Desperately seeking Eddie Hackett

Desperately seeking Eddie Hackett
Sean Dudley
By Richard Goodale

Richard Goodale travels the byways of Ireland in search of the legacy of the country's most important golf designer.

It is very hard to be anything but leisurely as you travel through the hinterlands of Ireland. No matter how hard you try, getting from point A to Point B will always take longer than you imagined – partly because of the still idiosyncratic road system, but mostly because there are so many distractions along the way which deserve the attention of anybody but the tragically single minded.

For example, I was tootling along the road from Athenry to Connemara in early May, when I passed at speed a signpost to the left that read 'Quiet Man Bridge.' It took me a minute or so for the significance to sink in, but once it did, I had to find a place for a relatively safe three point turn (not easy on the road from Athenry to Connemara). The bridge sits just a few hundred yards off the road, and is where John Ford filmed John Wayne sitting and listening in his mind's eye to his mother dreamingly telling him about the ancestral cottage in the distance, to which he was to move in that epic and heartfelt film.

The bridge is not far from the small village of Oughterard, where there is a parkland course, touched in the early 70s by another quiet man, Eddie Hackett, the godfather of Irish golf course architecture. Oughterard is a pleasant course sited near the shores of Loch Corrib and home to a seemingly prosperous club. There was a primitive course in the village as early as 1906, but it was only after Eddie that this prosperity was possible. He built a 'proper' golf course for the club, just as he did for nearly 100 other villages and memberships up until his death in 1996 at age 86.

Eddie came into the golf course architecture business late in life and almost as an afterthought. A professional who worked at Royal Dublin, Royal Waterloo and then 12 years at Portmarnock, he had been involved in minor course alterations, but was basically a clubmaker and teaching pro.

However, hired by the Golfing Union of Ireland to give golf clinics in the early 1960s, one club asked him for help on design and from there demand for his services grew by word of mouth. He was the only Irish architect of any repute in those early days, and he had a whole country to work with, blessed not only with majestic virgin linksland but also seemingly endless pockets of inland beauty. That being said, Ireland was a very poor country then, and Eddie had budgets for his services that were far closer to those paid to Old Tom Morris than even the most modestly successful architects of today.

What we know Eddie best for, however, is his creation of so many great modern links courses. The list of those he was significantly responsible for is enough to make his CV the envy of any course designer. Moving down the west coast of Ireland, from North to South, the list reads: Ballyliffin; Rosapenna; Donegal; Enniscrone; Carne; Connemara; Ceann Sibeal; and Waterville.

Most of these courses are set in incredibly spectacular sand dunes, and to design proper golf holes within those elevations requires both creativity and restraint. Eddie's solutions led him to route holes between dunes and up onto semi-blind plateaus in a somewhat repetitive sense, but also in an inspiring sort of minimalism that seemed to say: "These are the holes which were revealed to me. Who am I to try to improve them?"

His restraint was also evident from his work at Ballyliffin, Donegal and Waterville. In the former two, he had no significant dunes to work with, but made great use of the natural microundulations in the land. In the latter, he was given some great dunesland that he treated with utmost respect, wandering through valleys rather than over hills, placing greens that melded into the landscape rather than dominating it. It is an old story, but his placement of the green for his famous Mass hole – over rather than in the welcoming hollow once used by those hiding from Cromwell's persecution – was an act of genius, as well as faith and respect.

To really see what Eddie was all about, however, get yourself to Enniscrone, just south of Sligo. When Eddie came here in 1974, there was neither funding nor permission for more than a cursory excursion into the giant dunes that frame the property, so he built on what was able to be afforded, using mostly the flatter land near the estuary flowing into Killala Bay.

Many of the holes at Enniscrone are as flat as the first few holes at Hoylake – solid rather than inspirational – but is that a crime? Where the course shines is when Hackett's routing gets out near Killala Bay and weaves in and out of the lower dunes – holes 6-11 on the present course. Each flows naturally with the land, using the subtle rolls and modest hillocks to tease and stimulate the golfer. While the few holes he was able to route into the giant dunes are spectacular, that land is so interesting that you think that anybody could build good golf there. That Eddie could build great holes on any land testifies to his versatility and skill.

It is hard to characterise Eddie's design philosophy given the wide variety of assignments he took on, from the tweaking of rudimentary village courses to the creation of some of the most important of the very few modern links.

A few stand out, however.

Changes in elevation. Where the land allowed it (as at Carne, Connemara and Waterville), Eddie liked to place his tees on hills and his greens on plateaus or in hollows. Where it was possible (at Carne) his fairways would be crowned, but where the land dictated it, they would snake their way through valley (as at Waterville).

Minimalism. Eddie moved very little dirt, even on flatland courses such as Tuam and Malahide. He did so partly due to budgetary constraints, but also because he believed that his job was to find the holes that God provided him, not create those that were not there. There are very few bunkers on Eddie's courses, and those that exist all seem to serve an honest purpose rather than an artistic one.

Embracing change. Much of Eddie's work involved changing or replacing existing holes or even courses, and that did not seem to bother him. Nor did it apparently bother him when some of his work was overwritten by later architects. The Irish seem to embrace modernism much better than most Europeans (or even North Americans). I think Eddie would be proud to see so many of his clubs constantly upgrading his courses, even though purists might disagree.

Golf is a walking game. Due to his minimalism, there are some long walks between holes on Eddie's courses, but somehow you don't mind – probably because you know that the walk will be an invigorating one and the hole you are walking to is one that will lift your spirit. The walkability and unpredictability of some of Eddie's routings seems to me to mirror the way one negotiates one's way around Ireland in general.

An excellent example of the latter principle is the sixth hole at Malahide. The previous green abuts a berm that was built to protect the course from a tidal river. I would have never found the back tee for the next hole if a venerable group of local players had not pointed to me where it lay – a route which took me back and then along the berm for about 100 yards. There, sitting in splendid isolation surrounded by the reeds by the river a great hole was revealed to me – a fearsome tee shot followed by a long iron to lovely green set into the rise of a hillside.

I was guided to that tee at Malahide by Colm Murphy, the greenkeeper, who had worked with Eddie when the course was built in 1992. Eddie was 82 years old then, but he arrived at the site every morning at eight and stayed until three that afternoon. Colm loved Eddie and calls him a genius. He was not the first to express such opinions to me.

I first heard these words at Tuam, from an elder of that course which Eddie made rise from the peat bog, and now boasts some of the finest greens in Ireland. They were repeated by the secretary at Connemara, and the pro at Carne and even from pros who didn't know that Eddie might have touched their club.

Most tellingly, I had a chat with one of those venerable members at Malahide, as I caught up to him at the middle of that sixth hole. When I told him what I was doing, he said he had caddied at Portmarnock when Eddie was the pro there. He, too, said he loved him and that he was a genius, adding: "He was a saint."

Now, calling someone a saint in Ireland is not a comment offered lightly. Eddie was a deeply spiritual man, and a simple man with simple pleasures, but he created golfing experiences that to us seem anything but mundane. He was very humble about his life work, giving credit for his courses to the natural world and its creator. 'Greatness' didn't seem to matter to him, just the golf and its place in our existence, but many thousands of the people he has touched through his work would seem to disagree.

An American in Scotland, Richard has written books on Royal Dornoch, The Old Course and Carnoustie, as well as authoring the chapters on Scottish and Irish courses for the new revision of The World Atlas of Golf, due to be published in late 2008.

This article appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2008.