Last year, just ahead of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, Padraig Harrington made a statement that caused many in the R&A and European Tour to spill their coffee.
“I think this is the beginning of the Open taking its place as the Open, and moving around the world,” he said of the tournament being held in Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years.
“Where else would be the first place? Yes, Portmarnock would seem the logical first step, but in my lifetime it is possible to see it being played in the Netherlands or maybe Australia. These are all under the auspices of the R&A so it could move around the world.”
Such ambitions may have been quickly doused by the powers that be but by mentioning the name of Portmarnock Golf Club, he ensured that the Dublin club was thrust even further into the spotlight. Constantly ranked by magazines as a Top 100 course in the world, Portmarnock needs little introduction. It is revered everywhere but an Open Championship would be a game changer. “It is not something that is going to happen in the next five years,” Harrington continued, “but it definitely could happen down the road. It would be easy to think [that because] we are on their doorstep, that we should be first if it does move.
“Portmarnock is obviously a great championship venue. They obviously have their own issues but it is definitely a possibility. It would be a great venue, it has the infrastructure and, like here, I think people would embrace it.” Irish golfers would certainly embrace it, just as we embraced the announcement when Royal Portrush was awarded The Open. It matters little that the Claret Jug being won on Portmarnock’s sublime 18th green is a distant possibility but Harrington’s words carry weight and they lifted the course’s prominence not only in the eyes of international golfers, but Irish golfers too.
Not even the greats stand still. Portmarnock has evolved over its 126-year history with the most recent set of upgrades coming ahead of the 2019 Amateur Championship… which, incidentally, was the first time since 1949 that the Amateur Championship had taken place outside the UK… also at Portmarnock.
Seven new championship tees and twelve new fairway bunkers were added, with some of the greenside bunkering creeping ever closer to the putting surfaces. Such changes build on Portmarnock’s strategic credentials.
Mounding was added on the left-hand side of the 2nd and also behind the green to separate it from the 6th tee. Further gentle mounding, measuring some 80 yards x 40 yards, now separates the 9th and 10th fairways and this new work has helped to define holes and add more character. The changes took four months to implement and had settled in nicely by the time 288 of the world’s best amateurs arrived in June, 2019, to contest the 124th Amateur Championship. And how wonderful it was that the 22-year old Irishman, James Sugrue, battled his way to victory, beating Scotland’s Euan Walker in a tense 36-hole final in front of some 3,000 spectators. Sugrue was ranked 249th in the world amateur rankings before the tournament. The 1949 winner at Portmarnock was Max McCready, from Northern Ireland.
The Yellow Nine
It was only a couple of months ago, after the Covid-19 lockdown was eased, that I finally got to play the Yellow nine at Portmarnock. I have seen the holes often enough – as you drive through the gates of the club the 7th green is immediately to the left, the road to the practice range splits the 9th, the 1st hole is laid out between the Red’s 2nd and 9th, and other holes and greens pop up during your play on the Championship course… most notably next to the famous par three 15th tee – but I have never played them. From the Championship fairways and tees they look like fine holes as you catch sight of those yellow flags, inevitably beating against the wind, but when you plan a trip to Portmarnock you want to be playing the Championship Red and Blue nines.
Many visitors assume that the Yellow nine are not of the same level or quality as the other two nines. Indeed, many visitors do not even know of the existence of this third nine, which was designed by Fred Hawtree and opened for play in 1971. The idea for a third nine actually started in 1935, but took 36 years to become a reality. The fee was £3,500.
The holes weave through the Red and Blue nines and then slip to the north, where the 7th lies right alongside the Portmarnock Links course. Despite how these new holes merged with the older course, the Championship layout required only one change: a new fairway and green for the par five 6th. Not only does that show the volume of space on the property but it also shows a smart design… especially with two particularly wonderful ‘new’ holes tucked into Portmarnock’s biggest dunes, right above the beach.
If you have played the Championship course then you will undoubtedly be fully sated. These are the holes that you have come to play after all. Any kind of wind means you have to think hard, play smart and keep the ball low – such is the strategic merit of the holes and the perfectly formed green complexes.
It will test you from first to last and that might leave you both relieved and drained as you walk off the 18th. After that, the Yellow nine might feel like an unnecessary effort, a few holes too many, a loop of less significance… but this nine should not be ignored. In a nutshell, it boasts the same terrain and quality as its siblings and the shape and style of hole fit very neatly indeed.
It must be said that the two wonderful holes mentioned above – the 151 yard (white tee) par three 3rd and 276 yard par four 4th – would not be out of place on the Championship course. The 2nd is strong, too, as is the Yellow’s toughest hole, the 441 yard par four 6th with the by now familiar run-offs. Holes 7 and 8 stall things a bit before an entertaining 492 yard par five finishes things off nicely.
On the final hole, pine trees come firmly into play, both on the tee shot and the approach. The majority of the pine trees have been cleared from the site in recent years (they were non-native and the roots and pine needles were causing unnecessary damage) but a nest to the left of the green is most distracting. More interesting is the shape of shot to be avoided: you don’t want a draw on the tee shot and you don’t want a fade on the approach.
Of all the holes that deserve a bit more description, the short 4th really catches the eye… partly because it is a remarkably tricky par four and partly because you get such a good look at the hole, and the green in particular, as you wait on the par three 15th tee of the Championship course. The tee box sits up high, right above the beach and the fairway drops down into a channel between the dunes, curving gently to the right where a green sits punched up in a dell of dunes.
You can try to drive it – as pointless as that will be – or you play the smart shot and lay-up, thereby leaving a pitch to a small, viciously slippery green with sharp fall-offs. Our group of three competent golfers played it and not one kept his ball on the putting surface… even if one made birdie with an outrageous chip in. It is a hole where you think birdie but are far more likely to make bogey.
What must be said about Portmarnock’s 27 holes is that their unique character comes from the intricacies of the low-lying links turf, which swells and falls like breathing, usually steady but occasionally rapid and heart pounding, especially around the greens on holes 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 and 15, and 3 and 4 on Yellow. For me, it is the green complexes that set Portmarnock apart. The club is blessed with superb turf and masters of the short game will appreciate that hugely. The putting surfaces are like velvet, as are the fringes, and this opens up all sorts of avenues to how you play shots.
Take the Index 1 4th (441 yards, white tees): if you find that perfect fairway position you can land your approach shot 40 yards short of the green and then watch it release all the way to the flag. Or how about the par three 15th where holding the green is one of golf’s great victories. And lining up a putt from 30 yards away is not an uncommon sight. Perfect turf and such natural green settings make that possible… even desirable. Portmarnock is a true playmaker’s course so bring your smart game and you will be well rewarded, whichever 18 you play.