Tuesday 16 January 2018

Reconstructing the boundaries of Colt's masterpiece

Royal Portrush has grand designs for two new holes

Darren Clarke: 'If it's a beautiful setting you're looking for, I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the fifth at Portrush, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond.'
Darren Clarke: 'If it's a beautiful setting you're looking for, I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the fifth at Portrush, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond.'

Dermot Gilleece

Concluding the Open Championship on the 16th hole of an iconic venue, having started on the 17th, is not the sacrilege it might appear, as we discovered at Hoylake last weekend. Plans for Royal Portrush, however, carry the considerable mitigation of what might be termed a normal start, with the more serious adjustments being made elsewhere on the front nine.

Towards the end of August, a special general meeting of the club's members will vote on plans to construct two new holes based in an area of the neighbouring Valley Course, to a design by the British architect, Martin Ebert. Located to the right of the green at the existing short sixth on the Dunluce Course, they will become the new seventh and eighth, before the old course is rejoined for the remainder of the outward journey.

Once the members give the nod, which is thought to be automatic, the changes will be submitted to the planning authorities. And there are also ecology issues to be considered, according to a club official, who added: "When these matters are dealt with, we will have a better idea of the timescale involved. The important thing is having the belief that we can do it."

Before reaching one of his more significant decisions prior to retirement next year, R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson, had lengthy discussions with Portrush officials and is reported to have been very impressed with their positivity.

In the wake of the decision to restore Portrush to the Open rota, Dawson confirmed last week that there are no plans to remove any existing venue. "With one more course, it means that every other course will get The Open slightly less often," he explained.

The choice of Ebert, a partner in the design practice of Mackenzie and Ebert, is based on a lengthy association with the club going back to their preparations for the 1993 British Amateur, when he worked with Donald Steel. An acknowledged links expert who did splendid work at Enniscrone, Steel also happened to be a great admirer of Harry Colt, the original designer of the Dunluce Course.

There are those who would consider any tampering with Colt's masterpiece as nothing short of vandalism. It should be noted, however, that the eighth and ninth were, in fact, designed by prominent club member, Tony Babington, and erstwhile club professional, PD "Stevie" Stevenson, prior to the 1951 Open. Indeed the proposed new finishing hole, the 442-yard 16th with out of bounds beckoning on the left and bunkers at 260 to 271 yards off the tee, goes by the name of "Babington's".

When looking over the area of the proposed new holes during a recent visit, I thought of Darren Clarke's claim that "if it's a beautiful setting you're looking for, I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the fifth at Portrush, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond."

Effectively, the fifth and sixth of the Valley will be re-created into a par-four and a par-five. When you finish the short sixth on Dunluce, the seventh will be located in the area of the existing sixth on the Valley (237-yard par-three) and the fifth on the Valley (336-yard par four) will form the basis of the new eighth.

Judging by the extent of wild duneland which I observed in that area, it is clear that we're effectively talking about two new holes. In the event, the present seventh on Dunluce becomes the new ninth and the course ends on the 16th, with two nines of 36 being maintained and no change to the overall par of 72. And as we saw at Hoylake, there is nothing new about making logistical changes to established courses for the staging of major events.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the men-only or single-sex issue, formed part of the discussions with Dawson, which is hardly surprising in view of the flak levelled at the R&A over Muirfield as last year's Open venue. He was assured that Royal Portrush is most definitely a mixed club, though the lady members have long had their own, separate clubhouse, where I happened to enjoy "elevenses" as a guest some years ago.

The club's constitution states: "Membership of the club shall be in the following classes - ordinary members, life members, honorary members, temporary members, clubhouse members, weekday members, student members, Great Britain members, members of the Ladies Branch." The ladies pay their fees to the club which oversees them. Other categories, incidentally, include residents of the Republic of Ireland.

Then there are the members of Rathmore GC, where Graeme McDowell learned his craft. They were originally known as privileged players, who were accorded a Portrush membership category on the basis that they lived within the boundary of the town. Their playing privileges are over the Valley Course which involves reduced subscriptions and the residency stipulation still applies.

So, where equal golfing rights are concerned, Portrush is in a far stronger position, for instance, than Royal Troon. There, Troon Ladies play over the Portland Course in return for a facility fee to Royal Troon. But they remain a separate, self-financing entity, with no membership connection to the parent club.

When the Portrush official went on to claim proudly that they would become the first golf course with a 20-hole complex, I hadn't the heart to point out that The European Club had got there some time before them.

As for the current 17th and 18th: there is no question of flattening them so as to facilitate tentage for the Open. As it happens, they are virtually flat anyway, though some gentle levelling may be necessary here and there. Nor is there any plan to remove Big Nellie, the towering bunker to the right of the drive down the long 17th, which means that when the tented village is gone, the members can revert to the old 17th and 18th if they so wish.

Plans are also in hand for replacement holes in the Valley. I was informed "there are a couple of very fine, really old holes that have been discovered in the area of the Valley and the Little Skerries [the so-called Himalayas]. So the plan is to restore those old holes which, we're confident, will look fantastic."

From my enquiries, it became clear that the widespread assumption of 2019 being earmarked for the Open's return to Portrush, may be somewhat previous. When questioned as to the likely year, the official replied: "There is several years' work to be done, but we're very pleased with what has been achieved so far. And the membership are delighted, because this is something we've been seeking for years. To keep our name out there. The Open Championship is the great prize.

"This is something for Portrush, for Northern Ireland, for Ireland. The Open is coming back to Ireland. And the bigger picture is the tremendous possibilities it opens up for the golf industry in Ireland, when you consider that Dublin Airport is only three hours away from us. [At the moment, the North do about a tenth of the golf tourist business done in the South]. We're all going to become one big, happy country."

Finally, on the matter of money, the understanding is that the Northern Ireland government will liaise with the R&A on the cost of the proposed changes, which will include communications. In fact, the R&A will foot the bill, with a degree of reimbursement anticipated down the line, as a result of their dealings with local politicians.

All of which makes for decidedly interesting times ahead.

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