Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dingle danger

Dingle is a long way along the coast, heading West, seemingly forever. Yet when I passed through there were tourists flocking about, heads twitching like the pigeons on St. Stephen’s Green. It was good to see the town so busy at a time when the number of American tourists is falling.

I carried on to Ceann Sibeal Golf Club which is even further West. For a links course it is not what you expect at all. Sitting under three peaks, known as the Three Sisters, on one side and Croaghmarhin on the other, and with Great Blasket Island silhouetted against the sky, it is a remarkable spot that feels truly Irish. But the course is slightly inland. [Photo: par 5 13th green. Off the tee, to the right, you can drive over the horse if you prefer!]

I bumped into a Ladies team from Ceann Sibeal when I was at Skibbereen last week – where I also met a team from Monkstown. I asked a group of three if anyone would be interested in playing a round of golf when I was due at their club the following week. I might as well have had three heads, the way they looked at me. A man from Cork told me later that Kerry folk are ‘cute’: they won’t give anything away until you lay your cards on the table. Fortunately, Joe, the team’s driver appeared and arrangements were made.

Due to a mix up (my fault) I ended up playing the first 9 on my own, starting at 6.45am. I was walking down the 5th when a buggy whizzed over. I thought I was in trouble for playing too early. Not at all. He was forewarning me that the irrigation system was about to kick in on the 5th green. Sure enough, it started as I approached. I was grateful for the heads-up as I was reminded of a less fortunate incident at Ballykisteen last year. I was standing in front of the pro shop, by the 9th green, when the sprinklers came on. It was about 8am on a gorgeous, sunny morning and in a matter of seconds I was soaked. My playing partners were still getting their clubs out of their car and were completely perplexed as I splashed by in a rather foul mood. [Photo: 5th green, with Three Sisters behind]

Back to Ceann Sibeal, or the ‘course at Dingle’ as many people prefer to call it – the Americans most notably. I hooked up with Joe for the second 9 and once again it proved how useful it is to play with someone who knows the course. From struggling to make bogey, I picked up a couple of birdies, and it was a useful lesson to watch someone well versed in the arts of bump and run. And at Dingle it is something you need to master if you want to do well. Joe plays off 9 (he’s in his 60s), which I imagine would be a 5 or 6 anywhere else.

Sadly I couldn’t hang around as I had to be in Tralee for 2pm, and as luck would have it, I ran into a slice of country life just after leaving the club…

On your bike at Castleisland

It’s funny how things come around. At Killarney I bumped into a Ladies team from Monkstown, having met another of their teams a week before at Skibbereen.

After leaving Killarney, I parked overnight at Castleisland and played very early in the morning. I was putting my kit away afterwards when I heard a motorbike pull in. It reminded me to write down that I’d met a German couple, travelling around Kerry by motorbike, playing a bit of golf along the way. I’d first met Franz and Christine at the Ring of Kerry golf club on Tuesday (May 20), first at the 11th tee box, and then afterwards as they were preparing to leave for Killarney. They were playing three courses as part of one of those Passport special offers, and they were hiring clubs as they went – I don’t imagine that golf clubs and a motorbike make happy companions. [Photo: Drive over the gorge on 7 – trust me, it looks more terrifying when you’re standing there]

Turns out that the motorbike at Castleisland was carrying Franz and Christine! We had a chat and they said they were definitely coming back to Ireland to play golf, but without the motorbike. Where, they asked, was the best place to play golf? Always a tough question, but I felt they’d got it right first time by coming to Kerry.

After they’d hired their clubs I had a peak to see what the golf club had given them. They weren’t names I recognised but they were full sets with woods and wedges. I played at Mulranny a couple of years ago, hired clubs for a tenner and discovered on the 1st tee that I had a driver, a putter, a five iron and five wedges. It was an interesting and creative game!

I also checked how many golf balls they had. After hearing that their handicaps were in the mid-20s I handed over six extra golf balls to help them on their way. Castleisland has some dull, open holes to start, but from the 9th on it gets very dangerous with some seriously wild rough that will not give your ball back. On holes 7 and 18 you have to drive over a gorge (is 80 yards wide and 20 feet deep a gorge?) that is crammed with trees and it is impenetrable. Wait till you walk over the bridges.

At some stage I plan to produce a ‘best of’ list. And Eilis’s cheesecake will be up there. When I arrived in the evening I ordered a pint. And there, right in front of me, was a plate of cheesecake. As my wife likes to say: it was calling to me. Evidently both varieties were calling too, because Eilis gave me a slice of plain and a slice of chocolate. The apple pie was calling too, but I resisted.

[Photo: The downhill par three 9th]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Killarney – oh deer!

