Feature Interview with Scott Whitley and Richard Phinney
Who are Richard Phinney and Scott Whitley, and how did you decide to write a book on golf in Ireland in the first place?
Richard is a journalist and documentary maker (and a member of Royal Montrose Golf Club), who produces work for the BBC and others, while Scott is a lawyer and former sports broadcaster who lives in Toronto, Canada. Neither of us has depended on golf writing as a profession, which perhaps gives us a useful degree of independence.
We’ve been friends since childhood, and began visiting Ireland in the late 1980s on holiday. Though we were familiar with the major Scottish links, we were unprepared for the variety and quality of their Irish counterparts. At that time many very fine courses in Ireland rarely received a foreign visitor, and costs were often extraordinarily reasonable, as little as £8 a round. As we began exploring further, what struck us just as forcefully were the remarkable stories that every club and every course seemed to harbour. It soon became clear to us that Ireland had a tumultuous and fascinating golfing history unlike any other country, and that so much of this history was little known, even to golfers in Ireland. So the idea of a golf book started percolating.
Since it was considered a sport of the British aristocracy, golf suffered greatly in stature in the Irish Republic after independence, and in the difficult economic conditions that followed many clubs barely survived. In Donegal, two of golf’s earliest five-star resorts lay in ruins. Venerable clubs such as The Island and Cork (Little Island) were on the brink. The groundskeeper at St. Anne’s in Dublin took to fertilizing the course with a mixture of soot and oxblood. Even Ballybunion was reduced to only a handful of members. The Irish economy recovered just in time, and golf’s emergence (for the first time) as a genuinely popular pastime in the 1960s and 1970s generated new drama. You had a priest rallying the community to build the links at Connemara, for example. You had the resurrection of the Donegal resort courses by the descendents of those who might have caddied (barefoot) for the aristocrats who first played there. And you had the development of a string of new links courses on the West coast, from Ballyliffin to Waterville, that in one way or another usually involved a man we had never heard of (Eddie Hackett), but who we soon realised had designed more links courses than any man alive.
Since so little was written about Irish golf at the time, each visit to a new golf club threw up new surprises. The project was never going to be a massive money maker, and we made the conscious decision to sacrifice photography (so easy to access in other places) in favour of extra space to convey the full texture of the Irish golf experience. We scoured the Irish archives, sought out the oldest living member of Ballybunion, and dug into things that journalists usually dig into, but travel or golf writers often don’t. We used the term “journey” in our title to indicate that a golf trip to Ireland is about more than how you hit your six-iron. It remains a journey of discovery.
Links of Heaven was first published in 1996. What is different in the 2007 edition?
The first book was essentially designed to introduce the whole idea of links golf in Ireland to those who weren’t aware of just how superb the courses were, and to convey some of the fascinating social and historical context unique to the place. This time we wanted to finish the job, do justice to all the full-scale links, and also cover notable parkland courses of interest to visiting golfers. At the same time we needed to keep up with the enormous changes that had taken place in the last decade or so, with the opening of several courses of almost instant international fame (e.g. Old Head, Doonbeg) and the substantial updating of many other first-rate links, including Lahinch, Waterville and Enniscrone. The booming Irish economy, and the continuing flood of visitors, means that most Irish clubs have had plenty of cash, and few have resisted the temptation to spend it. You could argue it has been a second golden age of Irish golf course development â€œ just about a century after the first one!
So the new edition is far more comprehensive, and we feel we can now live up to our subtitle: “a Complete Guide to Golf Journeys in Ireland.” We’ve added 31 chapters, and there are over 200 courses included in one way or another. Personally, the most satisfying additions to the book might be the spotlight we have been able to place on lesser known links, such as Laytown and Bettystown, Dunfanaghy, Rosslare and Strandhill. At the other end of the spectrum, we have weighed in on the new Irish citadels of conspicuous consumption â€œ places such as Old Head, Doonbeg and the K Club â€œ which in some ways represent an approach to the sport which is the antithesis of what inspired us to write about golf in Ireland in the first place.
We like to think that what sets both editions apart is the amount of original research we do. So you can find information about the design and history and social milieu of many golf courses and clubs that you won’t find anywhere else.
