If you haven’t played Bernard Langer’s wonderful Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links for a while, a return visit is long overdue. As Brian Keogh discovered, this Dublin gem is now better than ever thanks a multi-million euro investment by its new owners.
The next time you caress that emerald green bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey in your fingers, take a closer look at the family crest at the bottom of the label and you will notice the latin inscription — “Sine Metu” — “Without Fear.”
We’re told the coat of arms was awarded to the Jameson family for fighting pirates off the Scottish coast and when John Jameson, stepped off a ship from his native Scotland to set up the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin in 1780, he had to be brave to succeed in the booming, brawling Dublin of the day.
That Ireland’s most famous whiskey was founded by a Scotsman is nothing unusual and it is not so strange either that the site of his Dublin home — the old St Marnocks estate hard by Dublin bay in Portmarnock — is now inextricably linked with golf.
“Having spent most of his life as a sheriff clerk, John Jameson arrived in Dublin as a middle-aged man. We’re not sure if we can put his decision down to a midlife crisis, but it was a big move for someone who had a well-established job at home,” the whiskey makers tell us.
“When he set up shop, Bow Street wasn't the only distillery in this area. In fact, this part of Dublin was a whiskey making hotspot. The capital was booming at the turn of the 19th century and John Jameson wasn’t the only person trying to stake a claim.”
Like many other Scots living and working on the east coast at the time — Thomas Gilroy was involved in the creation of Royal Dublin, Laytown and Bettystown and County Louth — golf was a passion and Jameson built a 12-hole course on the links land that is today occupied by the magnificent, Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links championship course, created by two-time Masters and three time Irish Open champion Bernhard Langer.
The Jameson lands were also the site of the founding of the peninsula’s other great course — world famous Portmarnock Golf Club — the clubhouse roof of which can be seen in the distance as you play the 11th, 12th and 13th on Langer’s magnificent creation.
When it opened in 1995, Portmarnock Links as it is popularly known, was unique worldwide as the only links golf resort in a capital city. And it remains the only one to this day with the added bonus that a change of owner has brought with it a major investment in the course and the hotel that runs into the millions.
It’s little wonder that Walker Cup heroes Jack Hume and Gavin Moynihan and top amateurs such as Lisa and Leona Maguire and Olivia Mehaffey are regular visitors.
It’s never polite to talk about money but over the past 12 months, more than €1 million has been lavished on the links by Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Estate, who bough the property in mid-2104 for an estimated €30m, which is less than half what the previous owners Capel Developments had spent before the financial crisis hit hard.
The 176-acre site is a true jewel and the resort is now shining brightly once more as befits a five-star category product set bang in the heart of one of Europe’s great capitals.
The upgrading of the course has been hugely welcomed by the golfers who have come to call “the Links” a friend with new turf pathways and a new first tee with wooden starter’s hut, now a fitting place to set off for battle with a truly great course.
The new high tee at the first is reminiscent of Kingsbarns in terms of its panoramic view. Here you can climb the steps and look out of the great Velvet Strand and pick out the islands of Ireland’s Eye and Lambay and the headland at Howth.
The cleverer patrons will also note the pin positions on the 17th and 18th before firing a missile down the first where the graveyard on the right is a good line, so long as you stay out of the cavernous pot bunkers that guard that side of the fairway,
Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links features more than 100 sand traps and around 65 of the most prominent ones have been newly revetted for the 2016 by head greenkeeper Fintan Brennan and his loyal staff.
Fintan knows every inch of the course having worked there with Stan Eby, the designer from European Golf Design who was called in to carry out the plans of the inimitable Langer in April 1993.
If you’ve never been to Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, the four-star seafront hotel is built around the old Jameson family home and offers sweeping views of the bay and a sea view from most of the 138 bedrooms, which have been renovated by the new owners as part of a major refurbishment of the hotel.
Overseeing the investment programme for the new owners is Mr Barry O’Connor who previously has been involved in the creation of both Doonbeg and Killeen Castle.
Speaking about the plans for the hotel and golf course Mr O’Connor said the intention was to highlight the Jameson connections in the refurbished property. “We attract a large number of both American and European tourists initially drawn here for the opportunity to play a great links golf course. They are fascinated with the connections to the Jameson family and inevitably always want to know more. It is our intention to highlight this rich history".
He also said that while international tourism business was important to the hotel that it had a real strong local business that had supported both hotel and golf course during the recession and which would continue to be important going forward.
“In that context I must pay tribute to the staff both of the hotel and the golf course who ensured that the property continued to retain its loyal support during those difficult times.”
He added: ”What we will be looking to do is to expand the business. We strongly believe we have one of the best locations in Ireland. It is less than 20 minutes from Dublin Airport and 20 miles from the heart of Dublin. Add in a championship links golf course, a five mile long Blue Flag beach, restaurants and other local attractions and it is hard to beat.”
When you have such a wonderful product, only the best will do and with Director of Golf Moira Cassidy now in her 21st year, it’s clear that this is a family affair.
As work continues on the multi-million renovation of the hotel, its bedrooms, bars and lobby areas, the course shines like a jewel in the bay.
“In the last 18 months were have refaced 65 bunkers and added some nice new ones,” said superintendent and Glasnevin native Fintan Brennan with a glint in his eye.
On a recent visit, when I played from the medal tees, I discovered just how beautifully restored many of them were and even found some of the new ones, though I managed to avoid new trap that protects the left hand side of the index one 12th.
I’d hit my Sunday best driver there and found I needed that club again to get close to the green, firing a career best shot that miss the two sentinel bunkers short left by inches and zipped up to a perfect spot just off the green.
The golfing gods must have been watching because I was punished for this affront, taking four more to get down for a frustrating double bogey six.