So, the mighty Killarney, with its beautiful lake and its perfect backdrop of mountains (MacGillycuddy Reeks). A bit like Waterville, Killarney has its share of buses shipping the golfing tourists in and out. I heard Germans, French and Americans, and my round in the afternoon (Mahony’s Point) was packed to the point of stupidity (see pic). I gave up after 9 holes, two and a half hours later, left my clubs in the camper van and walked the rest. There was a Ladies’ match directly behind me and I felt very sorry for them as the three and four balls in front of me seemed to spend forever looking for balls and whizzing about in their buggies. At one stage I could see a five ball, yet I didn’t see one ranger on the course.

Perhaps it’s a case of ‘I’ve paid my €100 green fee so I’m damn well going to do as I please.’ I’d played Mahony’s a couple of times in my life (12 and 30) and it is not ageing well. Not as challenging or as interesting as it should be for €100.

My first round was on Killeen, a beautiful parkland course set in a picture-perfect natural setting. I spent more time photographing the exceptionally camera-friendly deer than the golf holes. Even on the 1st, one wandered across the front of the green and down onto the lakeshore. But every second hole or so they seemed to appear. Unless there was only one and it was being strategically moved around the place to impress me! My one big tip for Killeen would be to play the 4th from the blue tee, which sits on a little rocky outcrop in the lake. [Photo: Par 4 8th Killeen]

After my first round – Killeen, at €130 – I had lunch in the clubhouse. A group of ladies wearing yellow walked in. Surely not I thought as I caught sight of the emblem on their jumpers. Having met one Monkstown Ladies team at Skibbereen the week before, here was another one. Here they were playing against Cork. Apparently the Ladies Senior teams have to play at a neutral venue. Fair enough, but Killarney is a long way from Cork. It’s certainly not the kind of distance where you can nip down the road for a practice round. On both occasions Monkstown won. [Photo: Par 4 18th Killeen]

Monday, May 26, 2008

Killarney Lackabane

Killarney’s third course is quite separate, and as you walk up to the clubhouse there’s an old pine on your left. It is very askew. It seems rather fitting as it matches the thinking of whoever decided a third course was needed at Killarney. One member – anonymous of course – said it was a millstone around their necks. A bit harsh perhaps but shaping a course around a huge factory without any views of the lake seems an odd decision. There’s a separate clubhouse too so it is all rather removed from the two main courses – Killeen and Mahony’s Point – which I play tomorrow.

It is tough golf, and having played the main courses some years ago, it is a much sterner test that calls for accuracy off the tee and an appreciation of what lies hidden behind the rolls of the fairway. I suspect it will always be the poor relation, but don’t let that put you off playing it.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Beautiful Beaufort

I wish I could tell you how beautiful it is here, but the mountains that give this course its backdrop were shrouded in haze. The 11th hits straight at the slopes that rise to a stunning peak, which I could just about see, and you can always look over your shoulder for a glimpse.

I wish I could tell you how beautiful it is here, but the new hotel and apartment block are set to ruin the landscape on this peaceful, rather idyllic golf course. New owners have taken over the club and, as always seems to be the way, they think that a hotel and apartments will attract more golfers/business, especially with the Gap of Dunloe just up the road. I’m not saying they’re wrong – I wouldn’t know a thing about the tourism business – but doesn’t it just seem that here’s another golf course with a ubiquitous hotel and/or holiday accommodation. The Ring of Kerry Golf Club has them, right in the heart of the course, and it just detracts from the holes and the setting. This hotel will do the same, but then it’s a money game isn’t it! The 12th century Castle Core stands untouched in one corner of the course (behind the current par three 13th), and it seems to be making its feelings pretty clear (see pic)!

With new ownership, things have to change, and one sad change is that the rather stunning entrance to the club (and old house that remains private) will be no more.

Apart from that, this is one of the most peaceful and relaxing rounds of golf I’ve played. It’s not difficult, just gentle. The opening 9 holes are the best, but the 11th was my favourite: as you head for a farm you get that wonderful country smell of cow manure. Now, if only they could direct it towards the hotel. [Photo: Par five 11th]

And one final comment: I may be a short-arse, but I know that 80 of my paces is 100 yards, and the measurements from the fairway markers just seem wrong.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The drama of Dooks

So, Friday morning, and Charlie and I were set to play Dooks. It’s not often you’re lucky enough to play the likes of Waterville and Dooks on consecutive days. Much has been said about the new changes at Dooks, so I was fuming when I woke up to rain. All through breakfast we were looking out at the dark skies. On the drive to Dooks we were looking at the dark skies, and just before we got to the club the clouds disappeared and the sun got its act together. It must have been 16 degrees when we teed off at 9am. [Photo: Views from the 2nd green]

