Golf’s potential to aid economic and social regeneration in remote and vulnerable communities has been recognised for some time. Many of Scotland’s leading courses, perhaps most notably Royal Dornoch, are in areas that have been afflicted for decades by depopulation and economic decline. Now, a golf course, however successful, cannot on its own transform the fortunes of a whole district, but walk the streets of Dornoch, or some of the towns in the south-west of Ireland that are on the golf tourism trail, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the number of visitors, and the amount of cash, they attract.
For many decades, Belmullet, in Ireland’s remote and rural northwest, was a poster boy for this sort of economic decline. Emigration was the fate of huge numbers of young people growing up in the west of Ireland, not least for the ancestors of American golf writer John Garrity, as Garrity describes in his memoir Ancestral Links. But two decades of strong Irish economic growth had already started to revive towns like Belmullet by the time Garrity moved there for several months in 2007. The story of how veteran Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett, along with one returning emigrant, Eamon Mangan, and a team of volunteers, built the Carne links in the huge dunes of the Mullet peninsula in the early nineties, is well known. It’s fanciful to suppose that the golf course is wholly responsible, but walk down Belmullet’s main street now, and, even despite Ireland’s recent economic disasters, the town that Garrity found on his first visit, more than ten years ago, must have been very different.
Carne’s original eighteen was the last course built by Hackett before his death. Nine of Hackett’s holes traverse the most massive dunes, while the front half of the course occupies land that is more sedate, though still extremely up and down.
For some years, the club has been pursuing a project to build nine more holes in the big dunes. American architect Jim Engh – a life member of Carne – originally routed the holes, but the project was put on hold as a result of Ireland’s financial woes. Three years ago, it was taken on by Scottish-born but Dublin-resident designer Ally McIntosh, a graduate of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects’ diploma programme. It is McIntosh’s first project as a lead designer.
Along with Carne’s eminence grise, Eamon Mangan, McIntosh has refined Engh’s original routing, producing a series of visually stunning but also playable holes that traverse some of the most remarkable terrain in golf.
Starting with a lengthy par five that the biggest hitters might hope to reach in two, but which for most will be primarily a question of where to place the second shot for the best approach to the shelf green, the new course then hits one of its highlights. The second hole is a tremendous par three, from tees set high, across a chasm to an amphitheatre green surrounded by mountainous dunes and enormous blowout bunkers. With a following wind and a front pin position, it is only a short iron, but with the flag at the back of the severely sloping green and the breeze hurting, the hole will require a strong shot.
The downhill par four third could prove to be a work in progress. The club has hopes of acquiring more land behind and to the right of the existing green, and if this happens, McIntosh may build a new green, at least partially to shorten the walk to the fourth. As it sits today, though, the hole is highly entertaining. The green is drivable, just, but the ground contours and a tricky bunker at front left mean that any such shot must be hit with absolute precision. For most, an iron or a hybrid off the tee will be preferred.
The fourth is another good par three, playing over a valley to a green banked into another massive dune. McIntosh refers to the hole as Carne’s Postage Stamp, but it’s an order of magnitude bigger in scale than the Troon original: everything is bigger at Carne. Then, the second real highlight of the nine appears. The par five fifth is an Alps hole of sorts, with an uphill tee shot to a wide (and wild) fairway before the player must make a decision. A huge dune sits right in front. To its left is a strip of fairway, to its right a high saddle. Go left, and an accurate layup will leave 150 yards or so to the green; go right, over the saddle, and the green is almost within range, though bunkers protect the ground short of it.
The shortish par four sixth takes play back up to the high dunes, and to perhaps the course’s single best view, from the seventh tee. This sits proudly, way above the fifth fairway, with the green 200 yards away and apparently isolated among vast sand hills and chasms. It is a terrifying shot, at least the first time, though when one realises that concealed behind a small dune is an expanse of fairway, the fear subsides a little.
Two dramatic par fours take the course back to Carne’s pleasant clubhouse. The first of these, the eighth, has its green situated on a shelf, fifteen feet or so above a rare flat area. It’s possible to drive into these flats, which will leave only a short approach, but the saddle between two dunes that the shot must penetrate is pretty narrow. Most will leave the tee shot up top, and from here the approach is demanding indeed. There is a severe climb out of the dune valley after this hole: if it were the last between holes walk of the day golfers would, I think, find it very tough: fortunately, it is likely that the long-term plan for the course will see McIntosh’s nine intermingled with some of Hackett’s dune holes to create a composite routing. The home hole is a shorter, less severe version of Hackett’s closer: it traverses much of the same terrain, but the deep valley that collects so many shots on the original eighteenth is not so brutal here, and, as a par four, the approach is perhaps more spectacular. It is, however, still a very demanding four.
Those who know Carne will understand just how severe the terrain in those dunes really is, and should be amazed at how comfortable a walk the new holes are – significantly less demanding than the course’s existing back nine. Although the fourth and sixth might be dismissed as connector holes by some, both are exciting and pleasurable to play, while the ninth is a significantly better finisher than Carne’s existing eighteenth. Built for less than €200,000 by McIntosh and the Carne team, with only one excavator and one small dump truck, it is a remarkable achievement. In a year or so, once the new greens – which were grassed with rough sod from elsewhere on the site – and fairways, which were simply mowed out of the natural terrain, have matured, it will be truly one of Ireland’s golfing treasures.