Royal Portrush: A look before and after its British Open prep

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Royal Portrush: A look before and after its British Open prep

2019 British Open

Royal Portrush: A look before and after its British Open prep

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When the rest of the golf world fixes its gaze for the first time on the dramatic new holes at Royal Portrush, holes that made possible the British Open’s return to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951, my personal memory will be from the summer of 2015 when golf architect Martin Ebert and I tromped along the untouched ridge of fescue and wild raspberries that once separated the famous Dunluce links from its sister Valley Course.

Amidst a sea of natural grasses, we came across a plain wooden stake with a splash of yellow paint where the words “Peg 40” were written in permanent marker.  

Peg 40, I soon discovered, would be the site of the new eighth green for the 148th Open Championship.

Just a day earlier, a ferry ride and roughly 120 miles removed from County Antrim, the scene when Martin and I first met up was considerably less bucolic. We were both in Turnberry for the Ricoh Women’s British Open when Turnberry’s new owner – and a newly announced presidential candidate – arrived by helicopter to the distraction of the championship competitors and the outrage of the British press. 

In that surreal setting, an invitation from Martin to drive south to Cairnryan, Scotland, take a ferry to Larne, Northern Ireland, and journey up to see Royal Portrush for the first time could not have been more welcome. 

‘Peg 40’ marks what would become the 18th hole at Royal Portrush’s Dunluce links course for the 2019 British Open. (Martin Ebert – 2015 Photo)

That summer, Ebert was keenly aware of the attention that was coming his way. A total renovation of Turnberry was scheduled to begin upon the conclusion of the 2015 Women’s Open.

At Royal Portrush, nearly visible in the distance beyond Ailsa Craig,  two entirely new holes, along with several new greens, had to be ready in time for the 2019 Open.

“We had been advising at both courses for some time,” said Ebert recently, “but much of that input had passed below the radar. With the scale of these projects, the fact that Royal Portrush was confirmed to be hosting the Open once again and Turnberry had a rather famous owner, I felt certain that our changes would come under the spotlight and much greater scrutiny.”

While all the championship noise was going on across the Irish Sea at Turnberry, Martin and I threw our golf bags over our shoulders and went for a walk, undisturbed, on the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush, seemingly the only two people on the course in the middle of July. 

We explored the sites for new greens on the second and 10th holes. We hit quite possibly the first tee shots ever played (with drivers!) from the recently shaped but still sandy and ungrassed back tee at Calamity Corner, the famous par 3 that will play as the 16th hole in the Open. Most memorably we discussed the details and intricacies of the land from the Valley Course that would form two entirely new holes: the seventh and eighth. 

The seventh, a 592-yard par 5, occupies the land of the former sixth hole on the Valley Course, with two notable additions. The first being an enormous bunker that defines the tee shot, massive in scale and taking inspiration from “Big Nellie”, the famous hazard from the abandoned 17th hole on the Dunluce links. A wickedly undulating new green was built to ensure that no matter what club you had in your hand, from a wood to a putter, the outcome would be unclear until the ball was in the hole. 

On the eighth, 434 yards back across the Valley Course to reconnect with the Dunluce, the idea was entirely new.

A view of the new 435 yards par 4, eighth hole designed by Martin Ebert on the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush Golf Club the host club for the 2019 Open Championship on February 27, 2017 in Portrush, Northern Ireland. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Ebert intended to reclaim the ridge that Harry Colt had passed over in his routing of both the Dunluce and Valley courses and create a Cape-style diagonal tee shot to an angled fairway, defined by a steep drop-off to the left and bunkers on the outside of the dogleg. The rolling green – Peg 40 – is sited back into the dune with the similar theme, bunkers to the right, steep ridge to the left. 

But in July 2015 these two holes existed only in my imagination and Mackenzie & Ebert’s virtual renderings (Ebert’s co-director at Mackenzie & Ebert is Tom Mackenzie). It was not until this past May that I returned to play the holes in reality. 

“I had always operated on keeping the earth movement for a project as low as possible,” said Ebert. “If feasible, I would just like to prepare the ground, grass it and put the flags in the greens. The restoration of the great Old Tom Morris links at Askernish in the Outer Hebrides is an example of that.” 

At Royal Portrush, the two new holes and some of the other changes required significant earth movement, both in terms of the working area involved and the amount of sand Ebert had to shift. 

“I think that taught me that such an intervention is warranted if the results can be made to look as natural as possible,” said Ebert. “While it would be nice if the players and spectators appreciate the amount of work which has been carried out in those areas, the ultimate goal was to leave everyone with the impression that our task was an easy one, with the holes sitting so naturally in the landscape that all we had to do was mow the grass, set the tee markers down and put the flags in.”

Based on my return trip to play the holes in May, spectators at Royal Portrush this summer easily could be fooled into thinking the two new holes were merely discovered. But my 2015 explorations of the wild dune ridge, with its hidden bushes of ripe raspberries, are a reminder of the art and engineering that go into the practice of golf course architecture. 

Going up against the ghost of Harry Colt is not an enviable task, but Martin Ebert’s two new championship holes at Royal Portrush should provide competitors with a playing experience that feels like it could have been there all along. 

All of which means that Peg 40 will continue to exist only in the memory of the few people who saw what it once was.  Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the July 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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