I have never played Dooks before but Dave Kirby, a Greystones golfer, is a member down here and waxes lyrical about the place. In its new form it is absolutely stunning and I can see why. A links course that is so different to Waterville and yet every bit as good. Perhaps better in some ways: it needs a more tactical approach that’s for sure. And the scenery is breath-taking. I mean it. You have to stop and pinch yourself just to believe it’s real. Macgillycuddy Reeks, Dingle Bay and the Dingle peninsula, the hills of Glenbeigh… Closer to the course are the usual wildlife characters: hares and rabbits, and it was great to see orchids growing in the rough along the fairways – it says something for the type of fertilisers the club must use. [Photo: An out of focus Common Spotted Orchid]

There’s the Caragh River (pictured below) which you will cross before you turn down to the club. It is also visible from the 2nd and 4th tee boxes where it exits into the bay. It is very good for salmon fishing I’m told and it’s not hard to see why. Standing on any of the holes at Dooks you can see why Kerry is called The Kingdom.

The golf was good, bad and indifferent. Charlie is a 16 handicapper and hasn’t played in almost a year, so when he birdied 17 and 18 (Index 4 and 6) I got the impression he was likely to play a little more frequently!

Friday, May 23, 2008

10 Years To The Day

After the very, very wet day on Wednesday, when it rained non-stop from 3am to 6pm, I elected not to play golf – no surprises there. I met Jim O’Brien, the General Manager, and we had a long conversation about golf and all the rest. My favourite part was when he said he’d been a member of 17 golf clubs in Ireland. And then to make the day even worse, he mentioned he was off to Cardiff for the Heineken Cup final. So I spent the evening in the Waterville Lakeside Hotel drowning my sorrows, only to flee when I discovered it was the night of the Manchester vs. Chelsea game. Football doesn’t do it for me!

Thursday morning, May 22, was beautiful, so I was on the 1st at Skellig Bay by 7am, as I was due at Waterville at 1pm. The course sits on a clifftop (13, 14 and 15 are right on it) with superb views – although even better was to come at Waterville and Dooks – and one of the most unique features on an Irish golf course, or any course for that matter: dry stone walls. [Photo: par three 16th and other holes behind]

When you travel deep into the Irish countryside you will see miles and miles of these beautiful walls, and you wonder how long it took to build them. You see them climbing mountainsides in perfect straight lines and you ask yourself how they got the stone up there. And now, in the 21st Century, they’re being used (and rebuilt in some cases) to define golf holes at Skellig Bay. It’s a remarkable sight and this brand new course has all the touches you’d want from a modern course – as well as a few ‘American’ ones [Photo: Dolmen between holes 2 and 3].

There is no clubhouse, but the hotel has a golf shop and locker rooms downstairs, and golfers get good deals on accommodation.

Waterville came next, and as I waited for my best mate, Charlie, I realised that the last time I had been there was almost exactly 10 years before, on my honeymoon. Fiona and I had spent the week at Parcnasilla (the new version is opening at the end of May after massive refurbishment and a bloody great housing development) and Charlie was living and working in Killarney so we agreed to meet up at Waterville. Fiona was being her patient self as we went into the clubhouse and discovered that the green fee was IR £50. We thought that was a fortune and returned to Parcnasilla to play their pretty 9 hole course instead. 50 quid seemed like a rip-off, but these days it’s €180! It’s owned by some American consortium and went through considerable design changes a few years back, and, a bit like the Old Head and Doonbeg, it is aimed at Americans with dosh. Perhaps that will be changing in the near future.

And today it is a magnificent creation. Right from the 1st tee, after you’ve passed the statue of Payne Stewart, you are struck by how beautiful the course is. And it just gets better and better. Charlie and I were stunned by how amazing it looked and by how thrilling it was to play. [Photo: Par 5, 'Tranquility', looking back from the green]

I’ve known Charlie all my life, and when we were about 12 or 13 we ended up playing golf at O’Mahony’s Point (Killarney). On 18 we decided to hit a drive, simultaneously, into the lake. And since then it has become a bit of a tradition. Tralee, The European, The Island, Woodbrook, even Machrihanish in Scotland. So Waterville was next on our list. Standing on the 3rd tee, overlooking the River Inny estuary, we teed up a couple of old balls and counted to three. Embarrassingly, and for the first time I might add, neither of us found the water. One hit the rocks; the other found a field. We moved on, quickly. [Photo: view from the 13th tee]

After the game we drove back to Killarney where Charlie was staying, and got ready for a boys’ night out in the town. But Charlie had spent 6 hours driving from Wicklow to Waterville, and I had been up early to play Skellig Bay, and by 9.30 we were practically asleep in Chapter 40 – a new restaurant in Killarney. I was asleep in my camper van by 10pm and never heard the rain.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Round Robin - Kenmare and Ring of Kerry

