By Brian Keogh
Mark Gannon once quipped that the toughest shots at Baltray aren’t drives or putts, but the second shots to the par threes.
The fifth, seventh, 15th and 17th are four of the toughest but most enjoyable holes on one of Ireland’s favourite links courses and a track which the United States team will visit as part of their preparations for September’s defence of the Walker Cup at Royal County Down.
Gannon is now a Great Britain and Ireland selector, but the 1978 East of Ireland champion still knows what it takes to successfully plot your way around County Louth in any weather.
The former Ireland great grew up on a course which was his back garden for years. His mother’s house, after all, overlooks Gannon Way, otherwise known as the 10th hole.
And after watching the best players in the land take on the course in championships from the ‘East’ to the Nissan Irish Open, he’s better qualified than most to help you get round without too many disasters on your card.
From the time the players set foot on Drummond, the 453 yard opening hole, they must pay careful attention to the wind.
“If it is the prevailing wind from the south west, helping from left to right, they will hit a one-iron to avoid the bunkers,” Gannon says. “The longer hitter will carry the bunkers on the left and go in with a wedge.
“The par-five second is an interesting hole now and if they can make the 270 yard carry over the bunkers on the left, it is an easy four. But it is a tight tee shot. If they can’t carry them, then it is all about position and a long second shot.”
The third is also a par-five, though heading back towards the clubhouse, and with the prevailing wind the long hitters should be able to knock their drives over the hill and take on a second shot through a tight gap between the dunes to a long, treacherous green.
With any luck, you will already be under par before you reach the driveable fourth. But the real Baltray starts at the par three fifth, a 173-yard short hole known as Haven.
Padraig Harrington reckons it is one of the best holes in the world. Period.
Indeed the par threes were highlighted by the cream of the European Tour as one of the real strengths of Baltray during the Nissan Irish Open of 2004, when Brett Rumford came through to win the title.
“I would put the fifth as one one of the best holes in the world,” Harrington said at the time. “It’s just a superb par-three. It is just 175 yards, not a beast of a hole, but just a superb golf hole, it really is.
“The seventh is another. The two par-threes on the front nine are as good as you will get anywhere. I would definitely put five as my favourite hole. But you don’t miss it right!
“The 15th is not a scary par-three but it has its troubles. But on the fifth and seventh you want to walk away with pars.”
Darren Clarke had to be reminded his then caddie JP Fitzgerald that he had a hole-in-one on the fifth on his way to victory in “East” the 1989. But he has also had a triple bogey six there as well.
The par-five sixth offers the players yet another birdie opportunity but it is from this point on that Baltray starts to up the ante with the eighth a tough, but relatively short, driving hole.
With the wind against, the ninth requires two good shots to get home in two and with plenty of sand to be avoided both off the tee and the approach, it is
one of Baltray’s toughest.
Precise iron play is a must at Baltray and 2005 champion Jim Carvill has been working hard on that aspect of his game as he prepares to bid for his second crown over the Whit weekend.
“You need to be a good iron player to win around Baltray,” he says. “The greens are quite tricky and it is very hard to get it up and down if you do miss a green. But if you can manage to hit a lot of greens, you very seldom have a lot of very long putts.
“I’m only getting my season started now and I feel I can do well again at Baltray. I am looking forward to the year and there is a lot of golf to be played. It is all about getting the right preparation.”
A third round 71 put the Warranpoint man nine shots clear of Michael McGeady and Richard Kilpatrick entering the final round in 2005.
But like Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters, Carvill discovered that it is often harder to defend a big lead than to come from behind, especially on Baltray’s back nine.
Despite playing the front nine level par, the then 38-year-old saw his lead cut to five shots by McGeady, who was playing two matches ahead of him and had covered the front nine in four under par.
Carvill then bogeyed the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th to see his lead reduced to a single stroke but regained his composure in remarkable fashion to play the last five holes in two-under par.
He eventually carded a two-over par 74 for a four round total of 280 - eight under par - and a three stroke win over McGeady.
It was a brilliant display of composure from the Ulsterman, who lost this title after a titantic battle with Darren Clarke in 1989.
Having seen his lead cut to just one shot with five to play, Carvill parred the 14th and 15th and found himself two clear again when McGeady bogeyed the 16th after bunkering his tee shot.
When Carvill carved his tee shot some 40 yards right of the fairway at the 16th, it looked as though he would struggle to make bogey, let alone par.
But he slashed his ball back to the edge of the green and despite finding a horrific lie, managed to hack the ball eight feet past the pin and hole the testing downhill putt for a vital par.
“I have had a lot of good times here,” Carvill said. “I lost the East in 1989 to Darren Clarke. But to win the 72 hole strokeplay is the one you want.
“You can go the North, the West or the South of Ireland championships, play well and get beaten in the first round, but you have got to play well for four rounds around here.”
The stretch of par four from the 10th to the 14th is as testing as you will find anywhere. But the real nerves in the “East” will start to kick in at the 176-yard 15th, where a tough recovery faces the player who misses the green.
The par four 16th is a great driving hole with bunker down both sides of the hole requiring pin point accuracy, especially if the pin is on the back right hand side of the green.
The long par three 17th is another tough proposition, where it is often better to play safe to the front of the green rather than taking on a pin cut at the back.
As for the par five 18th, sand again awaits the errant tee shot and most will be happy enough with a five here, especially if the championship is one the line.
An elite field will tee it up but Theresa Thompson of the Leinster Branch warned that players will have to keep a close eye on their pace of play this year.
She said: “We’ve had a two-tee start for a number of years now and will again this year. But we are going to be looking at the pace of play and monitoring that better this year.”
Reigning champion Brendan McCarroll has moved to the professional ranks and Rory McIlroy will be preparing for the St Andrews Links Trophy.
But the event has still attracted a top class entry with last year’s runner up Jonathan Caldwell and fellow Walker Cup panelists Simon Ward the leading players in the field off handicaps of plus 2.8.
Michael Sinclair, the 2003 champion, will also tee it up with high hopes of a repeat victory while young guns such as Shane Lowry and Seamus Power will also feature strongly as will West of Ireland champion Joe Lyons.
Limerick’s Pat Murray has been a regular fixture in the top ten for the last number of years and hopes he will have another chance to shine again this season.
“I just like the course,” he said, shortly after finishing tied for sixth in the Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin. “For me, driving is key around Baltray.
“If you don’t drive it well off the tee and hit the fairways, you are not going to get on the greens. The greens are too firm and too quick.
“If you hit it on the fairway, you have a chance of making birdie there. If you don’t, forget it.
“What makes Baltray is the par threes. If you can play the short holes in level par, you will not be far away.”