There’s something indescribably romantic about The Island, one of the jewels in Ireland’s links crown, bordered on three sides by water, its massive dunes the only protection from the winds that appear to blow almost incessantly.
Once accessible only by boat which crossed the Broadmeadow Estuary from Malahide from its founding in 1890 to 1973, when it was abandoned to a bygone age when a burgeoning membership opted for the car as its preferred mode of access - the long way round - it is a joy to play. Not easy by any means, especially since Martin Hawtree was called in to make subtle changes in recent years, this par-71 challenge now measures just over 7,000 yards and has arguably produced more single figure golfers per square yard than any other golfing enclave in Ireland.
According to the club history, The Island Golf Club was among the first twelve golf clubs to be founded in Ireland and the ten founder members became the owners of the club and only allowed members as annual ticket holders. Most of them were already members of Royal Dublin Golf Club which was founded some years earlier in 1885 but a rule in that club which did not permit play on Sundays was not to their liking.
The solution required some ingenuity and derring do. Striking out like great adventurers, the club history tells us that “in September 1887 four men rowed across the channel which separates the North Dublin village of Malahide from the spur of land to the North known locally as the Island. Their mission was to survey the wilderness and assess its suitably as a golf links.”
The scene drums up memories of the opening chapter of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” when the narrator, Marlow, wonders how the pioneering Romans felt when navigating up the River Thames for the first time 2,000 years ago on the conquest of Britain.
“Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like….”
The founder members were John Redmond Blood, David Francis Moore, James J. Law, James Rippingham Bristol [what a great name that is], Henry J. Daly, William Samuel Hayes, James Henry Barrington, Godfrey Ferguson, Thomas Stewart and Daniel Martin Wilson.
Law, Bristow and Ferguson were from Belfast and came to work for the Northern Bank in Dublin. Stewart hailed from Derry and was a barrister. Wilson had been born in Limerick was also called to the bar and was later to become Chief Justice and stood for election to the Westminster Parliament.
The remainder were from Dublin and the entire group was known as the “Syndicate” and maintained the number at ten until the early 1950s.
Where else would they set up their clubhouse but the landing spot, now the 14th tee, at the far end of the course overlooking the estuary at Malahide. It was abandoned when the boat service was discontinued in 1973 mad a new clubhouse was built, and twice rebuilt, to give us the comfortable building that exists today.
Like all the good things in life, the Island Golf Club was built by nature. Laid down on a spur of gravel in glacial times, the north-south spur was later covered by wind blown sand that formed a large ridge through the centre of the course. Erosion did the rest, giving us the mighty dunes that are believed to be the highest on the east coast.
“It is a classic links on the east coast of Ireland that looks like something you would expect to see on the west coast,” says club President Henry Collier of the course where he has been a member for 33 years. “County Louth, Portmarnock, Royal Dublin… none of those have the classic high dunes we have. From a scenic point of view it really captures the beauty of Irish golf for visitors. And we have visitors from all over the world - the United States, Canada, a big contingent from Sweden, the UK. If it’s a fine day or what’s more usual, a windy day, they always have great praise for us.”
Little wonder that Ryder Cup players Christy O’Connor, Darren Clarke or Philip Walton - an import from nearby Malahide but very much a regular at The Island - are great admirers of the course.
“The Island is one of the genuine true links courses,” say O’Connor. “It’s a pleasure to play, with a great variety of shots.”
Walton is often seen on the links, the practice ground or the nearby beach, hitting shots of the hard-packed sand to perfect his ball-striking.
“It’s one of the finest links courses,” says the hero of Europe’s 1995 Ryder Cup win at Oak Hill. “It’s very challenging, especially in the wind.”
Clarke has fond memories of The Island from his amateur days and some mixed ones as a professional. In 1999 he shot an eight under par, course record 63 in the second round of the Irish PGA Championship but took 74 on the third day and eventually finished second, three shots adrift to a young Royal Dublin assistant by the name of Neil Manchip.
The Scot is now the Golfing Union of Ireland’s National Coach but he still regards that week at The Island as the highlight of his career and the club as one of the best nurseries of young talent.
“It’s just ideal for youngsters,” Manchip says. “There’s a great practice ground and a wonderful atmosphere for young people to spend all their summer holidays there working on their games.”
It’s not surprise, then, that Gavin Moynihan has become The Island’s first Walker Cup player following a sensational couple of seasons that have brought him the Irish Amateur Open and numerous other titles. Add to that the talents of Irish Boys international Paul McBride and 14-year old Kevin Le Blanc, the winner of the Irish Under 15 Boys title for the past two years, and it appears certain that The Island will be in the news for years to come.
But it’s the links itself that’s the real star with holes such as the tough par-four third - Lambay - the dogleg seventh amongst the best. The 11th is known as Cricket Field because, where we are told the legendary English batsman WG Grace, who came to play golf one day, agreed to a post-golf knock up in which he was allegedly bowled first ball.
“The 12th is a magnificent par four, the 13th is a classic par-three and a very challenging hole and one of the finest par threes in links golf anywhere,” says President Collier. “The hole that would give you the most trouble might be the third. It is a very good par four and there is a very demanding second shot approach to the green. It takes a very good second shot to hit and hold that green.”
Originally laid out by Fred Hawtree and improved by Eddie Hackett, The Island’s many attractions have been somewhat overshadowed over the years by neighbours Portmarnock. But its charms and challenges have not been lost on the R&A who have added it to the rota of courses used for Regional Qualifying for The Open Championship.
Naturally, it has moved with the times and while many changes have been made to the links over the years, golf course architect Martin Hawtree has retouched the masterpiece in several phases over the past decade.
“In recent years we have added length onto the second hole by pushing the green further back and adding new bunkers,” President Collier explains. “We also did the same with the fourth hole, lengthening that by around 30 metre and putting the green back further. On the sixth we enlarged the tee box and on the seventh we took up the green and replaced it.”
His favourite hole is the 12th - Valhalla - a challenging dog-leg left played over a valley to an elevated green. “A magnificent par four,” he says. Yet he also has a soft spot for the the 13th, “a classic par-three” and the short par-four 14th, which has a fairway so narrow you almost feel your group would be best advised to walk in single file to avoid toppling into the estuary.
“There are a lot of demanding holes, especially on the back nine. The 17th and 18th are fantastic finishing holes. The 18th is a long par four with a new tee box we built this year not in play yet. Again designed by Martin Hawtree which makes a great hole even greater.”
Back in 2004 the cream of Europe’s young talent took to the course for the European Youths Team Championship but neither Alvaro Quiros, Rafael Cabrera Bello, Jonas Blixt nor Martin Kaymer could break par in the qualifying rounds.
Still, there are always great memories to take home and Rory McIlroy still recalls his longest ever drive.
“I hit one when I was 15 at The Island Golf Club,” the Holywood star remembers. “405 yards or something.”
Asked if it hit a cart path he said, “No. Downwind. Links. Just kept going.”
Sounds like fun.
Stray off the straight and narrow and you will find orchids and wildflowers aplenty, while all around, as you navigate your way through the towering dunes, you will be serenaded by stonechats, skylarks and meadow pipits.
A rowing boat with a skylark hovering above a pair of crossed golf clubs form the club crest in a fitting emblem of the essence of The Island - golf, nature and the sea in perfect harmony.