I didn’t manage to get up a blog yesterday after my rounds at Kenmare and Ring of Kerry. My morning round took slightly longer that expected as I hooked up with three elderly gentlemen on the 3rd tee: Steve, Peter and Tom (an Irishman, an Englishman and an American – who was embarrassed to be American, thanks to George W). It was a bit slow (four and a half hours), but very enjoyable although it was a shame that the tide was out as the estuary to Kemare Bay was one puddle of mud – and it didn’t smell too good! Balls were being lost frequently, and my own tally was: one lost, 10 found.
[Photo: Tom plays out of the bunker on the par five 4th. Caha Mountains behind]

After that I raced off – OK, the camper van doesn’t ‘race’ but I got the old girl up to 80kph – to Ring of Kerry and went straight out. Again it took longer than expected as a job for one of my clients ran into trouble and I spent 30 minutes on the excellent par three 13th (see pic) trying to sort it out. I had a 5, which I put down to frustration – although that doesn’t excuse an 8 on the 6th (two balls OB), leading to a 13 over total.

From there it was a very long drive to Waterville. It’s not a long way, it’s just the roads are abominable and the camper van was likely to take flight if I went over 40kph. This is the Ring of Kerry! I have no idea how the big buses manage it – it is truly lethal.

When I left Bantry on Monday morning I had a free day. I’d got ahead of my schedule as I wanted to play the Scratch Cup at Bantry Bay, so I drove down to Garnish Island and then up over Healy’s Pass, where I left Cork (see pic) and entered Kerry. I pulled into Kenmare town in the afternoon and went to Jam, a superb coffee shop on the main street with little alcoves and great character. And fabulous food.

A bit later, I was in the Kenmare Golf Club clubhouse that has some intriguing history of its own: it was an old Indian hunting lodge and was brought back to Ireland by Lord Lansdowne. Nowadays it has new residents – one being a little robin. I was sitting on a sofa while an English guy waited to be served at the bar. The robin flew in, hopped past my feet and then flew up onto the Heineken tap, just a couple of feet away from the man at the bar. At this point, the English guy asked for a pint, but the bird flew off into the back. He turned to me and, completely straight faced, said:

“Birds behind the bar these days.”

My round at the hilly Ring of Kerry brought back memories. It was here, about 8 years ago, that I watched my wife slide sideways down the almost sheer 11th fairway in a buggy, trying to stop its descent by using her foot. Please, no comments about women drivers. It is hilly enough that a buggy helps, but if you drive you won’t get to appreciate the perfect views over Kenmare Bay.

I’m currently in Waterville waiting to play Skellig Bay. Unfortunately it started raining at 3am and it has yet to stop (2pm). I have all day, so I’m hoping for some clear skies soon.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Scratch at Bantry Bay

Just to keep things ticking over with my handicap I enter competitions from time to time, and a Junior Scratch at Bantry Bay was too good to miss. The location is stunning, and even if your golf is rubbish you get the chance to revel in the scenery. Bantry Bay is beautiful, ensconced in a ring of mountains, looking over glorious stretches of water. Perhaps the distractions were the reason my golf was rubbish. I played with Ronan Nagle, who didn't have much luck either. The meeting turned out to be fortuitous since his dad, Denis, is the Manager at Kilrush Golf Club where I will be in a few weeks, and a member of Ballybunion, and Ronan’s brother is a member at Dromoland Castle. It makes things a lot easier when I try to arrange tee times. He plays off 18 and we had a very relaxed if tiring round. Off the back sticks, Bantry Bay is 6,700 yards and feels an awful lot longer with its blind drives and tumbling hills. As we struggled up to the 9th tee box we talked about Mahon – a really fun Cork City course – and he told me that the current holes 1 and 2, used to be 17 and 18, and they were known as ‘heart attack hill’. If you play there you’ll know why! I felt the same way about Bantry Bay on a number of occasions, but the views tend to sustain you. Walking up to the par three 9th green (see pic) is one of the highlights, as is the 10th tee, where you are met by views across the sea and islands to the Beara Mountains, Sheep's Head and the Mizen Peninsula.

