Seapoint takes centre stage as old pals see their baby come of age

Des Smyth and Declan Branigan at Seapoint. Picture Ronan Lang, courtesy of Seapoint Golf Club

Des Smyth will never forget the first time he saw Rory McIlroy hit a golf ball. "Oh my God," was his reaction. This weekend a new generation of young Irish golfers will be at Seapoint, the stunning links course he designed with his boyhood pal Declan Branigan, for the Irish Amateur Close Championship. Will another Rory McIlroy emerge? It's not impossible. 

The arrival of the top amateur tournament in the land would be a little more than a run of the mill experience for the biggest clubs in the country — the Portmarnocks, Royal Dublins, Royal County Downs and Co Sligos of the world. But for the 21-year old links designed by boyhood pals Des Smyth and Declan Branigan, it’s a big deal.

Were it not for the fact that it lives in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, County Louth, it’s quite likely that Seapoint Golf Links would rate far higher on any list of great championship venues, or even of Ireland’s select family of links courses.

As Smyth, one of Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup vice captains for September’s clash with the USA points out: “It’s a great thrill to see the Irish Championship coming to Seapoint. Declan and I were approached to do a golf course here over 20 years ago and it’s really exciting to see what’s happened in those 20 years.

“To bring the course to this standard as Declan has done with people who work with him and the club, it's a great credit to them. We’ve played one or two professional events here — two Irish Professional Championships and the Glen Dimplex Tournament — and the players have always been impressed with the challenge.

“But this it the top of the tree as regards the GUI and their national championship. And it’s a great thrill. A great honour for the club as well. And I’d like to congratulate the captain and previous captains and committees for bringing the course and the club this far and that it is considered a worthy test to bring such a championship here.

“They have modified lots of things here since Declan and I first laid out the course and every move has been a good one. It’s a good challenge and well up to what’s happening.”

Smyth is being modest about a course that opened for play in June 1993 after giving Branigan, his old pal from their boyhood days at Laytown and Bettystown in the 1950s and early 60s and now a highly respected agronomist and golf course architect, more than a few sleepless nights.

“It took a year to build and two years to grow in,” says the now 66-year old Branigan, still a formidable player though he has let his handicap slide to three after close to 40 years as a scratch man.

All set for the Irish Close Championship at Seapoint Golf Club, Co Louth, Course designers Des Smyth, and twice Irish Close champion Declan Branigan with Seapoint captain Dan Reynolds. Picture by Ronan Lang/Feature File Courtesy of Seapoint Golf Club.

Winner of 49 irish caps as well as two West of Irelands, two Irish Close Championships and two East of Ireland titles, Branigan’s shock of fair hair is still the same as it was in the halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when he won an unprecedented three Willie Gill Awards, the Order of Merit for Irish amateurs.

He’s dedicated more than 20 years of his life to making Seapoint a test worthy of a great championship. But it wasn’t easy.

“It’s one thing growing in a sand green and another thing growing in 240 acres of sand when you don’t have irrigation,” he says. “When we were growing in the course, I woke up at night at three or four in the morning when there was gale blowing thinking, ‘There’s some farmer in the Isle of Man wondering where this lovely fescue came from.’

"It was a very difficult job and every year it is improving. When people come, people who haven't played it before, they are going to get a big shock. Off the blue tees it is a very challenging test of golf. The challenge is that every hole tests something or other — your courage, your intelligence, your touch, your guile....

Aerial view of the links. Click to enlarge.

“This is very much like watching a child grow up and graduate from college. We’ve worked hard to get the course ready for this and it will be wonderful to see how the top players manage it. It’s a proud week for the club.”

Sadly for lovers of domestic golf, this year’s Irish Close Championship clashes with the St Andrews Links Trophy at the Home of Golf which means that the holder Cormac Sharvin as well as Walker Cup player Gavin Moynihan, West of Ireland champion Jack Hume, former Irish Amateur Open winner Robert Cannon, US college star Paul Dunne and internationals Gary Hurley, Rory McNamara, Reeve Whitson and Richard O’Donovan will all be in Scotland.

With others, such as The Island’s Paul McBride and Faithlegg’s Robin Dawson doing the Leaving Certificate, the field has been decimated somewhat. But the GUI has plans to move the event back to its once traditional August date next year, which should guarantee a bumper field.

With the East of Ireland Championship concluding at County Louth on Monday, the Termonfeckin area is the epicentre of Irish amateur golf, as club captain Dan Reynolds points out.

“Two major championships in the same parish in the same week is not something that happens very often,” the captain said. “We need to make sure that those taking up the game have access to advice and assistance in learning how to play. It is equally important that Irish golfers have access to the best players in Ireland. We contribute to this philosophy and that is why we have hosted the PGA Championship and this week’s Irish Amateur Close.”

