Russell's links love affair in full swing
Conor Russell, Head Professional, Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links

Conor Russell, Head Professional, Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links

They say that if you love what you do, you will never have to work a day in your life and that's undoubtedly true of Conor Russell as he prepares to celebrate two years as Head Professional at Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links.

A native of Blackrock, just outside Dundalk, the 41-year old Louth man is loving every minute of his new role at the Bernhard Langer designed links that has just signed Challenge Tour rookie Robin Dawson as its new touring professional.

Like the Waterford star, Russell is passionate about the game and having cut his teeth at Dundalk Golf Club, helping professional Jimmy Cassidy from the time he was a teenager, he went on to learn his trade at some of Ireland's top clubs and now hopes to leave his mark on one of Ireland's special golfing places.

"I was keen from an early age," said Russell. "And I had great mentors right from the start, working under Gerry Burke at The Curragh before going on to Mount Juliet.

"From there I went to Headfort where Brendan McGovern was terrific from a playing and retail perspective.

"I then moved to Killarney to work with Tony Coveney, who was phenomenal and then had 13 very happy years at Sutton Golf Club, joining as Head Professional there at the age of 26.

"Sutton was an extraordinary place to work; one of the most vibrant and social members' clubs I have had the pleasure of working in. And that what I am striving to do here — create a membership that is just as social and as unique."

He now works with some of the best in the business at Portmarnock Links, which was purchased in 2014 by Kennedy Wilson, owners of the Shelbourne Hotel and the five-star Fairmont golf resort in St Andrews.

L-R: Conor Russell with new Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links touring professional, Robin Dawson and Resort Director, Barry O'Connor

L-R: Conor Russell with new Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links touring professional, Robin Dawson and Resort Director, Barry O'Connor

More than €11 million has been invested in Portmarnock's luxury hotel as well as the golf course, which is not just one of the most enjoyable links experiences in the country, it's also one of the most popular. 

With the estimable Moira Cassidy — synonymous with Portmarnock Links since it opened — he leads a 10 strong team within golf.

Add to that the organisational skills of Niall Carbery in golf reservations, teaching professional Shane Deegan in the golf shop and the passion of Head Greenkeeper, Fintan Brennan and it's little wonder that Portmarnock Links has quickly become a very vibrant place indeed.

"Our membership has an average age of 42 and an average handicap of 9.5, which is remarkable," explained Russell, who has seen the membership grow from just 90 in 2016 to more than 320 today.

"Sutton was a great members' club but the profile of the member here is quite different. They are competitive beasts. They love competition, and they have it all year, playing off the turf for all 12 months. It's a very attractive club for the serious golfer."

While Portmarnock Links is also a resort — the visitor's fee is now €185— there's ample time for the members to test themselves on an excellent, par-71 track that measures 6,514 metres (a shade under 7,200 yards) from the tips.

"That's why we attract a certain profile of member," Russell added. "They are golf addicts and as active a membership as you will ever find.  They all want to reduce their handicap, and 80-90 per cent of our golfers are of that profile."

The weekly TaylorMade Winter Series is now a major attraction for scratch players and young touring professionals from all over the country with an average field of around 70 top players teeing it up each Tuesday over the winter.

Former Irish Amateur Open winner Gary Cullen recently moved to the club from Beaverstown simply because of the winter playing conditions and has already reduced his handicap to plus four.

"The TaylorMade Winter Series has been an enormous success, especially given the great weather we have had this year," Russell said. "Many of the top pros will tee it up — young guys playing on the various tours around Europe  — and many of the top amateurs.

"Joe Lyons regularly travels from Galway, Michael McGeady will come from the northwest, and Peter O'Keeffe leaves Douglas at 5 a.m. every week and will be here before the shop opens its doors. 

"Leona Maguire would regularly play and practice here throughout the winter, while the likes of Conor O'Rourke, Jonny Yates and Brian Casey all play regularly in the Winter Series."

The addition of Dawson as the club's new touring professional underlines the club's focus on young, vibrant players who are serious about the game.

Of course, it's not just a winter course and as summer golf on a links course is one of the great pleasures in life, and Portmarnock Links is keen to host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open having lost out to Lahinch for the honour of staging the $7 million Rolex Series event this year.

"It was nice to get in the mix and to have Simon Alliss and Miguel Vidaor from the European Tour coming last year, to consider us for 2019," Russell explained. "They liked what they saw, and we will again put ourselves forward for 2020, so that's exciting’’.

We’d love to host the Irish Open, and we believe we are as good a challenge as the best of them out there.
— Conor Russell, Head Professional, Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links

"Our door is open. We'd love to host it, and we believe we are as good a challenge as the best of them out there. So we remain in communication with the Tour. It would be great to see it back in Dublin."

Russell has had a passion for the links since the beginning, and he's enjoying the challenge, not just of welcoming guests, but making the club a high-quality experience for its members.

"It is not your standard club pro's role," he said. "It is dealing with members, working on the profile of the links and showcasing Portmarnock Links internationally. 

"It's not just about teaching and retail. We have introduced a new members' bar, and we work with the social committee to create events, including member-guest events.

"They love away trips, so I did three last year. We went to St Andrews and Kingsbarns, and I am running a members' trip to Kerry in March."

Having seen the club transformed into a more vibrant and welcoming place in less than two years, Russell could not be happier.

"I always watched Portmarnock Links from afar and felt I'd like to get involved," he said. "So I was thrilled to get the chance to come here and try and be as innovative as possible. So far, it's been a fantastic experience, and we hope the best is yet to come."