The greens are a little bit crazy, with substantial mounding around them and also holding them at some severe angles. It’s over the top – it doesn’t sit with the location, and I really wasn’t surprised when I found out afterwards that these were Christy O’Connor Jr designs. On what is, essentially, an impressive country course, which obviously has intentions of being something more (and will be in time), the greens are an anomaly. On 14, Ronan was on the front of the green, putted maybe 30 feet up the slope and failed to get over the ridge. His ball ended up at the bottom again. He four putted. But he had never played there before so it was understandable. The club’s Captain however, playing in the same event, five putted. If that doesn’t indicate how difficult these big greens can be then nothing will.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Skibbereen and Monkstown

I played Skibbereen at 6.30am, before the regular Sunday competition started (all the greens had been cut and they were superb). Not surprisingly there were no other cars in the car park. When I finished at 9.30, the car park was almost full, apart from the left hand side – empty but for one car. It was obvious why: an errant drive off 18 could easily reach. I laughed when I noticed that the lone car had a Dublin number plate – clearly not someone in the know.

A while later in the bar, some of the members were teasing Pat Murphy, who had proved my theory and sent a ball straight through the car park. At this moment in time I have yet to return to my camper van, so I’m hoping there are no new holes. [Photo: the brilliant par four 13th at Skibbereen]

The previous evening, as I approached the clubhouse, I politely asked two ladies standing outside where the locker rooms were. One pointed round the side, telling me that the men’s room was open, but the ladies’ was locked because “they heard you were coming.” I was appalled: usually I have to be in the clubhouse for 20 minutes before I get such a reaction.

Saturday had been a big match day for the ladies, with three teams in action. The two teams from Ceann Sibéal (Dingle) had come a long way, and both had lost. The ladies from Monkstown, decked out in yellow jumpers, and with good support, had won. I was talking to them afterwards, discussing their course and Bandon. I have put up a Bandon blog, but I overlooked Monkstown where, bizarrely, I met my publisher as he came in after a Classic event. Con is not really a golfer so it was very odd to see him there.

I played Monkstown early the following morning (Friday) and played the 18th with two older gents who had caught up with me. They complained about the threeball in front of them, who hadn’t let them through for several holes and only did so when they were asked – or ‘begged’ as one of them put it. As we waited on the 18th, watching two women who had cut-in look for a ball for at least five minutes, oblivious to what was behind, I empathised.

I ended up in the bar with another older gentleman, Derry, talking golf, the demise of Harbour Point and other important things – namely that the best shower at Monkstown is the third on the right! The clubhouse is fantastic with good changing rooms and a big, comfortable bar and restaurant. The course is not as ‘big’, being on the short side, but it is colourful and a lot of fun. And the downhill 3rd hole [Photo: across the 3rd fairway to Cork Harbour] is a nightmare waiting to happen if you haven’t played the course before.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The movie effect – Bandon

You know the story: someone tells you about this brilliant movie. It’s the best thing they’ve ever seen, and they make you promise to go and see it. So you do. And it’s terrible. Terms of Endearment – my parents walked out after 20 minutes; Closer - I wanted to scream. The reverse is also true: someone says a movie is rubbish, so you expect the worse and then you’re pleasantly surprised. OK, sometimes you’re told it’s rubbish and it truly is – Ali G, Shrek the Third – but you get where I’m coming from.

So when I was told that Bandon was rather rubbish I went there with low expectations. You start with some straightforward parkland fayre, but it develops into a far more entertaining affair as the round progresses.

I played with Donal Hannon who has been a member for just a year and plays off 18 - so I was intrigued to see his reverse grip. As we walked down to 5 he mentioned that the Earl of Bandon was kidnapped in the 1920s. When I asked him if that was in 1924, he looked surprised and said he didn’t know. But I cheated. I’d looked at the Presidents’ board the night before and seen that between 1909 and 1924, the President was the 4th Earl of Bandon; between 1925 and 1932 it was 5th Earl. The reason the subject came up became quickly apparent. The rather sadly neglected, but still magnificent, Castle Bernard, overlooks holes 5 to 7 (see pic). The marble that had been around the front door was removed (stolen) some years ago, and trees are growing up inside, but wouldn’t it make a magnificent clubhouse?

And one final observation on Bandon – it’s good to see that some things are taken seriously! A lot of clubs could do with a sign like this by their 1st tee – Greystones included – and I saw the Ranger roaring off in his buggy a couple of times.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The running man of Mahon

It’s 6.30am and a car pulls up next to the camper van at Mahon Golf Club. I hear the unmistakable sound of clubs and trolley. I’m out of bed and eating breakfast, but 6.30am is just a bit mad.

By 7am I am on the 1st tee, somewhat confused. With the dew I can clearly see the tracks of the mystery man – only there appears to be more than one, with two or three sets of footprints heading off in different directions. As I continue to follow these odd trails, I finally encounter the other golfer as I play the 6th hole, overlooking the estuary. [Photo: Par three 4th, overlooking Lough Mahon at low tide]

“Beautiful day,” he calls out as goes up the 7th. The man is running and he’s left his bag behind on the tee. I’m about to point out the obvious, but think better of it. The man reaches his drive, looks at it, turns and then runs back for his trolley. He continues running, pulling the trolley to the ball, hitting his second shot and then repeating the process, running up and then back. I’m dumbfounded. Later, I ask Peter in the shop about this. He laughs and tells me that this is John Horgan, who is 67 years old. I know they’re talking about bringing in some new kind of faster golf competitions – Power Golf – but this is mental.