Both books were dedicated to Eddie Hackett â€œ what did he mean to Irish golf?
He was Ireland’s only notable course designer for a generation. In some cases he was a kind of Irish version of Old Tom Morris, tramping over a site for a day or two and putting some stakes in the ground; at other times (notably at Waterville) he carefully managed the construction of the course. For the wider golf world, his most durable contribution may have been his shepherding of the development of a string of community-owned links in the west of Ireland. In some cases these were built for a few thousand pounds and they may not have got off the ground without him. And then at Waterville, in very different circumstances, he showed how a modern links project might take shape if there was some real money behind it. Waterville was the first links built anywhere for a generation and its instant acclaim, and appeal to American visitors in particular, paved the way for all the other higher-end links developments that followed, from Ballybunion New to the European Club to Doonbeg to Kingsbarns. And he did it all without making an enemy.
What is your favorite Eddie Hackett design and why?
Genuine Hackett links are becoming a bit of an endangered species, as architects such as Tom Fazio (Waterville), Pat Ruddy (Donegal) and Donald Steel (Enniscrone) have been hired to update Eddie’s work, or develop new holes on land that has become available more recently. Since little of that has happened so far at Carne, it is probably our favourite. Eddie himself was flabbergasted by the dunes on the site and once he had devised the routing and chosen the green sites, he let the terrain determine play to an extent that few others would have had the confidence to do. And the result is an otherworldliness, but also a naturalness, that has few parallels. There’s some hidden artifice â€œ the diabolical 17th set high in the dunes took a lot of effort and money to get right â€œ but Carne is the epitome of Hackett’s design philosophy: “I like anything where nature dictates the way you make the hole.” Hackett assumed the club might well take out some of the most outrageous natural features, such as the extraordinarily deep hollow in front of the 18th green, or the rollicking moguls on the 15th fairway, but he told us he “could never touch them.” There are few bunkers on Carne, and to say a hole didn’t need a bunker was, to Hackett, the highest praise. Hackett went to Mass every day, and it is perhaps not too much to suggest that he had a reverence for the linksland he found at Carne that comes out in the design.
How many courses did he build?
Difficult to pin down exactly, since the level of participation varied so widely. But he had a hand in at least 100, including significant redesigns, and had real control over the evolution of 10 links courses. Of course for much of his life there wasn’t enough money to build courses the way that term is meant today.
What were his strengths as a designer?
Hackett was self taught, and never took on a full time employee, but few designers have been as immersed in links golf. He was a notable golf professional, playing to a plus-2 at Portmarnock, and he had played all the great courses in Ireland dozens of times as a professional, as well as many in Scotland (and claimed to have had lunch once at Hoylake with Taylor, Vardon, Braid and Herd!). He wrote about golf for the Irish media. He believed that the design of links courses was not about the architect imposing some kind of strategy on a course, but on bringing out the natural strategic elements of the terrain. And for all his legendary humility, he was firm-minded â€œ he had overcome a lot of hardship in his life and wasn’t going to be pushed around by a club committee with wacky ideas. He was professional at Portmarnock in the 1930s, and played there daily into his 80s, and deeply appreciated the spaciousness and the routing of that classic links (Portrush was another favourite), and all of his links courses entail a constant shifting of direction. Narrow fairways and rigidly prescribed angles of attack were not his thing. He didn’t believe every shot had to be an event in itself, and knew from constant experience that on links courses a shifting wind can make the most painstakingly placed bunker an irrelevance, and the easiest hole can become a monster. He felt a good hole should play in an interesting manner from any distance and was adept at using natural undulations to protect his green sites. He probably never saw what the Irish would call an “American-style” course, except on television, and he had no inclination to visit those built in that style in Ireland either.
How about weaknesses?
