Saturday, June 28, 2008

Greystones – Captain’s Day

So, the biggest day of the year at Greystones Golf Club and it was raining. Heavily. Bucketing. I haven’t missed a Captain’s Day in many years and, by happy coincidence, I had just finished my trip to Clare and Galway so I was able to get on the timesheet – thanks to my dad, who I was down to play with.

I have the ‘luxury’ of the camper van to change in, so while I put on my waterproofs in the dry I watched a couple of members trying to huddle under their boots as they slipped on their rain gear. Our Captain, Pat Barry, was making light of the rain, but ‘light’ was not a word that came to mind.

I encountered a problem immediately: at the beginning of May I played in an open competition at Athy and had 39 points. That saw me cut to 6, but their computer system was down so I have been chasing Athy to send on the card to Greystones to make it official. They have ignored my requests and so the system still has me down as 7. Not an easy one to get around, since the rules have now changed and it is up to the individual to ensure the correct handicap is on the card. I put 6 in the little white box.

So dad and I went out and played turtle golf – you know the kind: you drop your umbrella, stick your head out just long enough to hit your shot and hope that rain doesn’t run down the back of your neck, before trying to squeeze your head down inside your shoulders. Turtle golf. And for 15 holes it never stopped. After 9 holes you come back to the car park and it was obvious that several groups were calling it a day. The poor volunteers who have a table of drinks and chocolate on the walk between the two 9s were not looking happy. I don’t think anyone was happy. At least not until we got to the 6th green (our 15th hole) and our Pro, Karl, came driving by in a buggy to tell us the competition was a washout. Water had started settling on the greens so the day was over. It's one of those funny things about living in the country - I moved to Camolin from suburbia four years ago and I had no reason to like the rain, but now that we have vegetables growing, an orchard and a fruit cage, every time it rains in the summer (within reason) it is reason to rejoice. Back in the clubhouse there was a sense of relief but I felt very sorry for our Captain. June 21st, the longest day of the year, and it rained the entire day. Turns out that the main event is to be postponed for one week. And it so happened that I would still around on the 28th, so I got another crack at it.

Now one of the big debates at Greystones and, indeed, many clubs around the country, is the increased speed of the greens for the big prize. At Greystones the greens are ironed especially for the day and they are like lightening. Last week, despite the non-stop rain, the greens were still quick. Today they were going to be quicker still. I, for one, have never had a problem with this change as I always lag my putts and it plays into my hands, but it does seem a bit odd to have these beautiful, slick greens on just one day. Why not make them fast for the Medal competitions as well? Or for a couple of weeks before the Captain’s Day, and let people get used to the new speeds? But that of course is the whole point, and explains why the winning score tends to be in the high thirties or low forties. Unfortunately it rarely dips as low as the mid twenties, which was where I ended up after my stunningly variable round of golf today. Putting was great, but getting to the green was a bit problematic (and three points out of a possible 10 on the par threes is never good). Dad wasn’t a whole lot better, but he had two perfect bunker saves from long range, and that’s got to put a smile on your face when you play off 16. The third member of our group is a friend of mine, Ronan, who wasn’t hitting the ball well and didn’t adjust to the speed of the greens until our 14th (Greystones’ notorious 5th), when he sank a huge swinging putt for a birdie two (that's a few quid right there). He repeated the feat a few holes later and ended up with 33 points. On Captain’s Day that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Greystones on Captain’s Day always looks spectacular and today was no different. Fairways look glorious and I’ve already covered off the greens. There’s a great atmosphere and it was good to catch up with the many folks I know. I’ve only been back to Greystones once since October last year so it my only little slice of homecoming.

Check out the papers in the next few days to see what score wins it. I’m guessing 40/41.

Friday, June 27, 2008

“Of course, I’m an excellent driver” - Kilkenny

[Photo: 1st green from the top of the hill]

Had a right pain in the backside heading to Kilkenny. Got stuck on a busy and narrow back road and ended up clipping the wing mirror off a protruding branch. Result: broken wing mirror.

You know, once upon a time I thought I was an excellent driver. I could reverse into small spaces and do 180s on Leeson Street (don’t tell my dad – it was his company car), but my confidence is now shattered. I can’t reverse the camper van for love or money. I seem to be determined to devalue the van’s value on every trip. If I see a wall I promptly reverse into it. I’m off to Northern Ireland next week and I’m sure they have a few walls lying about. And if they don’t, they soon will do. And as for telegraph poles…

So, Kilkenny. I was supposed to hook up with a friend, Gavin, but it didn’t work out as he was away on business. He plays off 5 and I should be thankful that he wasn’t around to play as I would have embarrassed myself. A quintuple bogey on the 4th brought my score to nine over. It did get better, if briefly, but I still walked off on 18 over. Kilkenny is a reasonably short parkland course on the edge of town and it needs to be approached carefully. There are many tree lined fairways and the curve of the land will cause plenty of trouble as it deceives you on several occasions on the front 9, and on 13 especially. It is nice and tidy, but if you play it untidily there’s hell to pay. I encountered trees on almost every hole and even when I hit a straight drive – on 13 – the ball kicked sharply left and ended up under the only tree near the fairway. And not just under – it was all of an inch from the trunk.

