Yardage Book No. 14 Portmarnock Ireland

Yardage Book: No. 14 at Portmarnock Golf Club

Padraig Harrington deconstructs one of his all-time favorite links holes

W.C. Pickeman | George Ross | Mungo Park (1894) 
Martin Hawtree (2002)

Links golf isn’t about fairness. It’s about the unpredictability of the bounce, riding and fighting the winds, and understanding when to take your medicine. Professional golf is about shooting 65 on a dramatic golf course. Links golf is about shooting 72 on a terrible day.

I’ve played courses all over the world, but my heart remains in my home country. People have long asked me why I never moved to the United States when I play so much golf there, and I reply with a question of my own: Why would I leave when Ireland offers so much variety? I can work on all aspects of my game here. And golf is woven into the fabric of daily life. It’s invigorating to be around so many people who love it like I do.

Ireland has so many famous links, and I’ve taken a bit of friendly stick over the years for never quite landing on a favorite. But naming just one is an impossible task. Royal Portrush gives as much as it takes—meaning you can make plenty of birdies, but just as many bogeys. Ballybunion is a wonderful, traditional links, and anything can happen in those dunes. I also have deep affection for Waterville, the Island, County Sligo, Baltray and the European Club. Like we say about whiskey: There is no such thing as a bad links course; it’s just that some are better than others.

Yardage Book No. 14 Portmarnock Ireland
“I know of no greater finish in the world than that of the last five holes at Portmarnock.” —Bernard Darwin

And then there’s Portmarnock Golf Club. I was born in Dublin, and Portmarnock sits just outside the city. It was one of the first “name” courses I visited, and I fell in love. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that what sets Portmarnock apart is that it’s uniquely fair. It is flatter than most other links courses, and the lack of massive dunes and blind shots means there is no trickery; it’s all out there in front of you. Account for the conditions and hit the shot. The layout makes it almost perfectly balanced; during my many rounds there, I’ve found that it is challenging for every level of golfer, but ultimately it lends itself to being a tournament venue.

Most will rightfully point to Portmarnock’s signature 15th hole as their favorite. The long par 3 bordering the Irish Sea offers the best views on the course and one of its most difficult shots, to a narrow green that falls off on both sides. A story they love to tell around the club is that when Ben Crenshaw won the 1976 Irish Open, he played the 15th at 6 over in his four rounds. After receiving the trophy, he congratulated the members for having the shortest par 5 in the world.

The first hole is also deserving of its many accolades. You won’t soon forget the opening shot of the round, with the estuary running up the right side and three treacherous bunkers guarding the left. Par there is a mighty victory.

It may surprise some, but the hole that always sticks in my mind is the underrated 14th. It demands that you use classic links strategy on each shot. There are birdie opportunities if you play it correctly, but one slip and suddenly you have bogey—or far worse—on your card.

—Holiday Row

According to Portmarnock’s club history, as far back as 1858 the legendary distiller John Jameson lived on the land that would become the course we know today, using it as his own personal links. On Christmas Eve 1893, William Chalmers Pickeman and his friend George Ross set off in a rowboat from the village of Sutton to cross Dublin Bay and inspect this peninsula that they’d heard was perfect for golf.

The duo made a deal with Jameson, and the three became the club’s first officers. They formally opened their nine-hole course in late 1894. Mungo Park, the 1874 Open Champion, supervised the course design and stayed on for one year as the club’s first professional. George Coburn led the design of an additional nine holes in 1896. It was quickly made clear that Portmarnock was a suitable course for tournament play, and its quality would produce great champions. In 1899, the club hosted the Irish Open Amateur Championship, which was claimed by John Ball, one of the best amateurs of his day. That same year, the club put up a prize of £100 for professionals, and none other than Harry Vardon won it.

The course was largely left alone until 1972, when Fred Hawtree designed a third nine for the club. Fred’s son, Martin, led a renovation of the club’s original 18 in 2002, reconfiguring the opening hole and adding the new par-3 12th and a series of tees that effectively lengthened the course to modern professional-championship distances.

