Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 - Catch Up

2008 has turned out to be the year of the Irish in terms of golf victories and establishing names on the world stage.

After Padraig’s victory at Carnoustie in 2007, there was a general feeling that he enjoyed good fortune after his balls-up of the 18th in his final round. 2008 put that feeling to rest with two great Major victories.

Darren Clarke returned to winning ways, twice, and yet he was screwed by Faldo when he wasn’t picked for the Ryder Cup. Not so Graeme McDowell, who also recorded two wins and became one of Europe’s best performers in the Ryder Cup.

[Photo: Deer on Portumna's par five 17th]

But perhaps even more promising was to see two new Irish winners – Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie – and the rise and rise of Rory McIlroy. After a superb closing to the year he has guaranteed himself an appearance at all four majors next year. The beauty of young Rory is that there is a firm belief that anything is possible. And following December’s South African Open, 28 year old Gareth Maybin from Northern Ireland may also make a big splash in 2009.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year was Padraig’s very poor performance in the Ryder Cup. Mind you, Faldo did as much damage with his mouth as his selection process, and bringing ‘potatoes’ into Padraig’s training regime may have been one vegetable too far for Ireland’s greatest golfer.

There was more good news as it was confirmed that The Irish Open will continue into 2009, thanks to mobile phone company, 3. There is still no decision where it will be held. After Mount Juliet and Royal Dublin were both touted as the venue, it seems that Baltray may get the nod. And with John Daly indicating he would like to play in the event again, there will a great buzz about the place come May 2009.

[Photo: Baltray's par three 15th]

Luttrellstown Castle Golf Club it the dust – or it will do at the end of 2009 when it closes its doors for the last time. Luttrellstown is regarded as one of the big parkland venues that spent too much money. Truth be told, it’s a nice course, but nothing that special. And why the new owners felt the need to spend huge sums replacing one impressive timber clubhouse with another impressive timber clubhouse I’ll never know. Seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps.

Other courses have struggled – and will continue to struggle in 2009 no doubt – with courses closed on weekdays, green staff and even managers laid off. Druid’s Heath hit an interesting jackpot: they offered 200 memberships for sale, for 2009, at €1,500 a head. Huge numbers replied (from 500 to 800 depending on where you heard it) and they took 360 of these. €540,000 in one swoop is not a bad day’s work.

In the Sunday Tribune’s December 14th edition, the owner of Hollystown, Oliver Barry, had a pop at Ireland’s tourist bodies for focusing too exclusively on Ireland’s premier resorts when they promoted Irish golf overseas. He backed this up by saying that at over 90 per cent of Ireland’s 420 golf courses you could play for €40 or less. That’s a bit disingenuous as he’s including some 100 nine hole courses – but he still has a valid point. However, these tourist bodies are changing their focus to promote the smaller clubs and while the quality of these is not as exquisite as Mr. Barry would have you believe, their value for money is beyond question. Portumna has to be the biggest example of this. For €30 you play a course that is big, natural and thrilling, and one of the best parkland courses in the country. Seriously. Play in the morning and watch the deer run around you.
[Photo: Portumna's 13th]

My final note is to say that there’s a decent spread on my travels in December’s Today’s Golfer Magazine – Issue 251 – if you’re remotely interested! The only downside is that I have already been tagged with the title of the article – White Camper Van Man. Still, it’s better than my previous name which I acquired after a year in Australia, delivering ‘health’ food ice-cream to stores in Sydney. Made of Tofu it was utterly revolting, but I still ended up being called Mr. Whippy.

Hope you have a great golfing 2009.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Most Spectacular Courses "

[Photo: Fin on the 2nd green at Ballybunion Old]

Interesting, isn't it, how people writing a book on golf courses decide which qualify as 'best' or 'most spectacular' I was in Easons bookshop the other day and I saw the mightily impressive
Golf Around the World: The Great Game and Its Most Spectacular Courses by Fulvio Golob, Giulia Muttoni, with a foreword by Adam Scott.

It's a huge big hardback book and it looks truly stunning, with superb photographs and a sparkling bit of commentary on the 50 chosen courses.

One of the key things about my book is that it is subjective
because the sole author (i.e. me) is an amateur golfer. During my recent visit to the NEC Golf Show I had some interesting debates about which Irish courses qualified as good and which qualified as bad. But a book as big as Golob and Muttoni's, with two authors, would, presumably, call on some wider expertise and opinion. So I was rather stumped by the two courses that were picked from Ireland. Ballybunion was one, and I agree wholeheartedly, but selected ahead of Royal County Down, The European, Waterville (pictured), Royal Portrush, Tralee, County Sligo and even Carne and Enniscrone... was Portmarnock. What a bizarre choice. It is a tough course for certain, but it doesn't qualify as "spectacular". It is surprisingly muted in fact - the dunes rarely get above head height, it sits in the middle of busy Dublin bay and you nearly always have plenty of the hole on show. How does that make it spectacular? Old Head of Kinsale, for all its faults, is spectacular beyond belief, as are all of the courses I listed above.

Of the 50 courses, 8 are in Scotland - which makes Ireland's tally of two seem even more paltry - especially when you consider that we are regarded as having some of the greatest courses in the world.

It just proves how subjective golf can be.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Golf Show at the NEC

[Photo: The Heath's par three 9th, with sheep]
I got up at 4am to catch a flight to Birmingham for the Golf Show at the N.E.C. Not my best time of day and having parked, taken the bus, waited patiently to go through Security (asking myself where all these people are going at 5am) and then walked only a few short miles to reach the departure gate, I was anticipating a well earned snooze.

Have you seen the movie Airplane? Remember at the end when the out-of-control plane lands and swooshes past the nominated departure gate, and passengers rush from one gate to the next as the plane fails to stop? We had that at Dublin. Well, sort of. I was sitting at gate D72 when a murmur spread through the long queue. Someone had seen the departure board which indicated that our gate had switched from D72 to C61. Panic set in. Bags were plucked up and people began to hurry away down the concourse. The running of the bulls came to mind, especially the elegantly suited man who had been first in the queue and was now running with coat tails whipping behind him. Me? I stayed where I was, as did a few others. Ryanair don’t go anywhere near C terminal, and with 20 minutes before departure I doubted we were going to be sent to the far extremes of the airport – and if we were they could damn well wait.

It started low: a waterfall of indistinct sound that turned into a hissing of polyester and staccato heels as the flock returned at full speed, mister elegance in the lead. The gate change had been a mistake and the hoards were upon us once again. I thought, fleetingly, that the suited man was going to cry when he discovered his cherished front spot had been taken. He was now well back in the queue and he kept leaning to the side to look at the spot he’d once stood. And yet – and this is the remarkable thing about Ryanair – when the plane took off, every single one of us was on board. What’s more, the plane landed 35 minutes ahead of schedule and was announced with a dramatic fanfair over the loudspeakers. Not ideal at 7.10am.

The show opened at 10am and there was a queue of maybe 200. A good sign. Inside, the key focus of visitors was the longest drive, various putting competitions and the latest golf clubs. By about 10.02am you could hear the constant sound of balls being hammered into driving nets. The 100 foot putt challenge was also popular, offering free weekend breaks to anyone who could sink the putt. And it wasn’t easy! The carpet was obviously rigged against you and five feet in front of where you started, balls were hopping gleefully in the air. There were plenty of clothing suppliers, new gadgets to help you improve your game, including one putting gizmo where you blindfold yourself (I have yet to play a round blindfolded, but maybe you have), tour operators, buggy suppliers – check out www.stewartgolf.com for the new porshe of buggies. They even had one spinning on a glittering dais. Oh, and Bank of Ireland, obviously, with some rather aggressive sales people.

