It sometimes seems that only in the past half century have some of Ireland’s greatest links courses truly taken shape. In the south west alone there is Ballybunion, as old as the hills but curiously uncelebrated until the past 30 years, and Tralee and Waterville, both of which – almost criminally given the magnificence of their sites – only became golf courses in the recent past. And then there is Lahinch, the Irish St Andrews, where the game has been played for over 110 years but where only in the past few years has it begun to fulfil its true potential as one of the very best.
In terms of architectural influence, Lahinch has been touched by the hand of genius not once but twice, yet it has taken the work of a celebrated modern designer to turn the work of Old Tom Morris and then Alister MacKenzie into the layout that stands today. Martin Hawtree was called in by a club sufficiently brave to dare to interfere with what remained a fabulous links yet pragmatic enough to recognise that, for several reasons, it had a become a shadow of its former self.
For that they deserve great credit, but then in comparison with the rest of the British Isles the Irish have never been as encumbered by an overbearing sense of tradition and history that might have led them to leave well alone. Few would bedgrudge them credit for their foresight, because Lahinch has undoubtedly now made the leap from spectacular to simply unmissable.
It is a status it has threatened to achieve ever since a couple of officers stationed in this small and otherwise unremarkable town in County Clare first set eyes on the mountainous, wild dunes that grew back from the Atlantic Ocean. They were part of the famous Black Watch regiment and, being Scotsmen, saw the potential for great golf and laid out a rudimentary course.
That was in 1892 and two years later the four-time Open champion Old Tom Morris was invited to improve on their design. Describing it as the finest natural site he had ever seen, much of what he designed has not survived today but Lahinch’s two most famous holes, Klondyke and Dell, were originally his creation.
MacKenzie arrived in 1927 and moved all of the course to the land it currently occupies. “It will make the finest and most popular course that I, or I believe anyone else, ever constructed,” was his justifiable, if rather immodest, claim. One of his tenets of design was the creation of multi-levelled, undulating greens that put a premium on the angle of approach and therefore the drive.
His changes implemented, the course was in play for less than a decade before Walker Cup star John Burke, a Lahinch member, instigated the flattening out of several greens because they were considered to be overly difficult for the majority of players.
By this time MacKenzie was in Georgia helping Bobby Jones to build Augusta National. As a result, many MacKenzie features were lost and it was with the intention of reclaiming these – and safeguarding the future of certain greens from coastal erosion – that Hawtree received his brief. Having studied the project, he presented the club with an ambitious four-phase, five-year plan. Undaunted, they decided to aim to complete it in four.
Now Lahinch is a course without weakness; yet one that retains the endearingly eccentric features that made it special in the first place. In certain places it is as hard as any Open venue, in others as quirky as Prestwick. There are long holes, short holes, blind holes, straight holes, birdie chances and distasters in the making.
In short, Lahinch combines the sheer fun of playing old-fashioned links golf with the kind of shotmaking demanded by a Muirfield. As such, the opening hole is in many ways unrepresentative of what follows. Playing straight uphill with the hazards visible and lacking in subtlety, the fun really begins on the 2nd.
This downhill, sweeping par five is flattering when the wind is behind, although with bunkers strewn liberally down its length, thoughtless blasting is unlikely to pay off. The 3rd used to be a short hole but is anything but now. With a drive as blind, menacing and downright intimidating as some of those at Royal County Down, it can be hard to believe there is a fairway on the distant plateau. Even though the green is large and mercifully flat, four here in any kind of a wind is quite a score.
Light relief, however, is immediately at hand, in the form of Klondyke, the name given to a large hill over which the unseen green lies. The drive must be directed down a natural valley and since the hole usually plays downwind, the green is within comfortable reach in two for better players.
The real difficulty when firing over the hill lies not in committing to the right line but in club slection, because the green lies at the bottom of a slope against the boundary fence and it’s all to easy to go long. Despite the undoubted element of luck required, playing this hole well requires much more skill than critics of this type of golf would care to admit.
Nevertheless, those who prefer to be able to see what they’re doing will be dumbfounded by the next hole – Dell. The bone-shaped green is completely hidden and squeezed between two hillocks and set across the line of play. Pin position for the day is indicated by a white marker on a pulley. Simply unique.
The thrills continue at the 6th, played back towards the sea, where the fairway turns into a monstrous pit over which the second shot must be played. The view approaching the green of Liscannor Bay is links golf at its best. The next two holes are played parallel to the shore, the latter being a par three where the green is an island in a sea of wild rough.
Following a pair of less spectaular, inland holes, Hawtree’s new green at the short 11th creating yet another mindblowing short hole. Then comes a new par five, extended from was a par four, that follows the line of the bay towards the distant church ruins. With a bottleneck entry to the green, only the brave and the foolhardy will attack from distance.
The rare luxury of a drivable par four follows, although as always on this type of hole it’s all too easy to rack up five or six thanks to misplaced aggression. Nevertheless, earning a shot in hand is invaluable before tackling the next two holes that measure 451 and 466 yards respectively.
In times past, the quality of Lahinch’s closing holes was brought into question, but that’s no longer a valid criticism. Hawtree has redesigned the 17th green, raising it and introducing more marked contours. Four is an excllent score here but to match it on the 534-yard 18th is even more impressive.
Of course, in a location like Lahinch’s, it’s wise not to pay too much attention to yardages as the strength and direction of the wind is everything. As you might expect, the weather is sufficiently capricious to dumbfound even the local forecasters. Except, that is, for the native goats. Word has it that if they are seen sheltering near the clubhouse the wary golfer should pack his waterproofs and umbrella, as rain – and probably wind as well – are surely on the way.
In such conditions, unless highly skilled, concepts such as par become irrelevant and survival becomes the height of any realistic ambitions. Regardless, the most recent host of the Irish Open is finally fulfilling its true potential, and is a course simply not to be missed on any golfing excursion west of Dublin.