Mahon was a piece of magic. You don’t expect a course this good that’s ‘Municipal’. The tee box for 5 and 11 sits out in the estuary and requires you to drive over it. 11 is a big drive with a long carry over water. I hit a bad one, and watched my ball hit the rocks on the far side. There was no splash because it was low tide, and as I rounded the estuary there were dozens and dozens of balls lying on the mud, tantalisingly out of reach. Except one. Having lost one I thought I’d replace it. I ventured down over the slippery rocks and stepped onto the mud. Bad idea. I began to sink, but I’d come this far so I was determined to claim my ball. As I sank lower I scooped up the ball with a three iron and beat a retreat before the mud oozed over the top of my shoe. And what a find: a brand new Titleist emblazoned with Ballybunion Golf Club. Clearly Mahon attracts the higher end of the market!

And after all that, I found my own ball further up the fairway.

There’s one other touch that I particularly enjoyed at Mahon: the walk under Cork’s South Ring Road, which you take to reach 15 and 16, again along the estuary, before returning the same way. It was about 8.30am when I headed through the tunnel, and the traffic was at a standstill overhead. They’re all on their way to work and I’m playing golf. How great is that! [Photo: Par four 15th with excellent views of stationary traffic]

I was at nearby Douglas in the afternoon – if you’re going from one to the other, Peter, at Mahon, gives excellent directions – and I encountered four English gentlemen on the 12th. I encountered them again in the bar and we got to talking. When they found out what I was doing, one of them said: “You can put in your book that you met four Brits on the 12th hole and they were playing absolute crap!” So here it is.

Later in the round I caught up to three threeballs, also English, who were on a quick tour – playing Harbour Point (in excellent condition apparently, despite next May’s looming closure), Cork (a bit too tough for some of them) and Lee Valley, which picked them all up from the airport, at no charge, and had them playing for €35 a head. Now that’s a pretty sweet deal, isn’t it! Good on Lee Valley for devising that marketing ploy, and keep them coming. [Photo: Par four 17th at Douglas. This English guy has just hit his drive about 350 yards]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Contrasts at Cork

“So what do you think of Fota Island?”
“Grand,” Aidan replied.
“Grand? Is that it?”
“Well, it’s a bit easy.”

Such precociousness from one so young. Aidan is 16… 17 next week he informed me hastily. Funny how the young can’t wait to get older, while the rest of us pine to be that age again. Maybe it’s the lack of hair.

But his point is well made. We were standing on the 17th tee at Cork, and having played some of the most stunning and decidedly difficult holes that I’d encountered for some time, I knew what he was getting at. Fota Island is beautiful and luxurious, but it can play easy, it will let you away with mistakes and it eggs you on. Cork on the other hand, can destroy you on any number of holes (4 to 9 most notably), but you’ll be thrilled whatever way it turns out. [Photo: view back over the quarry to the 8th tee box]

I hooked up with Aidan on 16 when he caught up with me. The round was almost 4 hours long - an eternity for me – as I was stuck behind a long queue of three and fourballs, and it made sense to play together. He plays off 11 and wellies the ball when he can, yet has a delicate touch around the green. Flings his bag around his shoulders like it's a feather.

Looks like I’ll be putting in a word for him at the Old Head, where he’d like to be a caddy for the summer. You can certainly make money down there, and Americans tip generously I believe. I was telling him the tales I’d heard when Michael, a Yank, caddied for me back in October. He’s unlikely to be caddying for anyone lower than his own handicap, that’s for sure.

Not only is it a brilliant (if variable) course, there are a couple of entertaining moments along the way: on 4 you drive over a beach, and the flotsam and jetsam is always amusing to pick out: a beer keg and a tyre on this occasion; on 5 you actually drive over an old kiln (see pics - the drive is at the small white dot you can see behind the kiln. The green is far right, out bon the little peninsula), while on 11, a lone chestnut tree on the left is worth a little detour (see pic). You have to confess, these sorts of things really add a different dimension to a round of golf. And then there’s the whole lime quarry thing going on. You won’t find many courses with that, will you!