The purpose of my visit was to attract advertising for the book. There are probably four spaces (inside covers and in the middle where the photographs will appear) and this seemed like a good environment to talk directly to the relevant people. Clothing and club manufacturers seemed like the perfect place to start, along with the tour operators who send their clientele to Ireland. I spoke to several people and handed out cards, but it didn’t help that on my first attempt I asked where in Australia the guy was from and he replied, Guildford in Surrey. That slowed my momentum and getting that why-are-you-talking-to-me stare a couple of times never makes it easy. But, all in all, it was a positive experience. Only one Irish body attended – Golf Ireland Midlands – promoting the Laois International Golf Challenge which embraces some excellent midlands golf courses (including Portarlington and The Heath) and a Final at the Heritage (co-designed by Seve Ballesteros).

[Photo: Portarlington's par three 3rd]

Coming back was an interesting experience. A big soccer game had been on and a few dozen Irish fans were returning home, many of them the worse for wear. The flight was noisy and the safety demonstration was drowned out by people going ‘shhhhh’ and then giggling like schoolgirls. I was blessed to have a gentleman beside me who liked singing. He only seemed to know one song. Actually, he only knew five words and he slurred them eloquently: “We always beat West Brom”. Fascinating.

I do not like soccer. For one thing, is there any other sport where fans sing songs about the opposition, the opposing fans and the referees, constantly calling them ‘scum’ and ‘bastards’ and a whole lot worse? The song of choice on my flight was Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, with ‘scum’ being some part of the chorus that I couldn’t make out.

I simply don’t get football. The beautiful game? I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. Or, worse, watch synchronised swimming.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

“The best of the best of the best. Sir.”

OK, name the movie.

If you’re thinking I’m about to list the best courses then you’ll be disappointed – you’ll find those in the book. Instead, I’m addressing some other ‘best’ areas of the golfing experience – a whole motley crew of different things that I have encountered along the way and just add that extra flourish or, perhaps, just put a smile on your face.

Best Apple Crumble: New Forest
Best Scone: Westport (it’s made fresh for you)
Best Cheesecake: Castleisland
Best Burger: Limerick – and there were lots to compare it to
Best Stir Fry: Seapoint
Best Salmon: Carrickfergus

An unfair category as so many courses never had a chance to shine – either closed during the winter, or my visit was a fleeting one. But…

Most impressive entrance:
Macroom, Tandragee, Waterford Castle, Old Head
Least impressive:
Narin & Portnoo (through a caravan park)

Best Facilities:
Showers: Knockanally
Changing Rooms: Fota Island, Moy Valley, The Heritage
Clubhouse: Clandeboye, Luttrellstown, Knockanally, Fota Island
Practice facilities: Moyvalley, K Club (Palmer), Cairndhu (you hit out towards the ocean)

Best Bar:

Best Restaurant: (not food-specific, and based on a limited number of encounters):
Clandeboye, Scrabo (views)

Best Practice Putting Green:
Mount Juliet (including an 18 hole putting green with water)

Quirkiest Practice Putting Green:
Bray, Scrabo (astro turf)

Best Air Guns: Portarlington (please don’t point in the wrong direction)

Most Peaceful Course:
East Clare (and a perfectly winding Irish road to get there)

Most Picture Perfect Course:

Best Greens:

Best Views:
Dooks, Waterville, Narin, Old Head, Scrabo

Best Bunkers:
Royal County Down

Best Trees:
Coollattin, Adare

Most places to have punctures?
Limerick (3 punctures: at Limerick Golf Club and then at Adare)

Most dangerous:
Fernhill (other golfers)
Old Head (cliffs)
Mahon (tidal sludge)

Worst man-made feature:
The huge and naff waterfall and cliff on the Smurfit course at the K Club.

Best man-made feature:
The water at the Heritage – between 9 and 18 specifically

Best skeleton-under-the-green story:

Best tree felling story:

Best name for a hole:
Leg of Mutton at Lisburn. One of the other legs can be found at Castlerock.

If you have any other thoughts, let me know.

And the movie is Men in Black

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Done and dusted

So there it is. In a little over a year I’ve had the pleasure of bashing my way around every 18 hole golf course in the country. Oh, I have no doubt that as soon as the book is published someone will say “What about XYZ course?” And if that someone is you, don’t expect any thanks from me. I have trawled the country to the best of my ability and come up with 349 golf courses, from the exquisite to the downright embarrassing. If I have missed a course, I hope it’s of the latter variety.

The book has been delivered to the publisher and I have to thank my wife for a huge amount of work over the closing week. Formatting, fonts, formulae, flags and footnotes are not my strength, and I’m more likely to throw a few other choice f words into the mix. Fortunately, Fiona sorted it all out and worked through the night to get the book into an appropriate state for Con at Collins Press. 380 pages of A4, bundled into a box and stuffed in the post. It all seemed like a very tame end.

Actually I still have a couple of photographs to take for the book.

There will be colour photographs of the 18 best holes in the country, 1 through 18. I’ve had a very entertaining time trying to create the best par 72 that includes four par threes and four par fives, and doesn’t have more than one hole from any course. I have no doubt it will cause some amusement among the golfing cognoscenti, but that’s the advantage of a book that is subjective. These are my 18 best holes.

So I’m heading up to Royal Portrush when the weather improves to take a photo of one of the holes. Most of the courses have been able to supply me with photographs, but Royal Portrush got a computer virus that wiped a lot of their files. A bit unfortunate that it’s so far from Wexford, but at least I can take my wife away for a night and pay her back for her efforts. As for her year of patience and understanding while I drove around the country, I guess that will take a slightly more impressive effort.

[Photo: Scrabo Golf Course, Washington Ireland Program Golf Event, September 2008. WIP Board member Bob Van Heuvelen, Kevin Markham, WIP Ireland Director Jonathan Chesney and WIP Alum Nick Burke]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lough Erne elegance

[Photo: the short par four 7th heading down to the lake]

It had taken a while to organise, but I finally managed to get to Lough Erne, the course designed by Nick Faldo. This is a five star resort with hotels and lodges (very odd looking round towers!) and all the glam you’d expect of a top-notch place. With the current doom and gloom on the financial markets, I imagine there are a few worried people up here.

Then again, the buzz about Lough Erne is phenomenal. I know, I know, a new ‘big’ course arrives on the scene and everyone starts comparing it to Mount Juliet, the K Club etc., but on this occasion the buzz is justified. But the whole thing is still fairly under wraps, with only 9 holes open and a strict instruction that the other holes can’t be photographed. I’m sure they have their reasons but it seems like overkill. That said, what I could see of these holes looked magnificent, and Lough Erne promises a remarkable setting that the K Club and Mount Juliet can’t match. And, to be brutal, the only other seriously good course around here is Slieve Russell – and it’s not in the same class at all.

[Photo: the par five 6th runs across the top of a ridge – currently the 1st]

At the moment only 9 holes are open and getting out on the course is very difficult. I had to arrange to play with Dave Peden, the resort’s Golf Sales Manager. The policy is members only for the time being – everyone else plays with Dave. My, it must be terrible having to come out and play on this beauty of a golf course time and again.

