Carne Golf Links’ New Nine

Carne Golf Links in County Mayo, by general acclaim an exhilarating and formidable addition to the world’s roster of great links courses since its opening in 1995, recently debuted a third nine to complement its original Eddie Hackett-designed 18,.  There are good reasons, especially on a course with heavy play, to build 27 holes. You can perform maintenance tasks, for example, without closing the course. But one potential cost of operating 27 holes is the risk of confusion about which 18 is the “real” course. Carne’s decision to create the new 9, which it calls “Kilmore,” seems to have been driven more by the spirit animating the original course’s creation than by demand.  John Garrity explained the attitude guiding Carne’s gestation in Ancestral Links: there’s a great piece of ground for golf here in Belmullet, said the founders of Erris Tourism, the company established to develop, own and operate Carne Golf Links, so let’s create the best course our budget will allow.  That same determination underwrote the building of the Kilmore nine.

An 18-hole course may be good, bad, or indifferent, but there is no ambiguity about what it is.  Twenty-seven-hole courses, however, always struggle to establish their identity. While the nines at a 27-hole course can combine into three alternative 18-hole course routings—1+2, 1+3, or 2+3—they are always seen as a hybrid or blend rather than a “true” course.   The architect may try to design three balanced nines, but it’s a hard goal to achieve, due to restraints in the site, the difficulty of getting three comparable loops to return to the clubhouse, and so on. History and tradition at a 36-hole club will establish one of its courses as the championship test, as the East Course is at Oak Hill or the Lake Course is at The Olympic Club. At a twenty-seven-hole complex, however, it’s a challenge to determine the optimal course.  Even if two nines are combined into an eighteen-hole setup that’s always used for tournament play, guests may rarely play that specific layout.  That’s part of the challenge Carne faced when it decided to add another nine. 

In addition to the prospect of playing the three nines in their various combinations—the Kilmore with the Hackett front, or the Kilmore with the Hackett back—Carne’s management team discovered a Composite Course, combining all nine holes from Hackett’s back nine with the new Kilmore holes, but in a sequence that combines seven holes from the original nine with two new holes as the Composite’s front, and then the remaining seven new holes plus Hackett’s original finishing holes, 17 and 18, as the back.

A group of golf writers gathered at Carne in late July, 2013, for the soft opening of the new nine-hole loop whittled through the land Hackett had disregarded when he laid out Carne’s original back nine.  Playing the Composite Course invited comparison between the new and old holes, and between Hackett’s course and the Kilmore.  While Hackett’s front nine used roughly fifty-five acres of relatively flat land on the eastern portion of the site, all eighteen holes of the Composite Course are on Carne’s western and southern portions, where the land is most severe. 

The rule of thumb in golf design is that a steep site requires more land than a flat site, especially when the holes have to be benched into the slopes using heavy equipment.  Carne’s original eighteen was built, however, with minimal grading, which meant finding the relatively flat portions where holes could most readily be created was the principal challenge of the original design.  This was a task at which Hackett excelled, working much in the manner of his esteemed precursors, the venerated early designers possessed of an instinctive understanding of what makes a good golf hole, such as Old Tom Morris.  Carne’s eastern portion, with the gentlest terrain, was the obvious place for Hackett to start.  He laid out a series of mostly excellent but not terribly difficult holes there.  Then he moved west into the irregular, brawny dunescape that gives Carne its identity, and created a course that can only be described by echoing Ben Hogan’s assessment of Oakland Hills after the 1951 US Open: it’s a monster. And I mean that in a good way.

Grades of more than 10%, especially on ground where the turf can get hard and fast, means there is no chance of stopping the ball from running out, and an errant shot at Carne, given the depths of the canyons and the thickness of the marram grass menacing every fairway edge, spells doom.  Creating fairways which used the native ground but were still capable of holding a shot was Hackett’s greatest challenge, and one which was even more acute for the architect of the Kilmore 9, Ally McIntosh, whose canvas, after all, was the land Hackett had already judged daunting.


