I cannot speak highly enough of Portmarnock. If only I were so lucky, of all the courses played in Ireland, it is the one that I would choose to be my home course. Though Ballybunion was my favorite, it would be exhausting to play that all the time with the thick fescue and insane winds. This is not to say Portmarnock is easy. If anything it might be harder, but it is what I like to call sneaky hard. Portmarnock is a true championship course--exemplified by the fact it has hosted 20 Irish Opens-- in that it need not have two feet deep fescue like Doonbeg to make it difficult. Instead, if your shots (either drives or approaches) are just slightly off (by that I mean only a few yards), then it will be difficult to make a par. On your drives, if you are on the wrong side of the fairway, then it is difficult to hit the green. If you miss on an approach, there are a lot of false fronts and deep bunkers and swales that will make an up and down difficult. So, when I say it is sneaky hard, I mean that you do not appreciate a hole's difficulty when you walk to the tee. There are few water hazards, the rough is not terribly deep, and you can usually hit your ball ten yards off the fairway and still find it. However, once you are done, you feel like you played really well but only shot 90. You look back and say your score would have been five lower if your ball went one yard left/right/shorter/longer on a handful of holes. In short, it is a fairly easy course to shoot a 90 on because there are few opportunities to blow up, but it is a very difficult course to shoot an 80 on. To me, this makes for an enjoyable round of golf because you shouldn't play horribly, but it is as much of a challenge as anywhere else such that if you shoot below your handicap, then you have accomplished something. As Harry Bradshaw--an Irish golfer-- said, "At Portmarnock, good shots get good results; bad shots never get lucky."
Because the course requires such precision, the more local knowledge you have the better. This is amplified by the fact that there are no yardage markers anywhere on the course. So, if you are going to get a caddy somewhere, get it here.
The scenic value of Portmarnock does not come from ocean vistas like at Ballybunion or Old Head. To be sure, the Irish Sea photobombs the frame once in a while, but it is not the star of the show. Instead, the terrain itself is just beautiful. We played it on a marvelous day where the fescue shimmered and the undulating terrain that defines the course looked simply perfect. It reminded me, though in a wholly different context, of watching Augusta on television. Other than the azaleas, there is nothing jaw dropping about Augusta, but it just has this overpowering sense of beauty. I think the same would be true watching the Irish Open on television at Portmarnock on a still day with perfectly blue skies.
Alright, I have droned on about the greatness of this course enough. Lets see it!
***On all of my reviews, you can now click on the first image to see a slideshow of all images on the page.
We had an early tee time and were on the first tee by 7:45. There were one or two groups out in front of us, but for most of the round it felt like we were out there on our own.
The first is a 397 yard par four with an estuary all along the right, but don't bail out left because there are three bunkers waiting to catch any wayward ball. Once you navigate that tee shot, the green is 41 yards long, so you getting on the green does not ensure a two putt.
View from the first tee with the morning clouds still casting shadows.
First fairway with two of the three bunkers on the left side of the fairway.
The second is among the easiest on the course at 391 yards. There are two bunkers to the right of the fairway and a green well guarded by bunkers. Doesn't sound easy, right? But, it is fairly short with a wide fairway, so you will likely only have a seven or eight iron into the green.
As you can tell, when it is a bit darker out, my photos have not been coming out as well.
The bunkers guarding the second green.
The third is a 390 yard par four with an estuary up the right. As the guidebook says, the best line off the tee is to get as close to the estuary as possible. Great.
Finally, the sun broke through on the fourth hole and it was a beautiful day thereafter. The fourth is the hardest hole on the course--a 441 yard par four. Clearly the length is the primary culprit contributing to the difficulty, but there are also tall dunes on the left that run all the way to the green (and help make your approach blind). There are also a healthy smattering of eight bunkers on this hole.
Me on the fourth tee.
Fourth fairway with dunes on left and bunkers on right.
Fourth green nestled between dunes and bunkers.
The fifth was one of my favorite holes--a 385 yard par four with a blind tee shot and narrow fairway. The combination of not knowing where to hit it off the tee and the narrowness of the fairway is a recipe for disaster, and I did indeed lose my tee ball in the fescue. It was a bit frustrating given my drive was only a few yards offline, but that is the nature of playing a course for the first time.
Fifth tee shot. Still not sure where to aim it.
After clearing the hill in the above photograph with your drive, this is what awaits. On second thought, maybe the fairway is not that narrow.....I just did not know where it was.
The sixth is a 583 yard par five and is one of the few areas with water on the course--a small pond on the left side of the fairway that threatens your layup shot. Nothing terribly novel about the hole, but picturesque nonetheless.
The seventh seems like a straightforward hole given it is only 157 yards and is downhill. However, the deep greenside bunkers and contouring of the large green make par difficult and a high number a distinct possibility.
This view shows the bunkers around the green and you may be able to see the severity of the slopes in the green. Though you cannot see all of them, there are three distinct mounds in the green. Hit it on the wrong side of those mounds and three putt is likely.
