Literary Dublin and an Incomparable Links on its Doorstep

Portmarnock quietly stands the test of time

Mark your calendar: the Dublin Writers Festival, Ireland’s premier literary event celebrating both Irish and international writers, will be held in the ancient Viking city by way of James Joyce from June 1 – 6, 2010.

Dozens of notable authors will participate in the forums, which promise to be very stimulating. There’s a poetry celebration scheduled with the likes of Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s poet laureate, but in looking over the agenda my eyes were drawn to a special event that brings together two very disparate characters: Ian McEwan, the prolific Booker Prize-winning novelist; and ‘eco-pragmatist’ Stewart Brand, a ‘60s icon and founder of the era-defining Whole Earth Catalogue. Together, they will host a symposium to examine how art and science can and should engage with society’s growing concerns about the earth’s future.

Stewart Brand's manifesto

McEwan–author of Atonement, On Chesil Beach and Saturdayturned his focus to cutting-edge physics and climate change in Solar, his latest novel. In 2005, McEwan joined a team of artists and scientists in the Arctic Circle to witness global warming first-hand. Two years later, he was invited to address a symposium of Nobel laureates on the same topic. Solar is the culmination of these experiences, a darkly satirical tale of a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose last chance to reinvigorate his career might also just save the planet.

A key influence on McEwan’s own environmental position is Stewart Brand. Brand’s counter-culture credentials are impressive: He studied ecology with Paul Ehrlich. He also ‘turned on,’ ‘tuned in’ and ‘dropped out’ for a time with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. A true eco-pioneer, Brand’s current stance is a departure from old-school green thinking. For him,  ideology is no longer enough. His latest book–Whole Earth Disciplineis a forceful argument for science-led pragmatism that embraces urbanization, nuclear power and biotechnology as the only viable solutions to our global crisis.

Of course, even the most erudite festival attendee cannot live solely on literary discussions and late-night pub crawls. There is serious golf to be played on the outskirts of Dublin. Twelve miles north of the city near Howth, a major fishery crammed with trawlers, is a timeless links that presents the fairest test in all of Eire. There are links courses in Ireland with bigger dunes and grander thrills, but for me Portmarnock Golf Club, splayed across a sandy peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea, is in a class of its own.

Founded in 1894, Portmarnock has been revised and improved over the past few years by third-generation architect Martin Hawtree, whose father, Fred, built a third nine for the club in 1971. Portmarnock adheres closely to its mission statement: “The essence of links golf is that the fairways, aprons and greens be firm, fast and true.” The course, its dimpled fairways tucked into shallow valleys in the dunes, its expansive greens set atop subtle plateaux, changes direction constantly and invites the wind from all quarters. An honest test with no blind shots and little in the way of capriciousness, Portmarnock is the purest–and perhaps the finest–expression of links golf in Ireland.

Its pedigree is beyond question. The land on which the course sits was originally owned by the Jamesons, the distilling family known for its Irish whiskey. For many years a Jameson served as president of the club. According to legend, the club’s flagpole was pinched from the family yacht.

When I took my dad to Portmarnock 20 years ago, Harry Bradshaw, who finished runner-up in the 1949 British Open after his ball rolled into a broken beer bottle, was there to greet us on the first tee. The club’s head pro for 40 years, Bradshaw, dressed in a tightly buttoned tweed jacket and a flat wool cap, was exceedingly amiable and far too polite to a couple of middle-class guys from Yonkers, N.Y.  Now deceased, there’s a lovely room named for the beloved pro in the clubhouse.

A seemingly innocuous links that does not jump out of the ground to announce its greatness, Portmarnock is straightforward in its presentation of targets and dangers. It was readily apparent to me and my dad that the fairway was the place to be: Portmarnock is pockmarked with 120 bunkers and cosseted by the thickest, most luxuriant rough I’ve ever seen. This is a proving ground that separates the men from the boys. (For the record, Portmarnock is a men’s club that permits play by women). Twice we watched thunderclouds sweep across the Irish Sea and darken the links, pelting it with rain. Our caddie guided us to modest shelters on both occasions. Given the weather delays and our late start, we came up the 18th in the gloaming, the last players in. We sipped Guinness in the clubhouse till darkness fell, a round to be remembered.