When Dave appeared he had a companion – Terry, the Course Manager from Clandeboye, who was down with his wife and sampling the delights of the resort. He had read my blog about the two Clandeboye courses, both of which I loved, so that set us off on the right note. Actually, Clandeboye is one of the best value courses in the country and I said so on my blog, urging people to come and play it before green fees went up. Now I know my blog is not exactly influential, but it was shortly after that that green fees rose from £25 to £35. And they’re still excellent value.

The three of us played the 9 holes currently open, which are in no particular order. It was a lazy Autumn evening with a low sun casting deep golden shadows across the course and Lough Erne. Dave pointed out the new holes as well as giving some background on the course’s development. The halfway house really caught my attention: where halfway houses appear in Ireland (a handful of big courses only) they are small and functional. At Lough Erne it is restaurant size. This big two storey wooden structure on the lake’s edge will double-up as a fish restaurant in the evening – for the hotel’s guests. It’s a nice idea, and having sampled the delights (some great – Ballybunion, and some dreadful – Gleneagles), a good halfway house will add greatly to the golf experience here.

We heard about Rory McIlroy’s recent visit. He played the Index 1 14th, measuring 642 yards, and claimed it was one of the best par fives in Ireland. It certainly has danger and drama in equal measure, but for me the par five 16th is even better as it runs beside the lake and – from the back tees – offers a towering drive.

[Photo: the par four 17th – such a shame about the turret like lodges]

Dave also reckons that the 10th hole (part of the unseen 9) will be one of the most photographed holes in Ireland as it heads straight out into the lake and the green is reached by the narrowest strip of land. I’ll take his word for it because this is a great, luxurious course where every hole works.

Interestingly, for comparison purposes, I played here the day after I’d enjoyed another new lakeland course – Concra Wood, and seeing two magnificent new courses back to back was an intriguing exercise. Concra Wood is far more intimidating, with lots of movement on and around fairways; Lough Erne glides along like silk with its manicured feel and impressive playability. But the greens at Concra Wood are something else and you always have work to do. Concra Wood wouldn’t be as elegant as Lough Erne but it is a stiffer challenge with changes in elevation used to maximum advantage. And both sit in picture perfect settings – although Concra Wood just nudges it with wider views.

Our round finished as it was approaching dusk and Terry legged it to grab dinner with his wife – but not before finding his ball behind the 18th green, a long way from where we had seen his tee shot enter the water. It was an amusing finish, but one that summed up a Faldo trade mark here – water edging its way in front of the greens. You’ll lap it up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Seconds of Scrabo

[Photo: the stunning 1st at Scrabo - Index 1]

A few weeks back I was chuffed to receive an email from my publishers, which they had forwarded from an organisation called the Washington Ireland Program (www.wiprogram.org). I was being invited to play at their inaugural Irish event, based on a glowing review I had given Scrabo in a Belfast Telegraph article.

Now I will interrupt this broadcast to say a few words about the course, mostly because wherever I have gone and extolled the virtues of Scrabo, I have been laughed at. Scrabo is a hilltop, heathland type course drenched in gorse. It is hard work physically and mentally, and high handicappers will struggle. The most punishing aspect is that good shots are not always rewarded, and vice-versa. And with so much gorse, balls will rarely be seen again. But here’s the thing: Scrabo is a mighty adventure. It promises spectacular views, it has some amazing holes – including the best opening hole in Ireland – and it will test every skill you have. I confess that when I went back for this second visit I was apprehensive – apprehensive that I wouldn’t like it nearly as much, that I would find faults, that I would agree with all the critics I had met at other clubs. But I shouldn’t have worried, because it’s every bit as exciting as I remember. The one thing I did find was that there is a junction in the middle of the course where holes cross each other wildly: it is dangerous, and you won’t always know where you’re going, so it’s an important point for visitors. Some signs indicating direction and the dangers ahead would help.

So, after Concra Wood and Lough Erne (see next blog) I headed for Scrabo, where I met Nick Burke, the man who had invited me on the day. He, along with three others had organised the event which was bringing together Irish businesses who are involved in the WIP – it is a charitable organisation that takes applications from students all over Ireland and then sends the best ones to Washington DC, where they become interns in US government, media, business and non-profit organisations for eight weeks. Over a six-month period they also gain valuable leadership training to encourage them to continue and nurture the strong ties between our country and the US. Many of the programme’s 350 graduates are now emerging in important careers in politics, law, business and the community. Or, on this particular occasion, golf. Actually, that’s not strictly true: playing off 28, neither Nick or Jonathan – the WIP Ireland Director – would claim to be golfers. The fourth member of our team was Bob van Heuvelen, one of the programme’s key players in Washington and on his first trip to Ireland. Bob also chose a handicap of 28 – it was a pick ‘n’ mix kind of day – and it made me wonder why they chose golf as the event’s sport. On top of which, Scrabo is a nightmare for the best golfers, so it must have been hell for these guys. I distinctly recall the 14th, where Bob and Jonathan lost two balls each, I lost one, and Nick looked mightily pleased with himself having found the fairway on his first attempt. All in all, between us, I’d say we lost over 20 balls. Nick lost one with his first shot, slicing a drive high and arcing it towards my camper van. I tried not to take it personally.

[Photo: views down the 3rd from the 2nd green]

Then again, the golf was only a small part of the day so a hard and sharp hailstorm didn’t dent anyone’s enthusiasm. Dinner afterwards was a carvery, in a large function room that serves as the restaurant and also a wedding venue. When I was here last year (Sept 07), the clubhouse was still being finished, but Ivan, my host for the evening, was saying how the club hoped it would be popular for weddings. Personally, I’d say it’s a perfect venue, with incredible views from the balcony and that overall top-of-the-world feel. Scrabo Tower is just the icing on the cake.

I sat with Bob and Brian – Nick’s dad – and an assortment of other folk who came and went. There was Tony, who’d just got married for the first time in his 60s, Robert who is built like a tank – the kind of man if you bumped into him you’d bounce off and he wouldn’t notice a thing – he and Bob discussed marathons, seeing as Bob had run one and I lost count of the number Robert had done. There was Tom Hamilton, a local councillor with stories of meeting Mary McAleese, Roger who went round Scrabo with 43 points and won the event – 43 points will do that on most days but it is a truly spectacular score at Scrabo.

[Photo: the pretty par three 17th with views over Strangford Lough beyond]

The most entertaining conversations were around Bob’s stay in Ireland: first, Tony suggested he go to Dublin for the day, then Robert insisted he go and see a football match – to which Bob joked that we don’t play real football in this country. Skipping quickly over the wimp’s version of football (aka soccer), Robert pointed out that in GAA football the players don’t wear pads or helmets, and play for the full duration of the game, non-stop. ‘What!” exclaimed Bob, “No downs?” And then we completely bamboozled him because there’s no quarterback. Bob was perplexed and as I’m an American Football fan it was amusing to see GAA from an American’s perspective. History doesn’t relate whether he went to a game or not, but I would like to thank Bob for restoring my faith in Americans. For eight years I have refused to go to America (my sister lives there) but with Obama looking like the next president, I shall be going back next year – provided there are any banks or airlines in existence.

