A snifter of Portumna

Kevin Markham

Portumna Golf Club

Kevin Markham

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“What’s the closest you’ve been to a hole-in-one?” It is a version of the question I am often asked about all the golf I have played in the past 18 years. The answer is simple: about two minutes.

You don’t tend to forget the hole-in-one that might have been. I was playing Portumna in 2008. I had tumbled out of the campervan at 6.30 am and arrived at the par-3 second just before 7.00. I was getting ready to hit when the greenkeeper strode onto the green, whipped out the flag and changed the hole position. I waited and mumbled some notes into my mini-cassette recorder – yes, I know it’s the 21st century – and then hit a sweet tee shot onto the green. The dew showed the path of my ball as a dark streak across the putting surface. It had come to rest on the recently replaced sod where the hole had been moments before.

There was no one I could tell. The deer on the nearby fairway showed no enthusiasm, the surrounding forest stared me down in unimpressed silence, and calling my wife at such an hour would likely lead to divorce proceedings.

As frustrated as I was my mood did not last long. Portumna is far too pretty and playful for disappointment to linger. And besides, I was discovering one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.

It is fitting that in last month’s issue I wrote a full article on Ireland’s hidden gems. Portumna always gets mentioned in any such discussion, but I didn’t include it in my list of 15 courses. For so long that is exactly what it was… but in recent years, not so much.

I firmly believe that Portumna (and Strandhill, its links equivalent) has moved well beyond this category. Look at the Irish Golfer Top 100 ranking and you’ll see Portumna at 48 (Strandhill is at 34) and you will understand why. How can a course inside the top 50 be called a ‘hidden gem’? Yes, so maybe you don’t know much about it, but a course of this quality has probably cropped up in conversations you’ve had with friends.

I’ll give you another comparison: Portumna in the Republic; Moyola Park in the North. Neither parkland goes out of its way to promote itself, but both will richly reward those who make the journey to play them. That said, Portumna has been making noises over the past couple of years and advancing its course quality and facilities.

Two redesigned greens (3 and 18), an intensive two-year sanding programme, a clubhouse upgrade to changing rooms, a new well-stocked pro shop, and new machinery are all part of a five-to-ten-year strategic plan which saw an investment of €270,000 last year alone, with a further €750,000 earmarked over the next five years. The club also acquired 10 top-of-the-range lithium battery buggies… although why you’d want to take a buggy when this is such an enchanting walk is beyond me. And besides, a buggy might scare away the dozens of deer which frequently venture out of the forest and roam the fairways – the 11th and 13th were their preferred stomping grounds when I visited this past May. There are many golf courses that boast deer amongst their wildlife but only Killarney can claim as many as Portumna. It helps having a deep forest wrapped around about 90 per cent of the perimeter and the deer melt in and out of the darkness at will. Play early or late in the day for the best chance of an encounter, but I’d go so far as to say you’re unlucky if you don’t see one during your round. It is no wonder that the club emblem is a deer, nor that they have erected a statue of a stag by the first tee. (A photo of said stag is used on the front of the score card.)

It makes Portumna an extra special place, over and above the golf course, and yes, things like that matter. Special thrills that lift a round make your day all the more memorable… and no one will convince me otherwise. Think Ballybunion (graveyard, first tee), Lahinch (goats), Greencastle (lighthouse, 12th green), Waterford Castle (ferry crossing), Cork (quarry), Claremorris (bridges), Adare Manor (Franciscan Friary ruins), to name a few. Oh, and then there are Portumna’s stone towers…

When you reach the straight par-4 fourth you may wonder why there is a stone tower beside the green. It might best be described as a two-tier wedding cake made of rocks, with one narrower layer on top of the other. There are more, scattered across the course, and they add context to the history of this place. This land was part of the Harewood Estate – the sixth Earl agreeing to a golf course back in 1934 – and before 1934 this landscape was home to another sporting activity: horse racing. Spectators would climb the steps of these watchtowers for a better view as horses thundered over the turf. Today they provide a unique feature and while they shouldn’t interfere with play, they do get close.

Portumna Golf Club moved to the Harewood Estate in 1935, and the original nine holes were extended to 18 by Eddie Connaughton in 1992. Today’s holes move over low, gently rolling terrain that lulls you into a relaxing rhythm right from the start. With the forest bordering all sides, the course’s peaceful isolation is amplified by the oak, ash, beech and pine trees standing almost defiantly across its 137 acres. There are no houses around the perimeter, no roads, no construction… nothing to interrupt your day. You could step into the forest and get swallowed up in a heartbeat.

