Almanac Golf – Golf Returns to its Roots: The Irish Open at Lahinch

The real golf season season starts tonight with the first round of the Irish Open at the quirky, natural links of Lahinch in County Clare (south-west Ireland), the first of 5 weeks on the coastal duneland unfit for grazing where the game began 300 years ago.  The Irish, then the Scottish, the British (THE Open back in Ireland for the first time since 1951 at Royal Portrush in the North), the Senior Mens, and the Womens. 


Golf often deservedly gets a bad rap based on the US professional game and their elite private country clubs.  Expensive; exclusive; boorish; over-commercialised; saccharine; one dimensional and wasteful of water, land and chemicals.  Guilty your honour – except that is not the game in most of the rest of the world.  And also on the thousands of municipal courses in the US where weekend warriors do battle with their mates, just as we do here.  My dad is 87 and plays twice a week with blokes half his age.  What other sport offers that?  Lawn bowls is a pastime for when you get old.


Of course the Commander in Cheat’s love of the game hardly helps.


That’s enough of the negative stuff – what about Lahinch?


The History and the Design:


In 1892, a group from Limerick Golf Club played the first match on a 9-hole pasture loop.  Two years later they invited the father of golf, Old Tom Morris (who formalised the ancient links at St Andrews in Scotland and won 4 British Opens 1861-67; a feat emulated by his son Young Tom), to lay out an 18 hole course.  There was no earth moving equipment, just a keen eye for a routing between towering dunes, along the river and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  Old Tom said Lahinch was his finest.



Rowan Lester (Hermitage) and Pat Murray (Clontarf) during the last 16 of the South of Ireland. Photo: Fran Caffrey/Golffile

Rowan Lester (Hermitage) and Pat Murray (Clontarf) during the last 16 of the South of Ireland. Photo: Fran Caffrey/Golffile (first published in The Irish Times)


In 1927, the club asked Dr Alister MacKenzie (the designer of Royal Melbourne and Augusta, the site of the US Masters) to update the course by pushing it out into the highest dunes near the bay and adding tougher, more sloped putting surfaces.  


So Lahinch has the finest design antecedents in golf – God, nature, Old Tom and MacKenzie.


The Characters:


“The South” (the South of Ireland Amateur Championship) is the oldest in Irish golf and has been played at Lahinch every year since 1895.  US Open winner Graeme McDowell and British Open winner Darren Clarke won it as young men.  3 time major winner Padraig Harrington was twice runner-up.  


Lahinch’s most famous son, John Burke, won it 11 times between 1928 and 1946.  But more than a golfer, Burke was also an IRA gunman who took part in the Rineen Ambush in 1920 which attacked a truck killing 6 Black and Tans (the brutal Royal Irish Constabulary).  In reprisal the RIC killed 5 civilians and burned 16 houses and shops in Lahinch.  The locals fled with their children to spend a night of terror hiding in the sand hills of the golf links.


Burke was so good that in the 1930’s local publicans asked him not to play in The South because golfers from elsewhere in Ireland were too intimidated to enter, affecting their trade.


The Holes (Klondyke and the Dell):

Modern golf is beset by the plague of “fairness”.  The belief that every good shot should be rewarded and the errant one lightly penalised.  Americans play “target golf” on heavily watered courses with high-tech clubs and balls that have made many traditional courses redundant.


Links golf in the dunes relies on wind, weather and uncertain bounces as its defence against high tech athletes and their armnaments.  We all know that in life good actions are not always rewarded, but sometimes we get lucky for no reason and it averages out over time.  Golf at Lahinch mirrors life rather than defying it.


When he couldn’t find a way through or around the dunes, Old Tom adopted the practice of the times – you must go over them.  Hence the famous blind shots of the par 3 5th hole (The Dell) and the par 5 4th hole (the Klondyke, affectionately named after the Irish seeking fortune on the Canadian goldfields in the 1890s.


The hole is a modest 475 yards long in an era where pros regularly blast it 330 off the tee. The fairway is a thin meandering valley, but then it disappears into a large dune 25 feet high. 


The 4th Klondyke Hole with the fairway disappearing into the dune @tomshawphotos @GolfersJournal


The second shot is blind to a green 150 yards beyond – the only guide being a white stone placed on the dune to mark the line from the pin to the centre of the fairway. The club stations a caddy on the dune with a red and green flag to indicate when the green is clear.  As an added complication, the 18th fairway criss-crosses the 4th in the space between the dune and the green.  Incoming artillery on all sides!


Few Americans are playing the Irish Open this year but the cream of European and International golfers will be there in droves.  The weather forecast is benign with no rain and sunny skies most days that will make even a brief TV viewing captivating with the emerald green fairways; framed by marbled dunes and aqua of the bay and the river.


Do yourself a favour.





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  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Peter, you’ve captured my interest with your description of Laninch and it’s layout and history.

    Will be doing myself a favour and tuning in.

  2. I look forward to seeing the course in all its splendour – from the Jason Recliner.

  3. Brilliant PB.

    Is John Burke the only golfer with this 11 and 6 record? He could fire a one iron so was doubtless good with a rifle too.

  4. Interesting article Pete. Although not a golfer myself, I have fond memories of when we got our first TV set, at the end of 1960, and watching TOP PRO GOLF on Sunday afternoons. My Dad loved watching SLAMMIN’ SAMMY SNEAD so much he bought himself a set of second hand clubs and began practicing his swing..

    Being a natural sportsman, he soon developed into quite a reasonable player. Starting at the chip and put course, he quickly developed his game and joined the Railways golf club where he performed quite well. I’ve no idea what his handicap was but I do know he got several birdies and possibly an eagle or two. I’m positive he never managed that elusive hole in one. I most certainly would have heard had he scored one.

  5. I forgot to mention that actually I do have a connection with golf. Just after World War 2 housing was scarce and so our family, whilst awaiting a house to become available, lived in a tent on the beach at Marino from March ’48 to April ’49. It was great fun for my sisters and I.

    I had just turned 5 when I noticed a fellow practicing a golf swing on the beach. At that time not knowing anything about golf and very curious, I strolled up behind him to investigate. Not realising I was behind him he continued a swing, hitting me on the forehead with his back swing, Down I went like a sack of spuds.

    The next thing I knew he was standing over me and asking if I was seeing stars. Meanwhile Dad, who had seen the whole incident, rushed over to see if I was OK and lay down the law to the golfer. Whether they checked me for concussion, I don’t recall. Anyway, I quite obviously recovered.

    However, as you can imagine, many of my friends say that explains the way i am (Ha Ha)

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