When the guns on the Western Front fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, among the estimated 35,000 Irish who perished in the Great War was the country’s finest golfer. Michael Moran, the first Irishman to win prize money in the British Open, was mortally wounded in Germany’s desperate, spring offensive that year, and died on April 10. He was only 32 and had won five successive Irish Professional Championships from 1909, a record that has never been matched.
Extravagantly gifted, Moran was born in 1886, in a modest little cottage that later would be surrounded by the Royal Dublin links. Moran set a course record of 72 in the second round of the 1910 Irish Professional Championship, which he won by 10 strokes.
In 1913, at age 27, Moran was in third place at the halfway stage of the British Open at Hoylake but slipped down the leader board after a third-round 89. But he rallied with a closing 74 to share third place with Harry Vardon. This performance drew the attention of a number of British clubs and early in 1914, Moran took up an appointment at the newly established Seaham Harbour in northeast England, from where he answered the call to arms on the outbreak of war, joining the South Irish Horse Regiment.
There were several trips home to Dublin during the war years, playing exhibition matches for charity, but sadly, none was on the links he loved. For the duration of the conflict, Royal Dublin was appropriated by the British military as a musketry range, accounting for the shell casings that still surface there from time to time.
When hostilities ended, Royal Dublin was unrecognizable as a championship links. Most of the greens and tees had vanished and the clubhouse was dilapidated. A major redesign was called for, and on the recommendation of the Rev. John Love Morrow, the Secretary of the Golfing Union of Ireland, the club turned to an emerging talent of British architecture.
Harry S. Colt oversaw a major facelift in 1919, at a cost of $5 million. Work began with the dismantling by hand of 64 rifle ranges. Colt then set about leaving his inimitable stamp on shallow dunesland, through the creation of prominent mounding and plateau greens. Royal Dublin’s reputation grew gradually, hosting some of the best players in the world.
In 1936 Bobby Locke took the amateur prize in the Irish Open. Thirty years later, the closing stretch—the drivable par-4 16th, the par-4 17th and the short par-5 18th—led to a spectacular eagle-birdie-eagle finish by the resident professional, Christy O’Connor Sr., in capturing the Carroll’s International.
The club also hosted the Carroll’s Irish Open from 1983 to 1985, with Seve Ballesteros winning twice and Bernhard Langer once. In 1986 Jack Nicklaus played an exhibition against Ballesteros, which later made it possible for the Golden Bear to recall, whimsically, that he had had lunch in Dublin, Ireland, and dinner in Dublin, Ohio—on the same day.
In 2001 the club turned to Martin Hawtree, who had done impressive work at Lahinch and Portmarnock for another upgrade. In addition lengthening Royal Dublin to a beefy 7,268 yards, so making members a lot less conscious of the giant shadow cast by their North Dublin neighbors at Portmarnock, Hawtree created several new holes and modified others.
With all these features in play, talk has turned to a possible return of tournament golf, though some members are unconvinced. Recalling the cramped experiences of hosting the European Tour during the 1980s, they are looking instead toward more modest undertakings, like the 2007 Irish Amateur.
Such an event perhaps would be the ideal setting for identifying another local hero, perhaps the 21st-century version of Michael Moran, who we can imagine as a youngster on the grounds, chasing hares and, no doubt, uncovering the odd, stray ball for quiet practice sessions that were to shape a brilliant, if brief, career.