Apparently they couldn’t wait for Christmas. But who could blame them, given the sporting potential of the grounds that beckoned W.C. Pickeman and George Ross to the peninsula of Portmarnock, northeast of Dublin? On Christmas Eve 1893, Pickeman and Ross left the tiny village of Sutton, manned a rowboat and skulled across Howth Bay in search of their dream links. Landing on Portmarnock, they found sandy soil, low dunes, tiny hollows and lengthy valleys that seemed ideal for their purposes. In fact, according to the club’s centenary history, Portmarnock Golf Club: 1894–1994, the land’s owner, the Jameson family of distillery fame, had used a portion of the property for its own private course as early as 1858.
A contingent of golfers led by Pickeman approached patriarch John Jameson, who agreed to a 25-year lease “on moderate terms,” and the papers were signed on Oct. 1, 1894. Pickeman was named the club’s honorary secretary and honorary treasurer, Ross the first captain and Jameson the first president. Continuing the Yuletide theme, a grand opening of the first nine holes was celebrated on Dec. 26 of the same year, and the second nine was added two years later.
Today, members and guests must pass only a draw-gate on a narrow country lane before reaching what has been regarded, almost from the outset, as one of the world’s finest links. Portmarnock’s appeal is manifold. Its routing weaves and wanders continually, which makes figuring out the near-constant, oft-formidable wind a fresh task on every hole. The opening quintet, appropriately forming the rough shape of a question mark, underscores another strength: Like the rest of the course, this stretch features a strong and well-varied collection of par 4s, not the least of which is the 474-yard 4th.
By this point, the golfer will have noticed many of the qualities that distinguish Portmarnock from other storied Irish venues such as Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. The fairways are wide and level enough to reasonably accommodate difficult weather conditions and imperfect ballstriking. The greens, too, are larger than usual. There is in general a straightforwardness and lack of showiness to the course.
Where others are operatic and heroic, Portmarnock is measured, subtle and solid, less an Impressionist masterpiece on the wall than a perfect, handmade piece of furniture.
“Portmarnock is by far the fairest of the great links courses in Ireland,” notes longtime member Kevin McGrath. “You nearly always are rewarded by a good shot and penalized by a bad one, with none of the unkind or kindly bounces you can get elsewhere. Combine that with the ever-changing wind patterns, and you’ll seldom play the course the same way on two consecutive days.”
Although it’s largely the unity of the course that defines it, there are nonetheless several standout holes. Forty-year club pro Harry Bradshaw believed the 5th to be the course’s finest. It was made a half-shot tougher, he reckoned, by playing from the lower tee box, where the drive is blind.
No. 15 is a windswept, beachfront par 3 of 190 yards that Arnold Palmer is said to have called the world’s best. The round aptly concludes with a strong pair of par 4s, the 472-yard 17th and the 411-yard finisher.
In 1899 Harry Vardon won Portmarnock’s first pro competition and its prize of 100 pounds. Before designing such Irish classics as Carne and Donegal, Eddie Hackett was Portmarnock’s professional, from 1939 to 1950. Next came the beloved Bradshaw.
The Irish Open returned in 1976 after a 28-year hiatus; Ben Crenshaw won. Subsequent winners included Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, a list that speaks volumes about the quality of the course. Reportedly, the R&A’s tournament director was so impressed with the course and the 30,000 daily spectators at the 1991 Walker Cup that he dubbed Portmarnock an ideal location for the Open Championship–an intriguing concept that would certainly prohibit us Yanks from calling it the British Open.