Kevin Markham on the best new and upgraded golf courses in Ireland, Britain and Europe.
It wasn’t so long ago when an annual article could have been written about the new courses being added to Ireland’s stockpile.
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of Irish courses increased by 120. That equates to an increase of 50%. The year 1993 saw the biggest surge, with 19 new courses coming on stream, including Fota Island, Galway Bay, and Lee Valley.
Those days are behind us and will never be repeated — indeed, three courses which opened in 1993 are no more.
Golf may have lost some of its shine worldwide but it was already struggling in Ireland with too many new courses popping up. Unsurprisingly, there have been no new courses in several years… and just one in 2017.
And that means there can only be one winner of Ireland’s Best New Golf Course 2017.
Ireland’s Best New Course 2017: Hogs Head, Waterville
The headland which is home to Ireland’s newest course is the same one occupied by Skellig Bay Golf Club, which opened in 2006 and closed a couple of years ago.
Such are the changes by the new owners, however, that Hogs Head should be classified as a new course.
This was a case of wipe the slate clean and start again, and a big budget meant anything was possible.
The charming stone walls that defined the old Skellig Bay are now mostly gone. New grasses were planted, new soil and sand were introduced (much of it for drainage purposes) and new routing applied: these meant the walls had to go.
Hogs Head has found charm elsewhere… and lots of it. The location is captivating as holes start inland, with views up into the mountains, and then work their way out to the headland with dramatic sea vistas and still more mountains.
The philosophy behind this Robert Trent Jones Junior-designed course is quite different to elsewhere. It is not a private club — as many people believe — and its unofficial motto of ‘built by friends for friends for fun’ indicates a certain warmth and welcome — both on the course and off it — but you will pay a €250 green fee to play here.
The course is open and exposed to the elements as it rises and falls constantly across the headland. It is generous off the tee — all part of the friendliness — and you shouldn’t lose a ball here unless you find the river on the front nine.
The bunkering is neither prolific nor penal so you can swing freely. Most golfers will love that.
Indeed, in the middle of the back nine, close to the sea and on new land purchased for the course, two fairways slide up next to each other and merge fleetingly to create a single fairway close to 140 yards wide.
The greens are very approachable and undulations are subtle rather than severe. You’ll be surprised at how often what looks like a simple putt just isn’t.
There are extras here which once again add to the fun side of things.
The Biarritz green is a nod to classic design, as is the punchbowl green which follows.
There’s a double green on the back nine while the par three 14th offers the most dramatic tee shot of the day… whichever of its two greens is in play. It is shaped and sculpted and elegant, and perfectly conditioned.
Hogs Head is not hugely strategic — you won’t walk off 18 feeling beaten up by the course — but that again leans on the fun and friendly philosophy.
It is a different model to anything else in Ireland.
Britain’s Best New Golf Course 2017: Ardfin
Across England, Scotland, and Wales, there is only one contender for best course of the year: Ardfin, on the island of Jura (part of the Inner Hebrides).
Not that you’re likely to have the chance to play it, as it is the private playground of Australian multi-millionaire, Greg Coffey. Set on a 15,000-acre estate, the course was designed by Bob Harrison (formerly the head architect for Greg Norman Design).
This was no simple design, as the wind-swept landscape of peat and rock was hardly ideal for golf. Indeed, many of the materials (turf, sand, gravel) had to be imported… some of it from Ireland.
Fittingly, therefore, the main build contractor was Ireland’s SOL Golf, from Co Cork.
The course uses 240 acres of the estate, which gives it lots of room and allows it to use the island’s natural features to full effect. Gorse, heather, oak, birch are all here in abundance.
Throw in the refurbished old stone walls and the shifting elevation and the drama of each hole unfolds magnificently from the tee.
There are forced carries (and not just on two par threes), interesting hazards (wetlands, walls, and cliffs) and greens of very different sizes and locations. This was not an easy terrain to build a course on but modern technology (drainage especially) and the commitment of the owner have enabled a remarkable course to take shape in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.
