Encrusted like a jewel in the very heart of the town lies a clifftop golf course that bears comparison with the most spectacular golfing sites known to man.
We’re not referring to Pebble Beach or the Old Head of Kinsale but beautiful Wicklow Golf Club, where a small footprint has been no impediment to leaving a giant impression on the thousands of golfers who’ve enjoyed its magnificent views.
Founded in 1904, the club was one of Wicklow’s many nine hole courses until 1994 when Pat Ruddy and his design partner Tom Craddock transformed it into a beautiful 18-hole test now considered a work of art for its engineering and design.
A par 71 measuring just 6,031 yards from the tips might look like an easy ride on paper. But while good scores are within the compass of golfers of all abilities, woe to those who let their guard down.
When it came to creating the new Wicklow Golf Club, every yard was a prisoner and with four stunning par-threes, a trio of which crisscross spectacular Dunbur Glen, not to mention five par-fours measuring 400 yards or more, plotting your way safely around this hallowed stretch of turf requires the cunning and skill of the safecracker.
“We actually did 11 holes to make the project work and it was an exciting job in that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” the inimitable Ruddy said this week. “When it comes to views, it may be matched but not exceeded.
“You can see all the way to the Mountains of Mourne and across to the Welsh hills. It's quite a remarkable place to play.
“It is not a big golf course, but its backside snuggles nicely into the town, which is quite amazing. There aren't many golf course so snug to the population. A fellow can just stroll up to his local for his game of golf or his pint. What more could you want?”
With sea views on all 18 holes, such is the beauty of the setting that golfers can find themselves gazing south toward Wicklow Head Lighthouse or north across Wicklow Bay.
Originally laid out on a farm once owned by the O'Connor family whose son, Peter, held the Irish long jump record until 1990, it developed as a tight and challenging nine-hole course.
But given the growing demand for golf at the time and the ambition of a coterie of club stalwarts, the land to the south of Dunbur Glen was acquired in 1991 and Ruddy and Craddock did the rest.
Weaving their unique brand of design magic with their deep love of the game, they succeed in retaining the soul of Wicklow’s being — its premium on accuracy and cunning course management — without being impeded by the small, 90-acre canvas.
The course is now a par 71 with three par-fives and four par-three with most of the original front nine situated on the town side of the Glen, and the newer back nine set on a spectacular stretch of land leading out to Wicklow Head.
“It was a lovely project for a couple of geometric achievements,” Ruddy remarked. “To get two loops of nine on such a small site was a huge achievement without introducing 62 par threes. They have two threes on each nine, but we still managed to get it back to the clubhouse twice.
“The key was using Dunbur Glen and rather than treating it as waste ground, we put three par-threes over it — the seventh, 11th and 17th — which allowed us to get in 18 holes without reducing the length of all the other holes as well.
“To get one-sixth of a golf course into what would have been viewed as waste ground was, in all modesty, a masterpiece of design. And what a beautiful place it is. It's like Babylon, this valley looking out on the Irish Sea. What a place to stand and spend part of your life!
“While it is not a major golf course in any way, it still has three par-fives and is Old Head-ish in its glamour, and I have great memories of those days when we were constructing the course.
“They had a great, enthusiastic band of members there at that time and my main hero was the late John Solan, the county engineer. He was a wild enthusiast for the project, and his engineering skills were a considerable benefit in making sure we did everything correctly.
“Joe Kelly was the legendary secretary-manager, and then there were people from the town like Bobby Jacobs, Billy Earls, Bobby Vickers and Paul Quinn. We had great times walking up and down between sessions of tea, coffee and scones.
“It's also a very hospitable club with the best food of any Irish club with the compliments of Paul and Sylvia Smith of the renowned Mystic Celt restaurant, who have transferred their operation to the golf club. You can have the full ticket there - your golf, the great beauty and a wonderful meal.”
The golf course begins with a par-five that tumbles downhill and the thrills and spills never stop, and with a host of youngsters now learning the game under PGA professional Louise D’Arcy, the future looks assured.
“The race is on then,” Ruddy said. “There are seven greens on or very close the cliff and with the other greens all elevated, you have a full view of the sea on every single hole. It's just a remarkable place. There are uphill shots, downhill shots and sidehill shots.
“A word of warning though —it's a bad place to go looking for a friendly fourball because you are going to lose to the locals most times. They have the local knowledge to clean you out.
“They haven't produced a host of champions, but they are dangerous hombres in the interclub matches. A friendly fourball means they are going to toast you.
“That’s because it is a course for the skilful golfer with plenty of strength required with five par-fours of around 400 yards or more. So for a course on a small acreage to have five holes like that and four high skill par threes, you have a strong golf course.”
The 2018 vice-captain, Ian Mooney, joined as a 10-year old junior in 1974 and watched the club’s remarkable development.
“We had browns rather than greens in the summer,” he recalled. “It was only a very small club at the time, but it was a fantastic place to be in the summer. It wasn't unknown for us to play 36 or 54 holes in a day providing the green keeper didn't catch us and find things for us to do.
“When we built the new nine in 1994, we took in a huge swathe of new members from north county Wicklow and south county Dublin.
"That was the time of big entrance fees and full golf clubs, and so we took in a lot of new members from places like Bray, Dun Laoghaire and Sallynoggin.
“In fact, my father Denis, who was captain of the club in 1971 and again in 1985, recalls a time when there were ten golf clubs in County Wicklow, and only one of them had 18 holes. Now there are 25 clubs, and none of them are nine-hole courses.”
Like many clubs, Wicklow suffered during the downturn, losing a large swathe of its membership. But is now on the road to recovery.
“We are not quite back to where we were, we are getting there,” Mooney said. “We have some 600 members now, around 400 of them full members. Our ladies club is very small, but they have been hugely successful winning two pennants in recent years, the Minor Cup and the Intermediate.
“They have very definitely put it up to the men. We had a great win two years ago when the Provincial Towns Cup. As far as we can work out, we are the only club to win the Provincial Towns Cup in rugby and golf in the same year.”
The next time you dream of that trip of Pebble Beach or the Old Head, remember Wicklow’s clifftop jewel and treat yourself to a day out to remember.
Wicklow Golf Club factfile
Address: Dunbur Road, Wicklow Town, Co. Wicklow
Tel: +353 404 67379
Green fees: Summer, midweek €35, weekend €40. Winter midweek €30, weekend €35.
Society rates: €35 summer, €28 winter. Great deals on offer based on numbers booked.
Buggy hire: Yes, €25
Club hire: Yes, €25 per set
Electric trolleys: Yes, GPS e-trolley €12.50.
Range Balls: No
Signature Hole - 6th, 406 yards, Par 4
The signature hole features a daunting tee shot which requires a 190-yard carry over rugged cliffs and the Irish Sea to reach the fairway. A beautiful hole with stunning views.
Aim at the spinney for your safest landing area, or take the Tiger line down the middle of the fairway. You decide.
Blainroe, Arklow, Woodenbridge, The European Club, Druids Glen.
This feature first appeared in the Irish Independent’s weekly golf supplement, Tee to Green, on 20 September 2018. If you think your club should be featured in Tee to Green in 2019, please contact me here