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

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