LAHINCH, County Clare, Ireland -- The wonderful Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club on the southwest coast of Ireland has undergone a number of improvements and alterations over the years.
Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews was the first to make changes only a couple of years after the course first opened in 1892. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the famous fifth hole, "The Dell," which is a delightful but blind par 3 where you hit over a mighty dune and hope to finish on the green.
In 1907, George Gibson -- who was the professional at Westward Ho! -- was invited to modernize the course to cope with the newly developed rubber-core ball. His principal contribution was to create five holes on the seaward side of the road.
Alister MacKenzie, who gave up medicine to pursue his love of golf course architecture, arrived at Lahinch in 1927, improved the course enormously and went on to design such iconic courses as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, among many others in the U.S.
MacKenzie, a purist, passionately believed in using the existing attributes of a site and keeping a course's natural appearance. Holes weaved through the dunes and the greens rolled with the natural fall of the land. Who was responsible and why it was done is a matter of speculation, but the greens were flattened considerably in the 1930s.
"I think some of the greens were altered simply because the members found them a bit too difficult," said Robert McCavery, who has been the head professional at Lahinch for more than 50 years. His father was the pro before him and Robert remembers his dad walking home to lunch across the course, pausing every so often to remove a weed with the penknife he always carried.
In 1999, Lahinch Golf Club, with the considerable help of architect Martin Hawtree, began a five-year development project to restore the MacKenzie characteristics of the Old Course (there is the gentler Castle Course at Lahinch Golf Club as well). The work was carried out each winter and completed in March 2003. Only four greens weren't touched, the fourth, ninth, 14th and 18th. Also, 16 tees were rebuilt, two new par 3s were created and four holes were extensively rerouted. The "restored MacKenzie" course received a rapturous reception and Lahinch has since risen rapidly up the rankings.
Since its inception, the Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club has been the home of the oldest provincial championship in Ireland, the South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship. Past winners and finalists of the "South" have gone on to great achievements in the professional ranks -- Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell to name a few.
Photos of famous golfers who have played Lahinch hang on every wall in the pro shop. Phil Mickelson is featured (twice), as is Tom Watson, Stewart Cink, Ian Baker-Finch and dozens of others. There's even one of Neil Armstrong, who may have walked on the moon but never won a major. The other person in nearly every shot is Robert McCavery, who keeps a camera handy at all times because you never know who's going to drop in.
So what's the secret to playing the Old Course at Lahinch?
"Hit it short and straight," McCavery said. "The rough is normally about knee-high and so you want to keep well away from it. The course isn't all that long, but it is quite tough."
It's especially treacherous when the wind blows, which seems to be pretty well all the time. Lahinch is famous for its breeze and calm days are harder to come by than an Irishman who doesn't like Guinness.
Enda Glynn is the club archivist who wrote a wonderful book, "A Century of Golf at Lahinch."
"Because of the Old Tom Morris connection, coupled with the great love for the game in the village, Lahinch has often been referred to as the St. Andrews of Ireland," Glynn said. "The course can hold its own whenever great and famous courses are discussed."
Occupying a corner of magnificent duneland with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a river estuary on another, the views are never dull on this spectacular golf course. You rarely see another hole, as most are enclosed within towering dunes, and the welcome visitors receive, both at the course and in the town, is wonderfully warm. Nevertheless, bring an extra sweater and plenty of balls as the wind can make things more than a trifle awkward.
June 6, 2011