Friday 21 October 2016

North Dublin's ambitious pretender continues to grow in stature

Dermot Gilleece

Published 24/04/2016 | 17:00

Bernhard Langer visited the linksland near Portmarnock village in 1993 Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Bernhard Langer visited the linksland near Portmarnock village in 1993 Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

On a Monday morning in late June 1993, reigning US Masters champion Bernhard Langer was dressed in gear somewhat removed from Augusta green, while surveying classic linksland close by Portmarnock village. He was, in fact, wearing a sweater and jeans for the role of architectural advisor to an exciting new venture in Irish golf.

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Since then, through incarnations which brought a mixture of joy and profound disappointment to an ever-increasing band of admirers, Portmarnock Links has now embarked on an exciting new chapter in its relatively young life. And judging by how it sparkled in bright sunshine last week, the future looks decidedly healthy.

When Langer visited the site on his way to the Irish Open at Mount Juliet, he described the terrain as "perfect", given the absence of trees to which he happens to be allergic. "I haven't sneezed all day," he said, careful not to spoil his serious image with excessive levity, while making his two Masters triumphs amid Georgia pines all the more remarkable.

On the Tuesday morning of Open Championship week at Royal Birkdale in July 2008, I happened across two members of Clontarf Golf Club looking very much down at heel. "Did you hear the news?" they asked me as a fellow member. "The Links deal is off."

This was a very significant project, valued at €125m, which would have had 600 full members of Clontarf GC each receiving €100,000. Predictably, there was overwhelming support for what would have meant an enviable €200,000 where a husband and wife were members. Indeed, in one case, a family of husband, wife, son and daughter could have looked towards a windfall of €400,000.

All of this had been floated the previous August by Capel Development, who had bought Portmarnock Links for a reported €75m in 2005 and were now initiating a relocation deal for Clontarf's 75-acre site less than two miles from Dublin's city centre. When the deal collapsed, you could imagine financial hardship for certain, presumptuous Clontarf members - yet, interestingly, I've since heard nothing to that effect.

Portmarnock Links had tremendous appeal, not only for the quality of the course, but for the admirable staff headed brilliantly by Moira Cassidy, who is now in her 21st year as Director of Golf - and under four different employers. I retain particularly fond memories of the starters, Michael Doran and Tony Murtagh, who were invariably warm and welcoming.

With mischievous wit, Doran delighted in poking gentle fun at American visitors, who seemed to enjoy the banter as much as he did. On one occasion a group arrived on the first tee, declaring themselves to be proud natives of Oklahoma. "Oh, I was in Oklahoma once," said the bold Michael. Which part, he was asked, perhaps Tulsa or Oklahoma City? "Neither. I was in the chorus," came the cheery reply.

Then there was the occasion when a member of another American group approached Doran, conspiratorially whispering: "One of our guys fancies himself as a serious golfer, and the first thing he's going to ask you is what's the record around here." Sure enough, the question duly came - to which Doran replied: "About two hours 20 minutes, sir."

The Links covers an area which is essentially an extension of the shallow duneland of its more illustrious neighbour and was once the property of the Jameson distilling family. One of the family, Annie, famously married Giuseppe Marconi, the inventor of the wireless. The site is also associated with more ancient history, which explains the presence of horizontal lines towards the edges of the stone tee markers, replicating ancient Ogham writing dating back to the second-century druids.

Locals take pride, too, in the fact that, in more recent times, the Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith took off from Portmarnock strand in June 1930 with his Irish navigator Captain Saul, en route to Newfoundland - which they reached 31-and-a-half hours later.

The development of the Links at a total projected cost of £14m was originally a joint venture by Mark McCormack's International Management Group (IMG) and Columbia Investments, owned by Tony O'Reilly. Of that figure, £8m was to have been spent on a 130-bedroom hotel situated near the driveway to Portmarnock GC, but this was abandoned when it became possible through a land swap with Dublin County Council to integrate the golf course with the old Country Club Hotel.

Meanwhile, location was hugely beneficial, which Langer immediately recognised. "Obviously, it's a considerable bonus to be situated beside such a famous neighbour as Portmarnock, which is one of the best links courses in the world," he said. "But this course will have its own character."

With the addition of a splendid new short-game practice area, the course is currently being carefully upgraded at a cost of €1m by its latest owners, Kennedy Wilson, who acquired the property in June 2014. At a further cost of €8m, they are in the process of refurbishing and extending the hotel, where work will be completed in early July.

The Links has always been a favourite of mine, not least for its overall quality, especially its challenging greens - though the revetted bunkering seems excessively penal in places, especially for higher handicap players. Its notable milestones include two Irish Ladies Opens, won by Suzann Pettersen in 2008 and Diana Luna in 2009.

My most enduring memory, however, is of an event which was essentially unofficial. It happened in mid-September 1998 when Darren Clarke, in a remarkable gesture, spearheaded a one-day pro-am at the Links which raised almost £350,000 for families affected by the Omagh bombing the previous month. Colin Montgomerie was among the professionals who responded to the call. Jose Maria Olazabal was also there to honour the Spanish dead at Omagh while carrying an awareness, no doubt, of the horrors of terrorism through his roots in the Basque region of Spain. Ian Woosnam played, too.

Then there was the special poignancy of Christy O'Connor Jnr leading one of the 27 teams, only a week after the tragic death of his 17-year-old son, Darren, in a car crash.

And his illustrious uncle, Christy Snr, was present to honour strong ties with Omagh Golf Club, going back to his days as resident professional at Bundoran more than 40 years previously. "I used to go regularly to Omagh to play in exhibitions and they always treated me very well," he said.

The promise of a buoyant season for golf tourism to this country should mean 25,000 visitor rounds at North Dublin's ambitious pretender, quite apart from those by its 136 members.

All of whom can look to savouring what celebrated scribe Bernard Darwin had in mind in his famous reference to the joys of "a sporting links".

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