After promising myself I would do this kind of stuff all the time, and making exactly one golf trip since moving abroad almost two years ago, I jumped a flight from Amsterdam to Dublin for a weekend ball striking extravaganza at some of the best courses the east coast of Ireland has to offer for my first ever experience with Irish golf. My buddy Barry O’Hanrahan from the A Good Talk Spoiled Podcast picked me up at the airport, and we drove directly to The Island Golf Club (Check out my review of The Island Club here in Part I). After some pizza, whiskey, and a few hours sleep, we were off for more incredible golf at The K Club (full review here). A quick pint and some lunch were had at the clubhouse, and then it was off to Portmarnock Golf Club. (Check out our review of all four courses in podcast form here).
Portmarnock Golf Club
To quickly give you an idea as to how highly thought of this course is, take a look at who was spotted on the grounds just a week before the Open Championship:
Une rencontre insolite pour préparer @TheOpen sur le parcours @PGC1894 @DJohnsonPGA vainqueur de @USGA ?⛳️? pic.twitter.com/3oT4d6GILI
— Laurent Verdiere (@LaurentParisPro) July 11, 2016
After we finished our final round of the trip, I was asked by the professional in the golf shop at Killeen Castle how I would rank the four courses we played. I obviously refused the question, as the courses really are impossible to compare to each other due to their contrasting styles, the different conditions we played them in, and the success (or lack thereof) of my game on that day. But if I absolutely had to choose one of these courses as my favorite, I would be hard pressed not to choose Portmarnock.
This was our second links experience on the trip, yet completely different from the style of play at the Island Golf Club. Gone are the high dunes that frame each hole, and ushered in are resplendent views of the sea, and other nearby challenging holes awaiting you. The dunes at the Island did not shield your ball from the wind, but they did shield your body a bit from time to time. No such luxury is afforded at Portmarnock, and on this sunny Saturday afternoon, if your scorecard flew out of your pocket, it was likely to be gone.
It’s hard to describe a lot of the holes and the shots played without a bit of visualization, so see below for an aerial image taken from their website, with some rough drawings on top of what I’m trying to show. No one likes the guy that tells you about every shot of his round, as even the best actors can’t feign enough interest in the play-by-play. I’m not going to pretend that you care about my actual shot-by-shot, but I do want to tell the story of a few holes to hopefully give you an idea as to what it is like to try to piece the puzzle together on these links courses, and to illustrate how much thinking has to go into every shot, as I do think that is absolutely essential to describing this golf experience.
On this day, the wind eased you in by remaining at our backs for the first three holes, which appeared to be rather straightforward par-4’s on the card. I tried to cut the corner at the 380 yard first and drive the green, but barely tugged it too far left, and held up in the long stuff about 60 yards short of the green. Barry grabbed a 3-iron, stung one down the fairway, and watched it roll….. and roll….. and roll. It ended up about even with where I hit my (busted) drive, and his Game Golf app later told him he hit that 3-iron 308 yards. This emphasized the influence the wind had on the ball (even on the ground), the firmness of the fairways, the importance of finding the short grass, and the risk you run of not being able to stop the ball once it’s on the short stuff.
I talked a bit about this on the podcast with Barry, but one hole that sticks out in my mind is probably one that wouldn’t be one of the first ones to come to someone’s mind who has played the course, and that’s the third (see the top right of the image below). What is cut out of the picture is that there is a hazard that frames the right side of the hole. It’s a short hole, and with the wind coming off our backs and from the left, the hazard is pretty much all you can think about. In the past, when I’m not taking driver off the tee, I reach for a 3-iron and either punch one out low, or take a normal full swing. I learned the lesson last year at Carnoustie that with a wind at your back on a links course, I reached for a 3-iron to play short of a burn (I know what you’re thinking, but save it…. driver was not an option). My caddie stopped me, and handed me a 6-iron. I was flabbergasted. I hit the 6-iron, and it rolled out 235 yards, just short of the burn that came in at 240 (there was no more questioning of Ian’s club choices the rest of the way).
On this third tee, I thought back to that exact hole, resisted the urge to pull the 3-iron stinger, and instead opted for a baby 5-iron. It rode the wind just enough, rolled out once it landed, but not too much to reach the hazard, leaving only a wedge into the green. What seemed like a rather innocuous tee shot was extremely rewarding, as I honestly felt like I had learned something from previous experience.
However, for every good decision I made, I typically offset it with a poor one. The 9th hole played straight back into the wind, and the 400-ish yard par-4 was pretty much unreachable, as my well struck 3-iron from 180 fell embarrassingly short of the green. After taking that punishment, I figured it was time to take advantage of the wind being at my back on the 350 yard 10th. I of course reached for the driver, hung one out the right, and ended up just short of pin high in the high stuff. I looked at the remaining shot I had left, easily under 60 yards, and already knew that I was probably going to make a 5 at best. It turns out that you absolutely can not approach this green from the right, as it looks like a Donald Ross green multiplied by three. If I carried a wedge all the way onto the table top surface, it was going to go long. If I tried to run one into the bank, it was likely going to come back down the huge slope (it did). And so did my next putt. Then my next putt went off the green long. One simple mistake, and the price was paid. Double bogey.
Another key factor that I loved about Portmarnock was the rough. It was long and wispy, but you could find your ball every single time. It was punishing, but not automatic-wedge-out punishing. You couldn’t get a 5-iron on a ball from it, but you could hit the green with an 8-iron if you needed to. This meant we spent minimal time looking for balls, yet the course still demanded accuracy off the tee. It’s just a fantastic golf experience that would have to be in my top-10 courses that I’ve ever played.
As was the theme for the weekend, we headed inside the clubhouse for a cold Guinness. Similar to our experience at the K Club, I could have spent at least an hour in that clubhouse just looking at the pictures and the plaques. The names that have walked these grounds include, but are not limited to Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Rory McIlroy, and many, many more. The dining room and bar are upstairs, and include a 180 view of the golf course that beat us up over the last three and a half hours. I will leave you with this quote from Padraig Harrington, regarding his experience at the fantastic Portmarnock Golf Club:
“Portmarnock is the fairest links I have ever played, which is unusual because links golf by its very nature can be unfair. It is almost perfectly balanced in that it is both challenging and demanding for every level of golfer…..as stern an exam as a professional could wish for from the back tees, and an equally strict test for the more modest player off the medal tees. ”
Do yourself a favor and click through the other pictures on the website. Thanks to the folks at Portmarnock for having us out for a truly memorable experience!