[Photo: Intriguingly planted 'beach' on the par three 10th]

And that’s the end of this run of three weeks – so now it’s home and a brief stint of domestic bliss. Next week it’s the turn of Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two birdie Thurles

I had a choice: do I eat at Nenagh or do I eat at Thurles? Believe me, this is as exciting as it gets much of the time. I plumped for Thurles. After about 15 minutes I found myself on those back roads with grass growing up the middle. The kind of road you hope no one else is coming the other way.

Thurles was buzzing with activity – there was a ladies’ match on and it was going down 19 - so I sat in the bar and ordered some food. Now I don’t often make comments on the food because a). I don’t eat in enough places to be able to compare, and b). we all can have an off-night once in a while. But my food was not great, and I overheard someone else making the comment that the food at Thurles had not been good for a while. In a club that is recognised as a good parkland you need to have good food.

The course has been dissected by a big road so you walk through a tunnel to get to the 1st tee. This is the ‘new’ remodelled 9. The older 9 was seen as being too short. So now you have that new feel, with the shapes of the greens and the bunkering around them. There is plenty of water out here and it is an interesting 9 that mixes some good holes with the oddities that are 8 and 9: 8 is fine after you’ve played it once. Put it this way, looking at the hole from the tee I thought it was a dogleg right because of the line of bunkers, but it’s actually straight down and you can go right of the line of evergreens or left of them, over the bunkers; 9 is an attractive hole but the fairway is an explosion of lilting mounds that is not repeated anywhere else.

When I arrived on the 1st there’s a pond immediately in front of the tee and a swan resided there with four or five (they were all bundled up together so there was no telling) cygnets. And right next door, only feet away, a duck sat with a bunch of ducklings. As I played the par three 4th (see pic), one of the greenkeepers turned up and fed the swan. It reminded me of a story from Tuam when one of the greenkeepers was in the final pairing for the second round of the Captain’s Prize. As the players and a considerable following approached the par five 8th, a swarm (collective noun anyone?) of ducks hurried out of the pond that runs alongside the hole and headed enthusiastically towards the greenkeeper. The two players were surrounded in a Hitchcock-esque moment as the ducks waited to be fed by the man who brought their food every morning.

Back on the other side of the road – we’re back to Thurles – you hit the classic parkland holes that the course is known for. Rich and green, and big. The 10th is index 1 and it is followed by the best hole on the course, a par three downhill, over some sort of ruins (see pic - flag just to the right of wall). I birdied it as well as the next par three, the 14th. Down Greystones way that’s worth a few bob. Sadly they were the only bright sparks on a bad day – 2 lost balls didn’t help. Actually, it was three, but it was one of those amusing times when you hear a ball crack against wood and haven’t a clue where it went, only to find it on a fairway two holes later.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Nenagh blasts from the past

[Photo: par 3 6th]

I arrived in Nenagh around lunchtime. I was sitting in the camper having a sandwich when I noticed a man walking past with his clubs, giving the camper a good once over. He was parked a few cars away. I carried on and shortly afterwards I was getting my stuff ready when he walked up and said hello. His name is Tom O’Connor. He is a young man (younger than me anyway) interested in the camper van as it was something he was mulling over for future holidays. We started talking, as you do, and I told him about the book. Then he asked where I played. When I said ‘Greystones’ a slow smile spread across his face.

“Do you know my dad, Louis?” he asked.

Everybody knows Louis!

Turns out that Tom grew up playing golf at Greystones – as did I – but our paths never crossed. We know the same people but he’s a few years younger than me. He also used to live down the road from where I grew up. Small, small world.

Tom had already played eight holes but came out and played the full 18 with me. Now Tom’s the kind of guy who hits the ball a mile down the middle of the fairway, but when he misses you can hear air raid sirens in neighbouring counties. That amazing ‘swoosh’ tears off the ball as it takes flight. I tried to emulate him a couple of times and lost two balls in quick succession. Nenagh is not a place to be thrashing the ball about and it’s a pretty, country parkland course that moves easily over the gentle hills, with plenty of variety and interest. Interestingly it was designed by Merrigan, who also designed Greystones (before Kirby’s redevelopment), and the bunkers felt very familiar.

We were going to grab a bite to eat but Tom got a message from his wife and had to scamper home to look after their two very young kids.

