Royal Portrush Golf Club (Dunluce Links)
Forget Magnolia Drive or Seventeen Mile Drive. Never mind the dirt road at Yeaman’s Hall. The best entrance to any golf club is the A1 as it snakes along the cliffs along the rugged northern Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. Rounding the bend, Royal Portrush Golf Club unfolds before one’s eyes, set among tumbling dunes that run to the cliff’s edge with the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. The 5th hole’s flag flapping in the wind is as inspiring a sight as a golfer will ever find. The game is about to commence! As good as the land is, the lasting merit of the course derives from the work carried out by Harry S. Colt in 1932. Prior to that, Royal Portrush Golf Club enjoyed play over 18 holes designed by Old Tom Morris in 1890 on property slightly south and west of the land given to Harry Colt. Harry Colt is generally associated with heathland designs. Starting with his days as Secretary at Sunningdale, he understood heath courses like no other. Swinley Forest, Sunningdale (New) and St. George’s Hill bear testimony to his genius in working on a heath. However, like any great architect, he got the most out of any type site. His work with parkland courses around Toronto, Canada is an example. And with the links land at Portrush, he was given his most rugged property for an original 18 hole layout and the result is his sternest test.
Thepropertyconsists of parallel sets of dunes. Little fairway bunkering was called for; rather the curvature of the fairways between the dunes places a premium on accuracy off the tee. From the 2nd through to the 16th hole, all the two and three shot holes bend one way or another.
Unlike its nearby neighbor, Portstewart Golf Club, the course stays in the dunesland until the final two holes. The golfer appreciates just how good the land is, not only by virtue of the string of good holes he has just played, but also by how little affection the 17th and 18th hole seem to command (and the 18th is a solid hole!). Sloppy or indifferent shots that are acceptable on other links are not tolerated. Off the tee, the ball plunges into the thick grasses that sweep over these dunes. A tough examination? Absolutely, without question and the skilled golfer relishes the opportunity to not only control the flight of his ball but also shape it either way off the tee depending on the requirements of the hole and the day’s wind. Up ahead, one of the best conceived green complexes in the United Kingdom await. Coupled with the pressure the grass covered dunes place on tee shots, Harry Colt‘s superb green complexes make Royal Portrush the complete examination. For many an accomplished and well traveled golfer, the setting and the challenge makes the Dunluce Golf Course at Portrush course among his favorite dozen or so courses in the world. However, what about the handicap golfer that makes up the majority of the game? Unfortunately, too much time is now being spent with one’s head down beating the thick, meadow grass in hopes of uncovering one’s ball. Located on the Emerald Isle, Ireland/Northern Ireland experiences greater annual rainfall that England. Thus, the natural state of the dunesland grasses is to be more plush than that found in England. Such is fine but the rub at Royal Portrush is that some of the corridors between the lines of the dunes are relatively narrow. The opportunity to enjoy the width found at other world class courses located in similarly windy spots like Ballyneal (with fairways up to 100 yards in width) and National Golf Links of America (with fairways up to 70 yards in width) simply isn’t present. Given its topography, a windy day at Royal Portrush can see the 10 handicap golfer lose many a golf ball. This is a shame as the essence of golf is to find one’s ball and play it, ideally all the way through the round. The chance for miraculous recoveries are few and far between on The Dunluce Golf Course at Portrush Links. The black and white photographs from several decades ago in the upstairs of the Royal Portrush clubhouse show the dunes with far less vegetation. A series of dry summers might help. Of course, having hosted the only Open Championship outside of England and Scotland, the Club might well enjoy fostering its reputation for being tough. Regardless of the penal nature of its grasses, the design features that Harry Colt provided here are among the best in golf architecture, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 390 yards; In many ways, this hole summarizes Royal Portrush: very well designedbut with current maintenance practices undermining some of Harry Colt‘s strategic merit. Presently, out of bounds is on both sides of the fairway with rough growing in from the rightout of bounds. In Harry Colt‘s day, the fairway was broader than its present 35 pacesand the golfer was free/encouraged to approach the green more from the right to avoid the terrifyingly deep gathering front left bunker. The genius of Harry Colt‘s design was in an equally deep left bunker (though out of sight) that once ate up shots that came in too ‘hot’ from the right.Unfortunately, the angles of playare presently reduced due to the narrowing of the fairway, rendering the clever hidden left bunker less of a factor. Harry Colt deserves plenty of credit for this well conceived hole and with more short grass, this hole would be all the better/more interesting.
Second hole, 505 yards; Though the present clubhouse is only a decade old, it has been in the same general position since Harry Colt‘s day. One can imagine Harry Colt finding the first hole to the naturally raised green and then his delight in seeing the playing corridors emerge along the high portion of the property all the way out to the 5th tee. The bending nature of 2nd fairway is a characteristic that makes Royal Portrush unique among most links and that is the high number of dogleg holes. The 2nd joins the 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 16th holes as swinging markedly. In this case, the 2nd plays through a natural valley with three bunkers 60 yards short of the green. The good player is keen to carry to them in pursuit of a good score, especially appreciating how the difficulty of the course grows and grows from here on.
Third hole, 160 yards; The shortest hole on the course features a tee and a green on a knob at the highest points on the course. Themerit of locating such a length hole on one ofthe most exposed areas of the course becomes apparent on a windy day. With no place to hide, the golfer needs to control the flight of his ball and to hit the shot requiredby the day’s wind. Downwind, the hole is but a pitch. On other occasions, the hole can be a drawn 3 iron, as the author’s brother fondly recountsfrom a cold April day in 1985.
Forth hole, 440 yards; One of the best unknown holes in the world, the hole is characterized by out of bounds down the right, deep central bunkers and a green tucked in dunes.
Fifth hole, 385 yards; One of the world’s handful of most inspiring holes, some consider it the quintessential dogleg as the line off the tee for the tiger golfer and the dub may be as far apart as 100 yards. The strong player shortens the dogleg to the right by taking an aggressive line with his driver, sometimes nearly on a direct linewith the front edge of green. The green itself runs to the cliff’s edge, making back hole locations a real test of courage. As with some of the other doglegs including the 8th and 16th, the golfer is better served by playing to the outside of the dogleg. In this case, a quirky butwonderful mound obscures the view of the putting surface from the right side of the fairway. A step in the green effectively makes this a double plateau putting surface.All these features conspire to make itone of thetwo or three greatest bunkerless holes in the game, joining Foxy at Royal Dornoch Golf Club and the 13th at Paraparauma Beach in New Zealand.