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The Klondyke

The 4th at Lahinch Golf Club. Par 5 - 475, 463, 423

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Lahinch is a shrine to forgotten architectural elements. Blindness, luck, disorientation, confusion and humor are hallmarks of this links legend that tumbles about massive seaside sand dunes on the rugged west coast of Ireland. Composed by two titans—Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie (and updated by British architect Martin Hawtree in 2003)—Lahinch continues to defy modern standards of course design and remains a quirky master class. It’s an unforgettable journey into the unknown, with the Klondyke presiding over it all.

Illustration by Alex Wier.
Illustration by Alex Wier.

Higher Ground

Architecturally speaking, the fourth at Lahinch may be the most beautifully flawed golf hole in the world. Uphill, blind, nearly bunkerless and bisecting another hole, it stretches out to a maximum of just 475 yards with the North Atlantic wind at your back; how could this possibly be a great par 5? An architect attempting this concoction of features today would certainly be charged with malpractice and shredded on the architecture blogs. But most designers don’t have Morris’ vision—and fortitude—to lean into what nature had already constructed in the dunes. 

From the tips, everything on No. 4 comes to an abrupt halt just 314 short yards off the tee (262 from the Reds). Here, golfers get their first real glance up at the imposing 25-foot dune smack in the middle of the fairway. This towering beast was affectionately nicknamed Klondyke Hill by Irish locals in the 1890s, when the discovery of gold in Canada led to a stampede of people to the country’s mountainous Klondike region and became a popular topic in area taverns.

Klondyke Hill humbles the long hitter without the use of any of today’s conventional hazards like bunkers, water or trees. The closer one lands to the base of the Klondyke, the less room remains to actually get up and over it; the high-trajectory second shot required to carry the top of the hill cannot possibly reach the green. It’s a cunning, almost insidious strategic element that helps level the playing field between brawn and accuracy.

LAHINCH, IRELAND. MARCH 22, 2018;  Views of the 4th hole at Lahinch golf course, on March 22nd, 2017 in Lahinch, Ireland. Photo by Tom Shaw.
Like so many wild adventures, there is a calm before tangling with the giant. Players can enjoy the serenity of Lahinch’s elevated tee box at No. 4; they may even feel a touch overconfident with the North Atlantic breezes at their back. This, of course, is part of a design created to put players face to face with a monster: The Klondyke awaits.

A Site To Behold

The dunes hold a sacred place in this region’s culture, and not just because of the golf. According to Links Golf: The Inside Story, by Paul Daley, “In 1920, these sandhills played a part in saving the lives of Lahinch residents. The village was under attack and many of the town’s houses were burned by the Black and Tans. An ambush followed, and one afternoon, four Royal Irish Constabulary officers were shot dead in the town of Rineen, close by Lahinch. Later in the evening, uniformed men made their way to Lahinch and terrorized the streets in motor lorries, hell bent on revenge and burning everything in sight. Many of the panic-stricken locals fled to the safety of the sandhills nestled among the links, with children and household necessities in hand. What must have been a chilling night was spent under the moonlight.” 

MacKenzie arrived just six years later, and while his job wasn’t life and death, he boldly proclaimed that “Lahinch will make the finest and most popular golf course that I, or I believe anyone else, ever constructed.” He was brought in by the club to improve the existing course at a cost of £2,000—roughly $150,000 today. This modest budget is a testament to how MacKenzie’s light touch subtly enhanced the course’s existing features, fitting the strategy into the landscape rather than the other way around. 

MacKenzie wasn’t the first to see the possibilities in the dunes; he was more than 30 years late to this beach. In the spring of 1892, a group of gentlemen golfers from the Limerick Golf Club set out in search of new golfing lands on which to build a course. Following a rumor that suitable ground for golf existed somewhere along the coast west of Ennistymon, the men stumbled upon a giant mass of rolling dunes, as if an angry ocean of sand with its turbulent waves had permanently frozen in time. Lahinch had been found. Like many original links courses of that era, a pasture nine-hole loop was quickly created and the inaugural match was played on Good Friday, April 15, 1892. This rudimentary track lasted only two years until Morris was invited to design a completely new 18-hole course.

After observing Lahinch’s site for the first time, Old Tom also fell in love; he said it was the finest natural course he had ever seen. Cleverly utilizing the towering sand dunes as they lay, Morris staked out some of the most brilliant and audacious golf holes of his career, including the Klondyke and the par-3 fifth hole known as the Dell.

