Far too much is made of clubhouse grandeur and history when ranking golf courses. That is not to say these things aren’t important, only that neither is a factor when it comes to and appreciation of the course itself. I was lucky enough to return to The Island, just to north of Dublin, the week before it co-hosted the Amateur Championship with nearby Portmarnock. It was 13 years since my only previous visit. I was unlucky enough that on this particular June day, it literally never stopped raining. However, at no point did the course become unplayable and I don’t recall seeing a single puddle apart from on various paths.
The Island is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the great Irish links. I can only put that down to its homely, unpretentious air. By my estimation the only course south of the border that it categorically falls short of is its Amateur co-host, Portmarnock. Anywhere else is open to debate.
The Island is a century old and the work of Fred Hawtree initially. Ireland’s own Eddie Hackett, a prolific creator of Irish courses in the second half of the 20th century, left his mark here. Most recently, Fred’s son, Martin, Donald Trump’s architect of choise, has lifted The Island to its current heights. And yet it is still a links that, relatively speaking, rarely comes up in conversation.
The location probably doesn’t help – the closest place of note is the affluent suburb of Malahide and it was from here that golfers were originally transported by boat to what is now the far end of the course, the 14th tee to be precise.
With improving roads came a new clubhouse and layout but it’s still a good 20 minutes, and often longer, even from Malahide, let alone the centre of Dublin. The same if possibly also true of the name – I wonder if the The Island on the island of Ireland just somehow fails to register with some unknowing golfers. It certainly isn’t easy to Google. Then there is the clubhouse, which may not be in the same league as a Portmarnock or Royal Portrush, but is entirely adequate for most golfers’ purposes.
Finally, The Island doesn’t have the same history of championships as its would-be peers, and nor can it point to a steady trickle of notable tour players dropping in for a high-profile game. Before The Open at Portrush, the likes of Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Jimmy Walker were all honing their games at courses on both sides of the border, such as Royal County Down, Portstewart and Portmarnock – but none called in at The Island.
The Island barely hints anything other than uncommon class.
Perceptions, then, are hard to change but the course is good enough to do just that. This is an old-fashioned, minimalist, unforced layout, the holes draped across the dunescape, lightly bunkered and endlessly varied. It has some remarkable holes and many fundamentally sound ones.
It only rarely misses a beat, with the section towards the end of the front nine, furthest away from the sea, perhaps nominally the least impressive. You might look at the card and think that an opening half with eight successive par 4s then a par 3 was lacking in variety but that simply doesn’t reflect the reality, starting with a quite stunning opening hole to an initally wide fairway lined by dunes.
There are shades of the opener at Doonbeg (or Trump Ireland as it is now known) here. The 3rd is magnificient, the green rising gently from the fairway at a slight angle. The 4th turns left to a stylish raised green, with the backdrop of the clubhouse, while the 5th, from its blind tee, plays a similar trick to the 6th at County Down. Namely, it terrifies from the tee yet is actually a lay-up to a generous fairway and from there even a short iron.
Then comes an even cuter par 4, often within reach, but a dogleg that jags viciously left some 60 or 70 yards short of the green. It takes a very good tee shot to give you the view you would like for your approach.
On the back nine, an early highlight is the bunkerless 11th, which could be on the front of a manifesto for minimalist design as it peels gently right and the fairway eventually melts into the green.
The 13th, The Island’s answer to the famous short 16th ‘Calamity’ at Portrush, leads into what may be the most distinctive hole on the property – a short, straight par 4 played down little more than a half-pipe with a spine of dunes on either side. I can think of no equivalent hole elsewhere.
The 17th is simply a championship par 4, the kind of hole that seperates the wheat from the chaff, while the 18th tee is raised and stationed in the dunes. The Island barely hints anything other than uncommon class. I hope I won’t have to wait 13 years to return again.
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