Englishman Harry Colt wins many votes as the greatest golf course designer that ever lived. Colt created or refined a high proportion of the finest courses in Britain, from Sunningdale and Swinley Forest in the Surrey heathlands to Royal County Down and Royal Portrush on the coast of Northern Ireland. And, although the extent of his involvement is still debated, Colt unarguably played a significant role in the creation of the course most frequently highlighted as the best in the world, America’s Pine Valley.
So treading in Colt’s footsteps must be intimidating to any golf architect. If any firm is qualified to stand in for the master, though, the British practice of Hawtree is surely best placed. Fred W Hawtree, the second in the family line, and the father of current principal Martin, wrote the best book on Colt’s life and work, Colt & Company, and the firm continues to consult on many of Colt’s courses.
Hawtree’s commission at Dun Laoghaire GC in the Republic of Ireland, though, was rather different. Dun Laoghaire’s original eighteen holes, situated in what is now prime south Dublin commuter land, might not have been among Colt’s most acclaimed work, but the course was highly respected as one of the Irish capital’s best layouts.
Like so many old clubs, though, Dun Laoghaire was short of space; in fact, Colt built the course on only 68 acres of land. And, as property values in the Dublin area have exploded in recent years, the club realised it was sitting on a real estate gold mine.
Selling a near 100 year old golf course cannot have been easy for club members, but without doubt, any qualms they might have had were tempered by the deal negotiated with the property development company that bought the property. Some controversy among members about the valuation of the site ensued, but the deal was eventually done. Essentially, Dun Laoghaire traded its compact, historic Colt course for a brand new 27 hole complex built by Hawtree near the town of Bray, about eight miles south of its old home, and a substantial financial endowment designed to ensure that the new course will not become a white elephant, dragging the club’s finances down with it. Such deals have become a minor trend in Ireland, with Bray Golf Club having exchanged its suburban nine holer for a new course, and a proposed €400m buyout of the Foxrock club in the news recently.
Now complete and in play, the new course is a sea change from the original. For members used to an old style, relatively short and tight course it will take some adjustment. Built as three ‘equal’ loops rather than a premier eighteen hole and subsidiary nine hole course, Hawtree and his associate Marc Westonborg have taken a substantial piece of hillside property in the shadow of the characteristic Sugarloaf peak. The two courses of Powerscourt, and its new Ritz-Carlton hotel are close by: it’s clear from the scale of the Dun Laoghaire operation, both on the golf course and at the clubhouse end, that the club hopes (and indeed will need) to win its own share of the corporate and travelling golfer market.
This will be a challenge. Perhaps the Dublin area is not yet overbuilt with high-end parkland golf facilities, but, fuelled by the property boom, a considerable number of courses have been built in recent years, from the K Club to Carton House and their like.
From a design perspective, Hawtree and Westonborg had much to do. The property, though appealing in its views, offered little in the way of natural feature, save a stream running down the hillside in a small gully and the barrier of the river at the bottom of the land. The stream, though an appealing feature, was only of minor use, as it too is fairly close to the property line.
The three nines, labelled upper, middle and lower, have quite different characteristics, though in all three cases the style is modern and the scale is large. The upper nine seemed to me to be the most difficult, with significant elevation changes and some long holes. All but two of the lower nine holes lie on a relatively flat plain of land at the bottom of the site, close to the river, and play across a number of manmade lakes, designed to help manage the flow of surface water down the hillside (it is not hard to imagine what stormwater calculations for such a piece of property in the damp Irish climate must have looked like). The lower nine’s opening hole, with a large tree splitting the centre of the fairway, demands a fine drive – I would rather see the hole as the tenth rather than the first of the day!
But for me the pick of the three nines is the middle. It has the pick of the land (the above-mentioned gully is in play on a number of the holes. The second and seventh holes on the middle nine are excellent, scenic par threes playing across the ravine: the seventh, in particular, is interesting, featuring a large bunker some 40- 50 yards short of the green. The bunker should not be in play, but many a visiting golfer is likely to be surprised when he comes up short. Both the third and eighth holes on the middle nine also make use of the gully from the tee, although in neither case is the carry long.
That tricky opening hole on the lower nine might be less worrisome if players have made proper use of the excellent practice facilities Hawtree has built. The main range and teaching area are excellent, protected from the upper nine’s closing hole by a large berm, but it is the short game area, featuring four properly constructed greens and associated bunkers for chipping, pitching and bunker practice that stand out. In a golf market where top line practice facilities are becoming increasingly important, Dun Laoghaire has some of the best.
The new Dun Laoghaire course is, in some ways an odd beast. Few observers, if transported to the property with no information on its provenance, would identify it as the home of a traditional, long-established members club. Rather, it looks and feels like a golf resort. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a course and a club gains its feel over time and as a result of the personalities of its members. The substantial endowment which the club has in the bank as a result of the deal that brought the new course into being – plus the extra members the larger facility will hopefully be able to accommodate – should see a strong and sustainable future. But there will always be those who mourn the little old Colt course in the suburbs of south Dublin.
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.