Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sligo Weekender Interview

After I played Strandhill in Co. Sligo, in October 07, I was interviewed by Mark Whorley for the Sligo Weekender newspaper.

Strandhill is a super links course that rarely gets mentioned next to Rosses Point. It has a great history too, as the course was designed by the members and maintained by one of them using a tractor - photo is of the 5th hole. It is creative and entertaining, and now that new land has been purchased behind the 4th green, the weaker holes (9 to 11) can be replaced. If you come as far as Rosses Point then it would be criminal not to pop over the water for a round here.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Leinster Hills Challenge

Having just played Leinster Hills, I have a challenge for you. Actually, it’s more of a bet. Here’s what I want you to do: take a €10 note and put it in an envelope. Now write my name on it, because if you go to Leinster Hills I have a wager for you that you can not win.

When you get to the 8th green (see photo - it doesn't do the green justice) I want you to walk up to the back, top left corner. Now, imagine that the pin is on the very front, lowest level (which is where it was when I played). I’ll give you five attempts to get the ball to stay on the same level as the pin. It can’t be done. You have two tiers to negotiate and the second is almost vertical. Your ball will simply race off the green, down the slope and into the rough. If you are playing in a competition then this is a crazy green; if you are playing for fun, then it’s good for a laugh.

I have another challenge for you too. The 18th is 400 yards long and I drove the green. Actually, I landed on it. So when you get here, see if you can do the same. I’ll let you in on a little secret: 18 is not merely a dogleg, it’s a U-leg. If there’s no one about, you can turn 90 degrees on the tee box and hit directly at the green, over the 16th.

It certainly makes for some very interesting golf. Let me know how you get on

Friday, March 28, 2008

Courses Played to Date (March 08)

Annesley (Royal County Down)
Ballinlough Castle
Ballybofey & Stranorlar
Ballyliffin Glashedy
Ballyliffin Old
Black Bush
Bodenstown Bodenstown
Bodenstown Ladyhill
Bright Castle
Carrick on Shannon
Carton House (O'Meara)
Carton House Montgomerie
Castle Dargan
Castle Hume
Christy O'Connor
City of Derry
City West Championship
City West Lakes
Co Longford
Co Meath
Co. Louth
County Cavan
County Sligo
Deer Park
Delvin Castle
Druid's Glen
Druid's Heath
Dublin City
Dublin Mountain
Dun Laoghaire
Dunmore East
Dunmurry Springs
East Cork
Elm Park
Faughan Valley
Forrest Little
Glen of the Downs
Gold Coast
Gowran Park
Headfort New
Headfort Old
K Club Palmer
K Club Smurfit
Killerig Castle
Kirkistown Castle
Laytown & Bettystown
Lee Valley
Mannan Castle
Moor Park
Mount Juliet
Mount Wolseley
Mountain View
Narin & Portnoo
New Ross
North West
Old Conna
Old Head of Kinsale
Portmarnock Links
Powerscourt East
Powerscourt West
Royal County Down
Royal Dublin
Royal Portrush
Royal Tara
Slade Valley
Slieve Russell
South County
St Anne's
St. Helen's Bay
Swords Open
The Curragh
The European
The Heritage
Water Rock
Waterford Castle
West Waterford

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Not another golf book

I was expecting to get that line thrown at me on numerous occasions, but so far (200 courses played) only the Secretary/Manager at Stackstown has burdened me with it. And when I explained why my book would be different he replied that there were plenty of websites that did the same thing. He was kind enough to give me a web address for one, but after a brief shiver of fear I found that the site was nothing like my book. For one thing it doesn't rate courses against a common set of criteria; for another it doesn't tell you much about the experience of playing golf or what you can expect in terms of fun and challenges. It has plenty of things that my book doesn't have (hotels, food, history), but my book has always been about the golf.

I'm happy to mention that Darren Clarke designed a course - because that will attract many golfers - but I'm not writing a paragraph on how James Braid walked around Mullingar 80 years ago, sticking tees in the ground to mark where the holes were to be. Why? Because that information can be found anywhere. I'm trying to write something new, something that any golfer can pick up and say:

"Great, I always wanted to know if Muskerry was any good. Sounds like a pretty course that I'll really enjoy. I can't afford to be wild off the tee - too many trees for that - but I love downhill drives and greens that are thrilling to hit into. OK, so there may be some steep climbs but that only adds to the challenge."