Another stunning view at Seapoint

Smyth believes it’s also an opportunity for golf aficionados to see some of the stars of the future, reminding him of the first time he set eyes on Rory McIlroy.

“As the captain said, to have the East of Ireland and the Irish championship in the one parish is absolutely fantastic. And he's right to say that and to be encouraging junior golf and kids. I played nine holes in Baltray with a guy from Dublin yesterday. He was 20 years of age, and the standard blew me away. 

“I remember going to Baltray to watch a young Rory McIlroy play the East of Ireland six or seven years ago. I remember one shot he played. I walked the back nine with him and he was carrying his own bag because he had just had a row with his father. He had banned the father from carrying the bag and I was nearly going to pick the bag up but I didn’t know him well enough.

“Anyway, I walked the back nine with him and he hit a drive down the 18th. And I walked over beside where his drive finished and saw had 230 yards to a pin cut back right. It was very difficult to get on the green, never mind think about getting it close. 

“And this lad, he was about 15 or 16 at the time, he walked up, took one look and whipped out a three iron and hit the most perfect fade shot to 10 feet and I thought, ‘Oh my God, here is a star in the making.’  And we have seen what has subsequently happened. To think we will have kids like that here next week, I’d encourage kids to come down here and watch the stars of the future.

“In a blink we could have another Padraig Harrington or Rory McIlroy emerge next week. I think that’s the exciting part of hosting major championships. You have the possibility of possibly seeing the next superstar. I am excited about it.”

As for the course, it has matured splendidly over the past 21 years with many changes taking place, all of them for the better.

Just don't tell Mr Branigan that it is not pure links, a mistake made by those who've wondered at the qualities of the "inland" holes on the front nine.

"People judge links by what is on the surface but what defines a links is what is underground," Declan explains. "Ten thousand years ago the glaciers moved back and eroded everything that was in their way, ground it down, and so the areas beside the sea were mud flats.

Then we had these 200 mph, periglacial winds that blew sand in from the beaches. The sand comes in down the rivers. So if you don't have a river, you rarely have a links. Look at Rosses Point, Baltray, the Liffey around Portmarnock and Bull island...

"The sand is brought down the rivers, and the tides and the winds bring it back in again and the winds blows it inland. But because the wind is only so strong, the sand particles can only stay in the air so long. This is why you get a very distinct line between parkland and links because that is the outer limit to where it is possible for sand to be blown by the wind.

"So if you take a profile down through the sand, you eventually come to a 2 or 3 inch layer of organic matter, let's call it peat, and underneath that you have the blue alluvial soils, which were the mud flats.

"The peat was the original vegetation and then sand came in over that. And you see that everywhere in Seapoint if you go down far enough.

"Some have said that the first five or six holes are heathland. But heathlands are extremely old, acidic soils. The only place you can have a heathland near here is probably up on the hill of Howth, because the glaciers couldn't get up that high. Take a spade here and dig a hole and you come up with pure sand. They used to call us semi-parkland or a links with a difference, but I just smile at that.

"It’s links and it's our baby. We designed it and built it and the first shot was hit in June 1993."

Branigan is rightly proud of the course and the members are thrilled that after hosting back to back Irish Professional Championships in 2010 and 2011, the top amateurs are coming.

“It is a relatively young club and they are only beginning to realise how prestigious an event his is for Seapoint,” says Declan. “It is the only championship that travels around the country from province to province on a rotation basis. Leinster only gets it every four years and they nearly always go for one the top 20 courses here, so it’s something you might only get once every 80 years. 

Des Smyth and Declan Branigan in 1962, Click to expand.

“To be selected for the Close which has always been played at the top courses such at Portmarnock, Royal Dublin or The Island to name just three, is wonderful for the club.”

Measuring just over 7,000 yards off the championship tees, Seapoint is a mesmerising and much underrated par-72 featuring half a dozen strong par fours of more than 400 yards and a quartet of tantalising par-threes, leaving you to make up your score on the par-fives, two of which are amongst the toughest holes on the course.

A lot has happened since Smyth and Branigan posed for a picture at Laytown and Bettystown, the course where they learned the game, back in 1962.

‘Golf Stars of the Future?’ ran the headline when the picture appeared in the paper as the boyhood pals cradled their silverware and grinned happily at the camera in a pose that would become all too familiar to their rivals over the next forty years.

‘I had the North Leinster Under-15s trophy and Des had the Under-12s,’ Declan recalls. ‘I thought the headline was a great one, considering what has happened since.’

Considering what's about to happen at Seapoint this weekend, it could not be more apposite.