Full on at Fota Island

How many courses in Ireland give you the opportunity to hear monkeys being fed? Or how about an escaped lemur wandering up the 4th fairway? Answer: 1. Fota Island sits next to a wildlife park so you might hear the occasional sound that will seem very out of place. Of course, in such a beautiful wooded and mature setting there is an abundance of native wildlife, with red squirrels rushing between the trees – one lives just outside the clubhouse – and swans and ducks relaxing in the pretty ponds scattered about the course. It adds tremendously to the golfing experience, which is superb. Golf aside, the facilities are amazing. The locker rooms are the height of luxury – how often can you open the door of your shower and walk five paces to reach the controls. There’s a Turkish Bath too. And you could spend all day in the bar – I know I did. [Photo: tee shot on par 5 18th]

Beautiful and picturesque golf, that’s hard enough to challenge you, but generous enough to let you away with mistakes. In fact, it encourages you to score and that, for me, makes for very rewarding golf. And then you have the buzzing clubhouse. My thanks to Seamus, Director of Marketing, who made me feel very welcome - as did everyone.

Fota Island is one of the top parkland courses in Ireland, and it deserves to be there. There will always be a debate about which is the best – choose between Fota Island, Mount Juliet, The K Club, Druid’s Glen, PGA National and Adare Manor – but Fota Island is definitely in the top two or three. I have yet to play in Northern Ireland, so I’m sure that list will expand in the months ahead.

And one last thing, are there many courses out there with a Ha Ha wall? And no, I’m not being funny.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Catching the tube at Castlemartyr

This is the start of a three week, 29 course trip and it took me three hours to get to Castlemartyr, the ‘newest’ course I’ve played so far, with the back 9 only open a few months. So I was stiff after the drive – cough – an abysmal 17 over!

The Capella Hotel group own the whole affair and the hotel is, by all accounts, divine. It’s a good drive in and it’s such a shame that the beautiful water on the right of the road doesn’t come in to play on the course. Or the castle ruins for that matter. It certainly adds to the experience. And as well as the hotel there are lodges you can rent, so it’s a great base to play golf. When you consider that Fota Island is 20 minutes away (with its own hotel I might add), this is a good base for some great inland golf.

On the golf front, the clubhouse is still being constructed, but what a remarkable beast it is going to be – see pic. Timber flanks and a flattened tube like shape may not sound enthralling, but it is certainly different. At the moment you can play this quality course for €50 – a discount on the anticipated €95 because of the lack of the facilities, which are housed in prefabs. I’d have to say that prefabs they may be, but they’re better than many of the facilities I’ve used on my travels. [Photo: Par three 12th]

It was a perfect day, in the 20s and gorgeous sunshine. You couldn’t ask for better conditions – just a shame about the golf.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New Forest & Mount Temple

New Forest is a nice touch of luxury - an 18th century manor house is now home to the clubhouse. As you walk from the locker rooms up to the bar/restaurant, the stone steps show the wear and tear of over 200 years of traipsing up and down. Each step is gently indented in the middle. Can't be many clubhouses around that boast a history like that.

The golf course is a spanking new affair and at 7am it was wonderfully misty [Photo: Par 5 5th], making the silence thick and damp. By about 7.30 the birds had started and it broke the spell somewhat. As you walk from the walled garden 9th par three (Coollattin anyone?) you have a long walk to the 10th, and the birds seem to be all you hear. Arrive at the 11th and you'll discover something about the course: it's tough. 11 is a par three of 207 yards, with some water along the left and trees on the right. Its Index is 17!

The staff are very friendly - and it had nothing to do with the arrival of some young male actor from Fair City - and were quick to give me directions to Mount Temple.

And what a different story Mount Temple was. It bills itself as a Golf & Country Club, with a Championship course. No, no, no! If this was a championship course would you see rabbits like this on the tee box. Evidently, someone agreed with me, judging by the bunny on the 8th tee box, and by the 17th I noticed that the rabbit had retreated sensibly to the ladies' tee.

Mount Temple is a fun country course, but let's not get too carried away.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The courses of Offaly

Let’s just say I knew I had arrived in Offaly. The wonderful mug of Brian Cowen was everywhere. I was on my way to Castle Barna when the first billboard appeared, and then every 100 yards thereafter. A popular man, our Brian. Round here at least!

I had a long chat with Evelyn Mangan at Castle Barna. Here is a young woman who loves the idea of golf but is terrified she might get addicted. Well, there’s only one way to find out… Castle Barna have run beginner evenings for ladies and they have proved very popular. Clearly Evelyn is itching to get back to it. [Photo: Castle Barna par 4 2nd]

Brian greeted me again, countless times, as I drove to Tullamore, a rather smart and elegant course that stretches through glorious woodland. In the bar I bumped into the charming Marie, head waitress and very much lady-in-charge. We chatted, about golf, my travels, her partner who is a member at Tullamore and Esker Hills and plays off 4 (I hate him already), and Castle Barna was mentioned.

“Every county needs a Castle Barna,” she said.