And then, when he gets to Muskerry, he finds exactly what he expects, so he can enjoy himself to the full. Am I wrong?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Anglo Celt Article 8/11/07

My October 2007 trip was a four week tour that started in Meath, heading up through Cavan, Sligo and Donegal, before returning through Londonderry, Tyrone and Monaghan. I started in Kells at the majestic Headfort Golf Club. Streams, lakes, islands, bridges, mature trees and some riveting holes make Christy O’Connor’s stunning New Course one of the best inland courses in Ireland. All in all I’d play it ahead of the K Club or Mount Juliet because it is tough, beautiful and fun. After lunch I played the Old Course with the kind of venerable reputation and pedigree that all young parkland courses must aspire to. It has a character and charm that will please you all day without matching the electric pace of the New Course.

Like so many people in Ireland I get the impression that the countryside is one big ribbon of bungalows. Endless miles of unattractive houses with huge garages, and the occasional cluster that resembles the cigarette butts spilled carelessly outside the pub. Ireland, land of 40 shades of green and grey concrete block. So it was with great pleasure that I drove from Kells to Cavan with nothing resembling a ribbon. Co. Cavan golf club boasts majestic trees and the ones over the 8th and 11th tee boxes put you in the shade.

Slieve Russell is an entirely different experience. The kind of place that you think is almost too perfect. It is pristine. Remarkably it starts with a howler. The 1st is the only bad hole, but all is forgotten when you reach the 2nd tee, a snarling dogleg that taunts you with its water. It was a busy day and I passed a fourball on the 12th which hugs the main lake. Along with 13, which continues around the water, these are Slieve Russell’s signature holes. Two members of the fourball had out their golf ball retrievers and were studiously dipping into the lake for their balls. “Are you boys golfing or fishing?” I asked. One of them smiled. The other did not. (Photo: Slieve Russell 16th Par 3)

Clones caught me completely off guard. A hill rises in the centre of the course and a beautiful wood drifts down its sides. I half expected to see Harry Potter striding through the trees looking for a portkey. There are some startlingly good holes in a lovely setting and it is a lot of fun. But the overall quality lets it down. It is a country course and the small, pokey clubhouse cements the feeling (it is being done up) although there is a lot of potential here. (Photo: Clones 3rd Par 5)

My visit to Enniskillen was a darker affair. On the back 9, besotted by the ancient oak that line the fairways, I approached one tree to claim a few acorns. Two grey squirrels watched my approach, chattered angrily at me and then scampered up the tree. They quickly disappeared and I moved under the branches to collect acorns that I could plant at home, in Wexford. It was at that moment, at my most vulnerable, that I was attacked. Acorns flew out of the tree raining down on my head. OK, so it was only one acorn. But a coincidence? I think not.

My trip then took me through Sligo and into Donegal. I have just played Newtownstewart and Rossmore, in Co. Monaghan. They are two beautiful parkland courses, both a bit hilly – Rossmore particularly so – but they are short enough that it doesn’t matter. Considering their tranquil setting and low green fees, I can’t think of a single argument not to come to either. Although you might want to bear in mind the Ladies Fashion show at Newtownstewart: on arrival I visited the Office to introduce myself to the Secretary Manager, Lorraine, who reminded me that it was on. There was the scrape of a chair as another lady, in her 50s, pushed back to see who I was. She eyed me up. “Are you coming to the show?” she asked. I muttered that I might pop in for a drink. She paused to consider my reply. “You realise,” she said with a grin, “that there won’t be any other men around, so if you don’t come in you might have a queue of ladies outside your camper van later tonight.” In need of protection, I stayed in the bar all night.

As well as fashion at Newtownstewart you might also encounter the increasingly rare red squirrel. A pair have taken up residence in two enormous beech trees over the 1st tee. I got to within 20 feet as they lingered around the pro shop. But it was the pheasants out on the 16th that amused me most. 12 of them in all and as I approached they each fled in different directions. Like politicians. “Quick, lads, heads down and if we all run in different directions they won’t know where to pin the blame.” Quite literally they headed in every direction, like a clock. Now, for a human to run like a pheasant they’d have to run at full tilt with their arms strapped to their sides. For some reason I can’t quite fathom, I’m still picturing our politicians.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

On my travels I am asked certain questions time and again. ‘Which is the best course you’ve played?’ is by far the most common, but I’ve answered the top 12 below. (Photo: Rathcore Par three 11th)

Why am I writing this book?
My standard answer is that if you pick up almost any golf book on Ireland, you’ll find two pages on Ballybunion, but only two lines (if any at all) on Greystones. Clearly, Ballybunion is a better course, but there are many golfers out there who do not want to play Ballybunion, or cannot afford it. There are also a lot of societies who want to stay local and are looking for value for money.
This book gives every 18 hole course its own page, where the course and golf experience are described. Courses are also ranked against a number of criteria, although I am not trying to say that one course is better than another based on the final score.
The true answer, of course, is that I want to play golf for a year, and lots of it. Getting a book deal is just a huge bonus!

