Some courses can be filed under ‘great’ largely because of their sensational scenery and the breathtaking views they afford. Others gain entry for the consistently excellent nature of the challenge they present. Portmarnock, without question, belongs to this latter group. Situated on a peninsula in the Irish Sea eight miles north of the centre of Dublin, Portmarnock has neither weak holes nor Hollywood holes. It is about more than aesthetics and is a course which makes a mockery of the recent fascination with signature holes.
It is a player’s golf course and has been since it was founded in 1894 by two Dublin-based Scotsmen, WS Pickeman and George Ross. The pair employed Musselburgh’s Mungo Park, the Open champion of 1874, as their first professional, and another compatriot, George Coburn, as greenkeeper.
Between this Scottish quartet they laid out the original course and made such a competent job that despite several tweaks over the years – by among others Harry Colt, Eddie Hackett and Fred and Martin Hawtree – it remains in much the same form as it began.
In those early days golfers arrived at the clubhouse by pony and trap across the estuary at low tide (the bell which signalled the last boat still hangs at the caddie master’s hut), giving one an idea of the remoteness of this course.
Indeed, the layout is framed by water on three sides with the first four playing more or less alongside, and then round the tip of, the estuary. In a similar style to Muirfield, the remaining five holes of the front nine make their way back to the clubhouse.
The only hole of the second loop which plays alongside the water is the 15th, a par three of rare quality and perhaps Portmarnock’s only especially spectacular moment. But this course is about more than aesthetics. It is an Irish Muirfield and like the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, it is adored by golf’s very best players.
Indeed it was here in 1960 that Arnold Palmer played his first round in Europe as part of America’s Canada Cup team. The other half of the pairing was Sam Snead and thus it will come as no surprise to learn that the United States prevailed in the old version of the World Cup.
Portmarnock was also home for several years to the Carroll’s Irish Open and before that on two occasions to the Dunlop Masters. Harry Bradshaw, former Ryder Cup player and runner-up in the 1949 Open to Bobby Locke, was the club professional for 40 years.
The club’s links with amateur golf are perhaps even stronger, not least the fact that Joe Carr – one of Great Britain and Ireland’s finest ever amateurs – was actually born in the clubhouse.
Having learned the game at Portmarnock, he delighted his home crowds by finishing ahead of everyone except Christy O’Connor in the 1959 Dunlop Masters. Then in 1991 the showpiece of the amateur game arrived in town when the Walker Cup matches were staged between GB&I and America.
Dubliners Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington lined up for the home side and were cheered rapturously round the links but it was not enough to avoid a 14-10 defeat at the hands of an American side that included Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Bob Tway and amateur legend Jay Sigel. The cream of amateur talent on both sides of the Atlantic will undoubtedly have appreciated the test which Portmarnock sets.
Portmarnock is about more than just aesthetics. It is an Irish Muirfield and like the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, it is adored by golf’s very best players.
Above all it is fair, again, just like Muirfield. The fairways are generally extremely flat and the greens quite beautiful to putt on. There is only one totally blind shot, the drive from the 5th.
Tom Watson prepared there for the 1981 Open Championship and noted: “There are no tricks or nasty surprises only an honest, albeit searching, test of shot-making skills.”
Stretching to over 7,100 yards it plays every inch and comprises no fewer than 12 par fours – most of the exacting variety. Yardage alone is far from the issue though – the wind is the real factor. Given its exposed location, members boarding the 1st tee will happily accept a 20mph breeze will constantly be in the background as they make their way round.
Mastering the wind is the key to success at Portmarnock, especially because consecutive holes run in the same direction only once, at the 1st and 2nd. Constant re-evaluation is required.
The 1st may well be one of the more straightforward holes on the course but it is no pushover either, especially if the wind is gusting in off the estuary. Or, if the wind is blowing from the left, you may find yourself playing your approach from the beach. The carry from the tee apart, the 2nd is similarly uncomplicated and if the flatness of the fairways and quality of the greens give a true indication of Portmarnock, the relative ease of these two opening holes is misleading.
The 3rd sweeps away from the estuary by turning slightly inland and another mid-iron approach can be enjoyed if the drive hugs the left side of the fairway. The real Portmarnock, in terms of challenge, unfolds at the 474-yard 4th, which is played along the tip of the peninsula between the dunes on the left and trees on the right. Played in any wind other than a helpful one, a four here is to be savoured.
The blind drive at the 5th gives way to a terrific two-shotter played across the peninsula before golfers are turned completely round to tackle the 6th, the only par five on the outward half. At 550 yards it is manageable in calm conditions but more likely than not only the very strongest players will be reaching for a short iron for their approach to an elevated green which slopes from back to front.
It is followed by the front nine’s only short hole, played downhill in a valley to a green suitably protected by two of the 120 bunkers which adorn Portmarnock. The back nine closes with, almost inevitably, two tough two-shotters – the 8th a dog-leg to the left with a raised green which will accept only the well-struck and the 9th at 454 yards off the tips an absolute brute if played into the wind. The comforts of the clubhouse are handily placed to the left of the green if the front nine’s unrelenting examination has proved too much.
The inward half begins with what appears an innocuous dogleg to the right. The drive is important only to ensure the fairway is found but from there as much control as one can muster is required to hold the cunningly elevated putting surface. Even off the tips it is just 370 yards but a six here after some exasperating short-game travails is always on the cards.
The 12th, pointing directly towards the sea, is the shortest hole on the course and, yet again, there is little respite. Indeed it is a hole which one would probably rather play into the wind.
With 25mph gusting behind it is exceptionally difficult to hold your ball on the green, which is heavily bunkered and lies in some of the more mighty of Portmarnock’s relatively insignificant dunes.
No less an authority than Henry Cotton regarded the 14th as the best hole in golf and it is easy to see why. Just over 400 yards off the blue tees, a shot hugging the angle of the dog-leg and coming to rest in the right centre of the fairway gives an advantage for the approach.
This is always welcome as the elevated green, which slopes back to front, is protected by bunkers at the front and humps and swales round its edges, particularly on the left side. A towering, well-struck short iron is the only way to be reaching for your putter. Miss the target and a double-bogey looms large.
The fun continues at the next, described by Palmer as the best short hole in the world. Running along the shore, the beach on the right is out of bounds while bunkers protect the green like a mother with her newly born pups. Again the green is raised, meaning no cushions are in place to bounce wayward shots back onto the putting surface. In short, a beautifully crafted card-wrecker.
That pair of truly great holes begins a magnificent closing stretch. The par-five 16th requires a fine drive to cut off as much of the dog-leg as one dares although there still remain sand traps aplenty on the approach.
The 17th is as hard as any of the other par fours on a course of examining two-shotters. It plays every inch of its 472 yards off the backs, comprises 15 sand traps and offers only a narrow entry to the green.
Hence, armed with a long iron or fairway wood, it is not the most inviting of tasks to be able to find the putting surface in regulation. The 18th provides little respite, another elevated green being exceptionally hard to find unless your drive has been long and accurate.
Many visitors find Portmarnock’s examination of their game a stringent and hurtful one. Solace can be taken in the wonderful clubhouse, which complements the traditional course perfectly.
Beautiful wood, rich leather and paintings laced with history combine to provide a building of rare character. It also offers the ideal place to recuperate before a second 18 at this terrific venue. Those who visit often leave feeling a little chastened but they also always do so with a heavy heart.
And they can make their way off the peninsula with the knowledge that when the legendary Cotton played in the Irish Professional Championship he took 167 shots for his last 36 holes – yet he finished one stroke behind the winner.