Friday, March 21, 2008

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.

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