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The Island Golf Club: When's The Next Boat?

By Ken Johnstone, Contributor

It is a strange irony that had it not been for the banning of golf on a Sunday at the nearby Royal Dublin Golf Club, The Island would most likely never have been built at all.

The Island Golf Club was founded in 1890, on a coastal peninsula across the bay from Malahide village, a northern suburb of Dublin. Ten bachelors, all members of the neighbouring Royal Dublin Golf Club on Bull Island, were exasperated by the then existing ban on Sunday golf, and so pooled their resources to rent the land on which The Island was built for the decidedly modest fee of only £10 per annum. They must all have been early golf fanatics, as the club records show that only four of them were ever actually coaxed to the altar.

Until recently, The Island was something of the poor relation of its nearby and far more illustrious neighbours, Portmarnock and Royal Dublin. Up until 1971, access to the course was only possible by ferryboat (hence The Island) from Malahide marina, and only at the rate of fourteen golfers per trip. The clubhouse was an old, decrepit tin hut, with only the most basic of amenities, and located beside what is now the 14th tee, and after which the hole took its name.

But in 1971, a new clubhouse was built at the far end of the course, and a road opened to give vehicle and foot access from Donobate village. This event marked a distinct upturn in the club's fortunes, and when an ambitious expansion programme was embarked upon in 1990 (the Centenary Year) to also upgrade the golf course itself, the transformation of The Island into the first-class links course it is today was complete. Today, The Island rivals anything links golf can offer anywhere in Ireland.

The new clubhouse, built in 1971, under went yet another transformation in 1997, when a new lounge and dining room, plus new toilet, shower, and changing rooms were added. The renovated building is a cracker. It stands on a slight rise looking out over the course on two sides, and the magnificent vista of Dublin Bay on another.

The changing room and shower facilities are first rate, and a Professional's shop has also been opened, an amenity the course lacked badly for years. There is also a good practice ground and putting green at the side of the clubhouse, where you can hit a few balls before your round to loosen up.

The food is excellent and not expensive, and I highly recommend the "bacon and egg butties", which are just the job to get you kick-started before an early morning round.

What you will remember most of all about The Island is the welcome you will receive from everyone connected to the club. They are about the friendliest bunch you will find anywhere, and you won't stay a stranger in this club for very long.

It is hard to imagine that this club was in such dire financial straits as recently as 1963, when the keener golfers had to fight tooth-and nail to defeat a proposal put forward to reduce the course to only nine holes in the interests of economy! Thank goodness it never happened, and good sense prevailed.

Now we come to the nitty-gritty.

This is a wonderful links golf course of the very highest calibre, and in my opinion, is as tough a test of golf as its two famous neighbours, Royal Dublin and Portmarnock.

Up to 1990, when no fewer than seven new holes were added, The Island was only what I would describe as a decent test. The old course was a bit on the short side and had too many blind shots for it to be truly described as a great track. The new holes, plus a general improvement in the overall condition, have now resulted in The Island gaining true Championship status.

The course, a par 71, starts and finishes with two big, bold par fours, cut through the very heart of the huge, rolling sand dunes. Both are over 440 yards, and any player walking off with par on both is either playing very well or has got lucky.

The two feature holes are the 13th and 14th. The thirteenth, called "Broadmeadow" after the estuary it overlooks, is a long par three of 218 yards. You play from an elevated tee straight across a broad valley, with the cliffs and beach on your right to catch out any sliced or pushed tee shot. The large green lies perched on the cliff top at the far side. The difficulty with this hole is its length, combined with the speed of The Island's greens. In the summer months, in particular, they are so fast that at times it is like trying to stop a puck on an ice rink.

As you are usually playing right into the teeth of the prevailing wind, and therefore have to hit a wood for your tee shot, it is nigh on impossible to get the golf ball to stay on the putting surface. Run off to the right and you're over the cliff edge. Go over the back, and you're on the beach. The only safe shot is to attempt a lay-up to the left hand edge of the green or close to it, and then depend on your short game to get you down in two more shots for your par. No less a luminary than Christy O'Connor Snr., the "grand old man" of Irish golf, rates this hole as the finest par three he has played anywhere in the World!

Before you even have time to catch your breath, you are facing the formidable fourteenth. It is called "Clubhouse", as the tee is built right beside where the old clubhouse once stood. A par four of only 300 yards, don't let its shortness fool you into thinking it is easy. On your right is the beach, and on your left is a desert of humps and hollows interspersed with sand. OK, you may say, just hit it down the middle of the fairway and you'll be fine. That is an excellent strategy; but there is a MAJOR problem. The fairway has to be the narrowest in European golf. From the edge of the dunes to the beach is fifteen paces!!! Yes, you heard me right, FIFTEEN paces. In fairness, I have seen this green driven by a big hitter, a fellow with more courage than I would ever possess. I mostly settle for a very conservative 5 or 6 iron, and do my level best to try and keep the ball in play. The only consolation you have on this hole is that the beach is in play, and classed only as a hazard. As it is fairly flat and sandy, you can often hit some sort of shot on its surface and get back into play. Believe me, this is a killer of a golf hole, and in my time, I have seen some real monster scores run up here.

There is one last hole I simply cannot leave out before finishing this review, and for very personal reasons. It is the 9th, a par three of 180 yards, and called the "Bowl", as the green is cut into the middle of a large mound of dunes. There is a massive sand dune on your left, and an out of bounds fence all the way up the right hand side, the green itself being almost surrounded by a posse of small pot bunkers It was at this hole in 1994, while playing an open match play tie, that I hit the "shot of a lifetime". A beautifully struck five iron, I knew from the moment it left the clubface that it was going to be close. Just HOW close I didn't realise, until I saw a small band of spectators who were following the match (it was the semi-final of a fairly major competition) and who were positioned round the green, suddenly begin to become very animated. Two hops, a skip and a bounce, and in she'd gone. An ace; the golfer's ultimate dream, and my first hole- in -one in over eight years.

Although it has become extremely popular in recent years, The Island is still not too expensive to play. A round will cost you £50 (Irish Punts) during the week, £60 at weekends, but be sure to ring first to check available tee times, as it is a very busy member's club.

This is a course I advise you most strongly to play if you ever get the opportunity. Anyone I have ever taken along to it for the first time raves about it. A finer example of pure links golf you will be hard put to find.

The Island Golf Club
Donabate, Dublin
Tel: +353 (0)1 8436104
Fax: +353 (0)1 8436860

Name: The Island Holes: 18 Yardage: 6,622 SSS: 72

Ken JohnstoneKen Johnstone, Contributor

Ken Johnstone is a freelance journalist and taxi-cab owner based in Dublin, Ireland. He came to journalism late in life, receiving his degree in August, 2000, although he has always been a prolific scribbler.

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