Donegal Golf Club will forever bond Eddie Hackett with Pat Ruddy, two longtime, like-minded Irish friends. Their mutual love for golf and similar design thoughts have shaped the Irish course
MURVAGH, Ireland — The 10h hole at the Donegal Golf Club is named after the original course designer, Eddie Hackett. While the hole does turn into the clockwise inner loop of the course, hence the moniker Hackett’s Corner, it’s still barely removed from full view of the Atlantic — the 180 acres of linksland sits on the Murvagh Peninsula, jutting right into the ocean along the country’s northwest coast.
There’s a steely blue look to the sea and sky here, an edge that can be exacerbated by the frequent winds, but mollified by the shades of green on the land. The course moves gracefully through its dunes and native grasses and, if played from the tips, winds up as one of Ireland’s, and Europe’s, longest courses (7,453 yards, playing to a par-73).
Eddie Hackett, who died at 86 in 1996, was a beloved figure in Irish golf. He did it all, as a club pro (notably at Portmarnock Golf Club), club maker, instructor and ultimately as a course designer. He also wrote a newspaper column during World War II, and raised money for needed causes by arranging exhibition matches.
His first solo design, also in County Donegal, was a parkland course, Letterkenny. His last was Carne, in County Mayo. In between he worked on roughly 100 layouts, including such come hither courses as Ballyliffin, Enniscrone, Waterville, and Connemara. He had a hand in the Old Head design as well.
“I knew and loved Eddie Hackett,” said Pat Ruddy, another newspaper man turned golf designer. “A saint if ever there was one. He loved golf and golfers. We met often and walked land together. Once, when trying to get a public course established in Limerick, I engaged him to design a layout for one possible site and he refused to take payment.
“That was the way he did his work, on three levels: One, for pay; two, for little pay from the less well off, and, three, pro bono for villages that would not have turned to golf if faced with ginormous bills.”
Broadly speaking, Ruddy follows the same formula. It could easily be said that he has also slipped on Hackett’s mantle as the grand old man of Irish golf, though Ruddy himself would likely demur and object to the old part, since he's just a mere 75 years old. Although he is walking about on his fifth left hip, he gets around. Like Donald Ross on Pinehurst No. 2, Ruddy is constantly tinkering with a course he owns and designed, The European Club in Brittas Bay in County Wicklow.
A culmination of his life’s work, The European Club is also the subject of two books Ruddy has written, Fifty Years in a Bunker and The Perfect Golf Links. He has done books on Rosapenna and Ballyliffin, and his latest, Holes in My Head, is about the many courses he’s had a hand in designing or remodeling — mainly around Ireland. The books, along with thousands by others, are housed in a golf library within The European Club clubhouse that is a sight to behold and salivate over.
Although everything is on hold during the coronavirus abeyance — the course website says until April 19 — Ruddy will be putting the finishing touches to a new par-3 links at Ballyliffin called the Pollan Links, as well as continuing work on modernizing Harry Colt’s links classic, the County Sligo Golf Club. He also drops by Donegal on a regular basis, as he has most winters for over a quarter-century, to buff up Hackett’s gem.
“I was engaged by Donegal in 1991,” Ruddy said. “The work continues today and is likely to go into the future. We get along very well together to the extent that they conferred honorary life membership on me as they had
done for Eddie Hackett before me. The bond is tight.”
If the two walked land together, they never actually did so at the Donegal course. But Ruddy has proceeded with due reverence for his predecessor’s work. Other than extending the ninth and 17th holes, he said, “Nothing has been done to change the basic routing in those 25 years; it is about perfect. But the improvements have been very substantial and extensive to the point that we now know that we have a highly polished diamond on hand.”
A less hilly track than the not-too-distant Narin & Portnoo Links, Donegal is nonetheless a not-so-hidden treasure and a hearty test. When a par-3 hole, the notable 197-yard fifth, is called the Valley of Tears, it’s easy to see that Donegal is a challenge even for the likes of British Open champion and member Darren Clarke, who calls it one of his favorite courses in the world.
The club was originally established in 1960 thanks to land donated by the Temple family — well known to the fashion cognizant as owners of the Magee 1866 company, prime creators of Donegal Tweed.
But barely a decade later an expansion from nine holes and a new site were sought, and the Temples pitched in again, securing a 99-year lease on the Murvagh Peninsula site. Hackett went to work. He had Muirfield, with its
two nine-hole loops, in mind, although he changed things up by having the opening nine head in an anti-clockwise direction, and the march home clockwise.
The course is sometimes, and certainly in club promotions, called the Muirfield of Ireland. In any case, it made a sparkling debut. In a 1976 Evening Herald column, Ruddy, then a newspaper man, was inspired to write: “Here is one of Ireland’s finest golf links in the making and it must be visited.”
It’s doubtful whether he then expected to eventually have a hand in the further making of the course, but so it has come to be. Ruddy has created nine new greens for the course, labored on many tees, and made various nips, tucks and cuts to enhance the visuals and tactics. The work was done mainly in-house with the now-retired head greenkeeper John Gallagher.
Of his own contribution, Ruddy is most pleased with revisions of the 18th hole, particularly the green. As he noted in Holes in My Head: “We worked in days when darkness fell early and twice I operated my excavator all alone, for hours after even the clubhouse lights went out, with the excitement of a dog digging for a bone … that green is one of my proudest achievements.”
And he hasn’t changed his opinion of the course from his early review.
“Simply stated, this is a great place for golf,” he said. “Nature provided an unimaginably gorgeous and suitably shaped property for a great course. And it was incumbent on us to bring it the last mile and make it amongst the best of them all.”
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