Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The European Club

"STAY AWAKE - GET AROUND IN 4-HOURS - YOU ARE AN ATHLETE!," the scorecard at The European Club (ranked #98 in the world) shouts at you. The European Club is the masterpiece of Irish golf impresario Pat Ruddy. Ruddy's iconoclastic style and unique personality come through strongly at the European Club.

I first played the European Club six years after it was opened, in 1998 with a group of friends, and it was my virginal experience on a links golf course.

Ruddy's very Irish sense of humor is also present on the bottom of the scorecard where in addition to your actual score, there is also a place on the scorecard for, "What my score should have been." Local Rule #1 is: "Do not be a links lawyer. Play the ball where it lies when possible."

In his book describing "The European Club", Fifty Years in a Bunker, Ruddy explains that the name European Club was meant to be grandiose - "A Big and Brave Name - Claiming the golfing continent of Europe".

At the time we played, they handed you a little blue and white card, seen above, which talks about their philosophy of the game: "Our approach to golf is fundamentalist. Accordingly, you will not find fussy furniture on our links. You might take it to be spartan while we think it is akin to the way the game was at the beginning and as it should be now. Take your clubs, card and pencil and go out and do battle with the golfscape that requires no artificial adornment."

We met Pat Ruddy when we arrived at The European Club on our first trip. We walked into the austere clubhouse, and he immediately shot a good natured insult at us: how all Americans looked like clones. He was right: all six of us had on brown khakis and logoed wind-cheaters. The decor and ambiance of the clubhouse at The European Club are on a par with that of a motor-vehicle agency. Actually, less ambiance than that of a motor-vehicle agency, because at least DMV's now have TV's. As Ruddy explains, he doesn't believe in "trumpets and brass knobs." It's all about the golf.

The Golf Course

The golf course is adjacent to the Irish Sea Links, on Brittas Bay, in County Wicklow, about 40 miles south of Dublin. The bunkers on the course are lined with railroad ties (sleepers), and Ruddy's design philosophy is to use optical illusions as a hazard on the course. There are hidden dips and hillocks shielding fairways, and his use of mounds and other hazards are meant to put a golfer off his game by creating confusion and rewarding clear thinking. The course is unconventional in that it contains two loops of ten holes instead of two loops of nine. You actually don't play all twenty holes during a round. Holes 7a and 12a, both par threes, are put into play at various times in favor of some of the other par threes. When you receive the scorecard, the two holes that you aren't playing that round have a line put through them. The course offers views of Brittas Bay on fifteen holes. The European Club offers solitude, peace and tranquility. There are no houses, no highways and no low-flying planes.

Par four 3rd hole

The third hole is 499 yards from the blue tees and is typical of the style of links golf at The European Club. The hole plays downhill among the sand dunes. As with any links course, one of the major defenses is the wind blowing in off the bay.

7th hole

The seventh hole is the #1 handicap and has a small burn in front of the tee and down the entire right side. The left side of the hole has a reed-filled marsh jutting out as an illusion. The correct strategy is to favor the right side of the hole, but off the tee it looks like you should favor the left. Parts of the fairway are concealed behind the reeds in a brilliant use of optical illusion. Ruddy employs what he calls the "Reverse view telescope" effect on this hole; that is, everything looks further away than it is. I'm not sure how this sleight of hand is achieved but it works beautifully. The hole is 470 yards long and a bear under good conditions. Into the wind it is one of the hardest on the planet.

8th hole

The eighth hole is a narrow par four that plays 415 yards from the back tees and shows the classic links feel among the sand dunes.

The 12th hole at the European Club

The 12th hole at The European Club is a 459 yard par four. What makes the hole unique is that the green is 127 yards deep. For sake of comparison, this is longer than the length of the entire world-class seventh hole at Pebble Beach and longer by nine yards than the widest double green at St. Andrews. It creates that unique problem of a pin placement being anywhere from 412 yards when on the front of the green to 515 yards when on the back. Potentially a three or four club difference, without factoring in the tricky winds!

