Top championship flat links. Arguably the finest club in Ireland
on a peninsular of linksland north of Dublin
John Quigley
00 353 (0)1846 2634
Joey Purcell
Green Keeper
Gary Johnston
Access Policy:
visitors welcome.
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today
€ 175


It was inevitable that the peninsular of links land just north of Dublin harbour would be discovered for golf. So it was that W. C. Pickeman, a Scottish insurance broker, originally from Montrose, and his friend George Ross who rowed across the sea inlet from nearby Sutton in 1893, went on to found the world famous and arguably the finest golf club in Ireland, called Portmarnock.

Designer and 1st Secretary William Pickeman

Designer and 1st Secretary William Pickeman

The Jamesons, who founded a distillery in Dublin in 1780, lived in St Marnock’s, a large house near the shore just north of the peninsula they owned. The family were happy to lease the land for golf, with John Jameson becoming the first President of the Club.

Pickeman himself was the first Honorary Secretary and, as a handicapper of 4, was said to be a ‘steady player and giant slogger’ – two qualities not often combined!

As one would expect from a club that has hosted the top amateur and professional tournaments, the all-male membership is of the highest order, supported over the years by some of Ireland’s most famous professionals. These include Mungo Park, Open champion in 1874 and brother of the Scottish Willy Park snr. and who, with Pickeman, designed the first nine holes; Willy Nolan, who set the St Andrews Old Course record of 67 in 1933; Eddie Hackett who went on to become Ireland’s premier course architect and Harry Bradshaw who, in

Harry Bradshaw

Harry Bradshaw

addition to numerous tournament wins, won the Canada Cup (now the World Cup) in Mexico with a young Christy O’Connor snr. ( the pro at nearby Royal Dublin) in 1958 for Ireland. Harry was happy to become the Club pro for 40 years and many are the golfers who have benefited from his advice.

This includes your correspondent who, with a cricketer’s hooking grip, asked for a lesson in 1965 while in Dublin on holiday with his father. It felt incredibly weak when he put my hands on top but I was not going to argue with the great man and have benefited ever since.

In 1949, Portmarnock had the unique distinction of hosting the British Amateur Championship, the only time it has been played outside the United Kingdom, being won on that occasion by an Irish golfer who had been on active service for H.M. King George VI.

Ladies have always been welcomed as guests and players and, indeed, up to 1905 did not have to pay a green fee. The Club has hosted many top ladies’ competitions including the British Ladies Championship in 1931 won by Enid Wilson.

A quote from Richard Phinney’s Guide ‘Links of Heaven’ expresses perfectly my thoughts. ” It is a mood as much as a place, its charm an accumulated effect of the variety, intelligence and grace of the layout. There is a wonderful sense of proportion at Portmarnock, a feeling that every piece is in the perfect place. If Mozart had been a golf architect, this would have been his masterpiece.”

John Quigley

John Quigley

Before we set out for the course, mention must be made of George Duncan’s last round of 74 to win the Irish Open in 1927 in a howling, freezing gale, regarded by J. H. Taylor and others to have been one of, perhaps even the , greatest rounds that has ever been played.

I was honoured to be taken round this links land with its low sand dunes and long valleys by John Quigley, who must be the longest driving club secretary off double figures in the land and clearly in the mould of the great Pickeman!

The course from the white tees (6934 yards and par 72/sss74) has eight par fours of under 400 yards and, with only a light 15 mph wind, one might have thought my scoring should have been better. I met my match on the 15th after which three one-iron second shots employed on the last three holes to finish 4,4,4, did make me feel better.

Behind the 18th green

Behind the 18th green

Indeed, finding myself over the eighteenth green and having an almost impossible bump up a vertical bank, John invited me to a Guinness wager, with the odds strongly against me. Later in the attractive, refined and comfortable clubhouse, it tasted exquisite!

What enormous fun it was to return to this finest of courses, which possesses a high percentage of fine grasses in the greens, unlike so many other Irish heritage links which have been lured down the slippery slope of target-style, meadow grass (poa annua) in the years when fertiliser and water were cheap.

The Irish Tourist Board has been supportive of a new Irish Links Initiative in an attempt to promote the marketing strength of these fine running courses in comparison to the likes of the K Club who successfully ‘bought’ the 2002 Ryder Cup. Let us hope they realise that the American visitors, they are so keen to attract for their dollars, can get all the target golf they require back home and instead will offer them that ‘joy to be alive’ feeling of the firm, running game, that will enable the Irish links to recapture their golfing heritage.