It was one of those entertaining evenings that flies by. When it came time for the prize giving, raffle and auctions, I even got a mention by Roger (different Roger) who is a member at Scrabo. He said I had ranked Scrabo in my top ten – an interesting claim since I don’t even know what my top ten are yet. But it will be close. And I managed to leave a good enough impression that I’ve been invited to next year’s event, perhaps somewhere further south. Now, if they asked me to play in Washington…

Be sure to check out www.wiprogram.org

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hats off to Concra Wood

[Photo: the downhill par four 3rd]

“Enough of this rubbish,” barked John, one of my playing partners, and Editor of the Irish Mirror. Those weren’t his exact words but this is a family show, folks.

We were standing on Concra Wood’s daunting par five 15th, the wind and rain driving into us. The hole hits a long way over Lake Muckno and he’d just put his third consecutive drive in the water. He hadn’t lost a ball until the 12th, but between 15 and 18 he lost seven off the tee. The three free balls, courtesy of Concra Wood, had long since gone by the time we reached the 18th tee, and Marty handed him a decidedly dodgy ball after John put his first in the woods. Clearly, Marty knew what was coming next. He wasn’t wrong.

This was a different kind of day for me – it was Concra Wood’s PR day, when a bunch of people from the media turned up to assess the course. And the hospitality. Over the previous two weekends the course had hosted 800 golfers for their four open days, so the folks at Concra Wood were brimming with confidence – and rightly so. Sadly, it was only the weather that didn’t play ball. Rain drove into us from the high tee box on the 1st and, after a lull, it caught me unawares on 14, when a huge gust of wind whipped my waterproof hat across the tee box and out into the lake.

[Photo: the sweeping uphill par four 8th]

Our fourball was made up of John and Marty, who sensibly took a buggy, while Shane Derby (see Clandeboye blog) and I walked. It’s a long track, and in the rain it is not pleasant. Shane carried his clubs and I dread to think how uncomfortable that must have been.

This is the new home of Castleblayney Golf Club, although the 9 hole course behind Hope Castle is still open for play. One thing’s for sure, it is a big change-up. In motoring terms, it would be like shifting from second gear straight into fifth, or perhaps a Ford to a BMW would be more appropriate. This amazing lakeside location belonged to Coillte and was sold back in the 1990s. 240 acres were sold for what we would now consider an absolute steal. And when you experience the golf course that flows across the wonderfully rugged landscape you’ll see what an absolute steal it was. I’m sure that the golf club didn’t see it that way at the start – Mick whispered that their bank balance was an impressive £1,000 at the time!

The course tumbles down to the lake’s edge, from a high point that will soon be home to the clubhouse - at the moment it’s a prefab - and will offer almost 360 degree views. And what views they’ll be. This is a spectacular location for a golf course and I and my playing partners were hugely impressed, hole after hole. The surrounding landscape gives that rolling rhythm that you’ll find repeated on the course. I will have a little dig and say that some of the mounding and rolling fairways/channels seem a little too much – it’s not something I’ll put in my review because it’s just too early in the course’s evolution, and nobody else seemed to notice it. Suzanne Coyne, who sat next to me at the dinner in Hope Castle, and is the driving force behind Golf Ireland (the magazine and TV station), thought the course was superb – and this was the general feeling all round.

Actually, the dinner was an education. Here were people who analysed courses in completely different ways to me – Suzanne talked about the quadrants on the green, which sailed far above my head. These are not things I am looking for and, I hope, this is not what your average golfer is looking for either. If they’re like me they want to know if they are going to have a blast or a whimper. Concra Wood is definitely the former with challenges, thrilling shots and greens that are perfection. Stand at the top of the drop on 10 and tell me your approach is not the highlight of the day. The hole drops like a stone to the green. See photo.

It was a great pampering and Karen McCaffrey, the Sales & Marketing Manager, and Mick Fee, Project Manager, did a great job organising the day and hats off to them. Dinner was at Hope Castle, a hotel that could do with an injection of TLC, but the food was great and the conversation enlightening. Adrian, one of the directors, was asking me all about my travels. And, not for the first time that day I was being asked what I thought of the course. Coincidentally, whenever I was asked this question, Mick was hovering on the fringes. As I prepared to answer Adrian’s question, Mick leaned in and pointed a finger in my direction. “I’ll be watching you,” he said with a wide smile. No pressure then.

[Photo: from Concra Wood's highest point, down over the 3rd green and Lake Muckno to Hope Castle]

The following day was beautiful and it showed the lake in all its beauty. From Hope Castle you can see the golf course across the water and it looks steep – in reality it’s not, at least not continuously, and the shape and routing of the course has been done brilliantly to minimise the effort required. Mick arrived in his wheezing four wheel drive and he took me for a spin around the castle and the existing 9 hole course. He also took me down to Black Island which sits in the lake off the castle grounds, and gave me a brief history lesson along the way. This is a beautiful spot and several people were out walking dogs – there are marked routes around the island which is reached by a bridge. But back in 1947, the year of the Big Snow, there was no bridge so the only way to reach it was by water. Or ice. In 1947, the ice was so thick the locals were able to take horses across, fell trees and have the horses drag the wood back.

I have no doubt that Concra Wood will be a serious attraction in the years to come and it will be regarded as one of Ireland’s best inland courses. It has everything a golfer could want and it is a thrilling round of golf – so put it on your list for next year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ryder Cup Shocker

No, I'm not talking about Faldo's pairings, Boo's antics, the big boys of Europe failing to deliver or Ian Poulter's brilliance (do you have any idea how hard it is for me to type that!)... I'm talking about Sky News.

On Sunday morning I switched on Sky and waited for Sports to give the lowdown on the Ryder Cup. On came yer man who enthusiastically declared that it was game on. "Only one point separates the teams," he gasped. "The Americans lead by 9 points to 7." Evidently arithmetic is not a big requirement for Sky sports presenters. As if Sky hasn't dumbed-down the news enough already.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

PGA National – head in the sand

[Photo: par three 3rd which sums up the brilliant front 9 perfectly]

Call me crazy, but there can’t be many golf courses in the world that boast an ostrich when you drive in. I nearly crashed as this odd looking head poked over a fence at me. Inside the clubhouse I asked Maria, the girl who I’d arranged my round with, if it had caused any accidents. Apparently not.

I’ve been buzzing about the PGA course for a couple of years now, so it was brilliant to turn up after a miserable, wet morning, and find the sun out. True, there was a serious wind, but in the grand scheme of things that was a minor complaint.

I was also supposed to be meeting the Course Editor from Today’s Golfer magazine, but he had to cancel. Hopefully I’ll be hooking up with him in October. I’m already writing articles for Ireland’s Golfing Magazine, but being featured in a UK magazine will be a big thrill.

A Christy O’Connor designed course always generates some interesting comments, but Palmerstown must be one of his best (Headfort New being another beauty). It has a wide expanse of room to work with and the whole thing has been put together immaculately. As I played the par three 3rd, there were four men gardening the enormous bed that banks the right hand side. Flowers and shrubs of all descriptions give it a flash of colour, and this is repeated several times – the par five 9th (a huge bunker is stuffed with shrubs) and the enclosed par three 12th most noticeably. The effort that goes into maintaining a course like this must be huge, but as the Irish home of the PGA I suppose it has to look the part. And it does. Right down to the changing rooms which are luxurious – quite like Fota Island and The Heritage. When you pay big green fees you expect that whole pampering thing.

