It is so much fun being given a masterclass by an expert who is also an enthusiast, someone with a real passion for what they do. So to walk round the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush with Martin Ebert, of Mackenzie and Ebert, the architects charged with preparing the course for the return of the Open Championship in 2019, was a joy.
Maureen, looking at the holes with a professional player’s eye as she wielded the iPad and I, scribbling half legibly (the terrain was uneven) and taking the odd photo of a foot or headless body (ditto), tramped round being educated and charmed in equal measure.
“What a town Portrush is,” Martin said with an enthusiasm that surprised at least one half of a pair brought up in nearby Portstewart, which once had delusions of a staid superiority. “It’s so lively and everyone’s so friendly.”
On the course, he enthused about what was already there, a testament to the land – “There’s no better dune-scape at the Open venues” – the genius of Harry Colt and the people working with him in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Some people think classic courses should stay as they are, conveniently forgetting that a golf course is always a work in progress. Grass grows, so do weeds and trees (though maybe not so many on the wild north Atlantic coast), cliffs erode and fall into the sea, the tramping of millions of cleats causes wear and tear, buckthorn spreads like wildfire and greens like the 3rd, the worst on the course, with clay underneath, get dug up and rebuilt.
Ebert is an enhancer not a butcher. He and his team study the old plans and photographs, read the histories, send up the drones to do detailed surveys (a civilised use of a much maligned and misused bit of modern technology), then wrestle with the contours and scribble “spaghetti bits” all over the plans as they liaise with club members including the hugely useful and influential Darren Clarke. The Ryder Cup captain, Open champion at Royal St George’s in 2011, has an intimate understanding of the course, its winds and wiles and his knowledge has been invaluable.
No great golf course is made on the computer or on paper or even in the head of the designer. It evolves on the ground and the key person here is the shaper, the genius with the digger who makes the biggest changes look as though they’ve always been there, that the whole thing is entirely natural. Ebert works with Marcus Terry, of 1st Golf, an Englishman who now lives in Ireland. “I hand the plan with all the spaghetti lines to Marcus, he ignores it and does a marvellous job!”
The three keys to being a great shaper are:-
1 Being brilliantly adept at handling the machinery.
2 Having the feel and eye of an artist.
3 Having a golfing knowledge.
One promising candidate possessed the first two qualities but did know golf and his holes were unplayable!
Once an expert like Marcus has finished it’ll be well-nigh impossible to tell what is natural and what’s a new creation. If you hurry, you’ll be able to see him at work at Portrush and marvel at the skill required to turn a squiggle on a piece of paper into a living, breathing course that people can’t wait to play again and again.
Mackenzie and Ebert are the R&A’s Open enhancers of choice and today (Friday 24th June) is a big day because it’s the official opening of the revitalised Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry. By all accounts it’s spectacular – Michael McEwan, an astute critic, was more than complimentary in Bunkered magazine – and may even overshadow US presidential hopeful Donald, the present owner of the resort, who will be in attendance. Whether he’ll see another Open at Turnberry is a moot point but he seems to have got himself a course that fits the bill.
Martin Ebert, who likes to say that Trump once described him as “the most stubborn man in the world” (a scary thought if Donald has relegated himself to No 2), presents a more benign side in our question and answer video, for which we thank him.