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Royal Portrush

Yardage
7300/6658
Par
72
SSS
75/73
Built
1888/1920s
Architect(s)
Harry Colt, PG Stevenson, Martin Ebert
Nature:
Harry Colt's finest Open Championship links. Driving accuracy needed across georgeous fescues sward.
Location/Address:
East of Portrush on Northern Ireland Antrim coast. BT56 8JQ
https://www.royalportrushgolfclub.com/
Secretary
Wilma Erskine
Telephone
028 7082 2311
Professional
Gary McNeill
Green Keeper
Graeme Beatt
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome. Book in advance
Dog Policy:
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£220 - 2019

Review

Royal Portrush, where the 148th Open Championship will take place in 2019, started with the nine holes of the County Club created in 1888 in a triangle of land near the town on Northern Ireland’s north coast.
Ever since, the finest men and women of golf have been involved in helping evolve the course and club. Let us firstly set the scene by mentioning a few before discussing the brilliance of the Dunluce course.
Sandy Herd was their first professional and went on to win the Open Championship at Hoylake in 1902 using the new American rubber-wound ball that dramatically changed the distance balls were hit. Golf has argued over ball distance ever since.

Mary Hezlet and Rhona Adair. Click to enlarge

The Ladies British Open in 1895 was won by Lady Margaret Scott at the newly named ‘Royal Portrush’ and Rhoda Adair and May Hezlet from the Club were two of the leading British lady players prior to the First World War.

By 1909, with Sandy Herd and Ben Sayers of North Berwick advising, two courses had been created; the Long at 6608 yards with a bogey 81 and the Ladies at 3738 yards.

For the last forty years the, about to retire, much heralded Secretary, Wilma Erskine has held the fort, while it was Sir Anthony Babington who stands out as the most important character of earlier days. Nicknamed ‘the owner’, he led the transformation of the Club, gaining security of tenure and autonomy from the land owner Lord Antrim and the railway company. Being a friend of Harry Colt he attracted him over in the 1920s to redesign the Long course that subsequently became generally known as Colt’s finest links masterpiece.

Sandy Herd

Under Sir Anthony’s influence Hughie McNeil became the Club’s professional and greenkeeper. It is recalled in the Club’s centenary book that Hughie, of humble origins, was a natural player whose swing relied on his body rather than his hands and was much feared by the day’s top professionals. He beat Sandy Herd in 1902 easily in a 36 hole match over the Long course.

Hughie’s real contribution though was in keeping aware of what other great greenkeepers were doing to maintain their fine grasses, like Hugh McLean of Sunningdale. He started a greenkeeping tradition at the Club that bucked the 1980/90s fashion for over-watered target-golf and Royal Portrush, though Muirfield, Birkdale and now St George’s may also be ranked up there, today possesses the finest agronomy of all The Open Championship venues.

The ‘bumpy’ highland bent has been replaced and across all surfaces there are some ninety per cent fine grasses, mostly fescues, and this in an area that has a higher rainfall in comparison with England and a high number of rounds of golf with its unwanted compaction of the soil.

LM56GC Baroness greens mower

It should be mentioned that the Baroness LM56GC mower with its quite exceptional cutting technology based on historic Japanese samurai sword craft is used to hand-cut the greens for the very finest conservation cut here at Royal Portrush and on the tees at Royal St George’s where The Open will be in 2020.  As Jim Arthur said “It has long been a basic truism of greenkeeping that the most important machine on the golf course is the mower and the better the greens mower the better the green” (page 119, Practical Greenkeeping).

Max Faulkner

The R&A, having staged the (British) Amateur Championship outside the UK at the protestant founded, male members-only Portmarnock in Dublin in 1949 (the only time it had been played outside the United Kingdom – though it is again in 2019 – being won on that occasion by an Irishman who had been on active service for H.M. King George VI), unsurprisingly offered The Open Championship to Royal Portrush in 1951. Here, the popular Max Faulkner won, displaying all his natural showmanship.

Please allow me to remember to you a charity match at Royal Dublin in 1965 when my father and I were standing at the back of the tee of one of the par three holes of 200 yards looking across a gully to a plateau green, with a 10 mph wind at two o’clock. Max Faulkner, in his bulbous plus fours, suggested to Christy O’Connor snr. that the way to play this hole was with his small wooden headed four wood and to bring the ball in high on the wind from the right. Christy, the pro at Royal Dublin and in long trousers, disagreed. He felt the best way was with a three iron cut up under the breeze coming in from the left. They both proceeded to do exactly as they had said with each ball finishing nestled near the pin. Those shots I feel epitomised the style of play of two iconic players.

Photos of Fred Daly and Darren Clarke in clubhouse

It is also not surprising that two of Ireland’s finest ever players played out of Portrush and both became Open Champions; Fred Daly in 1947 (at Royal Liverpool) and Darren Clarke in 2011 (at Royal St George’s).