I like Jim Finegan’s description of Portmarnock in Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas: “There are no hills here; the overall elevation change could scarcely be 15 feet. The wind blows freely across every square inch of a links that is bounded on three sides by water; nowhere are you sheltered from it. And since the imaginative routing plan only once has two consecutive holes running in the same direction, the battle with the wind is a constantly shifting one. An occasional tree rears its wind-warped limbs, but nowhere near the line of play.”

On the competition side, Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead teamed to win the Canada Cup (precursor to the World Cup) at Portmarnock in 1960. Phil Mickelson was a member of the 1991 Walker Cup team that triumphed over Great Britain and Ireland at the club. (Locals still talk about his full-swing greenside flop shots). An 18-time site of the Irish Open Championship,

Portmarnock is revered by the professionals, mainly because skill will always outshine luck on a links that has been skillfully developed to its present supremacy. A roster of the club’s Irish Open champions is a who’s who of shotmakers: Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Jose-Maria Olazabal and many more.

Portmarnock: the classic Irish links

The scorecard rates the long par-four fourth, its serpentine fairway laid into shouldering dunes, as the toughest hole, but the 190-yard 15th, a stunning par three that parallels the beach, is far more treacherous when a salty breeze whips in off the sea to the right. The narrow, tabletop green, which shelves away on all sides and is flanked by a pair of insidious pot bunkers at its entrance, can be very difficult to hold. Only a solid, inspired stroke will do. No less an authority than Arnold Palmer regards this hole as the best par three in the world. Given how I played it, I prefer Ben Crenshaw’s description of Portmarnock’s 15th: “The shortest par five in the world.”

Beyond the hole’s reputation, the pulpit tee at No. 15, perched in the dunes, has fine views of the long strand and the moody sea. Stony islands pop into view on a clear day, as do the violet-tinged Mountains of Mourne, which sweep down to the sea to the north. Closer at hand, waders and gulls work the mudflats in the estuary. Large flocks of mixed terns often skim the surface of the water. Wild roses, sea lavender and orchids thrive along the foreshore, as do the trouser-ripping bushes associated with links golf–gorse and hawthorn, briar and buckthorn.

Hawtree, who very quietly has refurbished several top Irish courses, including Lahinch and Royal Dublin, has improved the look and playability of several holes at Portmarnock, notably at the par-four first. Here he realigned the fairway closer to the sea wall, built up the landing area for better coastal protection and remodeled the green to suit the new alignment. The club’s previously innocuous opener is now a risk-reward gem that favors a bold drive to the right but preserves the ability to play a run-up shot between a pair of bunkers onto the green.

Hawtree, an Englishman, clearly has a fondness for the tongue of linksland that divides the Irish Sea and a tidal bay outside Dublin. “Within the curve of the coastline, it (Portmarnock) offers stunning views of Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island, rising sharply from deep waters,” he wrote. “But above all, there is the charm of its delightful turf, the wildness, the solitude of the sandhills and the sea, and the ever-present challenge of the wind.”

Even if I don’t make it to the Festival, that’s poetry enough for me.

One Response to “Literary Dublin and an Incomparable Links on its Doorstep”

  1. Mungo Park

    Mr McCallen, I did enjoy your piece on Portmarnock, and my friend Martin Hawtree is undoubtedly one of the ablest golf architects around. You may be interested to know that the course was designed for the club by my great grandfather’s brother, also named Mungo Park, in 1893/4. This year is a special one for the Park family, as it is the 150th anniversary of the first Open Championship being won at Prestwick by my great grandfather, Willie Park Snr.


    Mungo Park

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