for a links course, Colt saw no real need to litter it with impossible bunkers. That’s not to say there aren’t any. The 17th hosts ‘Big Nellie’, one of the largest bunkers I have ever seen, as high as it is wide, and the intimidating first hole includes a treacherous bunker to the left of the approach which can only be described as a monumental chasm in the side of the hill. Thankfully I have never been in either. On my round I did, however, take 13 shots on the 16th after getting stuck in one bunker and eventually escaping from that to drop straight into another. That hole is destined to be the new 18th when the course is altered for the 2019 Open and woe betide anyone who falls foul of the sand on finishing their round.
But, only half the reputation at Portrush is the course. The other is the wind. Based on the opposite side of Northern Ireland to Royal County Down, it faces north into a seascape where the Atlantic meets the Irish Sea. Scotland is so close you can see it and the wind howls down the channel between the two countries. Even good days can see 20mph gusts. Bad days will see your well struck drive turn full circle and come back at you like a boomerang on a kill mission. It’s extreme.
Playing golf in any wind is daunting. Unless you naturally hit the ball arrow straight, and few people really do, the fade or draw will be exaggerated. Even 5% too much either way and the wind will take it, flinging the ball away from the target. Playing at Portrush means accepting that you will have to deal with the wind. Every drive, every fairway shot, every approach needs to be adjusted and the first time you play it that’s really hard. You can’t always see the green or even the fairway so judging the shot to allow for the wind is…difficult. Sitting as it does on a bluff above the sea means that there is always something blowing, either at you, past you or around you. It swirls and eddies. It recedes and it hits you in the face. Hard.
It also brings with it the rain. On our round we stopped at the quite lovely half way hut (which is a fully stocked bar!) and wallowed in the sunshine, but my caddie pointed west to the impending doom of some horrendous storm clouds and the visible blanket of water it was laying down on Inishowen. By the 11th tee we were soaked, facing an impossible shot to a par 3 below us and a full blown storm coming at us from the side. All we could do was hope the expensive waterproofs we convinced ourselves were genuinely worth the money we spent would work. None of our 4 ball made the green, though I came closest when I hit it before bouncing off the back, and that was only because of good advice from my caddy to play it like a 200 yard hole and aim way, way left. One hole later though, and we were stripping off our wetsuits and again playing in the sunshine.
But the wind never let up.
In fact, our caddies, often quick to tell tales, said that many an overseas golfer on a tour of Ireland for the first time wanted to have bad weather. In some way they only feel the experience is legitimate when they’ve had a round in a gale, the rain lashing them. So many golfers, particularly from the US, play their golf on manicured, pristine courses in perfect sunny weather, so they come to Ireland for the opposite. They come for the extremes. They come because somewhere deep down they know they can only really call themselves a golfer if they’ve parred the 14th at Portrush in the wind and rain.
For the record, I did par the 14th, though it was one of only a handful that I did well on. Even then, it was a fluked second shot from the rough and a solid putt that got me over that line. I also parred the 9th, 17th and 18th, which would be more impressive were the last two holes not destined for the scrapheap as the course is slightly remodelled for the 2019 Open. Apparently they’re not good enough for championship golf. Just hackers like me.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing the Dunluce and I would enjoy it at any time, in any weather, with any company. But, the round I played there was one of the most fun I have had in years, largely due to the caddies and a special mention must be made here of why and how to get the best from that experience. Before Rob and I even arrived we had decided that getting a caddie each would be fun. It’s not something regular golfers do very often, so it makes it special. We also knew by reputation how hard the golf course is and how invaluable to the round it is to have a caddy tell you where to aim and where the dangers lie. I told them they’d get a name check, so I was looked after by William Collins on my round and Rob was entertained by Muskie, which I assume is a nickname. Then again, he is from the North Antrim coast and they’re a bit weird up there, so it could be real! ;-)
I say ‘entertained’ because that’s what it was. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much on a golf course in my life. The weather was changeable at best, I hit some horrendous shots on a course I desperately wanted to play well on, and yet here I was, rolling about, having a giggle. Us Northern Irish have, how shall I put this, a terribly black, sarcastic and dry sense of humour. It’s something that often gets us in trouble with non-locals who take it at face value. But, we also know how to be polite and keep ourselves to ourselves. If I could give you any advice it would be to enjoy the craic with your caddie instead of just making him carry clubs while you stomp around in a grump. Forget about scoring well on this course. If you try too hard, it will destroy you. Life’s too short anyway, but you’ll see a whole different side to the course when you’re laughing your way round. Banter between players is one of the very best reasons to play golf and getting it from these wily old locals is simply the best fun I’ve had in a long time. On one hole I snap hooked a ball off the tee and upon asking if I’d be able to find that was told “Son, you could wrap that ball in bacon and a dog couldn’t find that”. It’s a particular pleasure that has to be experienced to be believed so make sure they know you’re not a stuck up arse and you’ll have a much better time.