The 362 yard eighth is a fun hole because of the precision required on the second shot. A little to the left or right will catch deep swales on either side of the green.
Eighth tee--aim at the two chimneys in the distance.
Swale to the right of the eighth green.
The ninth is a tough hole because it is long at 408 yards, but also requires accuracy with the green surrounded by bunkers and gorse bush. Unfortunately, I only have a picture from the tee because I was searching for my ball in the bushes on my second.
The tenth--a 355 yard par four-- was among my favorites because the tee shot required you to carry beautiful yellow gorse bushes and the second shot, though short, had to be accurate because, again, there were deep swales surrounding the green.
Intimidating second shot on the tenth for only a 100 yard shot. I hit the green about 5 feet to the right of the pin and rolled down into the swale. This is one example of my general takeaway from the course--miss a yard or two here or there and your score could swing two strokes.
The 404 yard eleventh is another great hole. The tee shot is a bit blind and there are two deep fairway bunkers on the left. I hit one and simply had to chip it out. Again, I hit a near perfect shot that was only a few yards offline, but nonetheless cost me a stroke.
Fairway bunkers on eleven.
Eleventh green. Nothing about this hole was easy--where to hit it off the tee, avoiding bunkers in the fairway, and those that surround the green exactly where you would wind up missing.
The 129 yard twelfth might be my favorite on the course. With the ocean directly behind the green (though out of sight), the wind will likely always be a factor. Further complicating matters is the fact that missing only a few yards short will leave you in a super deep bunker or in the swale many feet below the green chipping over those bunkers.
Twelfth tee with the ocean behind the dune by the green.
Dad hitting out of bunker on twelve, though he got lucky to be sitting in the portion of the bunker without a face in front of him.
The thirteenth, a 538 yard par five, is the first time you get a full unobstructed view of the ocean. To be sure, Portmarnock will never be among the epic ocean courses, that is not what it is about, but adding water to the genius of its design only enhances the course's greatness. The approach shot on the thirteenth is among the most treacherous you will encounter with the row of pot bunkers lining both sides of the fairway. This is where I lost my round. I wound up shooting a 92 at this course....with about a 50 on the back, much of which was due to 13.
Water view from tee.
Pot bunkers waiting to gobble up your approach shot. If you find yourself in one, the shot requires you to hit a 30-70 yard approach shot to a small green. It did not end well for me.
The fourteenth, a 375 yard par five, has a blind tee shot with three fairway bunkers right where your eye is drawn to hit the ball. Again, I hit a drive that would be perfect on most courses, but it was 2 yards too far left and I found one of these bunkers. Again, a small miss and the hole went from an easy 120 yard approach to a punch out.
Tee shot on fourteen with the line being just to the left of the path leading up to the fairway.
Row of fairway bunkers guarding the fairway.
The fifteenth is a 183 yard par three with wind blowing in off the ocean to your right. Very difficult hole with out of bounds to the right, swale to the left and three deep bunkers guarding the green. One of my favorite holes on the course.
The sixteenth was one of my least favorite holes--a 512 yard par five. The fairway is pretty wide without much trouble and it just felt like you had to plod down the hole--drive it 240, hit a150 yard layup, and be left with a wedge. One of the few holes where I did not think there was much strategy required.
Bunkers in middle of sixteen fairway, though, if you play the hole properly, they should not be much of a danger.
The seventeenth is just a tough hole at 432 yards with bunkers preventing you from landing short and running the ball up. Even with a 250 yard drive, you will be left with a 180 yard shot that must carry the whole way to the green.
The eighteenth is a short, but challenging hole at 387 yards. Three deep bunkers protect the right side of the fairway and the green is well protected by bunkers and gorse.
Approach to the eighteenth with clubhouse in background.
Portmarnock is among my favorite courses because of how much thinking it requires of the golfer. If you are approaching the green from the wrong side of the fairway, the hole becomes much harder.....but to get to that side of the fairway, you have to flirt with pot bunkers. As I said earlier, missing by a few yards here and there probably cost me 6-8 strokes, as opposed to other courses where I lose those 6-8 strokes only where I wildly miss my mark. I would say that Portmarnock is my second favorite "pure" golf course. By that I mean, if I were to remove the scenic value, and think only about design, Cypress would still be the best with Portmarnock second. Pebble Beach, Ballybunion, Bandon Dunes are great golf courses, but they are launched into the upper echelon of courses because they combine great golf with great scenery. For the most part, Portmarnock relies on its design to be great, and, on that metric, it is among the best.
Given its proximity to Dublin, if you ever find yourself in Dublin (even if not for a golf trip), you have to take the 20 minute drive out to Portmarnock. Had I know how great the course would be, I would have played it more than once, especially because I think it is one of the courses you would play much better the second time. Oh, and be sure to enjoy the lunch in the classy clubhouse that comes with your round.