In search of Perfection
When the R&A needs to make classic courses fit to host Open Championships, more often than not Martin Ebert gets a call. Ahead of the Open, he tells Peter Masters what he’s done to get Royal Portrush ready, and how he got here in the first place.
Two new holes, an array of new tees, new bunkers, a rerouting, several remodelled greens and even the suggestion of a water hazard will mean that Royal Portrush heads into the 130th Open Championship reconstructed, revitalised and raring to go. You could probably count on the fingers of one hand those in the golf course design game that would have the courage, experience and understanding necessary to pull off such a manoeuvre. To arrive at a course of such repute and renown, such prestige and provenance and not only to plump up her skirts, but to fiddle about with the petticoat and redesign the tiara might be regarded as a feat of extraordinary precociousness. It takes a steady and brave hand and one that has dealt with similar dexterous challenges before to make such a thing happen. Step forward the man Donald Trump most memorably labelled “the most stubborn man I’ve ever met”, otherwise known as Martin Ebert, otherwise known as the R&A’s go-to guy for all Open-related reworkings.
Okay, “go-to” is perhaps slightly inaccurate because it’s the club, not the R&A, that would call Ebert in. But his company, Mackenzie & Ebert, has built something of a reputation as masters of a links. It’s now worked on seven courses on the Open rota including St George’s, Troon, Hoylake, Lytham, Carnoustie and, of course, Turnberry, where he crossed utility woods with the aforementioned Trump and gave as good as he got. But it’s Portrush, and the inescapable beauty of the Dunluce Course, that is currently in the limelight and where we should start in relation to Ebert’s remarkable climb up the golf industry ladder from Foxhills waiter to architect and designer of world renown.
Recreating Colt’s classic
Once the R&A had decided to take The Open back to Portrush for the first time since Herbert Gustavus Max Faulkner won there in 1951, it made it clear that the tented village would have to be erected over the 17th and 18th holes. “There was a suggestion amongst many that the course really ended at the 16th and the two closing holes were quite weak,” says Ebert now.
Attention turned to the club’s Valley Course where two brand new holes were carved from the dunes to create what are now the 7th and 8th, taking over land from the 5th and 6th on the club’s second string layout. “We had to set about persuading the club that such a drastic alteration was necessary because they were, quite rightly, proud of their Harry Colt heritage.”
Evidence was needed to show that changes had already taken place since Colt had laid out his final design for the Dunluce in 1932. That evidence was found in the construction of the clubhouse as it is today, since the original one was positioned 1,200 yards away in the town. Colt’s 1st and 18th holes, connecting the original clubhouse to the rest of the course, had long been lost and it was the then club professional, P.G. Stevenson, who produced the plans for the replacements.
Even though he was not directly involved, Colt gave his blessing and Stevenson’s creativity became the 8th and 9th, until Ebert’s latest changes made it the 10th and 11th, which is how they’ll be played during next month’s Open. While the changes have been extensive, the par 3 holes remain largely untouched. “It is interesting to note that there have been no major changes to any of the par 3 holes other than adding a back tee at the famous Calamity,” says Ebert. “Without exception they have all withstood the test of time.” Adjustments have been made on every other hole but remain true to the philosophy of Colt. “He made very sparing use of bunkers at Portrush,” says Ebert. “The nature of terrain and the penalty of the rough would have rendered over-reliance on bunkers unnecessary. There is little doubt that the standard of play has increased over the years but the revised course still only relies on 59 with the number of new ones balancing the number of bunkers removed. That is far lower than any other Open venue. Turnberry is the closest having 87 bunkers with the majority of the venues having around 100, Muirfield more than 150 and Royal Lytham & St Annes relied on as many as 203 the last time The Open was held there!”
Portrush’s par-5 holes required special attention, to make sure the questions they ask remain relevant in the modern day. The most change saw the lengthening of the 2nd hole (see box overlead), but the 11th hole (old 9th), which has been played as a par 5 in the past, will play as a par 4 for The Open. The 12th hole (the old 10th) has been lengthened for the elite players, with tees to the left of the preceding green. The old 17th has been replaced with the new 7th hole and this includes the recreation of the fearsome ‘Big Nellie’ bunker. In total, the Dunluce now plays at 7,344 yards, an increase of 201 yards from the previous 7,143 yards.
