Imagine you’re an art school graduate and you’ve been asked to enhance a Monet painting or you’re an English literature grad and you get a request to edit a Dickens novel. Now you know how Martin Ebert felt when he was commissioned to make Royal Portrush good enough to stage the Open Championship.
Ebert, of golf course architecture firm Mackenzie & Ebert, is the man largely responsible for adding two new holes – the 592-yard, par-5 seventh hole and 434-yard, par-4 eighth – to Royal Portrush. Those two holes have made it possible to bring the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland for the first time since it hosted in 1951. The Englishman’s task wasn’t easy because he was dealing with a Harry Colt classic.
Colt’s place in golf’s firmament is well established. Aside from Royal Portrush, Colt designed Rye, Sunningdale’s New Course, Wentworth’s West and East Courses and Stoke Poges. He also had a hand in remodeling and upgrading such classics as Royal Porthcawl, Alwoodley, Aberdovey and Pine Valley.
Just as well, as Ebert (see in the image above with Darren Clarke) is used to bringing classic links up to modern standards. He has been busy in recent years. Mackenzie & Ebert is currently involved in work with six of the other 10 courses on the Open rota – Carnoustie, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal St. George’s, Royal Troon and Turnberry. The company is also involved with such great links as Royal County Down, Royal Dornoch, Royal Porthcawl and Portmarnock. We’re talking pretty much the crown jewels of British and Irish golf.
“There is a fair amount of trepidation when you make major alterations to a classic course such as Royal Portrush,” Ebert said. “What was very much at the forefront of my mind was that this is a Harry Colt classic, and the members are so proud of that heritage. So it was a real concern.”
Ebert, who learned his trade under Donald Steel before joining forces with Tom Mackenzie in 2005, eased his concern by going back in time to study Portrush’s evolution since its inception in 1888. He discovered the layout had gone through considerable change since Colt first got involved with the course’s design in 1932.
“Having the knowledge that Colt’s original design had been played around with gave us an understanding that the course wasn’t completely untouched Colt,” Ebert said. “It allowed us to show the members that their course had gone through such significant change before the last Open Championship (1951).”
Ebert was already consultant architect at Royal Portrush when the momentum started building to bring the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland. The sectarian troubles that had for so long kept Royal Portrush off the Open rota were a distant, if painful, memory. The tiny country had spawned three major champions in Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke in a 13-month period in 2010-11. They, along with formidable Royal Portrush secretary Wilma Erskine, comprised a strong lobbying group that put pressure on former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson to take the game’s oldest championship back to Northern Ireland.
One of the key moments in Portrush’s restoration to the Open rota came when the Irish Open was staged there in 2012. Approximately 100,000 fans turned up that week to watch Jamie Donaldson win. It was an eye opener for Dawson and the R&A.
Ebert already had been involved in putting in back tees to bring the course up to the challenge of the modern game. Only one thing remained to bring major championship golf back to Portrush: the original 17th and 18th holes had to go. They comprised a weak finish, unworthy of deciding who might win the old Claret Jug. Ebert took advantage of the nearby Valley Course, running the two new holes into the sand dunes after the par-3 sixth. All it took was one course walk to convince Dawson the new holes were the final part of the jigsaw.
There’s a familiar line from anyone who has played the new holes: They make Royal Portrush stronger.
“Martin Ebert has done an unbelievably good job,” Clarke told BBC Sport. “We’re losing the 17th and 18th, but the two new ones are going to help the golf course.”
Ebert easily could sit back and accept all the plaudits, but that’s not his style. He wasn’t the one to see where the golf course could be strengthened. Longtime Portrush member Alan Holmes, a former chairman of the R&A’s rules committee, was the man who gave Ebert inspiration.
“It was Alan Holmes who pointed us in the direction of the two new holes,” Ebert said. “I always remember him saying the fifth and sixth on the Valley Course was the best spot to place the new holes. Sadly, he died a few years ago. It’s such a shame he’s not around to see his dream come true.”
There’s a neat parallel with Colt’s own involvement in Portrush’s evolution inasmuch as he was willing to implement changes others suggested if it enhanced his original design. For example, in 1937 former club professional P.G. Stevenson suggested course changes, and Colt took those suggestions on board because they added to Portrush’s challenge.
“We always love to hear any idea,” Ebert said. “Our job is to distill all of those ideas and come up with our own design to get the best out of anyone’s suggestion. We’ve benefited on numerous occasions from suggestions from other people. Hopefully the time we’ve been in the business and our experience means we opt for the right option and the right way of implementing that option.”
If Colt were alive and had received the same advice, he would have done the same thing, Ebert thought. “Given the ground we had for the two new holes, we just thought, ‘Go for it.’ We were very confident the members would love this,” Ebert said.
“Golf courses should move on because the game moves on, but changes should only be made once the history and evolution of the course has been fully considered. That’s why our first step now with any of these great old courses is to really analyze as much of the history and evolution of the course as we possibly can. The original architect’s design philosophy has to be maintained.”
Ebert has taken the same approach in a massive redesign at Turnberry. He studied old artwork and aerial photography to come up with ideas to enhance the original Mackenzie Ross design.
“While we’ve made significant changes to Turnberry, hopefully we’ve maintained and restored some of the original character Mackenzie Ross put into it,” he said. “It’s all about weighing things up and trying to conclude if changes are going to be in keeping with the original design and adding to that design.”
That philosophy has certainly paid off at Royal Portrush, as competitors in the 148th Open Championship will discover. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the July 2019 issue of Golfweek.)