Still, compared to many other courses, these changes are minimal. Players today can feel the same sea breezes, enjoy the same views and even take on some of the same shots as Pickeman, Ross and Jameson.

—Open for an Open

I couldn’t have been more than 14 when I attended my first Irish Open at Portmarnock. It wouldn’t be my last as a fan or a player. Since hosting the first Irish Open in 1927, the club has held our national open 18 more times. The list of winners reads like a line of lockers from the World Golf Hall of Fame: Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, José María Olazábal, Ian Woosnam, Hubert Green, Ben Crenshaw. Alas, I didn’t have anywhere near my best in my only Irish Open at Portmarnock, missing the cut by one in 2003.

I also played for Great Britain & Ireland when the club hosted the 1991 Walker Cup, the first time that wonderful match was held in Ireland. I was young, but I’ll never forget what a thrill it was to play at home on such a stage. Unfortunately, I had a forgettable week on the course, as the Americans, led by Phil Mickelson and David Duval, beat a team that included me, Paul McGinley and Andrew Coltart.

Yardage Book No. 14 Portmarnock Ireland Padraig Harrington Walker Cup David Cannon Getty Images
Padraig Harrington grew up in Dublin, watched golf at Portmarnock as a boy, and played there for the Great Britain & Ireland squad in the 1991 Walker Cup (above). Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

Who knows how old we’ll be, but you can bet my friend Paul and I will be looking for a shot at redemption if we’re ever able to tee it up at a Portmarnock-hosted Open Championship. We’ve both spoken about it for years now, and the successful hosting of the Amateur Championship (the “British Amateur” to the Americans) in 2019 was seen as a positive first step. We never thought we would see the Open at Portrush, but the fact that it has been held there makes the dream of having it at Portmarnock a possibility.

And if the past is any indication, Portmarnock would produce yet another champion for the ages.

—First of the Last

If the world’s best do descend on the course, they’ll do well to beware the 14th. Bernard Darwin once said, “I know of no greater finish in the world than that of the last five holes at Portmarnock.”

At 411 yards from the back tee, the 14th is a shorter par 4 for professionals, but a great risk/reward hole. I didn’t realize until recently that it is the second-toughest hole on the course for amateurs, but I can understand it given the front greenside bunkers and the elevated green, especially in windy conditions.

You’ve got three bunkers off the tee on the left side. If you can carry them, great. And if you take it tight to those bunkers, you’re left with a wedge into the green. That’s what you need, because the 14th has a long, narrow green with steep runoffs left and right. Going in with a wedge gives you a chance at birdie, and if you don’t miss the green, it’s a simple-enough 4.

The problem is if you take that tee shot on and miss left; the rough is traditionally very heavy up that side. Pros won’t lose their ball up there in a major championship, but amateurs certainly could. Then you’re in all sorts of trouble. And if you find the front bunkers, it’s a tough 30- or 40-yard bunker shot into the green.

Yardage Book No. 14 Portmarnock Ireland
Portmarnock is regarded as a flatter, fairer links, but take heed: Bogeys lurk at every corner.

You can bail out off the tee and go up the right. Fair enough if you hit the short grass—it’s a longer shot into the green than up the left, but it’s never too bad. If you get in the rough on that right side, obviously in a championship it could be too heavy to go for the green. Maybe you can get a 6- or 7-iron up there, but because you’re going to lose control of the ball coming out of the rough and the green is elevated and narrow, it’s difficult—even if you pitch onto it—to keep it on. And then to get up and down is only for the bravest of people. Oftentimes by going for the up-and-down you can make a double bogey. Even by playing it safe you’re faced with a 15-footer for par, and it’s tough for a professional to miss it and give up a bad bogey like that when scoring otherwise can be so good.

The 14th is certainly not impossible: Hit two quality shots, and birdie is well within your grasp. One of the club’s well-worn legends is that Joe Carr, Ireland’s greatest amateur, once aced this hole, curling his driver around those bunkers, onto the green and into the cup from 385 yards.

The 14th is brilliant, and it sums up why links golf will always be home for me. I’m always fearful of this hole because you can make a birdie, but the risk/reward means you can fall afoul of it. And is that not what we love about links golf?