A beneficial push
Projects like Portrush were always going to come Ebert’s way because he’d advised on the course in the past, but Turnberry was a different scenario and here, he really did have the R&A to thank for pushing his name to the top of the pile. The story goes as follows. Donald Trump was in the process of buying this iconic piece of Scottish links landscape and had his own architects lined up to carry out major renovations. But the then Secretary of the R&A, Peter Dawson, advised the future American President that maybe he should look at Ebert because he had experience of the course.
“I got a call from Peter to say ring Trump,” Ebert explains, “I was quite hungover at the time, but I did and was told to hang on because he was in a meeting. But he came straight to the phone and we spoke for 10 minutes. It was clear that he had a respect for Dawson and the R&A. He let me speak, he told me that he wanted The Open and we agreed to meet.” That meeting was up at Turnberry and when Ebert got there he decided to take a walk out onto the course to look around. What he didn’t know was that Trump was also out there accompanied by an entourage of buggies. “They appeared from around a dune, but I thought ‘I’m not ready to meet him yet’, so I dived behind a gorse bush.”
Quite what Trump would have thought if he’d caught his man cowering in the undergrowth one shudders to think, but neither the businessman billionaire or any of his bodyguards noticed. “I was ushered to sit next to him during dinner that night and we spent the evening talking golf and comparing thoughts on how to make Turnberry greater than it already was. The next day he simply said, ‘Let’s do the deal’.”
Which is when Ebert earned his reputation for being stubborn. “It was an interesting battle of wills because he started by saying he wanted to make the 9th a par 3 over the ocean. I was reluctant because I thought the carry was too great but he was adamant and I guess looking back he was right. He felt people remembered par 3s more.” But in another instance, Trump eventually consented to the final position of the 14th green. He wanted it moved to the top of the hill where the old 9th used to be, but there were concerns over high winds and balls moving on the green. “This time I was adamant that the green should be placed lower down. We sent plans to his secretary and each time they came back with black arrows and lines all over them. But I didn’t back down and Trump gave up, but not before uttering his line about me being stubborn.
“He still says to me that the 6th green is in the wrong place, but I wanted that hole to be short like the Postage Stamp, so that we could then take the 18th tee back to the shoreline.” The two remain in contact and Trump contacted Ebert only the other day. “Martin, what’s this I hear about Portrush being the best links you’ve worked on?” “No, Mr Trump. I said Portrush had the best dunescape I’ve worked on, but Turnberry has the most majestic setting.”
The waiting game
The more observant of you will remember an earlier reference to working as a waiter at Foxhills and you may have wondered how such a change in fortune could take place. The truth is that back then the name Martin Ebert had accountancy written all over it. Brought up around Stanwell in Middlesex, Ebert had done well to get a place studying engineering at Cambridge and even better to get a golfing blue with a score in the mid-70s around Royal Worlington. The engineering option faded as Martin found himself getting more seduced by golf, with University fixtures at some of the country’s best courses.
The squad organised a trip to the States in 1989 when they played at Merion, Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills and a host of other legendary names on an American Holy Grail. When Ebert returned he was buzzing. It’s got to be golf, he thought, even if he had to enter the industry as an accountant. “I wrote to everyone asking for work. IMG, Peter Alliss, Keith Prowse, you name it. Everyone, but with little success.” Full of the exuberance of youth, he turned up at Foxhills brandishing the Cambridge US Tour brochure he’d put together, hoping it would get him some kind of management role – that and his two academic degrees. “Sure, you can start as a waiter!” Sitting lonely in the lunchroom on that first morning, Ebert realised he’d made a terrible mistake. He wasn’t really cut out to be a waiter. Worse still, he was already getting teased as the Cambridge toff with the glossy brochure.
Then two Spanish ladies walked in, looking suave and sophisticated in their leather jackets. They were waitresses who were on their day off but had popped in to say hello to the new boy. “We got talking and they said they were from Santander in Northern Spain. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘that’s close to Pedrena where my hero Seve Ballesteros lives’.” “Yes, we know him. We’ve tried on his Green Jacket,” came the reply.
Skip forward to the New Year in 1990 and Ebert, with his now girlfriend Ana Alonso (one of the waitresses), is in a house in Spain when in walks Manuel Ballesteros. They get chatting and Seve’s brother invites Martin to play at Pedrena the next day. “I wore my black watch tartan plus twos and must have looked a complete plonker. Manuel birdies the 1st and I hack it round. We get to the 7th and I can see someone familiar walking towards us in jeans and a polo shirt. It was Seve who’d come out to chat to the girls. I could feel him watching me and it was too much. I hit this ugly duck hook that very nearly took his head off.” Ana had been studying law in Madrid, but had failed her exam and was in England to learn English. Ebert got out of the job at Foxhills and then worked as a night shelf stacker in a supermarket. “There were some very weird characters on the night shift,” he remembers. “There was a sea dog captain who used to eat a litre pack of vanilla ice cream for his dinner.”