[Photo: par five 9th - the fairway swings right, behind the water and then left, back up to the green above the bunkers]

When you walk up onto the 1st tee you’ll find a choice of four tees. Gold, silver, bronze and black. I played from the bronze, which measures 6,468 yards. If you fancy the big tees, you’re looking at 7,419 yards. With beaches of sand, and vast and beautiful swathes of water on 13 holes, you might as well pick the sensible tees – or at least the ones that suit your game. I found water twice and considered myself lucky.

It is an experience, that’s for sure, but my guess is that Americans would make the same claim about it that they make about the K Club, which is that courses like this are a dime a dozen in the US. Fair enough, but not that many of us go to the US to find these things out.

One point to note is that it is a long course, even off the black tees, because there are several walks from green to tee which skirt the water and add on several hundred yards. And on 12 you walk the whole length of the hole to reach the tee - it is worth it. At least the course is mostly level. Or take a buggy if you’re a lightweight.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Farnham Estate Formation

[The drive up the par four 1st]

Farnham Estate is a spanking new course on the outskirts of Cavan town. It is a mere mile or two from County Cavan Golf Club, and on the same road out of the town. And because it’s part of the Radisson SAS Hotel, of the same name, you can be sure there are excellent direction posts to get to the club. After some of the more difficult locations of recent weeks, this was a blessing and it meant I didn’t miss my tee time.

The course is designed by Jeff Howes (easy to spot by the perfectly round tee boxes), and two larger loops of holes you will not find. It’s a huge figure of 8 across the estate, and the two 9s are completely different. The first 9 rolls over farmland countryside – it’s as if a carpet has been laid on the landscape. There are some big trees and ponds, but it still feels open. The second 9 heads up into the forest and holes are completely enclosed by trees. This 9 is not yet open, and greens and tees are still sand, and fairways mud, but you can see what it will become. It was quite an education walking holes that are in their early evolution. Hopefully the photo alongside will get that across.

[Photo: the tracks that will become the par four 13th. The sand in the distance will be the green]

Seamus, the starter, was extremely helpful and showed me the maps of the course, and where to go to begin my muddy adventure on the back 9. And because there are no facilities as yet, he kindly arranged a hotel room so I could shower after my round. And an impressive hotel it is too – even if it looks a little odd (blend of old and new) from the 18th fairway.

[Photo: the left to right dogleg par five 18th]

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Massereene – You Can Not Be Serious

[Photo: Par 4 17th]

My trip to Massereene was an interesting one. Gary, the General Manager, had asked that I park my camper up in the Lady Captain’s parking space as the following morning was the start of the President’s Prize. It was one of the club’s big events and meant that I had to be on the tee by 6am. That was all fine with me, and Gary passed the word around to the relevant people that I would be parked overnight.

Only, the word didn’t reach a few members. A few very drunk members, who decided, at midnight, that my camper van was a problem. After the door was almost banged off its hinges, I was confronted by two men – one so drunk that standing upright was a challenge. “Are you serious?” he asked.

Serious about what, I replied. He meant me parking outside the clubhouse, so I explained that it had all been cleared with Gary. That seemed to do the trick and they headed off.

Then I heard another member of the group giving out that just because I knew the name Gary, didn’t mean a thing. I felt inclined to point out that if I was trying to park on the sly, I wouldn’t park within five feet of the clubhouse, under the security lights, in the Lady Captain’s parking space. Especially when there were plenty of places that were out of sight. But then logic and alcohol are not exactly bosom buddies. Eventually they headed off in their cars and I went back to sleep.

At 2am there was another knock on the door, and I admit to being a little nervous. But it was the police, who had been informed that something suspicious might be going on. A bit of bad parking I admit, and some dodgy shorts, but nothing to worry about.

Not surprisingly I slept through my alarm and arrived on the tee late. One of the greenkeepers was bringing out the buggies and he said that the flags would be put out on the greens very shortly. The first flag I encountered was on the 7th, and what was my score at that point? Five pars. Clearly, taking the flag away makes hitting the green a far easier proposition. On the Index 1 6th, I hit my second shot to two feet with no idea where the hole was. Forget about Power Golf – try Flagless Golf instead.

[Photo: Par 4 9th - sharp dogleg left between the trees]

Massereene has a great pace to start off. As someone who doesn’t like too many doglegs – it can get monotonous and frustrating – I was surprised I liked Massereene as much as I did. Take away the par threes and you see only three flags (4 and 17 are the two best holes on the course, while 12 is the tamest), yet there is so much going on around you that the shots are still rewarding. And that says something for the course.

If you read any of the club’s literature it will tell you that it is part links – but while this may be true (the holes were reclaimed when the Lough’s water levels fell) it is slightly disingenuous as there are no ‘links’ features. Just so you don’t turn up expecting dunes and tossing fairways.

After my round, Gary appeared and I told him about the events of my night. He was a bit embarrassed as he’d told a lot of people and it had been raised at a Council Meeting that week. But, at the end of the day, I was impressed that the members felt the obligation (and alcohol-induced bravado) to challenge me. When I worked in London, a guy walked in off the street, said hello to the Receptionists, walked down to the basement and picked up a case of 12 whiskey bottles (one of our clients). Then he walked out saying hello and goodbye to people as he went. It never occurred to anyone that he was a thief because he acted so normally.

Allen Park Municipal

“Are you going to give us a good write up?”
The lady behind the reception desk was asking a question I couldn’t answer. I hadn’t even seen the course yet.

[Photo: Interesting signs on the par five 13th]

I have no doubt that some of the clubs I‘ve been to automatically assume I’m going to give them a positive write-up. But that’s not the objective of my book. I simply want to inform visitors what they can expect when they play a course. Are they being ripped off? Is it a pile of muck? Are they going to be blown away? This book is not for the golf clubs – it is for the golfer.

Allen Park will be fine though. As a municipal course it ticks every box very comfortably indeed. You might even have to delay your round on the Index 1 6th as swans waddle from their pond, across the fairway, for an afternoon snooze between 5 and 6.

[Photo: Par 4 18th, clubhouse behind, emphasises the opne nature of the course]

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hilton Templepatrick

[Photo: the excellent course map by the 1st tee- gives you a great idea of what's to come]

The first thing to say here is that, as part of a hotel, you’re likely to pay over the odds in the bar. Up North I have become accustomed to paying £2.50 for a pint, which is excellent value (and is rapidly turning me into an alcoholic). At the Hilton it is £3.30. Apparently members only pay £2.00, so if you’re playing here, find a member and stay close!

As I got my gear together for a morning round I was amused to see three joggers heading down the 1st. But as I progressed around the course, past the swan-filled ponds and beside a small river, I could see that it would make a gentle and pleasant morning run.

I was told that the 12th was five feet underwater when the floods came in mid August, and yet it was open for play two days later. The greens are superb (even if they look oddly dark at the moment), and they are so well raised that I doubt the rising waters touched them. I asked Frank Ainsworth (greenkeeper and a course architect in his own right – he created the excellent Gracehill, among others) about the greens and he said they were dressed with Sodium oxphate, or Nitrous oxide or Iron filings, or something. Chemistry was never my strong suit at school, and after failing yet another test I had to write out the Chemical table ten times. Didn’t do much good though. All I remember is that Fe is iron, K is Kryptonite and O2 is a mobile phone company.

[Photo: the par five 5th - showing how the course still needs to establish its maturity]

At Templepatrick the greens are remarkable creations. They’re so big and so curved and sloped that four putting is feasible. Interestingly they’re also very firm – to the point it’s difficult to stop the ball.

