Although the last decade or so has seen more high-profile new links courses developed than any time since WW2, seaside duneland is an environment that is typically highly protected across the world.
For golf courses that occupy such dunes, this is a double edged sword. It often protects them from unwanted development on nearby linksland, but at the same time it can cause problems when they themselves want to do the development.
Although true linksland is scarce, it is rarely the case that a course occupies the whole of an area. Most often, there is land available somewhere around the perimeter of the course, and it’s only natural that golfers, when playing the course, should look out across the unused land and wonder what golf holes might be found out there. Machrihanish, on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula, is a classic example of that; for decades, golfers making the turn would stare out into the apparently endless range of dunes and dream. Eventually, of course, those dreams came to reality, with the creation of Machrihanish Dunes. But that is the exception to the rule; mostly, planning regulations make it difficult, verging on impossible, to build new courses in natural links environments.
At Strandhill in the west of Ireland, the question of expansion onto new land is particularly important. Founded in 1931, Strandhill was a nine hole course until it was expanded to 18 by Eddie Hackett in the 1970s. As with almost all of Hackett’s work, the expansion was almost certainly done on a shoestring budget, and, though the excellence of the ground and the ability of the architect created a highly entertaining round of golf, the course was not without its issues. Prime among these issues is the routing, which, though it weaves about the links nicely, involves a number of awkward walks and crossovers, making the flow of golf around the property far from ideal. Another major issue, though not one Hackett could have foreseen, is the par three ninth. Relatively close to the boundary of the property, the hole has been made a major safety hazard by the development of housing on the nearby plot. In response, the club has been forced to erect a large and unsightly fence to stop hooked balls flying into the housing, but this is far from being an ideal solution.
Fortunately for Strandhill, a better option is available. At the other end of the course, next to the bay which forms one edge of the club’s property, lies a substantial amount of undeveloped linksland. A large hill lies at the centre of this area, protecting part of the golf course from the ravages of the open Atlantic, but between estuary and hill lies a plateau of land ideally suited for the creation of a couple of excellent new golf holes. Although protected, biodiversity studies have shown that this area supports significantly fewer species than the part of the links that is maintained for golf – in itself a remarkable finding and one that supports the view that golf, properly maintained, is an ideal custodian of these sensitive ecosystems – and the club is confident, from meetings with the appropriate Irish authorities, that planning consent will be forthcoming.
Strandhill is working with architect Ally McIntosh and his design/construction partner James Coughlan, on the upgrade works, which form part of a five year plan to improve the golf course. McIntosh, of course, is fresh from working on another of Eddie Hackett’s best courses, at Carne in County Mayo, where he completed a third nine about three years ago. Here at Strandhill, the plans are on a smaller scale, but still offer exciting prospects for the future of the club.
The first stage of the five year plan has been completed this spring. This phase involved the start of a major rebunkering programme, aimed at increasing the strategic and aesthetic value of the golf holes. On the current first hole, for example, a bunker left and above the green has been filled in – and replaced with a grassy hollow – while a new bunker has been built about thirty yards short of the green. McIntosh says the idea is to offer bold golfers a reasonable, but challenging, opportunity to go for the green of this short par five in two – carry the bunker and the ball should bounce down the slope and stop on the green.
Elsewhere on the golf course, the rebunkering has taken a number of different forms. Previously, Strandhill’s bunkers were essentially all revetted pots. McIntosh has introduced a new style, which he calls the ‘hybrid’ bunker – this involves revet where the bunker edge is directly up against fairway or green, while a ragged, chunked edge is used to connect sand with out of play areas. In concept, this is very similar to the extremely attractive bunkers built by Gil Hanse and Mark Parsinen at Castle Stuart in Scotland. When I saw the course in the early spring, the work was very new, and needed to grow in, but I am confident it will mature to give a very appealing, more natural look, while still giving the playability of revetted bunkers.
McIntosh’s proposed resequencing of the course will give Strandhill returning nines for the first time, a worthwhile goal. Making the par four sixth the new first hole seems entirely logical to me, as the tee is closer to the clubhouse than the current opener and sits right next to the putting green, while the current second hole being a par three is an obvious cause of holdups on busy days; the new routing will have the first one shotter appearing at the third, perhaps not a huge gain but certainly worth doing, while the run of holes at the end of the course will be vastly stronger in the new routing.
Partly this is because of the most exciting part of the whole plan, the two new holes. McIntosh plans a new green for the existing fourth hole, which would become the thirteenth in the new sequence, extending the hole to a par five with an exciting natural greensite. To follow that, the architect hopes to build an entirely new par three, playing back away from the Atlantic towards the mountain of Knocknarea which dominates Strandhill. It should be a magnificent hole, one which McIntosh believes will be among Ireland’s most photographed par threes. The par five fifth, already one of Strandhill’s best holes, will be shortened into a strong par four and become the fifteenth.
So far, all the construction work has been handled in house by Strandhill’s greens crew, led by course manager Jason Kelly. Whether this will remain the case must be doubted – certainly the creation of the new holes will be a significantly bigger job, and one that may well require external help. Nonetheless, the standard of the new bunkers is testimony to Kelly’s skill and commitment to the job; he is clearly a real asset for Strandhill.
Strandhill currently ranks 65th on Golf Digest Ireland’s list of the top 100 Irish courses; McIntosh and the club hope the successful completion of the five year improvement plan will see it rise significantly, and put it in the same sort of company as its neighbours County Sligo (Rosses Point) and Enniscrone. Though Strandhill lacks Enniscrone’s big dunes, this seems an entirely reasonable goal. The course already has the characteristics of Hackett, playability and interest, and the works will only enhance that, while also making it a better walk and more dramatic. McIntosh, Coughlan, Kelly and all involved deserve great credit for seeing the course’s potential and setting it on a track to realise it.
This article first appeared in issue 45 of Golf Course Architecture.