Discovering the Perfect Peninsula
The Dublin part of our journey with the panelists concluded at Portmarnock Golf Club. Although formally “founded” in 1894, the book entitled A Centenary History by T.M. Healy, published in 1994 reveals:
“On Christmas Eve of 1893 a Scottish Insurance broker named W.C. Pickeman and his friend George Ross rowed over from Sutton to the peninsula of Portmarnock to scout out the land as a possible golf links. They liked what they found.”
Indeed they did, and so did we on yet another glorious day of sunshine.
But in fact, the ground had been in use for golf as early as 1858 by the Jameson family who built their own private course, starting by their home, to the present 15th green. The Jamesons, of Scottish origin, established the Jameson Whiskey Distillery in 1780, and brought their favorite pastime with them. Eventually, the Jamesons leased the land to Portmarnock with John Jameson becoming the first President of the Club, George Ross the first Captain, and Pickeman being the first Honorary Secretary.
Laying out the first nine holes
Apparently Pickeman, laid out the first nine holes, with his countryman, Mungo Park, winner of the Open Championship in 1874, “consulting” on the greens in addition to his role as the Club’s first professional.
A second nine was added two years later with the involvement of another Scot, George Coburn, who hailed from East Lothian. A skillful player, Coburn, at just nineteen years of age, was engaged to replace Mungo Park as the Club professional. He had gained valuable greenkeeping experience with Old Tom Morris, and is even thought to have assisted Old Tom with the New Course at St Andrews when he designed it in 1895.
Coburn’s tenure at the Club lasted ten years, after which he participated in a number of Open Championships at St. Andrews, Sandwich, Muirfield and Prestwick and he eventually moved to the United States in 1912, where he carried on his career.
The rich history of championships at Portmarnock
Portmarnock carried on impressively too, as the home of many famous professionals including Willy Nolan, who set the St Andrews Old Course record of 67 in 1933, Eddie Hackett who went on to become Ireland’s premier course architect, and Harry Bradshaw, who in addition to many tournament wins, continued on as the Club professional for 40 years. He was succeeded by Peter Townsend, who was both a Walker Cup (1965) and Ryder Cup player (1969 and 1971).
When Townsend left in 1991, Joey Purcell, who had been an Irish Amateur International in 1973, came on board to follow in the footsteps of this esteemed group of men. Upon Purcell’s retirement in 2019, Francis Howley was appointed the Club Professional.
Then there’s the championships hosted at this venerable Club, which include the Irish Open Championships, The Amateur Championships, The Irish Close Championship, the British Amateur Championship in 1949 and 2019, the only two times it was played outside the United Kingdom, The Canada Cup (now the World Cup), won by the team of Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead. The Walker Cup in 1991 hosted by Portmarnock concluded with an American victory with a team led by Phil Mickelson and David Duval, playing against some of Ireland’s top amateurs including Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Garth McGimpsey.
Having great time on the Perfect Peninsula
So on this perfect peninsula, full of sandy soil, with such a rich history and tradition and a membership consisting of the who’s who of Ireland (that would include Top 100 panelists Kevin McGrath, and Adrian Morrow who were also joining us today—and Peter Webster who was with his family celebrating a biggish birthday with and “0” in it) it is fair to say that we were all looking forward to our golf round on such hallowed dew-swept ground.
Anticipating our visit, the officers of Portmarnock organized a match for us. Kevin and I were paired with Gary Johnstone, the golf course superintendent, whose ball striking was as good as any professional on tour, and Shane Browne, a member who had just come off a win with his partner in the annual, prestigious Elm Park Mixed Foursomes event the previous day.
Too bad I couldn’t reincarnate as a competitive golfer successfully or often enough — Kevin and I lost our match on the 15th hole, but we never lost our enjoyment of being on the legendary links. This would be Kevin’s home course for decades, along with Lahinch in Co. Clare, where we live in the summer—when we’re home, that is.
After our “match,” there was a festive air in the bar, with Brian Dunnion ordering a glass of sauvignon blanc for me. One after another, the officers of the Club all appeared, many in coat and tie. At one stage, a tall, muscular man with a shock of white hair and dazzling smile entered the bar. I said to Brian, “what famous actor does this man remind me of?”
Brian said, “Why don’t you ask him yourself,” and then tapped the gentleman on the shoulder.
“What actor do you remind me of with your dazzling movie-star good looks?”
With a characteristic kind of drawl and squint of the eye, he answered, “Would it be John Wayne?”
A big laugh erupted that would have broken any iceberg, but there were none in the genial waters of our bonhomie. The entire room full of officers—John Wayne’s real name being Barry Doyle (the Honorary Secretary – or Hon Sec)—were as warm as the welcome sunshine.
When we drifted into the member’s inner sanctum of the Pickeman Room, John Power, the Captain, pointed to the only open window and said, “You know Gary Player, the famous golfer?”
“Sure I do,” I replied, nodding my head.
“Well standing on the first tee right out there, he drove his ball right through this window!”
The vision absolutely cracked me up—a pull hook like that if there were no building in the way would have landed behind him!
During our grand lunch with a lovely lamb entree, the wine and the laughter flowed. Finally some of the panelists took the opportunity to ask Gary questions about the presentation and maintenance of the course.
When he was asked about how he kept control of the meadow grasses, he told us how every stalk of grass produced 10,000 seed heads each season. This certainly boggled my mind.
Having been born in Scotland, not far from Aberdeen, Gary has now followed in the footsteps of the Scottish founders, the early professionals and greenkeepers, whose hands and minds have shaped the links. He is keenly aware of the significance of being a good steward of the all the land — including the wild areas — to maintain the natural character as much as possible.
Johnstone relishes his role to tend to the land that has seen hundreds, if not thousands of famous people and golfers.
Like so many seeds of grass, famous or not, guardians of the links land, members and visitors alike, have contributed to the impressive lore of this ever-perfect peninsula.