From one of the tees I looked across and saw a man walking three big dogs. Being a dog fan, I watched, and, later, I saw them lying at their master’s feet as he talked to one of the greenkeepers. I confess that I wandered over to introduce myself to the dogs, and ended up talking to Danny – the local landowner – and the aforementioned Frank, for quite some time. Hearing how courses have come about is always intriguing (even if not relevant to my book), but finding out that Frank was an architect was an interesting twist. He designed Edenmore and Foyle, but it is Gracehill that I liked most.

Later, back in the car park, Frank appeared with the pro, Marcus, alongside. Marcus asked if I’d had any problems with any of the courses along the way. I mentioned that of all the courses in Ireland, only Mount Ober had turned me down. According to the boys, they’d done me a favour! I of course have no comment.

A couple of things to note – the par four 18th will soon become a par five. At the moment it is Index 9 and it’s 444 yards. The marker boards on tee boxes are good, but the water is misrepresented on 2, 3 and 4, so don’t be surprised to find water where you’re not expecting it.

The Seniors Irish Ladies Open is going to be held here in a couple of weeks so it’s an up and coming course – but I would be interested to know what other people think of it.

[Photo: the par three 11th]

The bustle of Ballyclare

[Photo: par 4 7th - the 3rd fairway comes down from the right]

I waited on the 2nd tee while two ladies teed off the 18th. The first smacked a drive straight down the middle; the second scuttered it away into the trees.
“The thing you’re doing there, Mary, is you’re moving your hips and…” My dad taught me early on – neither a borrower or lender be. And never offer advice to other golfers on what’s wrong with their swing. Nowadays I only offer advice to my dad – because he loves me no matter how bad that advice might be – and to my best mate, Charlie – because I love messing with his head, and if he put his mind to it he could be a very good golfer.

There was a match I heard about a few years back, where one guy was being whooped. Unable to recover he took the easy route and pointed out how well his opponent was playing. “It’s amazing,” he said, “how you hit the ball so well with that odd little twirl you do at the top of your swing.”

His opponent promptly lost his rhythm, and the match. So, no advice is good advice. Imagine how Jim Furyk must have been bombarded when he was growing up.

[Photo: par 4 3rd - a tough drive that must stay left]

One quick comment I’ll make on this good country course: on 7, which is Index 3, the excellent marker board on the tee is wrong. It suggests that the green is straight up the hill, whereas it’s around to the left. You have been warned. On Index 3 you need all the help you can get.

If you play it anytime soon, check out the photographs on the wall, showing the damage the rains of August 16th did to the course.

Ballymena blues

Ballymena was a short visit. It sits a mile or two from the town and is a little par 68 course. It is stunningly flat and makes a big deal of two things: its heathland element and its views of Slemish Mountain – which has ties to Saint Patrick. As for the latter, mist covered it on my visit so I wasn’t even sure which direction to look – although the 3 rd hole is called Slemish, so that gave me a hint.

As for the ‘heathland’, well, yes, there is some heather and gorse about, but even when it appears it stands back from the course so you don’t reap the full benefit. I don’t pretend to be a designer, but I’d love to see gorse brought in and planted around/behind greens. Not only are they despairingly bare, but it would bring more authenticity to the heathland claim.

The course has two very small ponds, of which only one comes into play (on 12). Just as I was leaving, a man rushed back to his car, popped the boot and reached for his ball retriever, and then ran back towards the 1st tee. Now that’s pessimistic.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Gorgeous Galgorm Castle

[The 3rd hole, from behind the tee, completely flooded. Photo courtesy of Desmond]

Road works. Damn it, I hate roadworks. Now is the summer of our discontent etc. Crappy weather and an abundance of roadworks. I actually got within a quarter of a mile of Galgorm Castle before roadworks stopped me dead. I had to go on a big detour around Ballymena before I could get back to the club. Result: I missed my tee time. Fortunately, Barbara, the General Manager, sorted me out and I got away before a society.

A fourball let me through on the 4th and that was it for traffic. Desmond and three young ones ushered me onto the tee and I then walked the hole with them. Desmond, a member, said he’d send me a photo he took a week and a half ago, of the course partially under water. The terrible floods drowned three of the holes, and yet the course was open only a few days later. And now, a week and a half after that the course looks perfect. There is some detritus around tree trunks, showing how high the water rose, but that bears testament to the course’s powers of recovery.

[Right Photo: the 10th under water. Photo courtesy of Desmond]
[Photo Blow: the 10th as it's supposed to be]

After my round, Barbara and Phil arranged for me to meet the owner. Christopher arrived and we had a chat in the bar, where he told me about the future plans for the course and Galgorm Castle alongside. When he said that he hated the term ‘golf resort’, I knew what he meant, but that is what this will become. Then again, it will be so much more. Christopher took me around the castle and it is stunning. And when it is refurbished it will be magnificent. I wait to see if the painting of Dr. Colville is removed from the front entrance. Apparently, when he owned the castle some centuries ago, he sold his soul to the devil for a cellar full of gold. Legend has it that doom will fall on anyone who removes the painting. And yes, his ghost still haunts the grounds. Well, it would, wouldn’t it! Will it become a major golfing attraction? Yes, and so much more.

I don’t think I’ve ever used this blog to brag about my golf. Imagine it: “On the 1st at Galgorm Castle I hit a driver off the tee. I used a Titleist 4 with two red dots. It was a perfect drive, sailing through the air with the greatest of ease, catching the wind and drifting…” you get the idea. It would be boring in the extreme. But on this occasion I shall make an exception. When I started this trip I had two specific golfing goals: to get a hole in one (I’m still holeless) and to go around in level par. The former is more luck than anything, but the latter is within my control. A couple of times I have arrived on the 18th on level par, only to cock it up and rue the missed opportunity. So today, at Galgorm Castle, I realised very quickly that one of my goals might be achieved. And it just got better and better. Forget level par. How does four under par sound? Five birdies rolled off my putter, including the 18th. I know I shall never repeat it, but for now I’m enjoying the fact that my face is hurting from all the smiling. True, I had my luck – I bladed a wedge into rough two feet deep, hacked out and then duffed the next into the hole. Par. But for once every part of my game worked and the course is generous enough for a few wayward shots.

So, does this mean that Galgorm Castle gets a fantastic review in my book? Of course, but it thoroughly deserves it. The points I’ve awarded it would be the same if I’d played badly. This is a beautiful course with tremendous ‘playability’ – a term I particularly like as it means everyone will enjoy it. There is space that gives every hole an opportunity to express itself, and trees, rivers and ponds give the landscape an idyllic structure.

And not one person on my travels had ever mentioned it. So I’m ‘mentioning’ it now.

[Photo: the 3rd green, with the 4th green between the trees in the distance]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Graced with Gracehill

Graced with Gracehill
During the winter, yes I expect to find clubhouses dead in the evening. But in August at 5.30pm on a weekday? That, I wasn’t expecting. The pleasant, almost ornamental, car park had two cars in it and the clubhouse was locked. So, a quiet evening’s entertainment in the camper van!

The following morning I walked around the old, attractive clubhouse on the way to the 1st. It’s in a pleasant setting and considering the poor changing facilities I discovered later, they could make so much more of it.

