In less than a fortnight all eyes will be on Royal Portrush in its first Open since 1951, so we sent Matt Cooper for a tour of the full 18 holes...
"Paul McGinley noted that Portrush offers a variety of shot making, first draws, then fades. For example, the second and fourth tee shots require a draw, the fifth a fade; the eighth and ninth a draw, the tenth a fade.
No Open rota course lacks for history, but few have such profound links with its country's golfing past as Royal Portrush because only four Northern Irishmen have won major championships and every single one of them has connections with this marvellous stretch of linksland: Fred Daly was once a caddie there, Graeme McDowell was born and brought up in the town, Darren Clarke is a club member, and Rory McIlroy holds the course record. Beat that.
Someone will, actually. McIlroy's course record, that is. Because since it hosted the 2012 Irish Open Martin Ebert has been responsible for a renovation of the original Harry Colt design and while many of the changes have involved mere extensions to yardage and tweaks to the greens, two entirely new holes have been added (the new seventh and eighth, replacing the old 17th and 18th). Therefore whoever wins the first three-ball out on Thursday morning will also be signing for a new course record.
1st - Hughies - 421-yard par-4
The first thing to note, visually at least, is the positioning of hospitality down the right and the way the hole rises up a steep slope to the green. Unless there is a ferocious wind into their faces, a long iron will be the popular option from the tee. There is out of bounds down both left and right, with bunkers adding to the threat. A large green retains original Colt shaping and it is quite significant. With front pin positions any approaches short or with too much spin will run back down the hill.
2nd - Giant's Grave - 574-yard par-5
This ranked the easiest hole on the course in the 2012 Irish Open (4.37), but there is now a new green, pushed further back and with steep drop-offs on the left-hand side. The hole shapes as a dog-leg right-to-left and the drive is a classic links visual test with a draw having the potential to scuttle between the bunkers. Those who lay up need to avoid five bunkers short of the green. A longer hole now than when it held the 2004 Senior Open. The reason? Eduardo Romero found the green with driver-sand wedge. But that hints that in the right conditions it remains a great scoring opportunity.
3rd - Islay - 177-yard par-3
The field averaged 2.90 shots here in 2012 making it the simplest of the four short holes (and fourth easiest on the course suggesting that in the right conditions there is a very nice start available for all). The high tee box offers a superb view of the course and the biggest threats are short, notably a penal bunker on the left.
4th - Fred Daly's - 482-yard par-4
There is a touch of Carnoustie's Hogan Alley about this drive, only flipped. Here anything right of the fairway is out of bounds while two bunkers await those who play too safe (as does a lot of tangly rough further left). It's a serious test of skill and nerve with the prevailing wind pushing the ball right. The approach needs to be threaded between two dunes front left and right which might impede a perfect view of the pin. Those in the garden of a manor house outside the club boundary will get a fine view of the approach shots.
5th - White Rocks - 374-yard par-4
Conditions will determine strategy. Given assistance with the wind the players can attack the green which lies below the tee box. But the fairway has humps which can kick balls in a variety of directions, the rough is potentially penal and this is the worst spot on the course to get a flier because anything over the green will be on the beach (there is not another Open rota putting surface closer to a beach than this one). Three fairway bunkers have been added to ask further questions of the drive.
6th - Harry Colt's - 194-yard par-3
Statistically the toughest par-3 test in 2012 and third toughest hole on the course (3.20). It has a large, pear-shaped green which is set at an angle to the tee. No sand here (unless you turn round on the tee and look at the beach). Worth noting that Ebert did almost nothing to the par-3s in the renovation - that's how strong they are.
7th - Curran Point - 592-yard par-5
The first of the new holes and it calls to mind Royal Birkdale as it twists and turns through the dunes (there is an especially high one on the right-hand side which might cause some confusion over wind direction). The old 17th hole had a famously enormous bunker (Nellie's) which has been recreated here but ought to only find the most errant slice. Visually dramatic and plays into the prevailing wind, the lay up area for those not attacking the green is narrower than the landing area for the drives.
8th - Dunluce - 434-yard par-4
If the last hole goes through the dunes, this one travels across the top of them. The tee shot needs to hit a fairway which is set at a right-to-left angle and picking the right line will be critical, for depth of landing area as well as width. Right is safer, going left and long brings the fairway bunkers (long) or scrub among the dunes (short and left) into play. Slightly reminiscent of the fourth hole tee shot at Kingsbarns and if the prevailing wind is in play and strong it would suit a bold crack at the green (but there would be plenty of, if not too much, threat).
9th - Tavern - 432-yard par-4
This hole (then the seventh) played the toughest of the lot in the 2012 Irish Open (4.36). It's a nicely-shaped dog-leg right to left, with the green protected by a hump front left. Entry to the tee box will be via a newly constructed tunnel which allows the player to by-pass a bottleneck. Bound to provide great photo opportunities and also create superb atmosphere when popular players emerge to roars of approval.
Out - 3,680-yards, par 36
10th - Himalayas - 447-yard par-4
A hole that looks destined to be a favourite with the galleries because it features a green surrounded on three sides by dunes. To get a clear view of the putting surface will require a well-directed tee shot on this dog-leg left-to-right and if the wind is strong and from the prevailing direction that shot will be pushing the ball in the correct direction, but bringing the tangly rough in the hillocks to the right of the fairway into play.
11th - P.G. Stevenson's - 474-yard par-4
A long par-4 that features a narrow fairway (indeed the narrowest on the course) and a steep slope at the front of the putting surface.