A Stern Gatekeeper

As intimidating as it first seems, playing up the narrow chute of a fairway is surprisingly straightforward. The two steep shoulders that flank the bunkerless landing zone more often than not gather wayward drives, ricocheting the ball forward and funneling it down into the safety of the short grass. However, like all great menacing links holes, a favorable bounce is never a guarantee. A turn in the wind, some unruly heather or even an extra few rotations of the ball can make the difference between a great drive that trundles back into play and one that gets hung up on the hillside, leaving an awkward, uneven stance; it is not uncommon on No. 4 to see golfers grappling with a second shot where the ball is resting near their shoulders. But regardless of how well you’ve driven the ball, how far it bounced or where it finally came to rest, the Klondyke remains constant: Everyone must negotiate with the hole’s gatekeeper on their next shot. 

Averaging around 200 yards to the green, the second shot requires a great deal of trust with no visual guides save a small white aiming stone resting atop the crest of the hill. Taking a second look to confirm that it is indeed the white stone is not a bad idea, for it could also be one of the white goats that roam the property simply taking a rest on the hillside. 

Another helpful guiding beacon is the forecaddie devotedly stationed on the summit of Klondyke Hill. Confined to a small, dilapidated shack that resembles an entrance to an old mine shaft and looks as if Old Tom Morris could have built it himself, the forecaddie functions as a medieval traffic cop of sorts. Standing atop the hill, he can be seen waving color-coded flags to indicate whether the putting green on No. 4 has cleared and whether play is safe for golfers crossing the intersecting 18th fairway.

Once given the green light, players must confidently strike their ball over the white stone and hope the line and distance are on point. Anything can happen from here. The thrill of hitting what seems to be the perfect shot is usually followed by golfers hastily scrambling up the face of Klondyke Hill just to get a glimpse of what awaits them next. It truly is golf by braille.

The Road Home

Unlike the first half of the hole, the second landing zone is quite generous. Missing far right, however, will find the native marram grass or the one haphazardly placed bunker that only occasionally comes into play. Alternatively, missing left will leave a delicate approach shot over a bedeviling little hillock that cleverly guards the front left corner of the green. Not unlike the Road Hole bunker at St. Andrews, locals at Lahinch know that this left-side shot is not to be underestimated. 

On the other hand, overshooting the green brings another familiar links feature into play: an old stone wall. This wall, which presses right up against the putting green, runs the length of the road bordering the newer Castle course. Now for some good news: A grass barrier has been pushed in front of the stone wall to help prevent wayward balls from going out of play or ricocheting unpredictably off the bare stones. This acts as an important backboard feature for the aggressive player, adding an extra bit of spice to an already savory golf experience.

Best Supporting Actor

The hole doesn’t lean heavily on the green or its pin locations to make a trip down the fourth interesting. Klondyke Hill is the main event and star. Barely anyone can see the green on their approach shot anyway, so how does one choose a strategic line or plan of attack? Blindness, anticipation, memory and luck are all the strategic elements; the green is just a place where the ball will eventually come to rest. 

That said, no thorough examination is complete without some ink spilled over the putting surface. The green, much more wide than long, sits gracefully in a subtle valley, somewhat mimicking the personality of the fairway. Imperceptibly benign to the first-time player, the green is fraught with tricky pin locations. The putting surface wraps behind the hillock short left and canters in the same direction, corralling—almost pulling—balls to the back portion of the green. The general rule of thumb is that the green is best approached from the right, especially if the pin is tucked back left.

Undaunted

The modernization era in golf course design has unfortunately all but banished many of the elements that make No. 4 special, labeling them unfair or inappropriate. Yet the ever-defiant Klondyke Hill is neither a gimmick nor a novelty; rather, it’s an integral part of Lahinch’s personality. It does not discriminate between the duffer and the scratch player; it stands to humble all. 

The Klondyke refuses to reveal anything about itself on the first blind date. It’s only after playing it several times that one realizes the layered nuances and can see the brilliance of Old Tom’s routing. Whereas modern designs are too often all show and no substance, the Klondyke remains refreshingly opposite. 

Just finding the green on the approach over Klondyke Hill is an accomplishment, and the surface is a faithful second-in-command. While not so dramatic as to steal attention from the hole’s main attraction, the green still has plenty of teeth. Its subtle bumps and valleys demand a player’s full attention in order to consider this adventure a complete success. Photo by Tom Shaw.
Just finding the green on the approach over Klondyke Hill is an accomplishment, and the surface is a faithful second-in-command. While not so dramatic as to steal attention from the hole’s main attraction, the green still has plenty of teeth. Its subtle bumps and valleys demand a player’s full attention in order to consider this adventure a complete success.

Riley Johns founded Integrative Golf Designs, a Canada-based architecture firm with projects around the world. Johns, who interned with Tom Doak and won the 2014 Lido Prize from the Alister MacKenzie Society, contributed to the shaping of Cabot Cliffs and partnered with Keith Rhebb to redesign the Winter Park Golf Course.