A new hotel will open in 2018 and time will tell if it becomes more accessible to the public.
Britain’s Best New Redesigns 2017: Turnberry, and Machrie
There were several redesigns of significant size and two of these are Machrie and Trump Turnberry.
Machrie is a links of considerable age (1891) and the redesign work caused hearts to flutter.
It reopened in May 2017. The links, on the Isle of Islay (also part of the Inner Hebrides), sweeps out to Laggan Bay, and was famous for its blind shots.
The golf architect, DJ Russell, removed most of these as he re-routed holes to find ways through the dunes, rather than over them.
Only seven original greens remain and while purists might mutter darkly about changing such a unique links, Russell has ensured Machrie will attract a broader audience.
The King Robert the Bruce course at Turnberry has always played second fiddle to the mighty Ailsa. Formerly known as the Kintyre course, it dates back to 1909, but the current redesign dates back to 2014, and Donald Trump’s acquisition of the resort.
Martin Ebert, of Mackenzie and Ebert, was the main architect on both the Ailsa course (reopened 2016) and the King Robert the Bruce.
The key changes to Turnberry’s second course were made by Ireland’s SOL Golf. Trees were removed, as was the burn on the first, while sanded waste areas were added to several holes.
Bunkering was completely upgraded with a marram fringed look on fairways and deep revetted bunkers positioned around the greens (similar to the Ailsa).
Four new holes were also added around Bain’s Hill, which offers many of the course’s most dramatic moments.
Europe’s Best New Course 2017: West Cliffs, Portugal
The honours here go to West Cliffs Golf Links, outside Lisbon. Designed by Cynthia Dye, of the acclaimed Dye Designs Group, the course opened in the summer to considerable acclaim.
This is links golf spread over 200 hectares of sand dunes, clifftops, and a naturally rolling landscape. The Atlantic Ocean is visible from every hole.
Importantly, in this day and age, huge effort went into ensuring there was minimal disruption to the environment to create a sustainable links. (This was confirmed when the course was singled out for special praise by the Golf Environment Organisation).
Earth moving was kept to a minimum and nature has taken the lead.
In addition, two new courses in countries not immediately associated with golf deserve inclusion: Great Northern in Denmark; and The National in Belgium.
The National opened in June, just outside Brussels. It was designed by Bruno Steensel (designer of 60 European courses) and, with so few trees and the rippling shapes of the land, there are links-like traits here… including the wind. The design name behind Great Northern, which opened the following month, is far more familiar.
This is the first Danish design of Jack Nicklaus, and it combines holes wrapped around a low hill and spread over wetlands. There are seven lakes which will test any golfer’s strategic ability. With the Nicklaus name, you can expect serious quality and attention to detail.
The course superintendent is Aidan O’Hara, who worked at Mount Juliet for over 25 years before taking on the role in Denmark.
Europe’s Best New Redesign 2017: Bled, Slovenia
A number of European courses have reopened in 2017, following major overhauls.
Most prominent is Bled, in Slovenia, where a three-year project saw the redesign and reconstruction of all 18 greens and tees, as well as the bunkers, on the club’s 18-hole King’s Course.
Aggressive tree management also helped to clear areas on the course, enhancing the course’s dramatic Alpine vistas. A new irrigation system was introduced and 10 new lakes were added.
The work was carried out by Swan Golf Designs and the King’s Course promptly soared 17 places to 48th in Golf World’s Top 100 Continental European courses.
And for 2018
In 2018, we and much of the golfing world wait with bated breath for the re-opening of Adare.
Millions of euro have been spent on the course and the resort, and the pictures that sneak into the public domain — through a well-orchestrated PR campaign, no doubt — have us all tingling with excitement.
No guesses about who is going to win best new Irish golf course of 2018!
After all, it was already recognised as Ireland’s best parkland so who knows what grander accolades may be coming its way. Roll on, spring.
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