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Irish Links: Timeless Terrain at Portmarnock

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Tucked away on the north Dublin coast, Portmarnock Golf Club has cemented itself as one of the world’s premier links courses. Its layout spreads across a natural sandy peninsula, weaving through dunes and the shoreline. First opened in 1894 as a 9-hole course, Portmarnock quickly grew to 18 holes by 1896 and later expanded to 27 holes. The course is revered for its routing and strategic bunkering that puts a premium on angles and proper shot shaping. Golfers must account for near-constant winds off the Irish Sea that shift direction across the exposed links terrain.

Beyond the quality of the course itself, Portmarnock Golf Club is steeped in rich championship history. Legends like Vardon, Cotton, Player, Snead, Palmer, Watson, and Ballesteros have battled the links. Portmarnock has hosted the Irish Open an astounding 19 times, along with the 1960 Canada Cup and 1991 Walker Cup, among countless amateur events.

I recently watched the 1963 episode of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf that was filmed at Portmarnock and was inspired by the course, broadcast, and pitch and run lesson given by Harry Bradshaw.

In this post, we’ll look at Portmarnock’s origins, the course, and notable events. We’ll take a lesson on the pitch and run from Irish legend Harry Bradshaw. We’ll also suggest further reading and show some videos of the Shell broadcast, as well as the 1991 Walker Cup, which featured the likes of Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Padraig Harrington, and Paul McGinley. As always, the images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Origins of Portmarnock

Portmarnock Golf Club has a rich history dating back to the 1850s when the land was used as a private 9-hole course by the Jameson whiskey family. In 1894, the club was officially established on a lease from the Jamesons by William C. Pickeman and George Ross. John Jameson leased the land to Pickeman and Ross to establish the club, and he served as the club’s first president.

The course opened with nine holes designed under the guidance of 1874 Open Champion Mungo Park. By 1896, the course was expanded to 18 holes, and a new clubhouse was built. Over the next few decades, Portmarnock hosted several prominent tournaments, cementing itself as one of Ireland’s premier links courses.

The original clubhouse burnt down in a 1905 fire but was rebuilt even grander by 1906. A third 9-hole loop was added by Fred Hawtree in 1971, bringing the total holes to 27. Further additions and renovations to the course and clubhouse facilities continued through the 20th century as Portmarnock prepared to host more major events. The club hosted the first Irish Open in 1927 and has hosted the event a record 13 times over the decades, bringing legends like Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros, and Padraig Harrington to compete on its links.

The clubhouse walls are lined with memorabilia and honors, cementing the course’s esteemed global reputation. A round at Portmarnock is as much about soaking in the tradition and aura as it is testing your skills across the iconic links. Portmarnock is currently the #27 ranked course in the UK per Golf Monthly and somewhere between 50 and 60 on other lists of greatest courses in the UK and the world.

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The Course

Though it remains a private club, Portmarnock does allow public play at designated times, with green fees ranging from €100 to €325 depending on the season. Caddies and forecaddies are also available for those wishing for an authentic links golf experience. In the Shell broadcast, par was stated to be 74. However, the championship course now plays to a par of 72 from the back, at 7,466 yards. It is a mostly flat links terrain surrounded by dunes with firm, fast fairways, undulating greens, and blind shots. The course is divided into three nines – Red, Blue, and Yellow, with the 1st two making up the championship layout. You can take a full course tour on their website – https://www.portmarnockgolfclub.ie/course.

Outward Nine (Red)

The outward nine showcases Portmarnock’s routing diversity and natural beauty. Golfers face shots over beaches, through dunes, along the estuary, and even a couple of blind tee shots over ridges. The course is also exposed to the wind off the Irish Sea, adding to the challenge. Pot bunkers are scattered strategically throughout, and the greens have subtle internal contours that test even the best. And the front nine has seen its share of tournament drama – it was here in the first round of the 1949 Irish Open where eventual runner-up Harry Bradshaw had the misfortune of his ball settling onto the broken glass during play of the 5th hole.

It starts with a challenging 417-yard par-4 running along the estuary that demands an accurate tee shot between bunkers lining the fairway. The 424-yard par-4 third then winds left with out-of-bounds down the entire right side, culminating at an elevated two-tiered green. Two signature short holes follow – the iconic par-3 fourth playing 194 yards into the prevailing wind across the beach and the 150-yard seventh requiring a precise shot over a pot bunker to a plateau green. After heading inland through dunes on holes five and six, the ninth returns to the coast with a 454-yard par 4 bending right around a central bunker complex. This closing hole plays tough into the wind and features a large mound fronting the green.

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Inward Nine (Blue)

The inward nine provides a world-class test of linksland golf, with unique holes, ever-changing wind, and a famous three-hole finish. It caps off what many regard as the purest and fairest links course in Ireland. Looping back along the coastline towards the iconic clubhouse, it symbolizes the course’s rich history and tradition and is considered by many to be among the best closing stretches in golf.

