Hidden away on the County Wicklow coast, just south of beautiful Brittas Bay, you’ll find a links course like no other.
The European Club is a one-off, a place where the rules of how to design and run a golf club haven’t applied since Pat Ruddy, the effervescent owner and designer, circled over this stretch of coast in a helicopter in the 1980s and first spotted the place where his golfing dreams would be realised. Ever since, this has been as a place of adventure and discovery for those looking for a test of skill and patience on a links designed for the shot-maker and strategist. The rash golfer will most certainly suffer here.
Opened in 1992, The European Club is comparatively young by golfing standards and yet what it lacks in years, it more than makes up for in the raw beauty of the links land and the devilment of the design. It also doesn’t try to be like anywhere else, the objectives here are unique: firstly to keep the course as uncrowded as possible, you won’t find it on social media and the website is deliberately dated. And secondly, to make golfers who do make the journey to this extraordinary place, feel like friends and not strangers.
Our arrival at a completely empty car park suggests the first objective is on track. The whole place is still and quiet. The practice areas stand empty and the course itself looks gloriously deserted in the early morning sunshine. We walk towards the clubhouse and the first person we see is Pat himself, ready to welcome us and it’s clear his acerbic wit as sharp as ever. “Welcome to golf as it was in the beginning,” he says with a glint in his eye. “Golf as it was always meant to be!”
The European Club is the house that Pat built and spending an hour in his company before we spend a few more on his links is both entertaining and educational. His has been a life well-lived, and then some, and this golf club, ranked among Ireland’s very best and in the world’s top 100, is a reflection of his pursuit of golfing perfection, one that will continue as long as he does. There is no fancy restaurant here (although the wholesome, hearty food is excellent) no spa or gym, this place is unashamedly about golf for golf’s sake. So much so this course is 20 holes, rather than 18, with holes 7a and 12a on the scorecard, which also features a box which reads ‘what my score should have been.’ It’s a hint of the challenge which awaits us – The European Club has a fearsome reputation.
A former elite amateur golfer, Pat began his career as a writer and journalist in Dublin going on to write for The Evening Herald as well as golf magazines all over the world. He is also an accomplished golf photographer. It was in 1968 when he first got the chance to influence the design of a golf course, at Castlecomer Golf Club. He has since gone to influence dozens more, including Ballyliffin (Old and Glashedy), Rosapenna (Old Tom Morris and Sandy Hills), Donegal, Druids Glen and many more.
At The European Club, the walls of the clubhouse feature Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Stuart Cink, Mark O’Meara and others. McIlroy won the 2006 Irish Amateur Championship here as a teenager and said of the place, ’it’s totally unbelievable…probably the best links course I have ever played and I include Royal St. George’s, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in that.’ High praise indeed. Tiger visited in July 2002, a week before The Open Championship at Muirfield. At the time he was Masters and US Open champion and in search of the grand slam. He brought with him David Duval, at the time The Open champion, Mark O’Meara and Scott McCarron. Woods shot 67 that day and that remains the course record here.
Before we head out onto the links we ask Pat if he has any advice. ‘Piddle, piddle, up the middle, pitch and putt,’ he says with a broad smile. ‘I once had a golfer come to me and say ‘it’s a hard walk, your golf course!’ And I said ‘no, it’s just the route you took is a pretty tough walk, if you hit it straight it’s easy!’
We’re handed a sleeve of Pro-V1s with a look that says, ‘don’t worry, we’ll get them back soon enough’ and we’re on our way out to the 1st tee. The European Club makes an effort to ensure the 1st tee is a quiet and uncrowded experience. The opening hole is a 424-yard par-4 and a wonderful first glimpse of the links – a fairway snaking to a distant green, the dunes beyond and the glistening of the Irish Sea providing the backdrop.
The round deliberately begins with a par-4, followed by a par-3 and a par-5 to examine the long game, short game and everything in between, early in your round. The front 9 is a wonderful test, with tight fairways, dunes and no shortage of devilment. Great care has been taken to conceal parts of the fairways behind mounds, in valleys and behind tall reeds, often to exaggerate the length of holes by throwing off depth perception. It makes relatively short shots appear far more challenging than they are and was something Tiger Woods commented on during his round here, saying ‘I thought some of those par-4s were par-5s.’ When we ask Pat later on about his crafts of camouflage and optical illusions, he replies ‘go and ask David Copperfield for the secrets behind his magic tricks!’
Every hole presents a different kind of challenge but The European Club really starts to move through the gears from the 7th tee. This 482-yard par-4 is a hole of terrifying beauty. A river hugs the right side of the fairway, while on the left there is tall grass and marshland that you don’t want anything to do with – the fairway seems to be miles away. Every great course has moments like this, tests of nerve. On this occasion we failed miserably. My scorecard, which had been tidy to that point, was left in tatters, and somewhere around the green my lob wedge was lost amid the spoils of war as we dashed off to hole 7a.
Much is made of the bunkers here, the faces of which are lined with railway sleepers. Inspired by Prestwick Golf Club, Pat chose to line the bunker faces, he says, because he likes the way the sleepers signal the presence of a bunker and how they define the lines of the fairway, contrasting with the colour and texture of the native grasses. The bunkers are easier to maintain like this and because they slope away from the golfer attempting to escape, are actually less penal than the riveted face pot bunkers that are the norm.
The sea is almost always in view with 16 holes in sight of the water. The back nine makes the most of that meeting of land and ocean and features some truly memorable moments along the way. On the left side of the 10th you’ll find a Cursing Stone which, legend has it, you can use to put a curse on a thing or a person by moving the small stones on top of the rock in an anti-clockwise direction.
The 12th certainly feels bewitching as you step up to a tee overlooking the crashing waves. This hole measures 459 yards from the back tees, driving out from the dunes and along the coastline, which runs all the way to the green and beyond. Talking of the green, this may the longest putting surface on earth – 127 yards long to be precise. To put that into perspective, this green is large enough to fit entire par-3s onto the putting surface and is larger than any of the double greens at The Old Course. The 13th is another memorable moment, a beast of a par-5 which measures almost 600 yards, features no less than 15 bunkers and a horseshoe green. But picking out our favourite holes from the 20 we played is a waste of time, they are all wonderful for different reasons and, when it comes to golf, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. You must come and find your own favourites.
There is nothing quite like golf by the sea. The European Club is a special place to visit for any golfer, a place where the rugged beauty of the place is matched only by the relentless challenge set before you. Playing through towering sand dunes, marshland, plunging valleys, windswept beaches and the even the cliffs of Mizen Head, is constantly stimulating and wonderfully demanding. The day before our arrival, some Americans had made the journey to The European Club in search of golfing enlightenment. As they walked back to their transport at the end of the day, they turned to a staff member to express their thanks for the memories and moments but simply couldn’t find the words. Where words failed them, tears appeared in their place. It’s that kind of place.
Not that long ago, Pat was offered more than €30m for his links. It didn’t take him long to say no. It’s easy to see why. You can’t put a price on what he has here, with an apartment, complete with a library of golf books, overlooking the 18th green. Well into his eighth decade he has been known still to nip out to cut the odd fairway when the fancy takes him. The European Club is a radiant reflection of his unstinting pursuit of golfing perfection. It may have taken my lob wedge, but it also took a piece of my heart.