It was an interesting comment and I knew what she meant. If I said it was a straightforward course you might think I’m being insulting, but far from it. Castle Barna is a fun course with simple, unfussy design, striking ash trees and good greens. Good and bad golfers alike keep the club busy and while it doesn’t have the pedigree and maturity of the Portarlingtons and Tullamores of this world, it serves a very important function. Societies love it, and these days that’s the bread and butter for golf courses.

Back at Tullamore, the President, Tom Harney, arrived in the bar after I’d finished my round. He hadn’t known that I was coming and was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t managed to play with anyone. He would have played a round with me himself, he said. “I could have shown you all the nice woods where I usually end up.” I can well believe it. The woods will cause plenty of problems and some tee shots are seriously hampered. There’s nothing worse than looking at a tree off the tee and saying: ‘whatever you do, don’t hit it into that tree’ and then hitting it into that tree. It happened to me on hole 14, a long and lethal par four and Index 1. The tree was kind and deflected me back onto the fairway, but I doubt it’s that generous more than once a year.
[Photo: Tullamore par 5 4th]

Before I paid for my breakfast, I looked out the window to the practice green where an older lady was knocking balls back and forth. Her head stayed still, her body stayed still, and just her shoulders rotated. Three putts from 15 feet, and two of them dropped beautifully into the cup. I’m not a great putter, by any stretch of the imagination, so, Ma’am, I don’t know who you are, but thank you. I took your perfect rhythm to Esker Hills and managed to sink a few putts myself.

Ah yes, Esker Hills. The fact that there are 45 buggies says all that needs to be said. A good friend of mine played here some years ago and hated it. Hated the blind drives, the climbs, the effort. Combine that with Christy O’Connor Jr. as designer – not one of my favourites – and I wasn’t expecting much. I took my trolley and walked the course. I thought it was funny how people say it is unbelievably hilly. It reminded me of Rathsallagh where people talk about how long the walks are between holes – but there are only two walks of any length, to the 2nd and 11th tees. At Esker Hills if you take a buggy it is hugely hilly, because the paths go up and over the hills. If you walk it, a lot of these hills don’t come into the equation. Sure, there are a couple of steep climbs (up 4 and up to a few greens), but not nearly as bad I was expecting. Mind you, you do need to be hitting the ball straight to minimise the effort. So what did I think of the course? Loved it to bits. If I hadn’t already played twice that day I would have gone out and played it all over again. Although I would have taken a buggy second time around! [Photo: Esker Hills par 4 8th]

Thursday, May 8, 2008

“Better than the K Club”

I almost choked on my beer. The man had walked in to the bar at Portarlington Golf Club and made this outrageous announcement. Then he looked at me and winked – “Do I get a free drink for that?” he asked with a grin.

If you live outside the Portarlington/County Laois area have you ever heard of this golf course? Have you heard how good it is? Whether you have or haven’t, it’s time to set the record straight, and the only way you can do that is to come and play it for yourself. I loved Athy and I loved Mountrath, but Portarlington is better still. Endless huge trees embrace the course, and, in holes 7, 14 and 15, the club has three absolute beauties that take your breath away. [Photo: Par three 3rd]

The man didn’t get his free pint, but he knew what he was talking about. This doesn’t have the same grandeur or pretensions, or the length, but in terms of sheer fun and enjoyment, the K Club doesn’t come close.

And great scones too!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Heath at 6

After my good round at Athy on Monday – 39 points – I saw my handicap cut from 7 to 6. Finally, my non-stop golfing was reaping rewards. At least until the next morning, when I went round Mountrath in 10 over. And worse was to come.

The Heath – this morning – and it was a beautiful day. Sun splitting the sky and all that stuff. Perfect for golf. It was an open singles stableford competition and I was ready to test out my new status as a 6 handicapper. Boy, was I in for a disappointment. 11 points on the front 9, 14 on the back. Brutal.

I played with Mike and Joe, both 19 handicappers, and only Mike thrived. Sadly for him, a couple of scratches and late blemishes ruined a promising card. [Photo: Par 4 5th]

At one point Joe was hitting a second shot, standing three feet from a flock of sheep, sheltering under the trees. No interest whatsoever. Barely an eyelid batted. Like The Curragh, the sheep are allowed to roam freely over the course; unlike The Curragh, the sheep here seem to have better manners and do not invade the greens. And the greens are lethal. Three-putt country almost every time. And then there’s the gorse…

I think my 4 over gross at Athy won a prize, but the website says otherwise – it says that 7 over gross won. More to follow on that one. I had several things stolen from my camper van while it was being repaired in Birr, and I’m not going to have a prize stolen from me too. It might be golf balls after all, and as I wrote only yesterday – every ball counts on this trek.