Where am I member?
Greystones Golf Club, Co. Wicklow

What’s my handicap?
I play off a very variable 7

Is my golf getting better because I’m playing so much?
I wish! I have discovered a fade I never knew I had, and travelling so much means I have no opportunity to put it right. I also draw the ball. I also hit it straight. Deciding where to aim off the tee box is proving a nightmare.

What’s the best course I’ve played?
Depends on what you mean by best. To date (190 courses played) the most sensational challenge is Scrabo in Co. Down. And it costs £24 at weekends. Amazing views too.
The best views are from Narin & Portnoo, which also has the best run of holes (7 to 11) so far. Old Head of Kinsale also deserves a mention. It’s not often you’ll get the chance to hit a three iron out to sea over 300ft cliffs and watch the wind bring it back to the green.
The most unbelievable experience goes to Carne. It has to be seen to be believed.
The most peaceful is Headfort New, along with Rathcore.

What’s the worst?
In terms of quality, I’d say Dublin Mountain and Slievenamon. But these courses serve a specific purpose and appeal to a particular audience who don’t wish to play the big courses. It’s about knowing your market.
Far more infuriating are the courses that claim greatness (and often charge accordingly) when really they’re just average. The Smurfit course at the K Club is the biggest offender, but there are others.

Has a golf club refused you permission to play?
Not yet. In fact everyone has been exceptionally accommodating. I expected that clubs like Old Head, Ballybunion, Doonbeg, Portmarnock Old… would want letters from my publisher, but they have been very helpful. The only difficulties I run into are when it’s Ladies Day or a weekend. And even then I usually get out easily enough.

How many 18 hole courses are there?
Honestly, I don’t know. 360 approximately, but courses seem to crop up all the time and if they’re not GUI affiliated, it’s not easy hearing about them. For example, Scarke is close to me in New Ross but if I hadn’t driven past it I’d never have known it existed.

Do you get lonely in the camper van?
Absolutely, but fortunately the winter is over and clubhouses won’t be closing at 5pm anymore. It’s quite soul-destroying getting into the campervan at 5pm and closing up shop for the night. Then again, I’m not sitting in an office from 9 to 5 am I!

How does your wife take all of this?

What’s the title of the book?
Hooked: an amateur’s guide to the golf courses of Ireland.

Who is publishing the book and when?
Collins Press in Cork. ‘When’ is not yet decided - late 08 or early 09.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Donegal News Article 2/11/07

The peaceful beauty of Inishowen (Photo: North West Golf Club)

“You know,” said the man at Foyle Golf Club, “only 15% of road accidents are caused by drinking. That means that 85% of accidents are down to people who are sober. Now doesn’t that mean we’d lower the number of accidents if we all drank.”

I’m sure there was some logic to his argument, but as we were the only ones in the bar, clearly other people didn’t agree. Another weekday night on my golfing trip and another empty bar.

I’d slipped from Letterkenny through Londonderry on my way up to the beautiful Inishowen peninsula. Stopping at Foyle was an obvious choice and I had an entertaining round with Andrew and Drew at 8am on Saturday morning. Two young men who had taken up golf in the last four years and were playing off 9 and 10 respectively. It made my 7 handicap after 30 plus years seem rather unfulfilling. Then it was on to Greencastle which, according to my meticulously kept spreadsheet, was my 120th course. And that meant I was just over a third of the way through Ireland’s golf courses. 120 down, 220 to go. Writing a book about Ireland’s golf courses is a lot of fun, but it is a large undertaking. I’m away from my wife far too much, and playing so much golf can hurt your game. Believe me, I’ve found a fade I never knew I had and now can’t shake.

Greencastle is a nice, tidy little course that blends an original 9 holes of links with a newer 9 of more parkland holes. It is beautifully positioned on the coast, right on the water in fact, and it is open and windy. I played early on Sunday morning and got a good battering, the kind that turns an 8 iron into a 3 iron, and makes you lean into the wind with your head down. It wasn’t brutal but it cut to the bone. It is a course worth visiting for the 6th and the 12th holes alone. Both hugging the rocks along the shore, both asking you to hit shots over beaches. Exhilarating stuff. After a shower I went into the bar where the lady in charge had kept the place open for me the night before so I could watch the rugby World Cup final. I ordered lunch and chatted to two lads who had been behind me. ‘Windy’, I commented. They laughed. ‘That’s not wind,’ they said in unison. ‘Come back in January.’
I enjoyed myself in Greencastle and I thank them for their hospitality, but I’ll pass on the invitation.