[Photo: par 5 12th dogleg left]

The clubhouse is of the older variety, a little worn around the dges and a fresh lick of paint would make all the difference. But since showers came up in my last post, the ones here actually hurt. They’re so hard it’s like being stabbed by needles. Perfect.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Portumna - Idyllic

[Photo: Drive down 13]

I am forever being asked about hidden gems that I’ve played on my travels. I am not a fan of the term, especially as so many clubs claim that they are ‘hidden gems’, whether they are or not. It’s like ‘championship’ – see yesterday’s post. As Eddie, the owner at Newbridge golf club, pointed out: ‘who hides gems anyway?’ Between hidden gems and jewels in the crown, Ireland’s golf courses have a nice little sideline in precious stones, so I know where Eddie is coming from.

But any course that offers deep woods and lone, majestic oak and beech, is always going to stop me in my tracks. The addition of numerous deer wandering along fairways just adds to the occasion. Portumna ticks all the boxes – and another cliché sails overhead.

I so nearly had a hole in one on the 2nd hole. In fact, I can honestly say that if I’d teed off 10 minutes earlier, that hole in one would have been mine. My ball was about three inches directly behind the hole, and the line the ball had made in the dew went directly over the top of the hole. The only problem was, the hole had just been moved by the greenkeeper. I’d waited on the tee while he did it. I’ve been playing golf for 34 years and never had a hole in one. Looks like I’ll have to wait a bit longer.

As I played the 4th, I was intrigued by the piles of stones on the right of the green (see pic). Three round tiers, like a wedding cake. Maybe 25 feet wide at the base. There were a few of them around the place and I discovered subsequently that they were constructed when the Clanricarde Estate was still in existence – before it became the golf course. They were used by the ladies of the day, who climbed up on them to watch the horse races.

Michael Ryan was the source of this information. I asked him if he was the club’s manager when I walked into the clubhouse after my round. “As good as,” he replied. Michael doesn’t play golf. He’s more into the hurling and told me to watch out for an up and coming local star by the name of Joe Canning. 19 years old and he’s going to be big. Sometimes it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about something other than golf. Oh, and he knew my dad from the days he worked in Bank of Ireland. Small world.

[Photo: setting for 12th tee box]

In the changing rooms I bumped into some English lads who were over on a five day package trip: Portumna, Nenagh, East Clare and one other that none of them could remember. One of them asked me if my book reviews included the quality of the showers. ‘Sometimes,’ I said. If they’re very good or very bad they tend to make it in, because let’s be honest, when you come in from a long round of golf, a good shower can make all the difference. Greystones has excellent showers, Fota Island has showers that you’d stay in all day and Portumna’s are good too – if only they’d fix the leaks above the shower head. Some places you’d be afraid to walk into them, while at City of Derry I had an unenlightening experience – there are no windows in the shower room, and it operates on a motion switch… I was the only person in the showers and in the middle of washing my hair when the lights went out. Complete darkness, and it wasn’t a motion sensor that worked near the showers, only by the door. Good showers though.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Curra West Curiosity

Curra West is an interesting little place, not far from Loughrea. For starters, when I arrived I had no option but to park on a steep slope – the result of which was my waking up the following morning with my face squashed against the front windscreen. Not that comfortable at 6am.

Since it was still daylight when I arrived, I walked around the facilities – you’ll want to wash your hands after walking around the locker room – and realised this is a threadbare type of golf course. There’s nothing fancy and it falls into that ‘farmland’ category that needs to be added officially to ‘links’ and ‘parkland’, and all the rest. There are a growing number of these around the place and if they just stick to the truth about the kind of golf they offer then they’ll do well. Courses like Mount Temple – which firmly falls into this category – really cheese me off because they pretend to be something they’re not. Their claim to be a ‘championship’ course is laughable. Holding the final of the local scouts’ matchplay competition simply doesn’t qualify. I’m being flippant, but it’s a point I’ve raised before and one I still haven’t received a satisfactory answer to: what qualifies a course to claim ‘championship’ status?

Every golfer in Ireland is saying that there are too many courses, but in a way it would be a shame to lose a place like this, because it’s about satisfying the demands of golfers who don’t want the finer quality offered by bigger courses. Nearby is Portumna (to be played), Athenry and Loughrea, and the two former courses are ‘quality’ courses, while Loughrea neatly fits in between. [Photo: the 4th green]
But Curra West has its quirks and amusements, and numerous par threes - it’s a par 67 – so people will have fun. It will be dangerous at busy times though, because it’s tight and also because it will attract golfers who are not exactly in control of their direction.

And all this for just 15 quid.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ballinasloe - for thin people

The heavens had opened when I left Loughrea and they stayed open for some time. Ballinasloe had that golden sheen that comes when sun spills across a rain-drenched landscape.

I caught up with two lads, Enda and Munce, on the 5th hole (see pic) and Munce was clearly fighting off the effects of a late night session. No part of his body wanted to be involved in the swing process, but he struggled on. He said he shouldn’t have started drinking, and I said maybe he shouldn’t have stopped. Certainly one of the best rounds of golf I ever played was after a couple of jars at a pub in Deans Grange which was showing the Lions tour in Australia. Then straight onto the tee. Highly recommended.

