I am not generally a fan of rebranding exercises.
I do recognise why companies engage in them, but in my experience, any benefits are usually outweighed by the costs, and the fact that a large proportion of your audience will continue to use the existing brand for a long time anyway. How many people actually use the name Meta, the rebranded name of Facebook’s holding company? Even if you judge a brand name to be less than ideal, the value it has accrued through years of use should not be underestimated.
An exception to this rule is the newly named Jameson Golf Links at the Portmarnock Resort, north of Dublin. And the reason this is an exception is simple: the new brand is not some meaningless word created by a highly paid consultant, but a real connection to the resort’s past life. It has, to use a term that, unlike rebranding, I do like, authenticity.
The resort was previously the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, a hotel and attached golf course created in the middle 1990s by American super-agent Mark McCormack and various others. The golf course was built by American architect Stan Eby, then working for the newly created European Golf Design. In the manner of the day, a top touring pro, in this case Bernhard Langer, accepted a substantial cheque to be named as the ‘signature’ designer of the course. It lies right next to the storied Portmarnock Golf Club, a live candidate for the title of Ireland’s best course, and throughout its life, the two have always been confused.
But the property had a life before it was a hotel and golf course. In the nineteenth century, it was the home of the Jameson family, creators of one of Ireland’s best known drinks brands. The building that was converted and extended to become the hotel was originally known as Jameson House, home of the family. And in the 1850s, John Jameson III, grandson of the distillery’s founder (who came originally from Scotland), had a nine hole course built in the sand dunes to the south of the house, at a time when there was essentially no golf in Ireland (Royal Curragh, the country’s first golf club, was founded in 1858). Later, in the 1880s, the Jameson family was involved in the founding of Portmarnock GC. So the property has a reasonable claim to be referred to as the home of golf in Ireland.
During its life, the hotel has had several different owners, including a spell in the care of the National Asset Management Agency, the government body created to deal with the fallout from the crash of 2008. In 2019, it was bought by the Gagliardi family, hoteliers based in Vancouver, Canada, and since then, a substantial renovation of the golf course has been carried out by Irish architect Jeff Lynch of (re)GOLF.
Lynch is an architect who has been around for some time, but whose career has not, because of the difficulties times the Irish golf industry has been through since 2008, yet taken off in the way some of his admirers might have anticipated. This, then, for him, is something of a breakthrough project: even in a country so blessed by the golfing gods as Ireland, the opportunity to work on genuine links terrain does not come around very often. “In my younger years I fished, surfed and golfed all along the west coast of Ireland, often camping in duneland. So I was no stranger to dune systems and was comfortable to mimic what I grew up in,” says Lynch. “I previously worked on links at Ceann Sibeal in Kerry, and also on some sandy sites in Scandinavia, which gave me experience of shaping in sand – which is a dream to work with, as you can be more organic in your shaping decisions and not be hampered with the limitations of a heavy clay site. So this project has made me that kid in the dunes again! An Irish architect, beautiful links terrain and Jameson whiskey – what could possibly go wrong?”
The central challenge for any architect on the Jameson property is that, although it has some beautiful dunes, there are not enough of them to house eighteen holes. The dunes, which are quite high, essentially form a barrier between the flatter ground inland (which is still linksy, just less dramatic) and the sea. As such, the only places on the course from which the sea could conceivably be seen are up in the dunes, and in Eby’s original design, there were not that many of them. Lynch has tried, with some success, to create more.
Additionally, almost all the holes previously played broadly in a north-south direction, obviously less than ideal on a windy links site, particularly given that the prevailing wind comes from the south-west and thus was to the side on almost every hole. Lynch has created two entirely new par threes, the ninth and fifteenth, playing almost directly towards the water, in the duneland, to alleviate these issues. Both holes are excellent: a very picky commentator might complain that both play between 140-145 metres (153-159 yards), but given their setting among the dunes close to the sea and the excellent greens that both have, it would be hypercritical to do so. “I really like the new ninth, as it is a complete change in direction from the other par threes and draws your attention to the coastline,” says Lynch. “The green is one of the largest on the course, with some bold contours to help a player to certain hole locations or make for some fun recovery shots. Unlike the west coast, the wind here is not predominantly from one direction, which adds a bit more variation.”
The tenth hole is a difficult, though not especially long, dogleg left par four playing south, parallel to the sea. It hasn’t been changed that much, but given the new ninth, the walk to the tee is along a path through the seawall dunes with excellent views of the water – a pleasant place on a nice day, though in a gale it will be wild! The tough and excellent par three eleventh is unchanged, but the twelfth hole has had its green pushed back 100 yards to create a par five; the most dramatic feature is the green site, which is a classic volcano, set atop a high dune. The green itself has a hint of a Biarritz style swale in it, but any golfer finding any part of the putting surface should be happy, as missing the green will result in a very difficult recovery shot, especially if you find the brutally deep bunker set to the right.
The thirteenth, in turn, was a par five, but the tees have been moved forward to create a long and very challenging four, in stroke index terms judged the hardest hole on the course. The fourteenth is now another five played to a new green that is much wider than it is deep, and has some dramatic rolling contours. The fifteenth we have already covered, while the stunning par-four sixteenth has a new tee position high on the seawall dune, with great views and a challenging angle to the fairway.
The final change, both in terms of hole position and also chronology, is on the seventeenth hole, now a difficult par three. Lynch has used a patch of dramatic but previously unused ground behind the existing green to build a new one that will turn the hole into an exciting and fun short par four. The green is expected to be brought into play in early 2024. Phase two of the works may include a multifunction practice area in the southwest of the property, incorporating a practice range large enough to accommodate a major tournament, and also a nine hole short course.
The newly named Jameson course has always had something of a PR problem, because it shared its name with the adjacent club, unarguably one of the best courses in Ireland, and, put simply, it wasn’t as good. To be confused with another, better, course is a difficult position to be in, and will inevitably lead to some disappointed customers. But now, the course has a much clearer identity of its own and, thanks to Jeff Lynch’s excellent work, is also a stronger golfing experience. That puts the resort in a very good position. Owner Mitch Gagliardi tells me that he plans to launch stay and play packages incorporating the other high-profile links in the area, and I imagine these will be very well received, given the excellence of the hotel. It would be an exaggeration to say that Jameson Golf Links is now on the same level as its illustrious neighbour. But it is fair to say that it is in the same ballpark.
This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.