There are two practice greens. Oddly, each has only two holes in it. Not sure what that’s about. The 1st hole offers a tight drive between trees, and your first instinct is that there are going to be a lot of trees to avoid on your round. Not so. There are some very difficult driving holes, but it is the water that makes the big difference. And Gracehill has used the water brilliantly. It is rich and dark, teeming with wildlife, and it is used to brilliant effect. On a number of occasions you have to walk around beautiful ponds, with their deep reeds, wildlife, old trees sticking out of the water and a general air of tranquility.

One word of warning – when you play the 1st, show restraint off the tee: you need to be on the fairway to have any reasonable chance of finding the green, which sits over a big pond, up a steep slope and wedged between big trees. It is cruel to face such a difficult approach on only your second shot of the round.


A mate of mine, Ronan, is a friend of last year’s captain at Ballycastle. He was trying to arrange for me and the ex-captain to play together, and I emailed him recently with the date I was due to play there. I heard nothing.

Then I got a phone call from Ronan, who had been on holiday in Sardinia for two weeks with his family. He’d just got my email.

“Where are you?” he asked.

I had to laugh. Talk about perfect timing. “I’m on the 6th at Ballycastle,” I replied. I was on my own, and despite a frantic phone call from Ronan to his friend, we never managed to hook up. It was a wet and miserable afternoon, and once again I found myself grumbling about Irish weather – a sociable pint would have been the perfect tonic. I made do with dinner on the top level of the clubhouse which offers excellent views over the course and sea. To be blunt, I always find it rather odd when all this money is pumped into the clubhouse when it could be better used on the golf course.

There was a major annual fair going on in the town, with various carnival rides dotted around, and the screams of kids carrying all the way up to the hilltop holes. It looked like a blast of entertainment, but I cursed it before and afterwards, because it made this seaside town impassable. I still have no idea how I got to my next course, Gracehill Golf Club, as I followed one diversion sign after another and eventually found the road I was looking for.

Ballycastle is an interesting medley of holes, combining parkland, links and hilltop. Perhaps the 9th is the best hole, and it certainly starts the rise up the hill that offers stunning views of the coast, the glens and Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre.

It should also be noted that the Giant’s Causeway is not far away. Even closer is the Rope Bridge. Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you’ll get the general idea.

Royal Portrush – The Valley

How often on some of Ireland’s great courses, do you find a sibling that is often ignored? True, it’s not always so: Carton House has two equal and very different courses, Clandeboye also has different but popular courses and Ballybunion has the remarkable Cashen course. But what about Royal County Down, Portstewart, Lahinch, Powerscourt, Headfort and Royal Portrush? And, if you really want to scrape the barrel, Bodenstown.

The question, of course, is how highly would these ‘second’ courses be regarded if the illustrious ‘big’ course was not there at all?

Having just played Portstewart’s other two courses – Riverside and Old – I now found myself playing the Valley course (also known as Rathmore Golf Club). I imagine lots of people drive into the main clubhouse, only to find themselves redirected down the road to an entrance that seems to imply it is a par three course. But it is here you will find the Valley, and it’s a whole heap of fun. The 1 st is a warm-up act and then it’s guesswork to find the 2nd tee (immediately to the left of the green and up the incline). But after that, the Valley is riveting stuff. The dunes rise up all around you on the perimeter of the course (hence the name), and perhaps the most intimidating sight is seeing the flag flying high on the Dunluce course’s famous 14th – Calamity. You see it for many holes, and you also see the 13th green when you play the Valley’s stunning 5th and 6th (a massive par three of 230 yards).

A number of times before I visited Portrush, I was told that the Valley course was preferred by locals. I can see why. It’s not as tough as the Dunluce, it’s a fifth of the price, yet it has the same excellent quality. And it’s a lot of fun. Afterwards you can sneak back to the big clubhouse and enjoy all the impressive facilities.

In essence the Valley is a lesser sibling but you’d be daft to come here to play Dunluce and not play the Valley. And while Portstewart’s Riverside is a nice course, it’s not a must-play in the same way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Portstewart - reminiscing

In February 2007, three friends and I came up to Northern Ireland to play Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and Portstewart. We played in short sleeves and beautiful weather – Mike, our American friend, ws imploring us to take photographs because he knew that none of his pals back home would believe it. And here I was, back at Portstewart to sample the delights of the Riverside and Old courses in August. In the pouring rain. I chatted to the barman who said his favourite trick was to walk past the Americans outside the clubhouse, sheltering from the rain, and say, “You picked a bad time to come in the middle of our hurricane season.”

Considering just how bad the wind and rain have been recently, maybe that’s not as funny as it sounds.

I remember back in February, thinking that Portstewart could do with revamping the clubhouse. Well, they’ve gone one better and built a brand new one which will, coincidentally, be open in February next year. And it looks enormous. The old clubhouse, a little worn around the edges, will make way for a car park.

The three courses at Portstewart are utterly different. The opening 9 of the Strand course may well be the best in Ireland, and the 1st hole is a stunning opening gambit, with the beach and Mussenden Temple shown off in all their beauty. Last year we played it twice in one day and as you come around onto the 5th tee you get a good look at the Riverside course. It’s not nearly as impressive, but it has its merits and appeals to a different audience entirely.

My trip around the course was a wet one, and the sun only came out when I was in the clubhouse.

The Old course is the original track and is well removed from the other two courses. This is a par 64 holiday course with a brilliant opening salvo rocketing over small dunes right beside the rocky seashore. And if you look closely you might find a few flattened tourists/walkers who don’t realise that standing still beside a green, to eat sandwiches, is likely to result in a hard, round, white object hitting you at an impressively fast pace. Yes, there are paths to walk along, but pay attention people.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Castlerock Leg of Mutton

What’s the craic like? is a question fired at me time and again. And time and again I say that’s it’s impossible to tell, and impossible to include in a review because during the winter months clubhouses close at 5pm or are empty at 8pm on a weekday. In terms of having an absolute blast I can safely say that Castlerock was fantastic fun. Not only did I stagger out of the clubhouse at 11.30pm, I staggered out again at 2pm the following day.

I arrived on President’s Day – it was their second attempt – and the afternoon had turned miserable. In the face of such angst, several golfers returned to the clubhouse to drown their sorrows. When I arrived later and set up in the bar, my computer out, my review of Roe Park faltering across the laptop’s screen, there was that volume that only comes from the enjoyably inebriated.

“What you doing?” A bleary eyed man stared at me and then scooted unsteadily around behind my chair to investigate. He was so close I was inclined to ask whether we were on a date. I explained what I was up to. Bad idea.

“Mr. President,” he roared. “I have a book over here writing a man.”


The President pottered over, shook my hand and welcomed me. I discovered later that his 50th wedding anniversary was the Saturday before – the day before my parents’ 45th. “They’re just getting started,” he barked with a laugh.

And then Mervyn arrived. Big Merv. He settled down in the chair opposite and we began chatting. A mine of information was our Merv. Not, he happily admitted, a proper golfer, which was amusing since two of his brothers-in-law were the professionals at Bundoran and Donegal. And as if that wasn’t enough, another brother-in-law arrived at the bar. Paul McNicol. Paul, his dad, Merv and one other caddied some years ago for a bunch of Americans who flew in to play Castlerock. The four were Michael Douglas, Dan Marino, the guy who owns the Miami Dolphins (and made his millions collecting garbage) and his son. So the game commences and they’re standing on the tee when a 13 year old walks over and asks Dan Marino who he is and what he does.
‘I’m a footballer’, Marino says.
‘Yea?’ says the boy, ‘were you any good?’
‘I was OK,’ Marino replies. ‘Actually, I was the best there’s ever been.’
If you’re non-plussed by this, Dan Marino was the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins for many years in the 80s. In essence he was the Colin Montgomerie of American Football – regarded as the best but he never brought home the big prize.