That Easter, Ebert asked Manuel if he could find him a job with Amen Corner, Seve’s design company, but he was politely informed that he needed some different qualifications - agronomy being one. The Spanish connection wasn’t all bad though since Ana, who later passed her law exam, eventually became Mrs Ebert. The breakthrough into golf finally came via a friend from university, Andy Mackenzie, whose brother Tom had been working for a year with course architect and former Telegraph golf correspondent Donald Steel.
“I got an interview with Donald and, knowing he was a writer, fully expected it to be for something to do with books,” he says. Wisely, Ebert took along a revised plan of the 9th hole at Worlington and a career in the design game was the result.
It started as something of an apprenticeship but quite quickly progressed into a strong three-man team with Steel leading from the front before allowing his younger fledglings to deal with the more detailed design work. He rarely drew any maps or plans, preferring to work on site with the developers and constructors. This was in contrast to Tom whose skillful sketches set him aside from the other two. “The quality of his drawings blew my mind,” remembers Ebert. “I couldn’t do that, but I could do engineering contour plans defining levels of the ground. Tom copied me and that’s what we use today.”
Pieces of a puzzle
One of the earlier projects was in the Catskill Mountains in New York State and a site of some 4,000 acres. They’d never seen the site before, but after a weekend clambering over rocks and crossing rivers, they came up with an initial plan which was accepted by the owners.
“It was interesting because we were up against Rees Jones and the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw partnership. I knew Coore had been out there, so I asked what had happened on my next visit. He’d said it would take six months to come up with a course routing. I hoped they didn’t think we were the ‘fast food merchants’ of course design. But it taught me that there are many ways to set about the task. Obviously, Coore was very meticulous in his approach.”
Another project was at Primlands in the Blue Ridge mountains of West Virginia. Ebert and Mackenzie drove all day across the 13,000-acre estate but couldn’t find anywhere flat enough to construct 18 holes. That night they studied maps of the area and found a patch of land just big enough, but it was at the very tops of the mountains. “It’s still one of the more spectacular settings I’ve been involved with,” says Ebert. “Once we’d established how to access the site and where the clubhouse needed to be, we set about planning the starting and finishing holes. From that point you just start piecing it all together like a jigsaw.”
Every project it seems brings a different set of challenges. Donald Steel closed his company in 2005 and that allowed Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert to set up on their own. It was a tense time to start with because so much in the design world is a name game, but the work kept coming in and the reputation started to grow with it. Goodwood in Canada started life as a Donald Steel project but then came across to the Mackenzie & Ebert brand. Victoria in Sri Lanka and then closer to home, Ebert helped to uncover the original Old Tom Morris gem at Askernish.
Hirono in Japan is another exciting venture. It’s an old Colt layout, but had been allowed to lose a lot of its original charm. Ebert brought the owners over to see some real Colt greens at St George’s Hill, convincing them to remodel the putting surfaces, move bunkers and widen the fairways once again so that strategy and shot placement became more key.
But the talk of the town this year, and right now, is Portrush and the extensive changes that have turned an old classic into a modern masterpiece. There can be no greater potential critic than Rory McIlroy who remembers caddying there for his dad and meeting Darren Clarke for the first time on his 10th birthday. “Visually it’s spectacular,” says McIlroy. “They’ve managed to create holes through the dunes that look like they’ve always been here. When you grow up close to a course like this, you don’t always appreciate it as you should. Then you play all over the world and it’s only when you come back that you realise how great it is.
“I think the new holes are going to be excellent for The Open. The 7th might offer a birdie chance, but the drive is tough because the landing area for driver isn’t that wide. Also the green has a number of good pin positions, especially the one in the back corner where there’s quite a drop off.
“The 8th hole might be played quite conservatively, but you still have the option to attack depending on the conditions. I never thought that in my lifetime I’d be playing in an Open quite so close to home. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about it and what it’s going to mean to play in front of my home crowd. I can’t wait.”
The Open Championship finally returning to Northern Ireland? You just know that it’s going to be special and the stubborn man that was once a waiter, albeit for a matter of weeks, has prepared a course that is a winner even before a ball is struck on Thursday, July 18.