Appeared in Winter 2012 LINKS.
Northern Ireland can be proud of both of these gems, but only Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush allows for the running game that is the heart of links golf
By: Darren Clarke
On my first competitive round at Royal Portrush, probably as a 15-year-old, I made a nine at the 1st hole. The only lasting effect of that experience was to ensure that I would never be a fan of internal out-of-bounds. Meanwhile, I went on to become a huge fan of the Dunluce Links and am convinced that daily practice there played a very big part in my Open Championship win at Royal St. George’s.
I believe Royal County Down to be one of the best second-shot golf courses in the world. But it falls short of Portrush in one crucial respect. By my reckoning, there are seven blind tee shots at County Down where you have no option other than to hit the ball in the air. One of the great appeals of links golf is the opportunity to play the game close to the ground, especially in a wind. I reckon there are only a few situations at Portrush where you won't see the ball land. And you can hit every shot 10 feet off the ground, if you choose to.
Meanwhile, new back tees have strengthened Portrush enormously. Driving from them, sometimes in horrific weather, certainly helped me get my hands on the Claret Jug. And I’m a massive fan of its designer, Harry Colt. Interestingly, his risk-and-reward philosophy is all the more relevant in the modern game.
Would it be possible to get rid of the blindness at County Down? Frankly, I don’t think the topography of the land would allow you to do so. And if it’s a beautiful setting you’re looking for, I can’t imagine anything to stir the heart like the 5th hole at Portrush, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond.
County Down is a product of its time and I believe it should be accepted as such. And much as I dislike its blindness, it is still a sensational test in a lovely setting. Comparing it with Portrush is like looking at two Picassos. Each has great merit in its own right, but my philosophy on links golf effectively dictates my preference. Which is why, when I lived in Surrey, I named our house Dunluce.
Darren Clarke is the reigning British Open champion.
Sure there are some blind shots, but spectacular scenery and unrelenting challenge put Royal County Down on top
By: Dermott Gilleece
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN, for me, was love at first sight. And knowing locals would have spotted me as a newcomer a mile off, because of a tell-tale tendency to walk backward along the first fairway, so enchanting was the view of Slieve Donard I was leaving behind.
This wonderful old links in the most beguiling setting imaginable is where Michael Bonallack won a third successive British Amateur Championship—his fifth in all—in 1970. And it is where Jack Nicklaus, on his first visit, finished third in the Senior British Open of 2001.
I remember being decidedly miffed at the Bear’s decidedly qualified view of the great links. Wearing his designer’s hat, he referred to the almost certain litigation that would result from creating such a course today. “Is it the best course I have played in the British Isles?” he asked. “Probably not, because there are too many blind shots. But throw that aside and it is an enjoyable course, a great strategic test where you really have to play golf. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
In defense, I like to consider the words of Tommy Armour, who famously said: “There is no such thing as a blind shot to anyone with a memory.” Indeed it can enhance its appeal for the average player, especially with no surprises on the other sides of the obscuring mounds. And as Nicklaus acknowledged: “You have to be in the right place or you are likely to get a bad bounce. That is the mark of a well thought-out golf course.”
It is difficult to imagine County Down succumbing to a 61 from a 16-year-old, which is what Rory McIlroy did over Dunluce in July 2005, albeit before it underwent badly needed lengthening. A similarly precocious Irish amateur, Jimmy Bruen, had to settle for a course-record 66 at County Down as a 19-year-old in 1939, which lasted more than 60 years.
There was a time when County Down could be criticized for its surprisingly weak finish. This was addressed, however, prior to the 1999 British Amateur when English architect Donald Steel did an overdue upgrading of the links. His most notable achievement was to transform the par-five 18th into a fearsome finale. In the process, he secured the future of a links which continues to reign supreme, for visual splendor and challenging golf on a heroic scale.
Dermot Gilleece is golf correspondent for the Dublin Sunday Independent.