To get from hole 7 to hole 8 you have to cross a small track, and they have those funny metal railings that just allow you to slip through and still pull your trolley behind you. Now perhaps Ballinasloe has no members of the larger persuasion, but I found it quite a squeeze to get through and I don’t regard myself as exactly ‘big’. I recalled an American I met at Lahinch who was extremely rotund (well over 20 stone) and he would never have fit through here. I didn’t look to see if there was another way to get to the 8th tee, but if there wasn’t it would certainly curtail your round. And that would be a shame, as the lower holes (8 to 14) are on a bog. Taking a divot and seeing earth that is almost black adds to the experience. And behind the 11th green they’ve been cutting peat. It is piled high and looks like an excavation site. Maybe they’re waiting for David Bellamy.

In the clubhouse I heard two old fellas discussing the US Open play-off.
“Tiger Woods against yer man.”
“Which man?”
“I don’t know. Yer man.”
“Yea, but who was it?”
“I told you, I don’t know. But it wasn’t Tiger. Yer man.”

Poor Rocco.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Athenry - Loughrea

From Cregmore Park I was directed down the back roads to Athenry, and sometimes it is a blessing to have a huge lorry in front of you: cars steer clear, finding the smallest of holes to squeeze into. It just makes my life a lot easier since I don’t command that same respect.

[Photo: par four 1st at Athenry]

Athenry has a big, new clubhouse. Or so it appears on arrival. Actually it’s a 2 million euro revamp, but it makes a great impression and I ate there in the evening and following morning. It was good grub, which is not always the case. As an example, I played at Tralee about 8 years ago. There were three of us and we ate in the clubhouse afterwards. Actually, we didn’t. The food was inedible. I ate there a few weeks ago and the food was excellent, but that would be expected of one of the more entertaining links courses on the planet.

I played Athenry early in the morning and got around very quickly. It is a solid parkland course and must be a society’s dream location. It’s not hard wor, it’s not long, it has the facilities and the grub, and it entertainment from start to finish – particularly the finish, as you head into a wood of tall pine. But it's also worth mentioning 3 and 12, two particularly pretty par threes that run side by side. [Photo: par three 12th at Athenry]

Loughrea came next and is one of those odd courses that never quite finds a single direction. On what is a fairly basic country course, this actually works in its favour. The variety means you never know what’s next.

I met the greenkeeper who was mowing the greens as I putted on the 1st. And the 2nd, the 3rd and 4th. He never said a word or even smiled. I finally escaped him on the 5th, but not for long. Usually, on my early morning rounds you bump into the men and women looking after the course for the first few holes, or at some stage later on, but not the whole way round. My uncommunicative friend reappeared on 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. He kept waving at me to play into the green, but wasn’t inclined to stop mowing. I’m not taking that kind of risk, so I would aim well away from him at one of the bunkers – oddly I ended up within four feet of the pin. Twice. [Photo: par four 15th at Loughrea. Beware the second lot of water in front of the green]

When he followed me up the 16th I was prepared for more of the same, but thankfully he veered off. And at that point, despite aiming at the flag, I found bunkers on two of the last three holes.

Next stop Ballinasloe.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cregmore Park intrigue

In recent years, a lot of golf courses have sprouted up around the country – many of these have appeared on farmland and more often than not, it tells in the quality of the place. As you turn off the road for the golf course, you drive past the owner’s home and backyard. It’s a bit odd and it doesn’t bode well.

But Murty and Catherine McGrath have taken a long term view. Their course is a quality affair, designed by Arthur Spring, that works its way around an old and impressive ring fort. This is home to a stunning wood that stands out on what is a flat landscape. John, the son and head greenkeeper, told me a little bit about the moat that surrounds it and the cave where the inhabitants used to store food. He used to play in the cave as a young boy, but it is now officially protected. You shouldn’t put a ball in there, but the 8th and 9th might have you worried.

[Photo: edge of the ring fort off the 4th tee]

As I said, the quality is excellent, and word about the course is spreading. I heard about it down in Skibbereen. I also found tees on two of the holes: one from The Heritage, and one from Rosses Point. I think you can see what I’m getting at.

Perhaps the only disadvantage is that the land is just too flat, but it offers something quite different to the many other clubs roundabout.

[Photo: the perfectly simple yet stunning approach to design that makes every hole look and feel good]

I had a long chat with Catherine before and after my round, and she gives off an enthusiasm that is infectious. The family is passionate about the course and they have planning permission for a hotel that will see the facilities enhanced considerably. Mind you, I found the log cabin-type clubhouse cosy and comfortable. John may only be young and recently graduated but he is doing some great work on the greens.

I wish the course well.

The cost of such enterprises is usually enormous, and as I walked behind the 5th tee box, I realised they were about to get bigger. One of the golfers on the tee wound up his driver and cracked his tee shot straight into the yellow tee box marker three yards in front of him. It exploded in a storm of yellow plastic.

