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]

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