Appeared in March 2006 LINKS
A romp through the dunes at Enniscrone Golf Club is a surreal experience. The dynamic sand hills dominate the landscape, shooting upward in every direction and forming a sort of labyrinth along which the club’s 27 holes wend. Walled-off corridors, replete with blind landing areas, hidden hollows and steep falloffs, create a maze of strategic challenges—and the potential for unlucky bounces—that by turns stimulate and exasperate.
“I challenge anybody to name holes, including those at Ballybunion, where the dunes are more of a feature than at Enniscrone,” says British golf architect Donald Steel. “When you go into ground like that, there is a feeling of grandeur.”
Enniscrone, situated along Ireland’s remote County Sligo coastline, wasn’t always so grand. It took Steel’s radical redesign, completed in 2001, to transform the facility from a serviceable Eddie Hackett layout into an exceptional links that ranks among the Emerald Isle’s best.
Steel carved six new holes out of the dunes—some towering more than 100 feet above sea level—along Killala Bay and rerouted the original 18, creating one of the most scenic golf settings in all the British Isles. Enniscrone’s championship 18, called The Dunes, now stands with Ballybunion, Doonbeg, Lahinch and Hackett’s own Waterville among the must-plays along Ireland’s rugged west coast. (A third nine, the Scurmore, is a solid relief course, incorporating parts of the original design plus three new Steel holes.)
Like so many of Ireland’s renowned layouts, Enniscrone boasts the dual aesthetic delights of sea and mountain (the majestic Nephin and Ox ranges) as backdrops. When not dancing through those dunes, Steel’s layout skirts beautiful Scurmore Beach, the River Moy estuary and for a grand finale, the Atlantic Ocean.
The only factor keeping the course from wider recognition is its isolated locale in Ireland’s northwest. Outsiders are still discovering the town of Enniscrone, a seaside resort renowned among the Irish for its seaweed baths. The nearest courses of significance are Carne, 50 miles to the east, and County Sligo Golf Club in Rosses Point, 40 miles away. But only the uninformed would let a few Irish backroads discourage them from making the voyage to such memorable environs.
Founded in 1918, Enniscrone Golf Club has a history of perseverance. For the first dozen years, members played wherever they could—Kilcullen’s Field behind a local chapel or on land adjacent to the Scurmore Hotel, which no longer exists. Enniscrone’s first true nine holes, informally known as the Links at Bartra, debuted at the club’s present location on St. Patrick’s Day 1931.
Following a post-World War II lull, Enniscrone’s membership began to grow and Hackett was called on to build a full 18. The diminutive Irishman, who would go on to design some of his country’s finest links, envisioned a course full of character and wonder through the dunes. In a 1970 letter to the club, he wrote, “Ultimately, the links will not only be a [boon] to Enniscrone, but to the West of Ireland.”
Unfortunately, limited finances prevented Hackett from routing his layout through the heaving landscape. Completed in 1974, Hackett’s original creation mostly used the flat, featureless farmland to the left of the present-day clubhouse and only skirted the outer edges of the dunes. After his design was complete, the architect would wander the virgin land and tell members about the holes just waiting to be discovered. Sadly, Hackett didn’t live to see his dream realized, passing away in 1996.
Enter Steel. Having saved its Euros, the club hired the highly respected designer, known for his sensitivity in tinkering with links courses. Like Hackett, he became enamored by the tumultuous landforms.
“The dunes were fantastic,” says Steel, who has consulted on every British Open rota course. “In terms of scale, they weren’t the Alps or the Alpennines; they were the Himalayas. They were some of the most daunting country you’ve ever seen. The problem was to mat through them without destroying their structure. We needed a passageway without destroying their fabric.”
Although he and Hackett never discussed Enniscrone in detail, Steel fulfilled the late architect’s vision. “He thought as Hackett did, that nature shouldn’t be disturbed,” says Enniscrone club professional Charles McGoldrick. “The roll and fall of the course should be natural.”
Steel’s task was easier because of hydroseed, a blend of seed, water, fertilizer and fiber mulch that grows on exposed sand, an agronomic advance unavailable to Hackett.
Steel began the new routing by turning the original 16th hole, a difficult dogleg-right par 4, into the opener, then followed with a trio of new holes. The second hole, a 556-yard par 5, introduces both the massive dunes and the ocean, which is visible from an elevated green. The fairway of the fourth hole, a 523-yard par 5, is rife with hairpin turns and surprising twists before reaching a small, two-tiered green.
Back down at sea level, the 395-yard ninth abuts Scurmore Beach and reveals views of Bartra Island in the distance. Nick Faldo so fell in love with this scene that he bought the 360-acre island, where he envisions building a links that will be “perhaps the best and most unique in the world.”
The best of Hackett’s design are the current 12th and 13th holes, a pair of thrilling short par 4s. A white aiming rock is the only clue to a safe tee shot on the 350-yard 13th, a dogleg right that crashes dangerously downhill.
The course reaches its peak—literally—at the 542-yard 14th, where the Mount Everest of dunes, towering some 130 feet, guards the fairway. According to local lore, Vikings landing in this area were repelled by the reigning O’Dowd Clan. The victors piled the bodies in a giant mound and buried them, forming what is now referred to as “Cnoc na gCorp,” or “hill of bodies.”
After escaping the dunes, players are greeted on the par-4 15th with the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, which accompanies them to the 18th. Steel completely reshaped the final hole, now a strong 465-yard par 4 littered with nine hellish pot bunkers.
Even today, Enniscrone’s membership continues to tinker with its beloved playground. Plans include eventually transforming all bunkers into sod-wall affairs, much like the new hazards on No. 18. But these are merely minor tweaks, and surely Hackett is smiling down on Enniscrone, reassured that the links he envisioned finally came to fruition.