White cliffs behind 5th green

Between 1922 and 1946 a series of changes took place with the triangle of land of the original County Club sold and new land becoming available to extend the course beyond the Tavern to the sea at White Cliffs. The clubhouse was also moved to its present position.

This new 36 hole Colt lay-out was named the ‘Dunluce’ and the ‘Valley’ courses and apart from when PG Stevenson (the pro at Portrush) tucked-in the tenth and eleventh (the old 8th and 9th) holes in the 1930s, these two lay-outs have remained essentially the same until the Club accepted the offer of The Open Championship again in 2019.

Some hole changes became necessary to accommodate the enormous infrastructure of the modern tournament. Mackenzie & Ebert were retained to design these changes and convince the members of their on-going worth, which was not too difficult as Colt’s two weakest holes, the seventeenth and eighteenth disappeared to give ground for the tented village and two new holes, seven and eight, were added from lower lying ground on the Valley course but remain in keeping with Colt’s design ethos.

Big Nellie on new seventh hole

The famous, huge ‘big nellie’ bunker on the old seventeenth has been replicated and built into the high dune that runs along the right of the new par five seventh (‘Curran Point’) of 592 yards. It has been designed to promote an aggressive strategy for the tee shot and a second shot to leave the shortest and easiest approach to the right part of a green that has four quadrants falling-off on all sides.

Before we comment on the detail of holes and note some of Martin Ebert’s changes, it is worth mentioning that in 1983 (well before the present fashionable climate alarmism appeared that has used computer modelling by some to predict a metre rise in sea-level by 2100) there was serious erosion from high-tide storm-surge threatening to undermine the fifth green and sixth tee. A major appeal fund was launched across GB&I golf clubs to purchase the necessary rock armour for stabilising the beach cliff and the truly ‘infinity’ fifth green, which continues to perch on the edge of the sandy cliffs. (See FineGolf’s recent article on the language of Conservation Greenkeeping and giving the scientific facts about the actual steady sea-level-rise of a total of seven inches over the past century).

There are some generic comments about the course to make first:

There are only three non-par-three holes that are straight; the first (‘Hughies’), the fourteenth (‘Causeway’) and seventeen (‘Purgatory’). The new twelfth championship tee also gives a straight hole and perhaps the members may give up their old dogleg in time and save some walking.

Bunker beside fourteenth green

Royal Portrush has the lowest number of bunkers on The Open circuit with 59 (the number added equalled the number removed by Ebert in the latest changes). Trump Turnberry Ailsa has now close to 100, the others all possess over 100 with Muirfield at 150 and Lytham now just shy of 200.

The extraordinarily high number of seven of the green complexes have no nearby sand bunkers. These are at four (‘Fred Daly’s’), five (‘White Cliffs’), six (‘Harry Colt’s’), nine (‘Tavern‘), ten (‘Himalayas’), twelve (‘Dhu Varren’) and sixteen (‘Calamity Corner’). Like the majority of links courses there are few dramatic movements in the ground but Colt, in the style of the great Willie Park jnr., has created green complexes with run-offs and in dells; while bumps, hollows, swales and banks abound.

Bumps in approach to fifth green

With the fine grasses the play tests the modern wedge recovery shot from tight firm turf as it requires 100% accuracy without dunking or scimping. Many recreational golfing Americans will putt from off the green though the clever shot is the traditional bump-and-run as the safest and the percentage shot as it gives the player more control over the aprons’ slightly longer grass. All of the finest running courses are designed for the use of this shot, unlike parklands which usually employ semi-rough as a fringe close to the green.

It is only when there are fine grasses giving firm turf and the green complex is set out for the running game (and the wind blows!) that a course design like this really tests the top professionals. If the greens were soft meadow grass the players would simply fly the ball over the ground movements and stop the ball dead by the pin. Here they will have to play the ‘Three-Dimensional Game’ and this should suit the really best.

Calamity Corner from tee

For which holes is Royal Portrush best known? There are so many great holes but I would suggest the two par threes, the sixth (‘Harry Colt’s’) 194/185 yards and the sixteenth (‘Calamity Corner’) 236/202 yards.

Both require long irons across a chasm and hollows to greens set at an angle. This encourages the playing of a fade but we all know so well that if one comes off the ball weakly then these holes will punish badly. They have no sand-bunkers to defend themselves and both are into the prevailing wind.

Map of Calamity Corner

The sixth has a large pear shaped green which has been extended at the back and even if the green is achieved there is no guarantee of a par. At Calamity Corner many decide to play short left and hope for a bump-and-run up-and-down. Indeed there is a beautifully crafted front left hollow called ‘Bobby Locke’s’ into which many will fire their balls at the Open.

They are great holes that give real risk and reward for the low handicapper without penal hazards that crucify the higher handicapper, provided they are sensible.

In fact this design attitude is replicated across the entire course and, though I have only played it twice, my instinct is that of all the Open venues accurate driving here is at a premium. Both Colt and now Ebert have been keen to entice the use of the driver but if used wildly then punishment is certain to follow.