Catherine assured me that she didn’t like them anyway and something more impressive would be put in place in soon.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Christy’s Gort & Galway Bay

[Photo: Gort's 10th]

Gort is one of Christy O’Connor Junior’s creations. If you’ve read any of my earlier blogs, then you know that usually fills me with dread. I find that too much shaping, mounding and exaggerated elements detracts from the natural beauty that every course holds.

Fortunately, Gort has been blended into the natural surroundings very effectively, and the great man has produced an intriguing course. There are ups and downs as you move around the hillsides, and there are some brief climbs to be tackled – at the start most notably. Apparently, many of the older members have started to play at the very new Cregmore Park, due to the flat terrain. And some of the youngsters have been drawn to the same location because Gort is not long enough – or perhaps, they simply need the room that Cregmore Park offers so that they can thrash the ball about. At Gort, there aren’t many opportunities to ‘thrash’ the ball as brains are more important than brawn.

My next stop was Galway Bay…

Galway Bay is one of Christy O’Connor Junior’s creations. If you’ve read any of my earlier blogs, then… you get the picture I’m sure.

The course does not re-open officially until December 2009 – according to the answering machine – and my calls went unreturned. Nonetheless I headed there after Gort, hoping to catch a glimpse of the place. And I was a bit stumped to find that it was in perfect condition and looking glorious. Galway Bay members are allowed to play the course, and only the clubhouse now needs (unnecessary) refurbishing. And yet the course is closed to visitors. Very odd, and in the current climate I would have said naïve, but then I know nothing of their financial situation. [Photo: Galway Bay par 4 12th. Index 1. The flag is visible just left of the tree]

The course is all sways and curves as it heads from in front of the big hotel down to the bay. Sweeping views are matched by sweeping fairways and greens, and it looks very tempting indeed. The day was almost still when I was walking around the paths near the temporary clubhouse, and the stark trees were all leaning one way in an ominous signal of how windswept this course can be. The photograph gives you just a taste.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The mighty Lahinch

[Photo: Lahinch par 4 1st]

Not surprisingly, Lahinch was a big event. Having played Ballybunion only a couple of weeks ago, I was about to find myself caught up in the Ballybunion vs. Lahinch debate. It is one of the most fiercely contested discussions about golf on these shore. Here are two venerable and world-famous links. How on earth can you compare them, or decide which is a better ‘experience’?

I had tried to play Lahinch years ago, on a stag bash for one of my best mates, but it was washed out. And now I was back again, and it was raining the night before I was due to play. Ballybunion had been played in beautiful sunshine, so it didn’t bode well on the comparison front.

Fortunately, by the next morning, the rain had vanished. I was on the tee by 7am, and I had finished by 9.55am. My scorecard said I was 4 over par. Easy!

But there were two important factors at play: the first was the lightest of breezes that never seemed to touch a ball; the second was a man named Martin Barrett.

When my wife and I first moved to Gorey a few years back, we found a physio to look after our various strains and pulls. Her name was Aileen Barrett. Sadly she left after 18 months, but not before we discussed golf and her ties to Lahinch. Her father, Martin, is a man of some importance up this way and is well known, both for his golfing prowess and his contributions to Lahinch golf club. Today he looks after the Overseas Membership, but he is a man who plays links golf beautifully. He plays off 5.

[Photo: par 4 4th – ‘Klondyke’]

I met Martin on the 1st tee, and it was similar to having a caddy (an experience I have enjoyed just once). He drove off first on every hole, leading me by example (there are plenty of blind drives), and pointed out the dangers around the green (some big fall-offs are best avoided!). On the greens he let me do my worst, all the while discussing the various merits of golf courses around Ireland (and the world) and, in particular, the club’s recent developments at the hands of Martin Hawtree. With so many courses changing for changes sake, it was intriguing to hear how Hawtree had tried – successfully it seems – to reinstate Mackenzie’s original vision for Lahinch. It is sublime, and playing it on a fine day just showed it off all the more. Two of Tom Morris’s original holes remain: holes 4 and 5 [see pics], and these are pure brilliance.

[Photo: par 3 5th - ‘The Dell’. The white stone on the dune is moved daily and signals where the pin is positioned]

So where do I stand on the Ballybunion vs. Lahinch debate? Quite simply I don’t! If you play one you have to play the other. Perhaps the back 9 at Ballybunion will prove too alluring, or perhaps the sensuous rhythm of Lahinch will take your fancy; perhaps Ballybunion’s enormous, rollercoaster dunes are just too unforgettable, or perhaps you will find perfection in the pure links challenge that Lahinch throws at you time and again. Believe me, it is well worth your time finding out.

