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By Dermot Gilleece
As tournament host, Paul McGinley was swayed by one, key consideration, when lending highly significant support to Lahinch as the venue for this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. The transformation of this ancient golfing stretch by architect, Martin Hawtree, over the Millennium, was beyond his most optimistic expectations.
McGinley made a trip around the links in a buggy on the Monday after the 2017 South of Ireland Championship, a title he himself won in 1991. He was there as a guest of honour for a special dinner that night, as part of the club’s 125th Anniversary celebrations, and in his own words, the sight of the re-shaped links “blew me away, largely because of the way the integrity of the place had been preserved.”
The Irish Open course is a par-70, with the long second and the famous Klondyke fourth as par-fours and where new tees on the 13th, 17th and 18th will push the overall length beyond 7,000 yards. At 335 yards, the tantalising, par-four 13th will still be driveable by the stronger hitter. There will also be an eagle chance on the 555-yard 18th, played off the men’s forward tee on the 15th. In between, the 17th becomes a stunning, 460-yard test off a new tee located about 10 yards in from the Liscannor Road and back, left of the 16th green. From there, this straightaway par-four has never looked better.
Significantly, these changes were approved by Hawtree, whose sympathetic presentation was crucial in his landing the original contract. When Lahinch were interviewing prospective architects, Sean Murphy, the greens committee chairman who also happened to be Limerick’s County Manager, asked the Englishman: “If we decide to go with you, what will you leave us with when you're finished?’ His answer convinced them they had found their man.
I visited there in December 2001 when the fourth phase of a major restructuring programme was in full swing. This involved a re-shaping of the first green; extensive restructuring of the old seventh and eighth holes; work on a new tee and new green at the 12th and a new green at the 13th. And as a key element of the process, Hawtree was there to check on developments.
There was something decidedly odd about standing on the first tee and looking towards an elevated area of bare sand in the distance, with a yellow, mechanical digger busily moving earth. Yet members and visitors seemed to cope easily with the disruptions, which included temporary greens. They had been doing so since work began in October 1999 on a phased upgrading of the course to be completed by spring 2003, at an overall cost of around £2 million. And the club were still in a position to take green-fee revenues in the region of £800,000 in 2001, despite an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the atrocities of September 11th in the US.
Hawtree, whose father, Fred, designed the third nine at Portmarnock more than around 90 years ago, set about restoring Lahinch to how it was after the celebrated Scottish architect, Alister MacKenzie, had left his indelible mark there in 1927. "It has been a wonderful job for me, probably the highlight of my career," said the man whose work included a total restructuring of Royal Birkdale's greens for the 1998 Open Championship.
He went on: "It's been a very daunting task, given that there are no existing diagrams of MacKenzie's original work. I have had to use my imagination, trying to envisage how he would have done things. Take the 13th green, for instance, which had a severe slope back to front. It was the one location I knew where MacKenzie had built a three-tier green. So that's what I tried to put back.
I believe that the original three-tiered green was even more extreme than the green which I've replaced. If you were above the pin, you were simply off the green.”
He continued: ‘The big element of MacKenzie for me is the boldness of his design. He got bolder and bolder as he went on. I believe that may be the reason why a lot of the greens at Lahinch were later flattened out by John Burke [champion Irish amateur] in the 1930s. It may well have been that they were just a bit too extreme, even though green-speeds would have been no more than six or seven on the Stimpmeter at that time.
“Or it could be that those greens, with all the contouring, were too difficult to maintain. I know that at Royal Melbourne, one of MacKenzie's original greens was re-done because it was thought to be too extreme. Either way, I've done my best to be true to him but I've probably gone beyond that. I'm not saying I could reproduce a MacKenzie green, but I've tried to produce MacKenzie greens for the demands of the modern world. I've had machinery available to me that MacKenzie wouldn't have had, so I've been able to do things I know he couldn't have done.
"And I've had the freedom to do what I thought was right and to achieve quite bold ideas. It's probably been the project I've been most involved with. At the end of the day, there's going to be a fair bit of Hawtree in there. The club have been wonderfully supportive in that I have been given the freedom to be bold. My only hope is that the changes are not considered to be too extreme."
Hawtree’s main success, in McGinley’s view, has been in preserving the essence of a very special links which was originally designed by Old Tom Morris, back at the end of the 19th century. Much of its quirky nature remains, including the notorious mounds at the Klondyke, now the fourth, and at The Dell, now the short fifth, where the green has been raised to facilitate better drainage.
It is interesting to note that Peter Thomson, whose deep knowledge of links terrain was amassed through the winning of five Open Championships, submitted a design to Lahinch which would have eliminated the crossing of the 18th fairway by the Klondyke. This raised the hackles of members conscious of the special appeal of those holes, especially to American visitors, who would never get the opportunity of playing such shots on their home courses, because of fear of litigation. At Lahinch, they subscribe to the old Tommy Armour dictum that there is no such thing as a blind shot to anyone with a memory.
Over the years, wonderful things have happened there. Like the drive of 400 yards, which was credited to Lahinch professional William MacNamara back in 1913, long before the advent of new-fangled, space-age golf equipment. According to the "Golfer's Handbook" of 1930, a certain FS Bond of the Royal Wimbledon club witnessed MacNamara's feat at the Klondyke. But the player himself was moved to admit: "How the ball ever got where it was I do not know, unless that it happened to bounce on a stone or something very hard at the end of 250 yards, and then run the rest of the distance down the hill. I believe if all the players in the world were to drive at that tee all their lives, I do not think the same thing could happen there."
It seems entirely fitting that Phil Mickelson should have gained the distinction, on a visit in July 2001, of becoming the first professional to play the entirely new, short eighth hole. He had first experienced Lahinch in 1991 as a member of the US Walker Cup team which acclimatised there, prior to the matches at Portmarnock.
When he later declared Lahinch to be his favourite links course another MacKenzie design, Augusta National was named as his favourite parkland stretch _ the club made him a life honorary overseas member, as they did with his celebrated compatriot, Ken Venturi. In the event, for a down-breeze shot of 173 yards, Mickelson was right on target with a seven iron. And to cap the visit, he belatedly received his member’s blazer, seven years after his honorary membership had been bestowed during the 1994 Open Championship at Turnberry.
The staging of the Irish Open marked something of a 21st century re-birth for Lahinch. Yet traditionalists can rest easy. A wonderfully sympathetic architect ensured it did retain its timeless appeal, which was savoured by the latest generation of international tournament players.