While it can be a very flattering course from the society tees on a calm day, Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links is a testing track from the whites in any kind of breeze with the newly renovated course measuring 6,583 yards (6,020m) from the whites and 7,047 yards (6,444m) from the blues.
Thankfully, the staff have undertaken rigorous rough management programme which means that that the wispy fescues dominate, which makes finding a ball simple even if extricating it is not.
When I played the course in March, the new par-five 13th green was not yet open as there was some work still to be done to level out the run in to the green and make it more visible from the fairway.
But when it’s completed for the start of the season, it will be a cracking hole, made all the more memorable by the enormous, and deep, kidney shaped bunker that punishes the big hitters who dare to take on the corner of the dogleg on this muscular par-five from the tee.
With a green fee of just €80 midweek and €100 at weekends in summer (€55 weekday and €70 weekend in winter) for non residents, it’s hard to beat the venue for value and there has not been placing there for 12 years, making it ideal for winer golf.
Open champion hero Paul Dunne and three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington and other tour players resident in he Dublin area are regular visitors during their off season, regularly using the links to test their games as the wind blows in off the Irish Sea.
Harrington is, of course, a huge fan of Langer, whose tactical genius is there for all to see.
“Bernhard Langer was a role model of mine in terms of that's the sort of player I looked up to wanting to be like as a kid,” Pádraig said. “He was the professional's professional, he got the most out of his game; he was very disciplined and worked hard.”
Hard work and discipline took Langer to the top of the game with the highlights of his career coming at Augusta National, where he twice donned the green jacket awarded to the Masters champion. But he is also a great lover of links golf as his performances in the Irish Open, and The Open, attest.
Winner of the Irish title at Royal Dublin in 1984 and at Portmarnock in 1987, Langer would go on to win it again at Mount Juliet in 1994. But he’s always been a great lover of links terrain with his great regret the fact that, unlike Harrington, he never managed to lift the old Claret Jug, finishing in the top three now fewer than five times
Langer’s desire to improve his links game took him to Ireland many times and early in his career he travelled as far as Co Sligo to play at Rosses Point and ended up heading to Enniscrone, where he spent longer than he had planned..
“I came for a day but ended up staying for a week,” Langer recalls with a grin.
With such a storied links pedigree, he was the ideal man to come to Portmarnock to add to the great golf offering on the sandy peninsula to the south of the village, where Portmarnock Golf Club made its home in 1894.
Once part of the ancestral family estate, the Jameson family had a 12-hole golf course which stretched as far as the current 15th at neighbouring Portmarnock.
In the mid 1990s, Langer was appointed to design the new links at Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links in conjunction with landscape architect Eby, renowned for his work on PGA Golf de Catalunya, the Faldo Course at Sporting Club Berlin, The Montgomerie at Carton House Golf Club, Euphoria Golf Estate in South Africa or The Schloss Course at Fleesensee outside Berlin to name but a few.
With Eby’s help, Langer incorporated some of the original “Jameson” holes into his new masterpiece and the course opened to great acclaim in 1995 and become a welcome addition to the Irish links experience alongside its older “cousins.”
It has moved with the times too, undergoing major upgrading and renovation work in 2011 before the latest tranche of improvements that you can enjoy today.
"There are very few locations in Europe which could have allowed me the opportunity and landscape to design such a classic championship links, I hope those who play it discover its magic and challenging beauty," Langer said of his creation.
The German legend has every reason to be proud of a course that has hosted many championships, including the Ladies Irish Open on the Ladies European Tour in 2008 and 2009.
Set on an intriguing mixture of flat and undulating links terrain, there is a testing start from the elevated first tee - high tees are a feature of the course - with a drive to a generous fairway presenting the successful with a challenging carry over a stream to a large but well bunkered green.
To the right of the hole stands old St Marnock’s Cemetery and St Marnock’s Church, where an ancient ogham stone, inscribed with marks used as an early form of writing in Ireland an other celtic nations from the fourth century, once stood proudly before being mysteriously broken up in the 19th century.
The opening hole measures less than 400 yards and while the course itself is a par-71 of 6,444 metres from the back stakes - just over 7,000 yards - it is a serious test from the tiger tees for all but the most experienced single handicappers, especially when the wind blows.
It would be unfair to pick out too many holes and let you discover the gems for yourself but the seventh with its carry over the drain, the short par-four eighth and the dogleg 15th are all designed to challenge your accuracy and intelligence as well as your skill.
The par-three 17th is not for the faint-hearted as it sits nearly 200 yards away on an elevated site, protected by fall offs at the front right and a huge bunker on the left.
The 18th might give up a birdie if you avoid hitting your tee shot onto the strand but even a par should be rewarded with a drink in the hotel’s famous Jameson Bar which was once part of Jameson’s family home.
Situated just 15 minutes drive from the airport and only a stone’s throw from Dublin City, Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links has become a favourite for travelling golfers from all over the world, including 007 himself, Sean Connery.
“I was delighted and surprised to find a new course designed and built in the traditional links style, you would be hard pressed to find a more invigorating vision and challenge. It’s that good,” the Scottish actor, famous for his portrayals of James Bond, says.
The welcome is always second to none and the Director of Golf, the estimable Moira Cassidy, is steeped in golfing tradition since childhood.
Eminently playable without diminishing the challenge for the low handicappers, the elevated tees at the par-three ninth, the 10th, 11th and 13th have also helped maximise the views while a new 13th green has added 75 metres to this par-five, making it one of the most memorable on a course where fescue greens ensure perfect putting surfaces all year round.
The course is just part of the package, however, and the hotel is an oasis of tranquility and luxury for travellers looking for a true Irish links experience near the buzzing metropolis of Dublin.