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Shortcut to the long game

Dermot Gilleece

Pat Ruddy's new par three at Ballyliffin has potential to take advantage of future trends while boosting golf tourism in Inishowen


Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA. Photo: Getty

Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA. Photo: Getty

Getty Images

Ballyliffin Golf Club. Photo: Sportsfile

Ballyliffin Golf Club. Photo: Sportsfile



Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA. Photo: Getty

While golf's governing bodies were finalising their long-awaited proposals on what to do about increasingly long hitting, Pat Ruddy could sail blithely on with his latest project. For it happens to be a par three creation at Ballyliffin GC.

The nine-hole Pollan Links will be opened this summer as a reflection of a remarkably progressive establishment. At an investment of €250,000, it comes only two years after Ballyliffin paid €500,000 for the privilege of staging the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

Their confidence in the future was strengthened by the recent PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, where Fáilte Ireland were selling Irish golf tourism like never before. Ironically, this could also be seen as highlighting the urban-rural divide inflicted on the game by power play.

At a time when pronouncements from the Royal and Ancient and the US Golf Association are liable to bring reactions ranging from indifference to scepticism and even alarm, an unlikely voice of reason has emerged from the other side of the Atlantic. It is that of Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA.

Price will be remembered from the wake of the 1997 Masters when the champion's extraordinary hitting prompted talk about Tiger-proofing Augusta National. To which the Zimbabwean raised quite a few eyebrows when observing: "If you want to Tiger-proof a course, make it shorter, not longer."

In a Golf.com piece by Michael Bamberger on the challenge currently facing the game's governing bodies, Price said: "It's a first step in an education process. It's an attempt to get everybody, no matter how you come to the game, to understand where we are and where we're going; what might happen if we do nothing and what we could do. But the first step is to get everybody on the same page."


Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA. Photo: Getty

Nick Price, the three-time Major winner, who serves on the executive committee of the USGA. Photo: Getty

Getty Images

He went on: "When courses need more land, they are built farther and farther from towns and cities and the access by public transit becomes harder and harder and you get more of a country-club game and a less diverse game. Is that good for golf? I don't think so."

During the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland provided a perfect example of Price's thesis. We had Dun Laoghaire GC being squeezed from the heart of their town to a new rural location 14 kilometres away in Ballyman. And we had Clontarf GC, where its distance of 4.3km from Dublin's Convention Centre makes it the closest of any golf club in the world to the centre of a capital city, saved from relocation only by the financial collapse of 2008.

Price wants us all to move forward, together. Crucially, this would include manufacturers, who began reaping huge rewards in the 1990s from applying the latest advancements in materials, technology and computerisation towards delivering super-efficient golf equipment.

So we have a situation where the average drive by a professional on the PGA Tour last year was 297 yards, while their leader, Cameron Champ, was achieving a mean of 322. By way of balance, it is also pointed out that with average drives of 273 yards, Graeme McDowell managed to win in Saudi Arabia last weekend, having captured the US Open of 2010.

McDowell would readily admit, however, that his Major triumph had much to do with the fast-running terrain of Pebble Beach, unlike his share of 14th place behind Rory McIlroy at soggy Congressional, 12 months later.

Not much has changed, however, at the lower end of things. For instance, a US study last year of 1,141 shots by amateurs of varying handicaps, produced an average drive of 216 yards for men and 148 yards for women.

Especially revealing is that among the more elderly or less accomplished exponents, driving distances as low as 120 yards were recorded, indicating golf's willingness to accommodate an ageing population.

Mike Davis of the USGA believes that a long-term objective should be to preserve the architectural integrity of older, shorter courses that either cannot be lengthened or whose owners are unwilling to go down that road. "Maybe you have a course where people say, 'We're not hosting a Tour event, but wouldn't it be neat if we could get our club championship the way the architect wanted it to play?'" he suggested.

Legislators would appear to be contemplating a lengthy process which may take years to resolve. "We need to bring the ever-increasing cycle of hitting-distance to an end and start the debate on solutions," said R and A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers. "And it is very important that we bring the industry with us, for the game to ensure it's thriving 50 years from now."

Meanwhile, progressive thinking around Ballyliffin doesn't seem to have changed since the club signalled its long-term ambitions back in 1968 by splashing £5,000 on 360 acres of wonderfully promising linksland. As it happens, the opening of the Pollan Links comes 25 years after the launch of the Glashedy Links, designed by Ruddy and Tom Craddock.

It will also be 11 years next October since the Great North Challenge was launched as the first cross-border golf tournament of its kind, involving amateur players competing at Ballyliffin, Portstewart and Royal Portrush.

"We're a lot more accessible than people think," said the club's general manager, John Farren, having taken only three hours, by his own timing, to arrive home from Dublin Airport. He had been to Orlando for the PGA Show and was brimming with confidence about the year ahead.

"Last year saw a phenomenal increase in green fees, a lot of which could be put down to The Open at Portrush," he said. "There was clearly no border for golfers from the amount of play we had in the month of July and we're anticipating similar activity this year."

He went on: "We're already seeing a handsome return on our investment in the Irish Open and we would certainly welcome it back. And this applies to the local community, Donegal County Council and the region as a whole.

"In fact we would like to see it back before the Ryder Cup at Adare Manor in 2026, though this would depend on when the Open Championship returns to Portrush. There's talk of that happening as early as '24 or '25 which, judging from last year, would mean a huge boost for us."

Named after the bay where Glashedy Rock resides, the Pollan Links breaks new ground for Ruddy. After 18 full courses as solo or collaborative projects, he has now turned to a par three layout for the first time, located to the left of the club's main entrance.

"Holes range in length from 110 to 150 yards and my intention is that it will be quite an intense golfing challenge, where every shot counts," he said. "If you could imagine taking a butcher's knife to a full course at 250 yards from the tee, you'd be getting close to what we have here."

Then, conjuring images of a mini-European Club, he added menacingly: "It is not a toy."

Whether it will become an obstreperous child in the cultured company of the Old Links and Glashedy, only time will tell. Either way, a far-sighted club has ensured that John Hume's fear of Inishowen becoming the forgotten peninsula, can be utterly discounted.

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