Connaughton’s layout has a sublimely simple elegance and an intuitiveness that moves you around with ease, sometimes taking you on short walks through the trees, sometimes alongside the forest’s stone walls. The thing is, the design works in harmony with the landscape. It throws one good hole at you after another, and it is done with such ease that you get to the end without even realising it. It’s effortless. The best holes are liberally scattered throughout the round… although anyone in the know will tell you that Portumna saves the best for the closing stretch. They’ll also tell you that this is a thoroughly playable course for all standards of golfer… although I will hastily add that you need to choose the correct tee. The Blues measure 6,334 metres, the Whites 6,149m, and the Yellows 5,521m. The Red tees (par 74) measure 5,169m. Choosing between White and Yellow is the big quandary: play Whites and you have five par-4s over 360m (four of them on the front nine); choose Yellows and you only have the first hole measuring 360m.

I am never a fan of providing a review of 18 individual holes, especially when they are as good as here, so I will instead talk about the highlights because – birdies and eagles aside – these are the holes you will remember most.

The Index 1 par-4 third is one of only two big doglegs here. It measures 396m from Whites and moves sharply right-to-left, with a towering oak anchoring the inside elbow. It is a perfect example of the space that exists on these airier middle-of-the-course holes. It is also in sharp contrast to the super par-3 fifth which drops down through a dense and tight corridor of pine trees for 177m. The 506m sixth is the longest of the par-5s, tucked up to the forest’s edge and driving blind over a crest as the hole drifts to the right over a swelling fairway. An old lime kiln sits behind the green which awaits below. The swells of the fairway can easily fool you.

The 335m par-4 ninth brings you back to the clubhouse. It has a well defended green, which slopes down to the right, with a bunker protecting that side.

The par-3 10th looks tame… but never go left as the drop-off is severe, and at 178m it requires a lot of club. There’s plenty of room to be short so take it.

At a mere 433m, the Index 18 par-5 12th is a 90-degree left-to-right dogleg where your driver can cause serious problems if you’re too long. Once again you find the deep forest chaperoning you and the pines reaching high above the tee box are beautiful.

The par-4 14th is Index 4 and just 335m. The green setting is the challenge here with three-and-a-half sides protected by trees. It sits in a shady dell and requires your best approach shot of the day… alongside the 16th.

The closing stretch is a perfect medley of holes: the very short par-4 16th hugs the forest from tee to green, the trees and old stone wall clinging to the right side. The green sits up high and is squeezed tightly between trees. Hit a safe tee shot to ensure a perfect angle to get at the flag.

The 17th is the famous par-5 and the only hole here with water. And what water it is! A blind drive over a ridge leads down to a smooth fairway that streaks towards the green. A lake curves along the right side and is a serious threat on all approach shots, especially as the green is tucked almost behind the water. The pines framing the background give it added zing and, at 495m, it is little wonder that it is Index 2… and the hole most talked about as Portumna’s ‘best hole’.

A par-3 18th may not be to everyone’s taste but this 164m hole (Whites) plays from a high tee, across a dip, to a green benched into a steep slope. The green was upgraded in 2022, as it was seen as being too severe, and it delivers a fine finish. It is also bunkerless.

A few final things to note: green fees are excellent value (€45 mid-week during the summer for Golf Ireland members); the quality of the course is ever-improving; the driving range is about to undergo a major makeover; the food in the clubhouse is as good as I’ve eaten anywhere; and, finally, they have a piano in the entrance hallway should the mood take you… who knows what I might have composed if I’d made that hole-in-one.

Testimonials from Portumna
The first time I played here, I absolutely loved it. But what stood out for me was meeting a group of English golfers in the clubhouse who were touring the region. We got to talking and I asked how they rated the courses they had played. Their answer was emphatic: they had cancelled their final round at a course already played and rebooked to play Portumna. What’s more, one of them added, they would quite happily have spent the entire tour playing at Portumna. That says a lot about the quality and enjoyment on offer here. More recent comments from ‘X’ include:

Irish Golf Course Guide @golfcourseire I love it. It’s so good. Tough as hell, but so good. The greens are really good, but there are some really nice quirky holes & the deer of course. The people, the deer & the peaceful setting. 17 probably the favourite hole.

Mick Mehigan @mick_mehigan Love this golf course, every hole unique and memorable. Mature trees, stone wall perimeters, elevation changes, fabulous!!! 2 par-5s for me, the setting of the 12th hole is just beautiful. And the 6th hole is a real cracker.

MrWimblesJnr @Bogeyfree11 Played on their President’s Day last year on a smasher of a day. Was blown away by the layout – lovely track. Course was in mint condition, very welcoming staff and great grub. Par-5 17th my favourite on the day.

Ned Brophy @nedbrophy65 Really top course. Many great holes but the closing 3 are excellent.

Jackie Quinn @JackieQuinn2014 I love their greens, very subtle undulations and plenty of speed. I love the forest and the wildlife & I love the friendly welcome.

Vincent Liffey @somush It’s always in incredible condition. There are a few holes on it, though, that I’m not a fan of, in particular 12 and 16. But otherwise it’s always a nice day out.

Greatest 100 Golf Courses @DeTop100Courses Love Portumna. Might be the best value in Ireland. Holes 1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 14, 16, 17 and 18. All super. Great day out.

Mark Grant @MarkGrantkk71 Fantastic course. Love the new 18th.

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