[Photo: par 4 14th – two big par fours (14 and 15) side by side mean you will have wind in your face on one of them]

I played the comparatively lightweight Castle course in the afternoon, before heading back to Ennis and the hospitality of Mark and Christine. I even helped out with the cooking, and it was a change to be chopping rather than hacking.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Did you ever watch your mother making meringues? The way she folded the egg whites and the sugar together in a bowl? A slow process that created one wave after another. That’s what some of the fairways are like here. And some of the greens. Truly, some of the greens are astounding. On the 2nd I landed the ball on the far left of the green. It took one bounce and then turned sharp right and raced all of 10 yards towards the pin, which sat up high on a saddle in the middle. On 10, I had an eagle putt and was chuffed to bits to get down in three. I was over 35 yards away

[Photo: Par 5 10th. Putt from back of green].

On 16 I got down in two, and on 18 I had another 30 yarder. And if you don’t hit the right line your ball could simply fall off the green.

This is an ‘uber’ exclusive club. It falls alongside the Old Head and K Club. Like the Old Head it is relaxed and friendly, despite the posh atmosphere. True, lots of Americans call this club ‘home’, but far more Irish corporates are now hearing the call.

The Lodge, or clubhouse to you and me, is visible from a long way off as it consists of many attractively stoned buildings that include apartments and lodges.

[Photo: View of the Lodge over the 9th green]

When I arrived in the evening I wasn’t overwhelmed, but it grew on me, and by the time I arrived on the 1st tee the following morning I was raring to go. Mind you, that might have had something to do with all the dope I’d smoked the night before with the surfer dudes at the beach car park. The club didn’t want me (my camper van) too close to the clubhouse, so I was sent off to a nearby beach where all the surfers hung out.

Golf started and ended in the rain, but between 2 and 16 it was a breezy and overcast day and perfect for links golf. Doonbeg is an interesting creation. Time and again you have no idea what to hit and while I wouldn’t be a fan of taking a caddy, if you’re any good and you want to score/play well, I’d suggest you get one. The Starter, Bryan, gave me a good talking to on the 1st tee, telling me what holes to watch out for, when not to hit my driver, and how to avoid the bunker that sits in the middle of the 12th green. All very useful advice.

[Photo: View straight down the par 5 1st]

There is plenty of beauty here and considering that Greg Norman wasn’t allowed to utilise some of the best dunes of all (a Special Conservation area, which the club treats very seriously), he has created many attractive and intriguing holes.

You’ll fork out a couple of hundred Euro, but you do get free tees, markers and pitch repairers on the 1st. Probably not €200s worth, but as a marketing man I know how powerful the word FREE can be.

Day Off

I try to take a day off in the middle of my trips. I get to relax for a while and do the mundane things, like laundry. I was in Kilkee for the day – a very quiet little town that must overflow with tourists in the summer, but still quiet in early June. There was little to do, but at least I had something else in mind.

I drove out to Loop Head for the day. Two weeks ago, when I played The Cashen course at Ballybunion with two priests, they picked out Loop Head across the water [Photo: the tip of Loop Head in the distance, from the 16th green] and I decided to visit it if I had the chance.

It was worth the trip. It’s about 25km from Kilkee and the roads aren’t too bad. You arrive at a lighthouse, on the edge of beautiful cliffs, stunning scenery and the roar of the Atlantic beneath your feet. How close you venture to the edge is up to you and you can walk around the lighthouse or down towards the headlands away to your right. [Photo: distant headlands]

I chose the former, and found myself approaching an enormous island of rock that seemed only a jump across the void. From some angles it looks like it has just been parked badly; from others, like a sullen teenager. With its myriad of rock layers it is home to thousands of birds and you can sit and watch them for hours as they swoop down towards the most perfect blue water that thunders against the base. The way the ocean retreats, like a child taking a breath to blow out his birthday candles, before hurling forwards again brings out the goosebumps. The sound is terrifying.

But for the ultimate thrill – and I don’t recommend it – go past the rock and you will find a nice, wide, rocky ledge on the mainland. It’s down a couple of feet and it is a straight drop down two or three hundred feet. Get down on your belly and crawl to the edge – remembering to remove hat and glasses first, Now, look down. It will make your head spin, but what a view. And if you wait long enough, you can feel the vibrations of the sea pounding the rocks. Be sure to retreat carefully.

