Maturing like a fine wine and just as tasty
COURSE DEVELOPMENT SEAPOINT GC: Philip Reidreturns to Seapoint and finds a course that has matured into a great links test
IN CERTAIN golfing quarters, GPS systems are being attached to carts to assist players work out the distance of a shot to the flag. In Seapoint, the joke goes, such navigational systems should be obligatory after a four-ball of Japanese golfers - yep, tourists still manage to find this outpost - somehow managed to start a round at neighbouring Baltray only to finish up playing the newer links next door.
It transpired they'd moved, rather seamlessly, from the 13th green at Co Louth to the 16th tee box at Seapoint and, having finished out their round, enjoyed the tasty offerings available in the clubhouse. They only realised their mistake when it came time to find their car in the carpark. Of course, the car wasn't there; and, whether or not the story is true or one of rural legend, it nevertheless provides an indication of how the links at Termonfeckin has matured wonderfully since it first opened for play in the early-90s.
To that end, nature and time has played its part in the maturing of Seapoint, a links designed by Des Smyth and Declan Branigan. However, Seapoint's maturity into the fine course it is today also owes much to the unwillingness of the committee not to sit on its laurels and a desire to continue upgrading the course is evidenced by the recent completion of a renovation project carried out by Branigan's team.
Of course, any renovation project can only be helped when the designer is also a regular player of the course. Branigan's association with Seapoint goes all the way back to the time that he worked on the course routing with Smyth - back in 1990! - and this development programme has succeeded in bringing the course to a new level among the very finest seaside courses on this island.
"You're always looking at ways to change and improve a course, because golf is always evolving," remarked Branigan.
"It's hard to believe I did the original routing with Des (at Seapoint) in 1990. I've been involved with Seapoint from scratch, from the growing in period, and the game has changed over that time so the changes were necessary."
Yet, the changes are more of the evolutionary type rather than revolutionary. The upgrading has complimented the landscape, ensuring that the course provides a very good challenge for players of all levels. "The course has bedded in. All golf courses take a while to mature and Seapoint is now one hell of a test of golf and is in fantastic condition . . . and I think the finishing stretch of holes by the coast is as fine as you will find," said Branigan.
My latest visit to Seapoint didn't disappoint. The course has matured splendidly; and if there are those who deem the opening sequence of holes to be more parkland than links, a point which Branigan, for one, would dispute, there is no argument about the finishing holes - from the par three 15th - which is unadulterated links, with one hole after another demanding precise shot-making and creative thinking.
Although the upgrading project also involved work to the clubhouse - with the men's and women's locker rooms enlarged, the restaurant and dining areas increased in size and a new pro shop built - the work to the golf course is obvious from the very first hole, where new sand hills around the first green provide definition as well as providing the aesthetics of a more linksy feel.
Similar dunes have been built around the second and seventh greens, while the 15th green has been extended and reshaped. The 17th green is another that has been reshaped, protected as it is by large sand hills, while the 18th green has been moved closer to the clubhouse which has also added on some 80 yards.
THE UPGRADINGof the par four seventh, apart from reshaping the green, involved the addition of a complex of new bunkers down the left-hand side of the fairway which puts a premium on accuracy off the tee, while the green is protected by two new bunkers to the front.
For those returning to Seapoint, having previously encountered a lake guarding the green to the par three ninth, a pleasant surprise is in store: a new hole of 186 metres, in effect, has been built which is more in keeping with a traditional links course. The lake, a watery grave over the years for many an errant tee shot, is no longer here but the hole remains a tough test with hillocks around the two-tier green and a number of greenside bunkers very much in play.
Branigan used his own experience of playing the course every week, along with the statistics made available from the competition results, to tweak the course and added bunkers on the 10th, 11th and 13th to eliminate the option of running the ball into the green. The index two 13th hole, which has large dunes running down the left side of the fairway, now has large bunkers protecting both sides of the green and offers a narrow entrance on the approach shot.
Yet, the designer's eye doesn't only involve adding. It also involves taking away, and bunkers to the right of the fourth green and to the left of the 12th have been taken out to add a different challenge on the approach shot while bunkers have also been removed from the left side of the seventh fairway and three bunkers down the right of the 13th have been removed and replaced by one large sand trap and a sand hill.
The tees have also been refined, and each hole has four men's teeing grounds which allows for the course to be rested as appropriate but also to offer different challenges. For example, the 18th - a fine par five with dunes on either side of the fairway - perfectly demonstrates the different challenges from the tees: the championship tee on the left opens up the fairway, but the new tee close on dunes overlooking the beach brings a large area of rough down the right into play if you are to reach the fairway.
Branigan sees the maturity of Seapoint as enriching the links tradition in this area, which also has Co Louth - a championship venue that played host to the Irish Open in 2004 - and Laytown and Bettystown which have been around considerably longer than the new kid on the block.
"You get people saying the first five or six holes are not links, but they are," said Branigan. "They are just different, part of a landscape that has some parkland characteristics that move into subdued dunes and then into seaside dunes. It's different, and the course has progressed well and has a great variety of holes. When you play it from the back tees, you know really how good a test it is."
Now, nobody can argue with that sentiment.