The green at Portmarnock’s first hole has just been moved closer to the shoreline and into the prevailing wind, though at less than 400 yards (as are the first three holes) – a bogey result is a lot easier than par!

The seamarsh encroaches on the right of the third and, though the cranes of Dublin harbour in the background remind one that we are not far from habitation, Bernard Darwin, surely the finest golf writer ever, adjudged it to be the best hole on the course. There is a low line of hills situated up the left so that the dog-leg left guarantees a fiendishly hard second if the drive strays too far to the right. The green is slightly sunken and seems to be nearer than it really is, but the simplicity and naturalness of the hole is perhaps what particularly appealed to Darwin.

The 4th green

The 4th green

There is plenty of gorse present on the course but trees dotted around attractively do not usually come into play, though there is a fine line of firs along the right of the long par four fourth. The spur of rough from the left looks innocent but it is worth one’s ball being well up to this green of subtle borrows. The motto of the Club is in fact “be up”; good advice on many holes.

The fifth is a blind drive with a ridge running across the approach to catch any timidity in your shot to the green and throw your ball off line.

The par five 6th green

The par five 6th green

The sixth is a true par five, even played downwind, with the first of Portmarnock’s famous elevated greens nestled against the seaside dune and responsible for so many shots bouncing away left. An interesting new fescue-grassed hollow is a hazard short left.

The seventh is the first of three par threes and not quite of the standard of the tremendous twelfth and iconic fifteenth created in the 1926 by HM Cairnes, with its valley of sin on the left. Often a putt from the valley is the shot but if not attained, provides many a ‘Hamlet’ moment, as the ball returns to your feet. Michelson enjoyed this honour during the Walker Cup of 1991.

The eighth, ninth and tenth are doglegs in opposite directions with no advantage of being inside the corner after the drive.

By the time the eleventh hole was reached the situation in my match left me under severe pressure and to press around Portmarnock is not clever! Nevertheless it is a fair hole, as, indeed, is the whole of the links (perhaps the reason why the professionals love coming here and always create strong fields) and rewards two straight shots.

The iconic 14th green

The iconic 14th green

Bernard Darwin wrote “I know of no greater finish than the last five holes at Portmarnock”. Sir Henry Cotton also described the fourteenth as one of the best holes in the British Isles. Its green is raised and guarded by cross bunkers and the fact that the late Joe Carr once drove it elevated him into the super-human category.

Ben Crenshaw, who along with Tom Watson, must be one of the two most renowned American professionals who understand more about Fine Golf than many others, is beautifully quoted as describing the par three fifteenth as “the shortest par 5 in the world”.

The 15th by the beach

The 15th by the beach

The fact that I finished 4,4,4 may be the result of all kinds of different motivational reasons but I managed to attack with low, splitting shots played with 110% conviction, a feeling I seldom achieve outside of the tight turf of Royal Dornoch and was a tribute to the uplifting quality of this course.

To have had a lesson with Harry Bradshaw and a round with John Quigley at this pinnacle of golfing excellence makes one a lucky person, blessed by the typical unrivalled Irish hospitality.

In recent years the Club (true to its mission statement) has

A close-up of the 15th

A close-up of the 15th

concentrated on restoring the finest links playing conditions throughout the 27 holes and has upgraded many of the aprons and collars and run off areas, under the watchful eye of Gary Johnstone the Links Superintendent and the results are superb, subtle and in keeping with the heritage of the running game.

The fringe of mossy turf around some greens criticised by the able amateur golfer Arthur Croome in 1906 has not persisted, and though T. M. Healy’s centenary history of the Club is an altogether enjoyable, passionate and cultured read, it has to be pointed out that there is no chapter on greenkeeping nor what the agronomists have achieved over the years, which is a sad omission.

I should also mention that there is a third nine-hole loop here, designed by Fred Hawtree in 1971 which I believe is well regarded. A fourth nine, designed by Donald Steel in the early 1990s, sadly lost a number of holes to a freak gale and high tide and is presently abandoned.

See  “Portmarnock Golf Club 1894-1994, a Centenary History” by T M Healy.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2010.

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