It begins with the tough par-4 10th, playing uphill to an elevated green protected by bunkers. The 11th then turns back towards the clubhouse, measuring over 400 yards with a tricky green. Two outstanding par-3s follow at the 12th and 15th. Playing straight toward the ocean from an elevated tee, this mid-length par-3 demands precision to find the small, heavily bunkered green. Arnold Palmer regarded it as the best par-3 in the world. The 15th is another world-class short hole, with a green perched high on a dune and framed by the old stone walls of the Jameson estate.

The closing stretch is famously difficult, with the 16th, 17th, and 18th holes forming a brutal test to finish any round. The last three holes are the ultimate test at Portmarnock, especially the 17th – a long par-4 of over 430 yards to a raised green fronted by pot bunkers. Golf architect Jeff Lynch calls it “one of the best closing stretches in links golf.”

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Harry Bradshaw

Harry Bradshaw (1913-1990) was one of Ireland’s leading professional golfers in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Delgany, County Wicklow, he grew up honing his skills at the local golf club where his father Ned was the professional. Bradshaw developed into a prodigy known for his short game prowess and unorthodox grip (a double overlap). He turned professional in 1932 and soon established himself as Ireland’s top player, winning the Irish PGA Championship 10 times between 1941-1957.

Bradshaw had success on the European circuit as well, capturing five wins, including back-to-back Irish Opens in 1947 and 1949. He is best remembered for narrowly losing the 1949 Open Championship in a playoff to Bobby Locke after an unfortunate incident earlier in the tournament. Bradshaw’s tee shot on the 5th hole came to rest against broken glass, leading to a double bogey that cost him the title. He was a 3-time Ryder Cup player (1953, 1955, 1957) and later made an impression on American audiences by defeating U.S. Open champion Billy Casper in a 1963 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match at Portmarnock (full match in the Videos section). Bradshaw became a legendary figure in Irish golf before passing away in 1990.

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Lesson: Bradshaw’s Pitch and Run

At the end of the Shell broadcast, we are treated to Gene Sarazen’s interview with Harry Bradshaw, where he gives a quick lesson on his famous pitch and run, a requirement for anyone serious about links golf. Bradshaw demonstrates using a 9-iron and takes us through his setup and methodology. You can see the full segment in the Videos section or watch the adjacent clip to get the information straight from Bradshaw himself.

The pitch and run is an ideal shot for links golf because it takes advantage of the firm, fast-running fairways to get the ball rolling quickly on the ground. It keeps shots low under the wind by using less lofted clubs (7-iron to pitching wedge). Links courses also allow bump and run type shots to feed with the contours and run farther after landing. It provides greater accuracy and control in links conditions when you need to keep the ball under the wind.

I have worked on this, hitting shots into a net with various short irons. I found this technique very simple and effective, and it was easy to create center contact. I was also able to increase the arc to generate a low trajectory punch shot that travels about 2/3 as far as my full shot.

  • Bradshaw played the pitch and run off of his back (right) foot with a square stance.
  • He tweaked his setup by intentionally tucking his right elbow into his ribcage.
  • The stroke itself was played like a putt, with a pendulum motion and firm wrists. He swung the club back and down into the ball with full extension.
Harry Bradshaw Pitch & Run

Portmarnock Today

In recent years, Portmarnock has continued hosting championship events, further building upon its rich history with the Irish Open and countless amateur tournaments over the decades. Most recently, in 2019, it held the British Amateur Championship. Talks have also been underway with the R&A about potentially bringing The Open or Women’s Open to its links in the near future. This would require infrastructure improvements to handle the large crowds but would be another feather in Portmarnock’s cap.

Beyond championships, there have been several other notable developments that show Portmarnock Golf Club evolving with the times while preserving its core identity. After years of criticism, the club ended its men-only membership policy in 2021 and now welcomes women as full members. A multi-million euro renovation of the neighboring Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links in 2022 rebranded it as the Jameson Golf Links, connecting back to the original Jameson family history that was foundational in establishing golf in the area during the 1850s.

While staying true to tradition, Portmarnock continues improving amenities, embracing inclusivity, and enhancing the overall experience for visitors and members alike. It remains dedicated to providing an authentic and strategic test of links golf on one of the most beautiful and storied stretches of the Irish coastline. Today, Portmarnock remains one of the highest-ranked and most respected courses in not just Ireland but the world over. Its routing over 500 acres on a natural peninsula continues to challenge professionals and amateurs alike with its classic seaside links test.

Visit Portmarnock online at https://www.portmarnockgolfclub.ie.

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Further Reading

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Shell’s WWoG 1963 – Portmarnock Pt 1
Shell’s WWoG 1963 – Portmarnock Pt 2
Portmarnock – 1991 Walker Cup
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