Hackett lived and died with the terrain given him. When the K Club was being built he lamented how they were “disrupting the soil profile” and he told us he could never build an artificial mound. But that also meant that Hackett wouldn’t go out of his way to introduce novel strategic elements if the terrain did not offer something up, and so his parkland layouts certainly lack the flair of his links courses. And even on his links courses there are sometimes holes farther inland that are relatively bland. Of course Hackett would simply consider this a weakness of the terrain and not of the design. Knowing how Irish golf clubs operate, Hackett assumed his designs would be tampered with, and his minimalist approach has meant that it is perhaps easier to update a Hackett course to advantage than it might be at Ballybunion New or Doonbeg. Partly in jest, Hackett would talk about coming back to see where the divots were before putting in more bunkers. He knew his courses would change, and he was never obsessed by every aspect of his greens (letting trusted contractors do the initial work, though he would of course redo it if not happy). But he knew what he was working towards and made sure he achieved it. He felt a strong sense of responsibility to his clients, no matter how little he was being paid.
Since the first book, what is your favorite course that has opened in Ireland or Northern Ireland?
The Sandy Hills links at Rosapenna, by some distance. The course is uniquely and superbly routed through high dunesland, always dramatic, frequently surprising, yet always very much of a piece. And not impossible to walk either. Pat Ruddy seems to have had a healthy relationship with the owner, the admirable Frank Casey, and didn’t need (or refused) to make compromises or make do. By the time he designed Sandy Hills he had worked on several other links courses and he shows tremendous confidence in working with the abundant dunes at his disposal. He doesn’t overreach or do anything too forced and there is a kind of elegance to the layout despite the supercharged terrain. And beyond the golf, we love the natural setting and the romantic story of Rosapenna â€œ this was one of golf’s first five-star resorts, it almost disappeared, and now it has been revived by the son of one of the waiters. It’s not Kiawah, but it has great dollops of Irish soul.
Over time, a great deal of thought has gone into the evolution of the holes, which are as interesting as they are beautiful (the strategic elements are dissected brilliantly, by the way, on the Golf Club Atlas website). But even that doesn’t explain how thrilling it is to play Royal County Down. The magic it weaves derives from an intangible combination of factors â€œ the setting, the surprising elevation changes, the fast running turf, the whins (so gorgeous and yet so deadly), the spaciousness, and the sense of opportunity one always has when playing it. Among the great courses in Ireland, County Down is probably the one where golfers of every level can have a go. You always feel you can have a good round there, even when you are shooting a stroke over your handicap on every hole. Danger lurks everywhere but there is usually a way through for everyone. One reason is that it is very much a members’ club, not tricked up for championships.
Tell us about the finishing hole at Laytown and Bettystown.
It’s a classic example of a hole that simply can’t be built anymore, and one that is all the better for it. It might be described as a short, goofy, boomerang-shaped par 5 with a semi-blind tee shot through dunes followed by an entirely blind second (or third) over a wall of dunes about 50 yards in front of the green. Today, no one would consider it on architectural, aesthetic or safety grounds (for a hole with a blind approach, the pin is far too close to the practice green and the clubhouse). But it’s a gas to play, with plenty of risk-reward calculations to make on every shot, and the delicious sense of never having played a hole like it. A lot of quirkiness is being ironed out of Irish golf courses, and the 18th at Bettystown is a throwback to a pre-television age when golfers didn’t worry about what was considered right or wrong by the outside world. It is a delight, and a joyous finish to an underrated links that has a host of vivid and strong holes.
What do you think of the changes that Martin Hawtree has made to Lahinch in recent times?
We like them a lot. If Hawtree can be believed, he visited the site more than 80 times in a four-year period, which is remarkable given the limited mandate he had. The biggest tribute you can pay Hawtree is to say that the feeling of excitement one gets when playing Lahinch hasn’t changed one iota. The new holes are entirely in character with Mackenzie’s routing and the very substantial effort to return upwards of 15 greens to their Mackenzie “spirit” (there were no drawings so Hawtree was working on hunches really) has been remarkably seamless. The world owes the members of Lahinch a favour for preserving the blind Klondyke and Dell holes in the process. Hawtree will never be associated with Lahinch in the way Mackenzie is and it is to his credit that he spent so much care in such a self-effacing manner. Lahinch keeps growing over time, and it deserves comparison with Portrush, County Down, Ballybunion, and Portmarnock.
With the U.S. dollar presently so weak, is there a big dollar course you would recommend golfers avoid for the time being?
