Pitchmarks #20 - 5th November 2023
Return to Dunluce
There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.
I find something magical in the process of returning to old haunts. Sometimes this is in the renewed exploration of places I once lived; more recently in the travel to the locations - and golf courses - of the last big wave of my golfing passion, a couple of decades ago.
I’d travelled to Northern Ireland for a few days in late 2004, shortly after an epic road trip across the States, studying golf design on a scholarship that I’d randomly found in a magazine, and somehow won. The American friend with whom I’d travelled - sharing motel rooms and a rental Pontiac as we were shown one jaw-dropping classic after another - then came for a stint on the greenkeeping team at Royal Portrush, so he showed me the inside track of this enchanting links, with a visit to another classic, nestled beneath the foreboding Mourne Mountains, for good measure. Another place to return to…
I always thought I’d loved Royal Portrush, and in particular the Dunluce Links, first time around, though it was hard to remember why. But I was right. It is one of golf’s delicate beauties, along with the crumbling castle that gave the course its name, standing battered and proud on this rugged coastline.
Somehow those first impressions had lost their detail, my memories slowly ebbing away until any mention of Dunluce just gave a warm feeling, but very few specifics. So when the handbrake is applied, and I drag my clubs from the boot, and the wind threatens my cap, my senses are on fire for these precious hours, for this journey back into another of golf’s masterpieces.
We start, and the 1st charms us with its simplicity - keep the drive in play; make sure you hit enough club to defeat the first of many false fronts with your second. We hug the south-east boundary of the course for three more holes, then the 5th takes our breath away, dropping down to a diagonal fairway - classic risk/reward decisions to be made from the tee - and the green - a wicked, two-tiered hourglass with tight mown surrounds falling away on three sides - is gorgeous atop the jagged rocks of limestone cliff. Behind and far below lies Whiterocks Beach, which we avoid but adore.
From down in the fairway, it is a horizon green, but as you climb the approach, feeling the pull in your hamstrings all the way, Islay emerges, and Jura, and a little to the left, white waves come crashing into The Skerries. This is a dramatic place, and as we tee up on the short 6th - “Harry Colt’s”, after the genius who plotted this route through the dunes - it feels like more of a voyage into a symphony than just another golf course. It tests every shot, every club in the bag, and while there is danger around the many humps and hollows, Dunluce feels very playable for a Championship links. It is pretty, and cunning, and above all else a lot of fun.
We seem to take it in turn to relish tee shots - Monty’s many waggles, as he glares with an intensity at a landing area far beyond mine - beyond my field of vision when downwind. Clive’s bright yellow trousers, flapping loudly and noisily in the breeze, as he wills his ball to fly straight. John has brought an occasional wild cut with him, but while the rough isn’t short, it is mainly fine grasses so we split at each tee and meet back at the green, often with the same ball in play.
But in writing this, I still have to check a few of the holes, and get sidetracked by the online imagery of these once-again distant dunes. For somehow I still don’t remember every hole, but I wonder if it is not my failing memory but an indication of the coherence of this golf course. Each hole - no, each shot - is thrilling, and so to focus on specifics is to devalue the whole. More than the sum of its (extraordinary) parts, perhaps.
Fragments of that first visit float back - I remember being staggered by the impudent plateau green of “Causeway” - today’s 14th. “Avoid the big bunker to the left of the green at all costs”, suggests the website’s Pro Tip, but such advice is easy to read and harder to enact, and had he not picked up his Srixon, one of our group might still be in there, flailing away. I can imagine Open contenders quietly bitching about this green, whose flanks fall steeply on all sides, and delight in the fact that the game’s greatest event still clings to the links for its challenge, to the true and not alway entirely fair game.
And no one could forget “Calamity”, though with the inclusion of a new 7th & 8th, to solve the problem of a dull finish, this daunting beast comes later in the round, as the 16th. We stand on the tee with a strong breeze pulling everything right into a hellish crevasse, and it feels like a precursor of Sawgrass’s infamous 17th in some detached way. Such dangerous holes could dominate thought all the way round for those in contention, but none of us are in contention for anything but survival today, so we thrash away at it, and two of us are lost left, and the resultant foul language drifts off towards the Giant’s Causeway and Rathlin Island far behind us.
The old 16th is our closing hole these days, and Monty drops in, with a final, wobbling oscillation, a birdie that has us all smiling. A good end to a great morning, and as we move behind the trolley shed and across the fine turf of an empty 1st tee, that feeling that always indicates world class golf emerges. We all quietly look left, and wonder whether we might go again, for the golf on Dunluce is so, so good. It all seems to slip by too quickly, but that’s how time works when we’re in this precious mode.
Nineteen years later, retracing those old footsteps of mine is nostalgic, of course, but also inspiring. For though most other things in life have shifted since then, this sense of intoxication with the wild side of golf - with the riddles of the great architects and the landscapes of coast and common alike - has gone away and come back, in abundance. I play like a dog but am enriched, elated, by these hours in the wind, and I want to slow down and soak it all in so I never again neglect this wicked mistress called golf.
To forge, in the very fibre of my being, Kundera’s “secret bond between slowness and memory”, for golf is often for me the prism through which this world comes alive. Along with Royal Portrush, I have always loved the work of Milan Kundera, and his “Book of Laughter and Forgetting” would probably come to a Desert Island with me, were I to be cast away. That and my old approach cleek. But if that is the case let the island be Rathlin, so that, as the sun rises over the emerald isle, I could stare at Dunluce through binoculars, and dream of just one more round there, amid the sea of fescue.