The Cliffs of Moher up the road are bigger and more impressive, but this is isolated and closer to the edge. And if you have a dog, do not let it run loose!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pebble Beach of the West - Kilkee & Kilrush

A group of Swedes had just finished playing Shannon and they were asked where they were going next. Kilkee, came the reply. And when asked why, the group leader brightened and said, “Pebble Beach of the West”. An Internet site they had been using to book their trip described the course as such. Now, the cliff top views are impressive, and they certainly make this pleasant seaside course worth a visit, but ‘Pebble Beach’ is pushing it a bit. I wonder what the Swedes thought at the end of that particular round. [Photo: 'Pebble Beach' view]

When I first arrived in the afternoon I introduced myself to Jim, the Manager. In one of the more cryptic conversations I’ve had for a while, he apologised and said he thought I was someone else. Who? I asked. “I’d rather not say,” came his reply. Very mysterious. [Photo: views behind the 3rd tee at Kilkee]

I played on my own for a while, and encountered three very elderly gentlemen on the 9th. I was walking to the 10th tee when they headed across from the 1st green to one of the later holes. Within two holes I had caught them up. Once they saw me they waved me through and pleasantries were exchanged. Then on 16, I encountered them again. Clearly they have their own special route around the golf course. On 17 I was joined by three Limerick lads who cut across for a quick finish. Ned, Seamus (aka Sammy) and Tony then invited me down to Scott’s (a famous watering hole in Kilkee town) for a drink. Sammy, who runs a bar in Brooklyn, was home for a few days, catching up with friends. You can take the boy out of Ireland… A drink became two and it was threatening to become a session, when they decided to do the sensible thing and go home. Shame really, we were talking rugby and the 2009 Munster vs. the All Blacks game was mentioned. I was hoping to find a way to wangle some tickets. Ned was at the match when Munster famously beat the All Blacks in 1978. No really, he was. ‘Along with the other 150,000,’ he joked. He had a brilliant marketing strategy, which was to allow everyone who still had the original 1978 ticket stub free entry to the 2009 game. As someone with a marketing background I thought that was a superb PR exercise.

My morning round had been at Kilrush, just to the south, where I hooked up with Ronan, who I had last played with at Bantry Bay. He is a member at Kilrush and I moved my schedule around a bit so I could play on the Monday. He had planned to play twice that day as he had brand new clubs, but after 9 holes the new grips were rubbing his right palm raw. It was useful playing with a local as he was able to give me good lines on blind holes. Unfortunately he also pointed out the very heavy rough that was growing in special fenced off areas for young trees. I say unfortunate, because every time he pointed one out, I hit my drive into it. [Photo: Ronan plays his approach to 11th green, Index 1]

Ronan treated me to a good lunch – many thanks for that – before we parted company and I headed for Kilkee. But, rather ironically perhaps, the clubhouse is also home to a Driving School – the vehicular kind, so don’t be surprised to see some erratic driving in the car park!


My arrival at Woodstock Golf Course (near Ennis) on Sunday morning could not have been worse. My 10am tee time reservation had not been put in the book and the time sheet was packed. The rather unhelpful lady (there’s a thin line between efficient and officious) in the shop didn’t seem bothered that I wouldn’t be able to get out. I said I’d wait and see if there were any groups coming that I could join, to which she replied that I wasn’t allowed to play as a five ball. I was this close to saying “Duh!” but I resisted.

[Photo: approach to the downhill par 5 10th]
The timesheet had some blanks after 1 o’clock so I said I’d play then instead and I returned to the camper van to do some work. I returned at one o’clock to find my name had not been put on the timesheet and that the relevant slots had since been booked by other groups. The original lady had gone by this stage and I ended up walking the course, in a bad mood!
I confess I wanted to dislike Woodstock, but it wasn’t easy to do. It’s a nice parkland course and it will mature impressively. I was down on the 7th – Index 1 – where a small lake provides the drama for 7 and 8. And here I watched four swallows playing over the reeds. We have swallows nesting at home but I had never seen this: they had picked up a piece of white fluff (a small feather I guessed) and were racing around the place, dropping it every few seconds. As it floated down to the water, another swallow would swoop in and catch it. And this went on and on.

[Photo: approach to the par 4 18th]

I was also impressed on 13 when a member of one of the groups I was following, hit his second shot to about five feet, still smoking his cigarette. Even when I congratulated him the fag stayed firmly in place.
It’s part of a hotel but I found it a bit grotty (I finally get my dig in). Besides, friends of mine had put me up for two nights just down the road. Nothing like a bit of home comfort. When I got back, Christine asked for a tour of the camper. Her three kids came too, and so did their friends. My four berth camper ended up with about ten kids aged between 3 and 10 crawling all over it. Frank (Mark and Christine’s youngest and the only boy in the group) got behind the steering wheel straight away. One of the girls who I didn’t know asked me if this was my home. When I said ‘yes’ she looked around and screwed up her face in horror. Nothing like an 8 year old to put you in your place!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Johnny the Fox

East Clare is about as peaceful a golf club as I have encountered. At the end of a long, narrow and winding road you feel miles from anywhere. And there are very few houses on the surrounding hillsides. Much more like the rural Ireland that everyone envisions, but seems so rare nowadays. True, there’s a timeshare village beside the clubhouse, but it is not on view from the course.

It’s a strong, rural course that has good claims to fame. There is a lot of water to deal with, and that only means one thing… ducks. They believe in keeping an orderly line, evidently.

