LAHINCH, IRELAND - The small village is built up over the sea, distanced from the typically harsh Atlantic tempests by only a long beach and promenade. It consists primarily of a one-block stretch of pubs, restaurants, small shops, a few inns, and a few more pubs. There is a large church at one end and at the other, hidden amid a deep field of abrupt and staggeringly uneven sand hills, is a golf course.
It's difficult to tell where the golf course ends and the village begin. Either the course is an extension of the town or the town an appendage of the links. At any rate they are modestly separated by only a waist-high rock wall, a winking division at best.
There is life at both extremities and in between the first Guinness is but a two-minute stroll from the 18th green to any number of nearby pubs. People carry their bags down the street on their way to the course, and presumably to the pub as well.
This is Lahinch, and it must be the most enchanting place in golf.
Driving in from the north on N67, the furry dunes of the Old Course of Lahinch can be spotted hovering phantasmically across Liscannor Bay. As the road wraps around the bend and pulls level with the links, the mysteriously rugged landscape reveals not so much golf holes on the other side of the low wall but rather chopped roadways of green and an occasional flag scattered in the fescue-covered sand hills.
Lahinch is actually two courses. The Old Course, lying between the road and the sea, is one of the superior sites in all of golf. The Castle Course is a flatter links named for the ruins of a nearby castle tower that stands to the northern end of the property.
It is the Old Course, living on the edge of the ocean in hollows, slopes, and plateaus, that has fascinated players the world over. There are occasions where one can become utterly lost in the crooks of its sand hills. There are low places under the cover of the dunes that are so isolated as to be nearly sacred, and high places that are simply inspiring.
Standing at the foot of the monolithic dune at the Klondyke - a narrow par 5 along the floor of a valley that runs headlong into a blinding sand hill, the green somewhere on the other side - is a bewildering feeling. The oblong green at The Dell, a short par 3 hidden completely by three peculiar hillocks, is perhaps the most private of small places in golf.
Lahinch is quaint, full of character and quirk and goats, blind shots and luck. It's charming, stunning, endearing, but it hasn't precisely been a test of late. To truly be considered among the world's great courses, Lahinch would need to toughen it up.
Des O'Brien was born into a well-known Lahinch golfing family. He and his four brothers, including the late legendary junior player Brian O'Brien grew up playing the course virtually every day ("It would be impossible to count how many times I've played it," he says). O'Brien agrees the course was in need of strengthening.
"It was a little worn out," he says. "It wasn't the same challenge it once was. A lot had been done to the course since the 1930's."
Restorations and renovations of world-renowned golf courses are touchy subjects, especially when no clear evidence exists of what was originally there. It must be considered, however, that the history of Lahinch is one of constant change, not unlike Augusta National.
To carry off the necessary improvements the committee settled on Martin Hawtree when he promised to return the course to the spirit of Alister MacKenzie, who himself had been hired to revamp the course in 1928.
Before MacKenzie ever arrived at Lahinch, the course had undergone numerous alterations, almost all of them substantial.
The first course was staked out in 1892, but in 1897 Old Tom Morris rerouted the course, creating The Klondyke and The Dell en route (formerly the 5th and 6th, now the 4th and 5th). Charles Gibson, professional at Westward Ho!, further remodeled the course in 1904, building, three new seaside holes at great labor (which are now the foundations of the 6th, 7th, and 9th).
After MacKenzie personalized the course local golf hero John Burke began to tinker with the course, amending greens and adding the old, rather unspectacular par 3 3rd. Under his direction throughout the 1940's and 1950's, Lahinch gradually became more level as most of MacKenzie's greens were shrunken or outright resurfaced. The fabled MacKenzie course actually only existed in tact for less than 10 years, which is one reason why few are sure exactly what his fabled greens actually looked like.
Hawtree, the successful grandson of British architect Fred Hawtree, turned his attention to the peculiarly flattish and irregularly sized putting surfaces. Working basically from imagination and a presupposition of what MacKenzie might once have built, the architect enlarged nearly every putting surface and brought them to life with a cacophony of tiers, slopes and rolled edges. They have been revitalized as a man-sized set of greens, yet they remain reflective of the elfish nature of Lahinch.
Several "original" MacKenzie greens have always remained (notably the deep, benched 9th), and several more are currently maintained but not used. The old 8th and 11th are on display as museum pieces, and the deconstructed green of Burke's 3rd hole is slated to be removed this winter during the final construction phase that will see the second fairway shifted toward the sea.
The new greens have bolstered the complexion of the old course.
"When you play a course every day of your life you don't really line up putts anymore," says O'Brien. "You know what every putt is going to do. Now we have to line up the putts and even then we don't know what's going to happen.
"We used to think we couldn't putt. Now we know it."
Those who have previously played the Old Course will find in the latest modifications significant changes, particularly with two new glorious par threes, the 8th that plays across a ravine near the shore and the beautiful 11th, also shifted out closer to the bay. Additionally there are dramatic new green placements at the 6th and 7th, the long par 4 12th has been lengthened into a serious par 5, and the parallel holes 10, 14, and 15 have all been beefed up in length and par.
What hasn't been lost in all the reconfiguring is what has always made Lahinch Lahinch: charm. Through all its lengthening and increased intensity none of the venerable link's character has been lost. The Klondyke and The Dell remain exasperating as ever, and world-class holes such as the 9th and the dangerously drivable 13th continue to stand the test of time.
"The Old Course used to need the wind to make it challenging to good players," O'Brien says. "The course doesn't need the wind anymore."
Lahinch has always been one of the most beloved courses in the world, and with the recent enhancement it stands on level with Ballybunion and County Down as Ireland's finest. The outstanding stretch of holes from the 3rd to the 9th is as full of flavor as can be found anywhere, and the middle holes of the second nine, 14 and 15, have been considerably strengthened. Lahinch is now more than ever one of the world's most exciting golf experiences.
Lahinch Golf Club-Old Course
Lahinch, County Clare
Architects: Alexander Shaw and Richard Plummer (1892)
Old Tom Morris (1897)
Charles Gibson (1904)
Alister MacKenzie (1928)
John Burke (beginning in 1936)
Martin Hawtree (1999-2002)
Yardages: 6,882; 6,559; 6,308; 5,456
Lahinch is located on the western coast of County Clare. If you can find the village you'll have no problem locating the course.
110 euro with a 55 euro deposit due 30 days prior.
Everyone walks at Lahinch. Caddies can be hired for 25-45 euros, tip not included.
September 25, 2002
Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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