Ally McIntosh, Designer of Kilmore

Ally McIntosh, Designer of Kilmore

McIntosh is a 39 year old Scotsman who lives with his Irish wife in Dublin.  Trained as an engineer, McIntosh decided seven years ago to enroll in the European Institute of Golf Course Architect’s education program.  The EIGCA’s website is candid about its students’ prospects:  “A career in golf course architecture,” it notes “is not easily obtainable.”  That’s putting it mildly.  The market for the services of golf course architects has been worse over the last six years than at any time since the Great Depression and WWII.  As McIntosh notes, his “timing was not good.”  Kilmore is his first project as lead designer, even though he was adapting a conceptual routing plan by Jim Engh, a prominent US designer who is also an overseas member of Carne.

After laying out the front nine, Hackett had an area of roughly 160 acres still available for the back nine, most of it characterized by irregularly shaped dunes rising as much as fifty feet above the base grades.  He abandoned most of the southwestern third of this portion of the site, both because the terrain was difficult and because he had found a way to create a nine-hole circuit returning to the clubhouse without using it. 

McIntosh’s first challenge was the getaway hole, which he placed parallel to Hackett’s 10th.  Both are par fives playing to the northwest which start with an uphill tee shot to a landing area that rises thirty feet are so above the tee.  The fairways, in John Garrity’s words, “disappear over the crest of the hill.”  Kilmore’s new green is tucked against a dune, with a deep swale between it and the second shot landing area.  Playing as the 13th hole in the Composite Course, the first of the Kilmore holes very much resembles Hackett’s work, both in the character of the fairways and the location and shape of the green.

The second hole in the Kilmore nine, like the second in Hackett’s front, is a par 3.  As a general rule, architects like to avoid par 3 second holes because they slow down play, but on a course like Carne, such considerations are irrelevant, for several reasons.  First, members at Carne (the Belmullet Golf Club) play fast and don’t obsess over stroke scores.  They’re not going to grind out a triple bogey after a poor tee shot. Second, because Carne’s layout was driven above all by the inherent limitations of the site, which meant starting by identifying a series of linkable green locations, putting a hole where it fit best had priority over other elements, such as proximity of greens to the following tee.  And finally, the whole point of links golf is to defy any strict principles of design to create a course that is challenging, fits the site and does as it pleases.  So a par three second is not only acceptable, it’s welcome.

The Kilmore second has an elevated tee with a panoramic view providing an excellent portrait of the scale of Carne’s dunes.  The size of its very large green is disguised by the heft of the dunes surrounding it, and by the green’s relative flatness, which compresses perspective.  Depending on where the cup is cut, the green offers at least a four-club flexibility on this 165 meter hole, and that doesn’t account for the effect of wind.  I can imagine hitting anything from a wedge to a driver on this hole, making it the epitome of a links par three.   Just over a relatively subtle hillock on the front right of the green is a large, deep, totally terrifying bunker hidden from the tee.   The hole reminds me of the second at Oregon’s Bandon Trails, which has a large partially hidden bunker on the right side of the green.    

The Kilmore third is a short par four, similar in length to the 11th on the Hackett, but with a clearer path to the hole.  If the second at the Kilmore calls to mind Bandon Trails, the Hackett 11th is reminiscent of the 8th at Cypress Point, a short hole wrapped around a steep and imposing nose with a small shelved green hidden behind it.  As the crow flies, the distance from tee to green is about 320 meters, but the risks of taking the direct route are huge—if you miss short, you’re dead; if you miss long left, you’re mortally wounded; if you miss right, you’re lost. 

The Kilmore third resembles the Hackett twelfth in character, and is the least definitive of the new holes and the most likely to evolve. Kilmore’s fourth is the second and shortest of its three par 3s, playing at only 146 meters.  It has a postage stamp green, with bunkers right and left.  In the Composite Course, it’s the preamble to the arduous finishing holes on the Hackett, the 17th, Garrity’s Moby Dick, and the 18th, a tight double dogleg par 5 which descends like an angry snake back to the clubhouse.

