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.
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