Hole 12a is a par three, reverse image of the 14th hole at Royal Portrush, "Calamity". At Portrush, there is a huge fall off on the right side of the green, where a mis-hit shot goes into an unfathomable void. On hole 12a, all the trouble is with the abyss on the left side. It is a heroic hole that plays 166 yards from the tips.

13th hole

The thirteenth is a long 596 yard par five, with four strategic bunkers on the left side of the hole and the bay on the right. When Tiger Woods played at The European Club he hit the green here by hitting a driver off the fairway.

16th hole

The 415 yard par four sixteenth hole shows off the inland scenery at The European Club. Similar to the beautiful Perthsire hills that surround Gleneagles in Scotland, the richly colored mountains that surround the European Club add to the overall idyllic beauty of the place.

The finishing hole used at The European Club used to be a weak hole. A 477 yard par four that plays back toward the clubhouse, it had a pond in front of the green which was out of character with the rest of the course. It was an anti-climactic finish that received much criticism. Ruddy converted the pond into a burn a couple of years back; his inspiration was the Barry Burn at Carnoustie, after watching Van de Velde melt down at the 1999 Open Championship. It makes for a much better finish.

I got the opportunity to play The European Club again two years ago on a golf trip to Ireland. The contrast between the first time we played and the second was stark. It took us several hours to get to the course from Dublin since the capital city has prospered so much in the intervening years. This is despite the fact that there is now a highway south of Dublin which should make the trip quicker. There has been so much development and population growth that we sat in traffic most of the way.

Despite the admonishments on the card, we also had a painfully slow round the second time. We played on a Saturday afternoon and had to wait on EVERY shot. I also thought that the course conditioning needed an uptick, particularly the bunkers. When The European Club first opened, there was no clubhouse, and Ruddy and his family used to sit in their car and take the 10 pound guest fee through the window of their car. The visitor fee is now 180 Euros a round. The price of success and a top 100 world ranking has begun to spoil it, no doubt.

Pat Ruddy

Pat Ruddy is a unique figure in the world of golf. He is the owner, architect and operator of The European Club. Part of the secret of his success was that he did much of the work at The European Club himself. He didn't have to pay architect design fees. He drove the bulldozer himself when shaping the course, had a minimal crew and built it without frills. He was also smart enough to build in stages, stayed within his budget, didn't spend on a clubhouse and basically did it as a pay-as-you-go venture, pacing his development of the course to coincide with his cash flows. Ruddy is a self-made man and self-taught golf course architect. He started his career as a golf-writer and evolved into an architect. Based on the brief time I met him and reading his book I found him to be an affable, sarcastic and witty man with a sharp sense of humor and a visionary.

The European Club was arguably the first course built to rate as a top 100 course. Ruddy had a passion to build a world-class course and do things his way. He chartered a helicopter to fly him around the Irish coast looking for an appropriate piece of land on which to build a proper links course. Ruddy's feat would be difficult to repeat today. Part of the secret of his success was good timing. At the time he started his venture the Irish government was giving out grants to spur tourism. Even for private clubs such as The European Club, as long as they allowed visitors, they could take advantage of the grants. Also, in the intervening years, and with the formation of the European Union, the Irish economy has exploded upwards, and Ruddy was no doubt a beneficiary of this.

While there have been several visionaries who have followed in Ruddy's path (Mike Keiser at Bandon Dunes, Herbert Kohler at Whistling Straits and Mike Pascucci at Sebonack), this jocular fellow did it the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of being a gazillionaire. I congratulate this Irishman, excuse me, European, on such a brilliant accomplishment. I like his attitude.

Ruddy also designed the Glashedy Links, located in Ireland's God's country - County Donegal. If you even get the chance to go there, I recommend playing both the Old Course and The Glashedy Links.

The European Club's Website

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