PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Tasked with altering the Dunluce Links at the Royal Portrush Golf Club in preparation for The Open in 2019, architect Martin Ebert looked for the answers like Harry S. Colt probably did almost a century ago.
He turned to the rugged dunes along the stunning Causeway Coastal Route of Northern Ireland.
Modernizing a beloved Colt links would take a delicate, but necessary, touch if the world’s oldest major would return to the club – and the Emerald Isle – for the first time since 1951. The two finishing holes on the Dunluce Links just weren’t up to par for today’s maulers. Frankly, the flat, open space the 581-yard par-5 17th hole and 484-yard par-4 18th hole occupy near the clubhouse and car park were more suited for tournament infrastructure than memorable holes deciding the winner of the claret jug.
So Ebert built what he hopes will eventually be considered "iconic" holes - the new no. 7 and no. 8 - set to open next month. Coupled with the final four new/altered holes on the unheralded but incredibly enjoyable Valley Links next door, Royal Portrush has undergone its most influential transformation in a generation or more. The club’s new look is ready to appease the members who might have been leery of the project and to impress any visitors traveling overseas. I'm of the belief after seeing - but not playing - the two new holes that Royal Portrush is better than ever.
The new Dunluce Links
My last trip to Royal Portrush was pretty special in its own right. I played in the pro-am and watched tournament action at the 2012 Irish Open, a tournament that set an attendance record on the European Tour. How could the Dunluce Links possibly upstage that memory this time?
Those who say classic links should never be altered need to be taught a history lesson. As Ebert presented to the membership, the Dunluce Links has had several lives since 1909 when it was originally played as the Long course on land now used by the Valley Links and the Skerries pitch-and-putt course. Colt's extensive redesign in the 1930s moved the links and the clubhouse to its present-day position, creating a masterpiece regarded among the top 75 courses in the world. Links courses tend to evolve with the game.
The new 572-yard, par-5 seventh dives into the dunes where the old fifth and sixth holes of the Valley Links were located. Players standing on the three new elevated tees are staring down at the new ‘Big Nellie’ bunker to the right side of the fairway, a nod to the original cavernous bunker on no. 17. It forces tee shots toward two smaller pot bunkers on the left. The fairway narrows as it slithers toward three bunkers defending the green.
The original sixth tees of the Valley Links are used on no. 8 of the Dunluce Links running in the opposite direction. Bold drives on the 435-yard par 4 will take on the heavy dune cover up the left to reach a diagonal fairway climbing uphill to the green.
From there, the routing returns to normal with every hole from the original no. 7 on moving back two spots in the batting lineup. That puts the famous par-3 'Calamity Corner' as the new 16th hole, setting up a blockbuster finish. It is one of eight holes to get a new back tee, increasing the yardage from 7,187 yards to 7,337 yards.
Other tweaks were less invasive but done with a nod to Colt's style. Only the second green, the end of a stout 572-yard par 5, was moved. Nine holes feature new fairway bunkers to tighten landing zones. It's worth noting that the Dunluce has fewer than 70 bunkers, by far the lowest total in the Open rota, especially considering Muirfield (150) and Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club (206) are sand obsessed.
The new Valley Links
The Valley Links will always be the "working man’s" club – locals call it the "Strathmore Golf Club." It is also home to the ladies club of Royal Portrush. It’s hardly second class or just a 'relief' course. Especially now. A replica of Graeme McDowell’s 2010 U.S. Open trophy sits inside a trophy case in its clubhouse of what locals call the "Rathmore Golf Club", located just down the road from the Dunluce Links. Perhaps that's the best indicator of the caliber of the club.
Losing the fifth and sixth holes might be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Valley Links. Ebert tweaked the four-hole finish to leave players with a satisfying taste of championship golf when they walk off the 6,336-yard course.
All four holes use the dunes better than the flatter holes in the bottom of the bowl. The new 171-yard 15th hole plays off an elevated tee into a heavy breeze. The 16th hole, the old no. 17, stretched from a par 4 into a 493-yard, dogleg par 5. Another new par 3, the 194-yarder at no. 17, incorporated a green from Skerries pitch-and-putt course that just happened to be one of the original greens dating to the club’s earliest days. The finale is 333 yards of downwind fun. The elevated tee, overlooking the Irish Sea, feels like a launching pad with the gale at your back. Driving the green is a possibility with the right breeze. From hence forward, I just might pass around a petition demanding more architects end the day with a drivable par 4. Who's with me? Not every course should be built hard enough to host a major championship.
Ultimately, the changes at Royal Portrush offer the best of both worlds – a playable, fun-loving links and another one equipped to challenge the best players in the world. That's a template every club should follow. (View more photos of the Valley.)