Hawtree transforms Lahinch

TOMMY BENN is not just the course ranger at Lahinch, he has also been good enough in his time to play in the South of Ireland Championship and claim more than his fair share of notable scalps.

So when a man of his experience warns that the new-look Lahinch “is a course to be played from the fairways”, it is worthwhile sitting up and taking notice.

The great Clare club is now more than three-quarters way through a major remodelling job to a plan drawn up by the English architect Martin Hawtree. The new course has been in play for the past month or so and will be unveiled in all it’s grandeur at the South of Ireland Championship beginning on Saturday next.

Visiting on a day, when it seemed every priest in Ireland was testing their expertise against the lay-out, I was glad to be buggied around by Tommy Benn and educated further on just how the legendary old links is being changed to such an extent that some holes have been eliminated altogether and others changed by almost unrecognisable proportions.

They’ve always had a cracking opener at Lahinch but now it is even better. The fairway is relatively generous, the rough, especially to the left beyond the strategically placed fairway bunkers, not too extreme. The problem used to be in hitting the approach deep enough into the green so that the ball wouldn’t lose impetus at the front and so fall back into cunningly placed traps from which recovery was far from easy.

The bunkers remain largely as they were but the green, once flat and back to front sloping, has been beautifully contoured, the little grass hollow to the left deepened and considerably enlarged and the general surrounds shaped so that a ball going through the back will not necessarily slow and roll onto the putting surface.

When such a programme is undertaken, the great certainty is that controversy will not be far away. And given that the short 3rd has been dropped, at least for the present, some voices have been raised in protest. It is here, after all, that countless great South of Ireland Championship matches have ended and none more famously than in the clash of two legends of the Irish amateur game, Joe Carr and John Burke, in the final of 1946.

The “South” had a a 36-hole final in those days and the issue wasn’t decided until the 39th. Legend has it that Burke, with the honour, hit the green with a six iron and that Carr was handed the same club by his caddy, the late Paddy Skerritt, who was then only 12 years of age and subsequently became one of the Irish game’s most respected professionals. But Joe instead asked for a seven, finished in a bunker short of the green and was unable to match Burke’s par three. It was the 11th and last of Burke’s “South” championships.

The next big change comes at the 7th (now the 6th) where Hawtree’s expertise really comes to the fore. The fairway has been re-routed at this 424 yarder so that those attempting a “short cut” over the dunes on the left best forget about it as Tiger rough awaits on that line. The emphasis is on hitting the right side of the fairway to create the best means of attacking a beautifully contoured green located in the area of the old 8th tee.

Gazing down from the elevated fairway on this majestic piece of linksland terrain and to the Atlantic beyond is a stirring sight indeed. Even if the second, invariably with long iron or wood, fails to come off, there is always the consolation of the magnificent view across Lahinch Bay. Those who remember the original with affection will be surprised to hear Benn predict that it will become Lahinch’s “signature” hole.

In truth, though, the next two, will almost certainly be seen as serious rivals. The 7th has been transformed into a superb right to left dogleg with a brand new green perched only a few feet from the famous beach and again with glorious sea views. This had been previously uncharted territory because, as Tommy Benn puts it, “all they had to work with in the old days was donkeys and carts”. Modern machinery, however, makes short work of any such impediments. The result is a splendid par four and a brilliant new par three of 163 yards (replacing the 3rd) played across a yawning chasm to another delightfully located green.

There’s a new tee at the 9th while the 10th, which was in play last year, remains the most formidable of par fours and as you turn to tackle the second nine, you begin to wonder if perhaps the course hasn’t become just a little too difficult and suited only to the skills of low handicappers and professionals. The notion isn’t scoffed at, certainly not by Benn or the club’s secretary manager Alan Reardon.

“Low handicappers' games will allow them to play the course better”, said Benn. “Again it’s all to do with the tee boxes, if they play from those suited to their games, they will enjoy their golf at Lahinch. But if they go back too far, they will struggle”. Reardon noted: “The CSS returns so far indicate that it is playing harder by around four strokes”.

The 11th is another new par three in the majestic linksland already referred to. Hawtree went in there, saw the possibilities, and replaced the “old” short hole with one that will soon be regarded as one of the game’s greatest one-shotters.

From there you roll on to the par five 12th, 577 yards from the back tees and running alongside the River Inagh as it disgorges itself into the Atlantic. This is now a fine, strong hole and exceptionally difficult from the back tee. Every course should have a short par four and Lahinch’s 13th fits the bill nicely. At 279 yards, it will still be driveable for the big boys but the familiar back to front sloping green has been completely remodelled along with the surrounds to make for a much more rounded test.

At 6, 882 yards, par 72, the “new” Lahinch is still not exceptionally long, a point demonstrated on recent visits there by the likes of Phil Mickelson and Mark Calcavecchia.

“It would be fair to say that it has surpassed expectations”, said Alan Reardon. “What Hawtree has done on the old 7th and 8th which are now the 6th and 7th is sensational. They are two dramatic holes and will be well worth watching at the South. The really back tees are only for Championships, Senior Cup matches and so on with the weather also a major factor. I think those two with the 8th are now the feature holes. When you get to the top of the hill at the 6th, you see a magnificent backdrop. He has framed the hole beautifully, capturing the view of the sea, the land around. It’s just beautiful. You have to give the man full credit for his vision”.

Reardon points out that the par three third could yet be retained and it will eventually be left up to the membership to decide.

“The general feeling I’m getting from the members is that they’ve seen the new hole and they like it”, he said. “Quite a few have also passed the comment that it would be a pity to lose the third from a 21st hole scenario. It’s in Hawtree’s plan that it should be dropped but the matter will still go to an EGM.”

And finally, has Lahinch become too difficult, not sufficiently player friendly, for the average golfer?

“It’s certainly harder, probably by two or three shots”, Reardon agreed. “Our President’s Prize was the first major competition in which the members got a chance to play the new holes. It was won with 40 points which would indicate that it is a much tougher golf course, but hit the ball in the right place and you’ll score well.”

The extent of the club’s commitment to getting just the kind of links they wanted is seen in the fact that they were prepared to spend 2.5 million euro on the project.

“Anything you do on a golf course is expensive,” said Reardon. “It’s good the visitors are coming in large numbers and we’ll fund the exercise quite comfortably”.

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