It's ironic that last year's Ryder Cup, the biggest golf event to be held on the island of Ireland since the Open Championship made its one foray to Royal Portrush in 1951, should have been held at the K Club, an unabashed American-style parkland course.
Despite the influx of such big money developments, often in the grounds of great houses that have been turned into hotels, Ireland's true golfing glory lies on the coastline, reckons Irish golfing great Christy O'Connor Jr. "Lahinch, Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush rate very highly in my mind as being among the best golf courses in the world," he says.
"Their natural characteristics include the beautiful dunes they are situated between, their incredible greens that seem to have been there forever and designed by nature. With a little wind they can be incredibly difficult to negotiate. In addition the paths and walks from tee to fairway typically meander through grassy hillocks, and almost tell a story of the golf course as you walk along." But although O'Connor's heart lies on the links, he isn't minded to disparage these new parkland courses. These developments, he says, have played a big role in upgrading Ireland as a golf tourism destination, and also dealing with the need for new housing caused by the Irish economic boom. "The new trend in Irish golf has involved searching for a large tree lined farm or stud which probably had a graceful manor house attached," he explains. "This helps answer the need for accommodation – in both housing and hotels – to cope with the ever-growing numbers of people coming to Ireland." But these parkland courses have brought another new side to Irish golf, one that Christy isn't so keen on.
American-style target golf is all very well, he says, but it shouldn't lead to overirrigation of courses in general, especially in a climate as damp as that of Ireland! "It's my honest opinion that, over the last ten to fifteen years, our links courses have been watered too much," he says. "This has, to a large extent, taken away the lovely summer dormant grass colour. On these surfaces, we had to learn how to bump the ball along the fairways to find the greens, but of late this shot has almost vanished. In recent years, though, we have become more educated in the need for proper proportions of water in very dry weather, and I am glad to see old-style links golf returning." Twice a Ryder Cup player, many golfers' clearest memory of Christy's illustrious career will be of the two iron shot he hit across the water hazard on the Belfry's famous eighteenth hole, to within a couple of feet of the flag – thus securing Europe's possession of the Cup for another two years. But that hole – once so intimidating at 474 yards – is now often approached by top golfers with a wedge in hand. Christy reckons that his 221-yard shot was longer than it might have been even then, because he took a fairly conservative route off the tee, but acknowledges the changes technology has brought. "As you can see from the yardage I had quiet a long shot to the hole, due to the safe placing of my drive to make sure I was hitting my second shot from the fairway," he says. "But technology in the game has gone through the roof, and everyone is hitting the ball much further. Unfortunately those with less skill are hitting the ball much further left and right! Technology has added a new headache for course designers. The location of tees is extremely important.
Although the carry from forward tees is not so long, these golfers like to interact with the hazards in the same way as do those from the back tees." But he is not in favour of the wholesale rebuilding of classic golf courses to compensate. "If one can find a couple of extra back tee settings, that's about as far as I would go. As long as greens and bunkers are in decent condition, I am in total favour of being able to play those courses as they did many years ago," he says.