Virtually every golf course you play, whether old or new, has its own signature hole or some factor that sets it apart. After all, no two layouts are the same. But with The European, the distinctions are greater. This is a golf course of severe difficulty, especially if you play off a set of tees that are beyond you. It is spectacular beyond belief in certain places, notably on the back nine when a succession of holes runs parallel to the ocean.
This is also a course of contrasts and contradictions. Undoubtedly links in character, it begins in a paddock where tropical shrubbery abounds and until several holes have been played you do not get anywhere near the sea. The essence of playing here is that it retains a wild, untamed charm – yet you will not find better greens or more lush fairways at any seaside venue.
One green, at the 12th, is fully 125 yards long – bigger than any at even the Old Course. And rather than the customary 18, The European has a total of 20 holes. You can take your pick whether you want to play two par threes – one on either nine – or simply proceed onwards and ignore them.
It is spectacular beyond belief in certain places, notably on the back nine when a succession of holes runs parallel to the ocean.
All these idiosyncrasies, and many more, can be attributed to the man who has created The European from scratch, a man who found the site by flying around Ireland in search of virgin linksland. Pat Ruddy is a journalist and course designer of great fame in his native Ireland. Other courses he has designed include the Sandy Hills layout at Rosapenna and the Glashedy at Ballyliffin.
The European opened in 1993 and to this day Ruddy can still be found out on the links overseeing changes and improvements to his pride and joy. He is clearly an extraordinary man and, since it is so rare to be able to speak to the designer of a true links like this one, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
NCG: You have designed a golf course of significant difficulty. What kind of standard do you think a golfer needs to be to play The European competently?
PR: Intelligent golfers – and such a golfer can be found. If they play off the tees that suit their games, play strategic golf rather than aggressive dreamland golf, they will enjoy the game. But they must realise that when tackling any of our better links they have to hit the ball nicely and in control.
NCG: To what extent is it an ambition to see a top professional tournament played at your course?
PR: Zero. We have had our national amateur championships and this year we host the Irish Professional Championship. We’re happy to play on and let the future come to us.
NCG: Would you describe the whole of the course as a genuine links? I confess to being surprised by the appearance of the opening hole, and indeed the likes of the 5th and 6th. And the tee shot on 17 almost had a continental Europe flavour to it.
PR: 100 per cent links. I’m glad you were surprised a bit here and there. It relives the monotony of rabbit scrapes and daisy infestation often found on links. Don’t be fooled by odds and bobs of style.
NCG: I was intrigued to hear one of your employees saying you “liked to keep the course green”. Why would you not allow the conditions to dictate the colour and nature of the course, as at a traditional links course?
PR: I’m not colour-phobic like some people who seem to think that a links has to look brown and mean and shabby. I like healthy grass presented in a way that allows the ball to run fast on landing. It is important to work at presenting nice golfing conditions. Everything is a matter of degree and taste.
NCG: Do you see the course as a work in progress that will almost never be finished to your ultimate satisfaction?
PR: I am very, very satisfied with where I am and where the links is. But there are always thoughts and it is one of the pleasures of my life to have the freedom to continue seeking perfection. While there is strength in my body I will be trying to go further forward and I doubt there is a man in a clubhouse in Britain or Ireland who wouldn’t enjoy being in the position I am in. But, I assure you, I’m enjoying it and greatly satisfied with life and the links.
NCG: I understand that you believe true and natural par fives to be hard to find in natural linksland, hence the fact there are only two at The European. But surely given the site and the room you had it would not have been impossible to create one or even two more?
PR: Why do you want two more par fives? We are one of twenty-three links in Britain & Ireland with two par fives. Linksland doesn’t often offer the sweeps of flat land you find in parkland and all the more so now that a valid par five needs to run for 550 yards or more.
Of course, we could build you four or five or six par fives if we wished. But then it would be unnatural and you wouldn’t like that! All that matters is that all the holes are good and that the mathematics fall someplace between par 70 and par 73 or 74.
NCG: Is the pin position on the 12th (where the green is over 120 yards in length) dictated by the wind strength and direction, since the hole can play anywhere between, say, 380 and 500 yards in length?
PR: Wind is one of many reasons for moving up and down. People love it either way and we hear lots or shouting from that green as fellows try big putts or have putting contests after playing the hole.
NCG: I believe the 36-hole cut to qualify for the matchplay section of the Irish Amateur you held came at 23 over par. Did it please, or vindicate, you that the scores were so high?
PR: Scoring is always bad at amateur championships where they use card and pencil. What I feel doesn’t matter. Where these people get their handicaps I do not know! So, scoring in amateur events is much more a commentary on the standard of play and a crazy handicap system than it is on my links or any other.
That having been said we had a gale blowing in the second qualifying round but the best players all qualified and the two best players in the field got to our final with Rory McIlroy beating Simon Ward. The others have to chase them and a better game. One last point… Tiger Woods knocked it around in 67 off the very back tees in a decent wind.
NCG: The conditioning of the course is exceptional. For a designer who sometimes seems, may I say, unsympathetic to the plight of the modern golfer, why is it important to you that the course is so pristine?
PR: I have played enough bad golf to have extreme regard and sympathy for my fellow players. In fact, I think that everyone who plays deserves the same effort at presentation of the links by us as would the professionals in a big event. Why treat those who pay to play worse than those who are paid to play?
NCG: Which courses in the British Isles, apart from those that you have designed yourself, do you particularly admire?
NCG: How much, if any, linksland do you believe remains in the British Isles that could be made into golf courses?
PR: Quite a bit. But they are unlikely to be allowed happen. Which is a pity.
NCG: Would you agree that walking on to the 1st tee, with lots of plants and trees and general greenery around, is a surprising experience?
PR: I have always enjoyed going to the first tee at places like Royal County Down and Royal Lytham where there is a lovely garden feel before one sets out into the dunes. I have never liked having the door almost blown off the car in a links car park and I have had some bleak days on exposed putting greens. It is nice to have shelter and beauty around you as you prepare for the battle with the beast!
I also love the occasional stand of timber around most links as they afford a bit of visual variety, give shelter from sudden showers and are useful shields when nature calls.