My next stop was the mighty Ballyliffin. The story behind the club reads like a Hollywood blockbuster. A small, quaint club, built by the members with one tractor and one mower, that found itself in dire straits and close to insolvency. Then a white knight arrives (that would be Nick Faldo), and things start to change. And today, Ballyliffin is famous the world over, for very good reasons. It has two courses on the same field of dunes and yet they are quite different. But both are a mind-numbing challenge and will exhaust you mentally and physically. The beauty of the spot cannot be described in words but with 36 holes it is one of Ireland’s great golfing destinations. I probably didn’t get to enjoy the back 9 on Glashedy quite as much as I should. I teed off at 3.45pm and found myself alone on the 10th tee at 5.10pm in the gathering gloom. Should I stay or should I go, I wondered. I decided to continue but quickly realised it was a bad idea. Lost on a windswept links in the dark, with dunes that could swallow you up as you head for the only light source was not an attractive proposition. I started to run between shots and reckon I set a record of one hour and ten minutes to cover the back 9. My tee shot on 18 vanished into the gloom.

In the bar after my round, there was a big society outing kicking up a ruckus. One fella kept singing ‘I’ve got drink all over my face’ and urging others to join in. I didn’t know the song but I was sorely tempted to contribute my own drink to the proceedings. They were having a great time and I heard the prizes being handed out. 31 points won the day on the Old Links (the easier of the two courses). Everyone was happy and it reminded me that golf is not a game of winning and losing, it is simply a personal challenge. How often have you seen golfers hacking their way around a golf course, only to hit something sublime right at the end. ‘That’ll bring me back’, they say. And it will, time and again.

I headed for North West the next day, but not before seeing a couple fly into Ballyliffin by helicopter for lunch. Truly, it has moved up in the world.

The three amigos, the Marx brothers, call Eugene, Patsy and John what you like, but what a banter they had going round a windy North West golf course. On days like these you appreciate that club golf is a riot. Every good shot was insulted, every bad shot was applauded. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but highly amusing to an outsider like me. Eugene, the Secretary/Manager, had rustled up the other two to play with me in Tuesday’s meal deal event. €20 and you get good nosh afterwards. You can’t beat that, and North West has a good reputation too, dating back to 1891. There was some serious betting on the 1st tee. We started at 20, 20 and 20 and worked our way up to a euro, a euro and a euro. Big stuff this golf. Myself and Eugene were paired together and we both had off days, while Patsy, off a 2 handicap, did what good 2 handicappers do and showed us how to play a links course properly. John, a Scot, played well, but I know it will rile him if I say nothing more. Besides I owe him €3 – the cheque’s in the post, as they say.

On the 16th tee box I spoke quietly into my dictaphone, making a few comments on the course. This aroused the interest of the other three and I told them that I’d been recording them all day. The silence lasted all of three seconds before they were at it again. Club golf: you simply can’t beat it.

After lunch I left Inishowen and headed for Derry. There are many spots in Ireland that golfers need to explore and Inishowen is one of them. Neither North West or Greencastle are as impressive as Ballyliffin, but they offer strong tests, great scenery, friendly people and cheap pints. What more do you need?

An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses in Ireland, by Kevin Markham, is due to be published in early 2009, by Collins Press.

Photo: View down the 8th at Narin & Portnoo

Donegal News Article 27/10/2007

I first visited Donegal as a young boy, when we stayed at Rathmullan House. My abiding memory is the beach covered in jellyfish. That and a local golf course where I played with my father. I was nine years old. (Photos: Left - Bundoran, Below - the 8th at Narin & Portnoo)

It was a long time before I returned, but when I opened the door of my camper van at Bundoran last week, I was greeted by a full and vibrant rainbow. It felt like I was being welcomed back.

I am in the happy position of writing a golf book on the 18 hole courses of Ireland. All 340 of them. And that means playing every one. So here I am, in a camper van, travelling around Ireland. I’ve always felt that too much attention is paid to the great courses, and that the smaller courses are shoved rather unceremoniously into the night. For instance, I had played County Sligo and Strandhill the day before arriving in Bundoran, and Strandhill is rarely mentioned in the same breath as its more illustrious neighbour. Yet Strandhill is just as exciting and, in many places, far more challenging.

My run of links courses was set to continue, first with Bundoran and then with Donegal and Narin & Portnoo. From there I traveled to Letterkenny, up to Greencastle and on to 36 holes in one punishing day at Ballyliffin. To date I have been blessed by the October weather and that has made life considerably easier.

