Overshadowed by big-name neighbors, Tom Simpson’s Baltray links deserves more attention
Whenever golf course architecture enthusiasts discuss the contributions of the so-called “Golden Age” designers, a handful of names invariably come to the fore. Tom Simpson is rarely one of these—although he surely deserves inclusion. And whenever those who rate golf courses debate the finest links courses in Ireland, County Louth, located on the country’s northeastern seaboard, isn’t typically mentioned at the beginning of the conversation—but it certainly should be.
The main reason for Simpson’s relatively low profile (in North America, at least) is that he worked almost exclusively in his native Britain, Ireland, and continental Europe. Yet anyone who can include Morfontaine and Chantilly—widely regarded as the best two courses in France—as well as Ballybunion, Cruden Bay, Liphook, and Rye within their curriculum vitae, commands considerable respect.
The reputation of County Louth, or Baltray as the links is known locally, would likely be greater were it not sandwiched between two golfing giants: Portmarnock, on the edge of Dublin, is less than an hour’s drive to the south, while not much farther to the north lies the incomparable Royal County Down. Too many visiting golfers make the mistake of hurrying from one to the other without stopping in between, and in so doing miss the opportunity to explore a links course described by Donald Steel as “a glittering example of the architectural genius of Tom Simpson.”
County Louth Golf Club was established in 1892, but it was in the late 1930s that Simpson, aided by his talented Irish associate Molly Gourlay, created the 18-hole links that greets today’s golfer. For sure, the layout has been occasionally tweaked and lengthened since Simpson’s time—most recently to accommodate European Tour professionals when Baltray hosted the Irish Open in 2004 and 2009—but it has never been altered fundamentally.
Many golfers remark on the uniform quality and character of County Louth’s putting surfaces: “slick, subtle, and full of interest” is the usual summation. They also often praise the outstanding quartet of par-three holes, “Baltray’s four little gems.” The glass-half-empty critic might suggest that County Louth “has no weak holes,” an accurate statement, perhaps, but hardly enticing. By contrast, the glass-half-full counterpart will highlight the strength and strategic depth of the design; how it is incredibly well balanced with a routing that flows seamlessly yet incorporates numerous directional changes so causing the wind to constantly tease; and how the links boasts exceptional four-hole sequences on both its loops of nine: from the 5th to the 8th and from the 12th to the 15th.
Within the latter sequence there is one hole, the 322-yard par-four 14th, that encapsulates everything that makes Baltray special. An elevated tee provides spectacular 360-degree views, not just across the entire links but out to sea, along the coast, and toward the distant mountains of Mourne. The wonderfully rippling fairway then leads into a cleverly angled and mischievously contoured raised green that is surrounded by deep swales and framed by dunes. It is a classic links hole, and a classic “birdie-bogey” hole if ever there was one. Moreover, it may just be the best short par four in Ireland.