There are of course new Open Championship back tees on many holes, in an effort to try to counter the modern ball distances and hopefully these tees will require of the tigers more than just short iron approaches.

The reasonably straight forward first (‘Hughies’) 421/382 yards named after the early greenkeeper/professional is all about finding the part of the two-tier green half-way up a hill on which the pin is located, hopefully without visiting a horrendous bunker front left and sharp run-off on the right. A new bunker on the drive tightens up the affair but it is an opener and a par or better should be gained.

The new second green

The second (‘Giant’s Grave’) at 574/490 yards is a left-hand running dogleg and has a new green fifty yards further on, which reminds one of the change Ebert has also made to the fifth at Trump Turnberry Ailsa.

The green of the par three third (‘Islay’ – presumably named because the Scottish Isle of Islay can be seen on a clear day) is 177/145 yards and sits high and has had some reshaping and better drainage with more of the run-off at the back being now mown tight. There is now a better back left pin postion.

The fourth green

The fourth (‘Fred Daly’s’) is a tough 482/455 yard par four driven between a deep bunker and OOB with a tight entrance between mounds to a green that is down the prevailing wind.

Aeriel of fifth and sixth holes showing rock armour under beach cliff.

The fifth (‘White Rocks’) is a short 374 yard very strong right-hand dogleg that reminds me somewhat of the brilliant fifth at Isle of Purbeck. Contemplating how much scrub and rough to take off across the corner while it is easy for your ball to run out if too far left with the drive can scramble the mind, followed by a short iron to a long thin green. The tee here may not sit on a prehistoric barrow and give quite the incredible view of Poole harbour, nevertheless it is fun and the back tee at 411 yards has been removed to titilate those who think the green is on, while two drive bunkers for the tiger have been added. The green has been mowed further back and OOB on the edge of the cliff may claim some victims.

The sixth (‘Harry Colt’s’) and seventh (‘Curran Point’) have already been mentioned so on to the new eighth (‘Dunluce’) 434 yards, that I have not played is spoken of as presenting one of the ultimate challenges in golf. The drive is to a left-hand dogleg and a raised fairway, offering a choice of carry as a risk/reward.

Deep run-off on right of ninth green

On the corner of the left-hand dogleg of the ninth (‘PG Stevenson’s’) 432/418 yards, a new drive bunker has been added in the lay-up area to encourage the taking of an ambitious line from the tee. The green without bunkers is defended by a deep bank run-off on the right.

One of the weaknesses that Graeme Beatt the course manager recognised when he arrived four years ago was that the roughs were dominated with lush ryegrass in places. After much work we can now expect wispy dry fescues to be the norm, thus blending with the rest of the agronomy and speeding up recreational golf’s pace of play.

The tenth green

The tenth (‘Himalayas’) 447/363 yards, is another strong dogleg right and one can see that the green did not have Colt’s input. Its flatness and lack of harmony with its surrounding dunes has been amended by Ebert improving its definition and character.

The eleventh (‘Tavern’) and the twelfth (‘Dhu Varren’) were both dogleg right-hand drives of around 470 yards with raised greens. They both played as par 5s in the Irish Open, but the eleventh will be played as a par 4 for The Open and the twelfth has been extended to make it a proper par 5 and straightened for both The Open and member play and has I am told been heralded as a great success.

Whereas previously FineGolf always defined some of the finest holes in golf (such as ‘Foxy’ and ‘Achinchanter’ at Dornoch) at yardages of 440, it seems for the pros this figure has slipped to 470 if they are to be required to take a long iron out of their bag. By crikey, The R&A really do need to come up with some solutions to the ball distance issue from their on-going consultation!

The thirteenth

The par three thirteenth (rather apply named ‘Feather Bed’) is a classic links 194/165 yard hole protected by five cavernous bunkers all visible below you and played from a high tee.

The fourteenth (‘Causeway’) is 473/386 yards and the fifteenth (‘ Skerries’) 426/370 yards both include greens with wonderfully subtle contouring and though the photogenic nature of this course is not as spectacular as Royal County Down for example, the drive at fifteen climbs up on to higher ground. Here there are attractive views, and after playing Calamity Corner on the edge, we plunge down again at the seventeenth (‘Purgatory’) 408/360 yards, taking on a blind drive now tightened with a new bunker on the left for the tiger players.

Map of the eighteenth

The eighteenth (‘Babington’s’) 474/426 yards, is a great finishing hole, a right-hand dogleg to another raised green surrounded by banks.

Clubhouse

It is a pity that the clubhouse has been left somewhat stranded away from the new eighteenth hole but this is a small price to pay to allow The Open to return to Royal Portrush and Northern Ireland.

Not only is this a wonderful layout with tough driving and subtle greens but above all else it is the quality of the fine grass agronomy that gives it such a Joy-to-be-alive feeling.

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