Paul had another story – he was a young boy when he caddied for Fred Daly and he distinctly remembers Fred asking him for his advice on his second shot on the par five 11th. ‘A 4 wood’, Paul responded. Fred agreed and stitched it to a couple of feet for his eagle. Paul doesn’t remember anything else – before or after – which myself and Mervyn found terribly convenient in terms of story-telling.
“So, what was it like caddying for John Daly?” Mervyn needled.
“No,” I said, holding up my hand before Paul could respond. “Not John Daly. It was Frank Daly, wasn’t it Paul?”
“Who’s Frank Daly? Mervyn countered. “Never heard of him.”
“Oh he’s some golfer,” I replied. “Not very good, plays off 15 I think.”
And so it went on.
Paul just kept on smiling, in that way that tells you he’s about to throttle you. But instead he bought another round.

Mervyn’s son is currently in America (Florida, Las Vegas and New York), and is rather sweet on Nicola, who was the gorgeous young lass behind the bar. With a smile like hers I don’t think he should stay away too long.

I found out a fair bit about Castlerock Golf Club – in all honesty I don’t remember that much – and after the bar shutters were pulled down and I’d managed to sidestep the suggestion of going on somewhere else, I sat in the camper desperately trying to remember the previous few hours. Not very well evidently.

My tee time was 7.30am but I had been warned that even that early I would encounter the early morning golfers. At 7.15 there was a heaving throng and I waited my turn. They were all three balls so I assumed it was a competition. But as I walked up the 2nd, one of the guys in front came back in his buggy and asked if I wanted to join them.

Tommy has two plastic hips – hence the buggy – and was going to Puerto Rico the next day for two weeks, so it was no surprise he was taking it easy. He plays off 14, Cedric off 12 and Jimmy off 10. Once I hooked up with them on the 3rd tee, it came down to how much money and what pairings. I played with Tommy and it turned into an excellent day’s golf. We were one down after 8 – my birdie on the par five 5th being trumped by Jimmy’s eagle. Then two down after 11 when Cedric rolled in a 30 footer for birdie. I played the last eight holes in level par and we still lost a further hole. Three down overall and yet Tommy had 42 points on his card. Apart from two blow-outs my card was good too, but it showed once again how important it is on a links course to play with someone who knows the course. There aren’t many blind shots – plenty of flags are visible – but knowing which side of the fairway to hit or how best to approach some of the tricky greens made all the difference. And while driving is mostly straightforward, you can only watch in dismay as balls roll across fairways (7, 10) or fail to clear dunes that appear closer than they are.

With Royal Portrush and Portstewart so very close by, and always getting rave reviews, it’s great that Castlerock can be mentioned in the same breath. Especially as the wicked par three 4th (OB is left of the creek which I, um, didn’t know), which is called Leg of Mutton. The other leg has strayed and is currently residing on the 9th at Lisburn.

And since a fair amount of this blog seems to be about drink, I should point out that Tommy brought along some liquid refreshment. Bishop Daly’s special brew, apparently. It appeared magically on the 12th, and I was in no position to refuse the entertainingly reddish liquid that was offered to me – even if I’d wanted to. How did it go down? I suggest you take a three iron and hit yourself in the back of the head. How did it taste? Exquisite. What was in it? I haven’t a clue, but please sir, can I have some more. Actually, seeing as I’ve already had a blog comment from Gordon, one of the Sunday morning crew, I’m hoping he might offer up another one with the special ingredients so you can all go off and get trollied.

And then it was back to the bar. Again. And after a beautifully sunny morning, it promptly began to rain.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Make the most of Moyola Park

When you play nearby courses and talk to various people in the clubhouse, you’ll always hear various tidbits about the course you’re going to next. Perhaps I wasn’t listening closely enough, because Moyola Park took me completely by surprise. And it hides it all so well, especially as your drive in cuts the 5th in half – it doesn’t look particularly interesting and it is very dangerous to vehicles, as golfers can’t see the road from the tee box.

But Moyola Park is a serious estate parkland course. Huge trees are everywhere and the River Moyola has a beautiful, wide darkness to it as it fronts the 8th hole which is set in a beautiful arboretum. The river appears again on one of the prettiest par threes around – the 17th – a downhill hole that demands at least a couple of tee shots, purely for the thrill of it. You then have a long walk to the 18th – coincidentally, back past the 8th green and over the bridge – and there are few of these walks. I’m always amused at how golfers grab onto something this and milk it for all its worth. Ask someone to describe Rathsallagh and almost the first thing they say is that there are long walks from green to tee – yet there are only two, and compared with Moyola Park they’re a short stroll. If you’re walking the best part of five or six miles around a golf course surely an extra few yards isn’t going to hurt. And if it does hurt, don’t come here. All that will happen is that you will miss a beautiful parkland course.

The day after my visit was the Captain’s Prize – it was the second attempt after the terrible rains. Dunmurry, which I played a few weeks back, took four attempts, and it is a common complaint at the moment. It seems to be almost guaranteed that if you want to play golf in Ireland in August, you’re going to get wet. And with locker room towels at Moyola Park costing £4.50, you might want to make sure that you bring your own.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Killymoon – Everybody Loves Raymond

I wanted to title my book review, Moon River, and then say “Chevy Chase, anyone?” but I couldn’t find a rational link. So it’s here on the blog instead.

I’m rapidly beginning to realise that glitterballs are big business in Northern Ireland. I just can’t figure out if NI are a couple of decades behind, or whether courses down south are missing a trick.

I met a variety of people at Killymoon – Norman knew I was coming and dropped over to me in the bar the night before I played and, the following day, he introduced me to Jack, the club’s President. Conversations ensued with some other folk, but it was my encounter with Raymond that definitely made my day.

A 6am tee-off is a tad early, even for me, especially when it’s so gloomy that you can’t even take a photograph. The greenkeepers were out and working in earnest as this was the big day of the year, with an all-day outing starting at 7am. I met Raymond on the 2nd tee. He was moving the tee box markers around for the day’s event and putting up the sponsor signs. We chatted briefly. Over the next few holes we passed each other a few times, so when he headed over to me on the 10th, in his buggy, I waved. He stopped, opened the door and handed me a container. “Your breakfast” he said. Everybody loves Raymond, for there in the box was a heart attack waiting to happen. And it was delicious. Half seven heaven.

I mentioned it to Norman back in the clubhouse and he just laughed – ‘Raymond does that with me,” he said. But I didn’t get anything this morning.’ I almost felt guilty that I’d got Norman’s breakfast. Almost.

As for the course, it is well worth a visit. Killymoon was a founding member of the GUI and dates back to 1889, so you’ll find an easy maturity to the place, and it is nice and colourful as it flows over a gentle hilltop – almost ornamental in places. I’m not a fan of too many blind shots (9, 17 and 18 are very blind), but because everything works so well here, it makes little difference – it’s probably the anticipation of discovering what lies on the other side. And there are plenty of other exciting tee shots, as well as six good par threes.

Go back? Absolutely.