We think Old Head is just a problematic development all round, driven by ego and greed, and we have a hunch the “wow” factor of playing golf on the edge of a cliff, no matter how stunning, will grow tired rather quickly. It’s a tourist attraction more than a golf course, and it has no roots in the community. And if you want views, the Ring of Kerry Golf Club, only 70 miles away, is a cheaper option.
The New Course at Ballybunion has never relieved play from the Old Course to the extent that they had hoped; if you were the czar of the club, what would you recommend they do with the New Course?
To be fair, no course was ever going to divert too much play from the Old Course. And Trent Jones’ layout is a signature effort of one of the most important designers of the 20th century. It also represents the first intersection of American and Irish golfing culture. But all that aside, among the courses designed by foreigners in Ireland over the last 70 years, it remains our favourite by a long shot. It’s a spectacle rather than a members’ course, difficult to walk and, as it turns out, in a few places impossible to play and maintain properly in an Irish gale. But Trent Jones made many inspired choices in his celebration of Ballybunion’s tumultuous terrain, and we haven’t been impressed with the adjustments made to his original vision. It may not make sense to revert to the original, but we’d start from the premise that the course is worth preserving, not dismantling.
What are your five favorite inland courses and why?
Cork (Little Island) and Royal Belfast are the only two inland courses definitely worth a visit even for links fanatics, with their Mackenzie and Colt pedigree. In the right circumstances Killarney still has the power to charm. Belvoir Park in Belfast is another solid Colt design, and we’ll also include the ruin-laden Adare Manor Golf Club (not the resort course), just because it throws such an ironic light on the fancy new course next door that just hosted the Irish Open.
As you note, unlike the other courses around Dublin, The Island is Ëœtwisty, hilly, cranky, and unpredictable.’ How would you characterize its charm and playing qualities?
It’s kind of Ireland’s Cruden Bay, though in a much more squeezed area. There is an often surreal quality to the landscape and the golf holes â€œ rather as we might imagine a golf course in an enjoyable dream. The two nines are very distinct from each other and although two generations of Hawtrees have made some alterations (still ongoing), it hasn’t lost any of its original rambunctiousness, especially on the rollicking front nine.
Ireland and Northern Ireland are heavily travelled these days by overseas golfers. Many of the courses â€œ Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Lahinch â€œ are household names. Even a relatively remote course like County Sligo is well known at this point, and deservedly so. What hidden gems are still out there, waiting to be discovered?
While some of the courses are better known by aficionados now, you still can’t do much better than to spend a week in north-west Donegal. There are five unmissable links courses at Rosapenna, Portsalon and Ballyliffin, and one of the world’s best nine-hole tracks at Cruit Island. And there’s some very good, if very different, links golf at Narin and Portnoo, Northwest and at the newly revived links at Dunfanaghy. As for hidden gems elsewhere, we would recommend Laytown and Bettystown, and Strandhill â€œ both overshadowed by more glamorous neighbours (Baltray and Sligo) and often overlooked as a result.
If you had asked us that 15 years ago, we would have said no, but since then there’s been a veritable rush of building. Some have suggested that the mid-90s rush was motivated at least in part by a desire to pre-date the EU Special Areas of Conservation laws, and it is interesting to note that all of the proposed projects in the current decade seem to be mired at various stages of the planning process. It has been reported (there is a good thread on GCA, as usual) that David McLay Kidd was at one time involved in a project to be called “The Giant’s Links” near Bushmills, but that seems to have stalled or been abandoned. Faldo seems to be trying at Bartra near Enniscrone, and there is the project by Tom Doak at Kilshannig Cross. There is also the ongoing question of what will come of the two courses at St. Patrick’s, recently abandoned by the Nicklaus group.
You have played golf there in eight of the twelve months; have you determined an ideal season or time of the year to go? How about a time to avoid?
The weather is a lottery at just about any time from April to October. We have had glorious days in April and bad ones in August. In winter (roughly from November to March) the light will be poor and a few courses may insist on hitting off mats or be closed to visitors entirely (such as Tralee), so those are the only months we would definitely avoid. Interestingly, May and September are often the busiest months for visiting golfers, so you may have more flexibility during the summer months.