The Open, the new Royal Portrush (and her two Big Nellies)
The Big Nellie bunker on the 17th could be recreated on the new seventh on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush. Image via Mackenzie and Ebert booklet

The Big Nellie bunker on the 17th could be recreated on the new seventh on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush. Image via Mackenzie and Ebert booklet

We’d almost forgotten all about the proposed changes to Royal Portrush for a possible 2019 staging of the Open Championship until architects Mackenzie & Ebert recently presented their proposed changes to Turnberry’s Ailsa Course in a slick video.

Royal Portrush were unable to send me one of the glossy, 86-page Mackenzie & Ebert brooklets — Proposals for the Dunluce & Valley Courses at Royal Portrush — they printed last year as their priority was to their membership. They had only printed 2,000 copies for those who were not among the 237 who voted at last August's Special General Meeting, which overwhelmingly approved the proposed changes. 

We downloaded the electronic version  from the Mackenzie & Ebert website this week — warning, it's 45.4MB —  and it makes fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in Portrush, golf history and course architecture in general. 


Not only are the proposed changes fascinating, the brochure takes us down memory lane to the days when the golf course was almost part of the town itself and the old clubhouse was on Dunluce Street, within 50 yards of the (still existing) railway station.

Part of the old links. St. Patrick’s Church (top left) is now part of the streetscape of modern Portrush (See Google Earth pic below)

Part of the old links. St. Patrick’s Church (top left) is now part of the streetscape of modern Portrush (See Google Earth pic below)

As the architects point out, that clubhouse was “1,200 yards away from the present clubhouse in the town of Portrush.” But more importantly, when it comes to justifying any changes to a golf course, the course was radically different. 

“Two of his original holes - the key 1st & 18th holes - are now lost. They provided a link from the old clubhouse to the current 17th and 18th. The existing 8th and 9th holes did not exist. Although Harry Colt was consulted over the addition of the replacement 8th and 9th holes, they were the conception of the Club’s professional, P.G. Stevenson, and Colt was not involved with the detail of the holes. This shows that Harry Colt was open to adjustments to the course required by changing circumstances.” 

The main bone of contention with the proposed changes to the Dunluce Links was not that it had remained unchanged over the years but that some members had reservations about changing their course at all.

Publicly opposing changes that are designed to bring a world event to Portrush and Northern Ireland would open a person up to possible ridicule and there were even jocose remarks made about the dissenters in the way of the 235-2 results of the SGM. Who wants to be a party pooper?

Whatever about all that, the brochure superbly outlines where two new holes are to be built as the current 17th and 18th on the Dunluce Links will be needed by the R&A for staging purposes

As we have pointed out here before, many of the existing holes will undergo small and not so small changes involving bunker, the creation of new tees, moving one green some 50 yards, the potential creation of a water hazard in front of the current 10th green, the stream is currently culvered, to make it a true risk-reward hole.

As for the two new holes, the downhill seventh will be a 572 yard par five, restoring the yardage lost with the elimination of the 17th, which features the much loved Big Nellie fairway bunker on the right.

Fear not, there will be a new Big Nellie on the new seventh for The Open, which will almost certainly be held in 2019 now that planning permission has been granted by the local authority.

“It is proposed that ‘Big Nellie’ from the existing 17th hole is recreated to the right of this new hole,” the architects explain. “It would fit in very well into the huge dune bank.”

Along with the new eighth, a 435 yard, right to left, par-four, the designers reckon the new holes have “the potential to become not only famous but iconic throughout the world of golf.”

Apart from a new back tee at the famous 14th, there will be no changes to the Par 3s and “as with the proposals for the two replacement holes, any adjustments to the existing holes should pay respect to the original design philosophy of Harry Colt.”

There are few bunkers at Portrush, which has always relied on the elements and the rough for its defence. And so just five new bunkers are proposed, bringing the total to 64 traps — “far lower than any other Open venue."

"Turnberry is the closest having 81 bunkers with the majority of the venues having around 100, Muirfield more than 150 and Royal Lytham and St Annes relying on as many as 205!” 

The par fives will also be strengthened with the 17th replaced by the new seventh and a new fairway bunker at the 300 yards mark at the second, which will be extended by 50 yards with creation of a new green back to the left of the existing one.

“The existing 9th hole (proposed 11th) has been played as a par 5 in the past but, at less than 480 yards, it would be played as a par 4 for The Open. The existing 10th hole (proposed 12th) will be lengthened just for the elite players with tees to the left of the preceding green. This, along with the possible extension of the stream across the approach, will make the hole a true ‘risk and reward’ test. The existing 17th has been replaced with the new 7th hole and this includes the recreation of the fearsome ‘Big Nellie’ bunker.

“In terms of lengthening the holes and the course, there was no target set for the overall length of the layout. Instead each hole has been considered on an individual basis and to ensure an even balance of lengths of holes throughout the course. That has led to an overall length of 7,337 yards - An increase of just under 200 yards from the existing 7,143 yards.” 

As for the suggestion that the 17th and 18th could be reintegrated into the course during non-Open years, it appears unlikely given the big changes proposed for an area that will undergo significant collateral damage during an Open.

“The overall solution provided for the Dunluce Course will, we feel, improve the course dramatically for members as well as for The Open. However, it is understood that some members will mourn the loss of the 17th and 18th and, in particular, the finishing green lying in front of the clubhouse. Hence the question has arisen as to whether the Dunluce could return to the existing layout between Opens. 
“The first thing to say on that subject is that The R&A have emphasised that the area of the 17th and 18th has to be made fit for the purpose of the tented village. This will involve the installation of services, filling of fairway bunkers on the 18th, removal of vegetation between the holes, the flattening of certain areas and the installation of an access road across the carry of the 18th and between the two holes. The question is whether this would render the 17th and 18th unplayable after this work has been carried out. The answer is that it could be imagined that the holes could be played again. The 17th and 18th tees and greens will not be touched. The fairway bunkers on the 17th are not to be filled. The bunkers on the 18th could be restored. 
“One other point on this matter relates to the safety of the existing 18th hole relative to the road to its right. There is no doubt that errant tee shots do occasionally end up going over the boundary and onto the road and beyond. That issue could rear its head at some point in the future, resulting in a requirement to make changes to the hole or to remove it from the layout altogether. Hence, the conclusion is that it would be possible for the 17th and 18th holes to be restored but our recommendation would be that the new Open layout would continue to be played and enjoyed by members and visitors alike between Opens. The 18th green would remain in place to become the putting green during The Open. ‘Big Nellie’ would not be affected by the Open Infrastructure requirements ‘Big Nellie’ would not be affected by the Open Infrastructure requirements.”