12th - Dhu Varron - 532-yard par-5
This proved the second easiest hole on the course in 2012 (4.60), but there is a difference in the playing conditions since then. What was a dogleg left-to-right is now an arrow straight hole which brings three fairway bunker more into play. Where players could previously play left of them with some freedom, they now threaten a wider variety of tee shots.
13th - Feather Bed - 194-yard par-3
The hole's name hints at a deceptive quality of this test because it appears simple enough and is very photogenic, but front pin positions carry plenty of threat both from five bunkers which ring the front half of the putting surfaces and the slope itself which is front to back. It plays right into the prevailing wind (from an elevated tee) which helps hold the green - if the shot is pure. If it isn't those sand traps come into play. (The green is also very close to the 17th green and grandstands will be either side of both - bound to be one of the best viewing spots for the week; the seats at the back of the ones left of this greens will also offer superb vistas of 18.)
14th - Causeway - 473-yard par-4
The first fairway bunker had been made redundant by modern hitting, but the tee has been extended backward and brings it into play. Long hitters bring two further traps into their sphere and the short grass narrows for them. The risk of hitting it nearer the putting surface is rewarded by hitting a shorter iron (and higher trajectory) into a raised target which will repel an impure hit.
15th - Skerries - 426-yard par-4
A hole that now plays very differently for amateurs and pros. For the latter (who are the only ones who matter this week) the hole is a right-to-left dogleg up a hill. The line and length of the tee shot will need to be carefully selected and then executed. Then the approach is stunning. The seventh and eighth holes are to the right, with the sea in the distance, and the green appears to hang on the edge of a huge drop (an illusion of course).
16th - Calamity Corner - 236-yard par-3
The field averaged 3.19 strokes here in 2012 making it the fourth hardest test on the course and since then the tee box has been moved backward. The green is huge, but so is the yawning chasm which the tee shot must carry. Anything short right is asking for trouble and 99% of the time calamity does indeed await. If the wind is gusting this tee shot will carry huge threat. In 1951 Bobby Locke purposefully played short left of the green in all four rounds and trusted his short game (he made par every time).
17th - Purgatory - 408-yard par-4
Scores here will be completely dependent on the ground conditions and wind. If the turf is bone dry, and the wind helps, the green will be peppered because the landing area will be the significant downslope. But there remains risk in such shots: from the crumpled fairway, bunkers and scrubby grass to the right. The combination of the 16th hole and this one is delicious because it is entirely possible that huge swings in momentum are witnessed at both. Those chasing a leader (or leaders) will know 16 could catch him or them out while 17 offers the chance of making one or even two shots on the card.
18th - Babington's - 474-yard par-4
Seven years ago this was the 16th hole and the second toughest. It averaged 4.23 for the week and there were plenty of ugly numbers. Potential for an explosive finale? An aggressive tee shot brings two bunkers and rough into play, the conservative first blow has a wide landing area. With hospitality down the left-hand side (as last year but this time alongside the fairway not the tee) and baseball-mitt style grandstands (like Hoylake in 2014 and in contrast to the more common bleachers down either side) there is a touch of TPC Scottsdale about this finale.
In - 3,664-yards, par-35
Total - 7,344-yard, par-71
Five new bunkers have been added, but Portrush's total of 64 is the lowest count on the Open rota (Turnberry is next on 87).
We've noted that it's a Harry Colt design originally. He also had a hand in the re-designs of Muirfield, Hoylake and Royal Lytham, was responsible for the West Course at Wentworth, Royal Melbourne, Lahinch, Royal County Down, Kennemer, Hilversum, East London, Royal Johannesburg, Glendower and this year's Canadian Open host Hamilton. Real course nerds might also note that North Hants, where Justin Rose played his early golf, is another Colt layout. It needs to be added that some element of doubt remains as to both the extent of his involvement in the original work and the impact of major or minor alterations on these tests.
What of the conditions during Open week? The greenkeeping staff were rumoured to be a little concerned that there should be no repeat for them of the weather Royal Birkdale encountered two years ago (even some possibly exaggerated talk of covers for the greens akin to the cricket). Birkdale was soaked for two weeks, with fine conditions for the tournament itself and no wind on Saturday when the scoring was especially low. In a blog post at the end of June the greenkeepers seemed happy with the conditioning, just adding their hope that July stays dry. Thus far they have their wish, but rain is forecast for this week, some of it potentially heavy.
During his Irish Open commentary Paul McGinley frequently referenced that his involvement in the set-up of Lahinch had been influenced by discussions with the R&A. His aim was to provide a good (as in similar) test for the big occasion. So he said the greens were 10.5 on the stimpmeter for that reason. He also noted that Portrush offers a variety of shot making, first draws, then fades. For example, the second and fourth tee shots require a draw, the fifth a fade; the eighth and ninth a draw, the tenth a fade.
There are four distinctive traits to the greens on this course. The first, fifth, 11th, 12th have steep slopes at the front. Poorly played shots with a lot of spin will be sucked a long way back. The second and 14th greens are two strong examples of raised greens which errant approaches will kick away from. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth, 15th and 16th are very exposed to the wind, whilst the fourth, seventh, and tenth are tucked away.
A final thought on driving lines. They could prove vital. At the fifth, eighth, tenth, 15th and 18th the players are hitting to fairways set at a diagonal angle to them. Either good shaping will be required to land on and then run up those fairways, or excellent length control will be required, after selecting the perfect line, to steer clear of trouble not just left and right, but short and long.