Bundoran is an open and rather quiet links course. It lacks the drama and beauty presented by Donegal, but it will surely punish golfers in the wind. Donegal, Murvagh as it is popularly known, was in a different class. It is a stunningly beautiful course in a picturesque location. It sits on its own dedicated peninsula and it feels as if the course has expanded into the landscape. Eddie Hackett used all the space made available to him, and from the high 8th tee box you can see golfers heading in every direction. Every element of the course appeals and despite its enormous length it is accessible to all golfers, good or bad. The fairways are generous and 11 holes fall into the flat category, weaving between the dunes. The other seven (holes 5 to 11) present many more challenges with fairways that buckle as they press into the larger dunes by the seashore. I played with members Eamonn and John, a couple of gentlemen in their seventies, and playing off 6 and 10 handicaps. They certainly showed me a thing or two about how to play the course, although their greatest delight was telling me about the skeleton discovered under the revamped 1st green. Too old to be of interest to the Garda it was too young to be of interest to archaeologists. Perhaps the hole should be renamed ‘Jane Doe’ in her honour.

It is always disappointing when you see clubhouses empty in the evenings, but I suppose Donegal is a long way from anywhere. Still, to find yourself the only person in the clubhouse at 7pm, with the girl behind the bar waiting patiently for you, is quite unnerving. It is something I hear being lamented in clubs all over the country – earlier travels have taken me through Waterford, Cork and Tipperary, as well as County Down – and random breath-testing is being blamed. Which begs the question: ‘does everyone in Ireland drink?’ And can someone not be nominated as a driver for an evening, with the position switching week to week?

As much as I enjoyed Murvagh, it was Narin and Portnoo that took my breath away. Commonly perceived as being too far from anywhere to be ranked as a must-play golfing location, all that is about to change following the significant changes at the club. After all, how many courses go from a par of 69 to par 73 in one fell swoop? And how many courses can boast three consecutive par fives? I had a very entertaining meeting on the 8th tee with Martin Whelan, one of the longest serving members at the club. He was looking for golf balls; I was looking for some way to stop fading mine. He felt that with many older members, and many of these high-handicappers, the new layout was too difficult for them. With four par fives on the back 9 it is undoubtedly a slog to get home and I was exhausted walking off 18, so I empathise with his comments. But if Narin & Portnoo is to force its way into the list of the best courses in Ireland, then such changes are required. And even though there are some dull holes at the start, this course deserves to be recognised. I have played 120 courses to date on my travels, and I have yet to find a run of holes as spectacular or as challenging as 7 to 11. You are almost sliding into the Atlantic on the 8th green and 9th hole, and the stunning panorama may distract you from the matter in hand.

I love hearing stories, and Martin had some to tell about his father, one of the first Garda in the State in 1922, and his mother whom he met at the foot of Mount Errigal. To raise your arm and point at the aforementioned peak makes you realise how small our country is. And the feeling continued when Martin looked at my jumper (Greystones Golf Club) and asked if I knew Kevin Daly, our former pro. Martin had once played with him in a pro-am. Small country; small world.

From Narin I drove over the Blue Stack Mountains. I must apologise to any drivers caught behind me but the camper van does not corner well and on a winding road anything over 50kmh was likely to topple me. The drive to Glenties on my way to Letterkenny took me past Lough Finn. It was a perfect, sunny day and it reminded me of England’s famed Lake District. The lake shimmered in the light and a golden glow covered the mountainsides. Yes, Donegal’s interior is every bit as beautiful as its coastline.

I expected Letterkenny to be a let down after five rounds on links courses, but it was better than I had hoped. €2 million has been spent and 150 miles of drainage pipes have dramatically improved the formerly boggy bottom holes (1 to 11). Today the course boasts water features on the first 10 holes. Ditches and ponds are real hazards and it is an enticing challenge to play your way around them. The club wants to leave the ponds in a rough and ready state to encourage wildlife, presumably from the Lough Swilly estuary alongside, and to discourage golfers going anywhere near them. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon and played the following morning, and the clubhouse was closed the entire time. But not the changing rooms. I understand that demand can be very quiet for food and drink at this time of year but someone, please, turn on the hot water.

I am heading to Greencastle, Ballyliffin and North West in the week ahead, and I will be returning to Portsalon and the surrounding courses in April next year. It is a trip I will be looking forward to. I will also bring my wife to the petrol station outside Newmills where a young collie has taken up sentry. As I filled up the camper van I watched as she pursued cars down the road, snapping at the tyres. My wife didn’t believe me when I told her that it only chased black cars. Donegal is home to beautiful countryside, welcoming people and, evidently, odd dogs.

An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses in Ireland is due to be published in early 2009, by Collins Press.