Kilmore’s fifth plays as number eight in the Composite Course, and is the sole hole of the new design that I felt was not quite in keeping with the overall character of Carne.  The tee shot is excellent, with an accommodating fairway that swings left around an imposing dune.  McIntosh decided to create a landing area from about the mid-point of the back side of this dune to invite players to take on the risk of a shot over the dune, rather than the prudent play out to the left and around the dune.  The landing area created is steep unless the shot carries down onto the confluence of the left routing fairway with this alternative route.  The risk of the heroic route is muted by this design.  Good players will figure out quickly that they can cut off the dog leg with a great shot over the dune, but most players will only increase the probability of disaster assaying this route.  I don’t see anything wrong with a par 5 (and this is the second of the par 5s on the Kilmore, to balance the three par 3s) that requires a layup second.

McIntosh explained the thinking behind this hole. “I really want to see how it plays out over the next year or so,” Ally explained in an email. “Most of the hole was inherited but we left it in the routing and did some work on the mid-dune to make it more playable.  The low road to the left would be ideal if a little wider but you work with what you’ve got. The bad-side to just leaving the left route is that the better player may just have a drive, 8-iron, 8-iron which is never ideal.”

A mid to high handicapper would be better served hitting a shot of 160 meters or so down the left side, leaving a third of perhaps 120 to the green.  “We cleared the right route as much as possible,” McIntosh explained, “because in my experience there is nothing more frustrating than hitting what you think is a perfect blind shot to find out that you’ve lost your ball.” But that’s my point—it should be an heroic shot, but it’s made less so if the risk is largely removed.  It’s then just a quirky hole without the appeal of, for example, Hackett’s 17, which requires perfection for par.

McIntosh is open to modifying this hole, depending on how it’s perceived and its effect on pace of play.  “There is the option to grow this back in as semi-rough in future,” he pointed out, “if we find it is the default option. If it ends up 50/50 then that is perfect in my book.”

He also noted that “a bell will go in for people to ring prior to arriving on the green (as the hole isn’t really reachable in 2),” which frankly gives me a chill.   A bell was recently installed on the par 5 fourth of the Hackett course, as the Chairman of Ennis Tourism, the affable Gerry Maguire, pointed out to me when we played the Hackett front nine.  He was not fond of it.

The Kilmore sixth is a short par 4 running parallel to the long par 5 13th of the Hackett course.  It runs almost directly up hill, and has an exquisitely placed pot bunker in the landing area.  The 7th is the long par 3, playing at 209 meters.  Playing almost level, 7 is a great single shot hole.  8 and 9 on the Kilmore make the turn back toward home.   Both require precise tee shots, and are good, demanding holes, but not as difficult as Hackett’s original 17 and 18.  The composite course makes good use of them as the 11th and 12th holes—they fit well with the rhythm and pace of the Hackett holes.

Most of the tees and greens on the Kilmore were grassed with sod harvested on site rather than seeded.   “We were worried we’d lose the greens through wind and erosion if seeded,” McIntosh said.  “However they are currently getting overseeded with fescue as per the original 18.” 

Where the fairway surfaces were not modified, “they were mown out,” McIntosh said, but they’re now “being topdressed and overseeded with fescue.”  The areas disturbed during construction were first stripped of the rough sod, which was laid back down after the grading was complete. “This was to initially stabilize the soil,” McIntosh noted, and they are “now over-seeding with fescue and using the odd bit of Rescue to get rid of any rye grass.”

Perhaps the most astonishing fact of the Kilmore’s creation was its cost.  The “official budget,”  according to McIntosh, was $200,000.  To put this in some perspective, $200,000 would have been less than the amount budgeted to build a single hole on a typical 18 hole course in the USA during the boom years.  Kilmore’s expenses were mostly for irrigation heads for the greens and tees and “some small amounts of labor.”  Kilmore will continue to evolve, as all courses do, but its basic structure is sound, and the likelihood seems high to me that the Composite Course will establish itself as the most challenging for championship play, while the Hackett 18 will always command the loyalty and affection of the original members of the Belmullet Club and Erris Tourism, the custodians of the strapping, merciless, and beguiling Carne Golf Links.










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