As for the overall experience of Portrush, it must be said that the clubhouse is functional, but not pretty. Certainly not on the outside. Inside it has more character, in a sort of 1990’s mock-up of a public school refectory way, so it’s a bit … Victorian Disney. Verging on a home for the elderly perhaps. But, the staff are very friendly and you’re welcomed to the club almost like a day member even when just playing a round. I had a shower in the members locker room after I finished, which in many private clubs is a no go area. The pro shop is fine, stuffed to the gills with branded apparel and with heaving shelves of tatt players can pick up to take home to their peers, so you’ll be well catered for in that department. Rob even bought himself a shirt, which was unexpectedly reasonable in price. It’s not very big though, compared to some places I’ve been (Pebble Beach, for example, has an entire shopping mall selling golf related rubbish).
The one sore point is the town of Portrush itself. As a native I knew what to expect, as Portrush is a sort of cheap thrills seaside resort long past its heyday and now populated by day trippers on the hunt for an amusement arcade. It’s biggest draw now is the static caravan which proliferates all spare areas of ground and unfortunately now surrounds the course on the town side. But, to say this detracts from the golf is both untrue and profoundly elitist, something which golf has done well to distance itself from over the past 30 years. It’s better to think of Portrush as existing in the real world, unlike Carmel and the residents of 17 Mile Drive. The world of Royal Portrush is one of fantasy golf but it isn’t so detached from the world around it that it forgets what’s important. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a golf course in which all sorts of people, from the golfers to the pros to the caddies to the locals you see walking their dogs on the links, people with real jobs and real struggles, have learned to co-exist peacefully. Much like Northern Ireland itself.
Just remember to take your waterproofs.
PS, A few months ago I wrote about Royal County Down and at the end I said that I could not compare it to Portrush as I was yet to play it. Now I have played both and I am duty bound to say which I prefer. It’s a very tough call, largely because they are so very, very different. Royal County Down is a fairytale. It’s whimsical and magical like a JRR Tolkein novel. Royal Portush is more War And Peace. Big and expansive and impenetrable, yet more human in ways. I think I’d prefer RCD on days when I wanted to escape the world. Portrush is where I’d go if I wanted to celebrate it.
Right up front, I have to declare that, before playing here for the second time today, the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush sat comfortably within the Top 10 of 300+ golf courses that I’ve played in GB&I and beyond. I can now confirm that after today’s round the course maintains its high ranking position in my personal chart, much to my delight.
I was lucky to be able to tackle the course on a sunny, calm morning when good scoring was made a lot easier by the benign weather conditions. Nonetheless, on the two holes where I made a complete hash of my approach shots (namely the 12th and 13th) I was suitably punished by the deep and cruelly penal bunkers guarding each of the greens on these holes.
That’s what I love about this place; keep the ball in play and you might score reasonably well, but stray a little too far from the intended target and you’re severely penalised.
A couple of new holes are to be brought into play after golfers play the existing 6th, and these new holes (down where the existing Valley number 5 is routed) will result in “Babington’s” - the current 16th on the Dunluce - becoming the stage where the Open winner is crowned Champion Golfer when the event is next held here in 2019.
Favourite holes on the front nine include the doglegged 5th, 7th and 8th (where I love the way the fairway tapers into the narrow green) whilst “Skerries” on the inward half at number 13 is a marvellous par four which somehow sees its green manage to cling to the edge of the dune ridge above the waters of the Irish Sea.
A sparkling jewel in the golfing crown of Northern Ireland, the Dunluce is a must play course when visiting the north of the island. If only I could award a seven ball mark...