Mike in the pro shop told me one of those great little tales that almost seems unbelievable. A fox had been fed by members over the years and had worked out how to get grub out of golf bags. He would regularly unzip the bag and steal mars bars and bananas. On one occasion there were no mars bars or bananas so he stole the next best thing: a wallet. A wallet containing £4,000 sterling. It belonged to the organiser of a group of English guys, and he was in charge of the money. The fox ran off; the guys followed, disappearing into the wild stuff. But to no avail, the fox was gone. The guys played on and when they were coming down the 18th, which runs parallel to 11 where the wallet was stolen, they ventured into the rough again and finally discovered the wallet. Believe it, or not!

[The par three 17th]

Saturday, June 7, 2008

An undeniable truth

There is one simple truth that I have discovered during my years of golf, and in the recent good weather it has all come back with horrifying clarity. No matter how you look at it, men should not wear shorts on the golf course. Ghastly. Two words for you: chicken legs.

If I wanted to see white, pasty, skinny legs in baggy shorts, fashioned with short black socks I'd go to a Spanish beach. Aaahh, my eyes.

Shannon & Dromoland Castle

I’m rapidly discovering that a lot happens between 6 and 6.30 in the morning. I was at Shannon Golf Club, and at 6.03am the camper van started to rattle and shake. In recent weeks I’ve had punctures, a burst water pump, a leaking roof and a dislocated bumper. This is it, I thought, the camper van is finally going to explode. The fact I’ve never had a hole-in-one in over 30 years of golf flashed before my eyes as the vibrations reached a crescendo.

The first Ryanair flight of the morning went roaring overhead and silence quickly returned. Shannon golf club nestles beside the airport (the 11th has a car park on two sides) so I shouldn’t have been surprised. And even out on the golf course you hear that deep roar before a plane appears over the trees – sometimes commercial, sometimes private. Apparently there are flights during the night – military mostly – but I was dead to the world after three courses the previous day.

Mike, the General Manager, told me the previous evening that Friday was a big day with a big Radisson outing in the afternoon. The greenkeepers and groundstaff were out early making the course look perfect. I was playing by 7am and they didn’t have much to do because the course looked great already. I liked Shannon. I liked it a lot. Nothing fancy or dynamic, just a sweet, cosy rhythm that makes you feel warm all over. Hard to believe that a simple tree-lined parkland course can feel so good and move so easily around the place. True, the 11th doesn’t work, but large car parks can do that to the best of holes. The course seemed to like me too: I found water on one hole, played a second (a ‘provisional’ of course) only to find that my first ball had bounced on the water and up onto the green. It all leads to a great finish with the long par three 17th hitting alongside and over the Shannon Estuary - see pic.

After my round I had a long chat with Mike, over breakfast, and he’s a man who has stories. Perhaps a future book should be on the stories that come with golf courses, because every course has one or several. I’ll think about it; so will my wife.

Next was Dromoland Castle, the big five star hotel that is all wrapped up in a magnificent castle. And now that the golf course has gone from 9 to 18 it has fulfilled its potential. Acres of achingly beautiful trees all around you, and a back 9 that moves lazily around a big lake. 11 and 18 are two par fives that dogleg around the water and give you something serious to think about off the tee. [Photo: big, big tree in the middle of the fairway as you approach the 18th green – flag just to the right. They wanted to cut it down, but the designers said absolutely not. Sensible men.]

Dromoland is big and spacious – the walk to the 2nd is long and uphill. It reminds me of the walk to Rathsallagh. Ask any Dublin golfer what they think of Rathsallagh and they’ll nearly always reply that there are long walks from greens to tees. Actually, there are only two. And if you keep complaining, come to Dromoland: the 2nd will sort you out!

Dromoland is a tough track, and there are no easy shots. There are three very short par fours, but get carried away and you will be in serious trouble. The 15th is 266 yards, downhill and down wind. How inviting, I thought, reaching for the driver. I stopped, returned to my bag and took a four iron instead. I knocked it onto the fairway, leaving a 50 yard pitch. Then I took an old ball, and wound up the driver. Straight over the back. You would need to be a magician to stop it on the green. When I got to the green I looked over the back at an ocean of deep rough. I took a few minutes to see how many balls I’d find. Six, including a couple of spanking new Titleist pro VIs. [Photo: par four 15th]

I do have one complaint – well two actually – the 2nd and 16th are unfair holes (index 4 and 1 respectively) as you can not possibly know what is expected of you off the tee, and there is no course map on the score card.

For me, Shannon and Dromoland Castle are perfect examples of what I’m trying to do with my book. They are completely different courses and both promise great golf experiences but for totally different reasons.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A long day of Limerick golf (Limerick Co., Rathbane, Castletroy)

I was out with the greensmen again at Limerick County, and a couple of young families too. On 17 I encountered a pair of swans and cygnets on the pond, and a duck with her ducklings playing around on the edges (see pic). It has to be said that little things like this really add to a round of golf. I also saw a fox on 13 – heading for the 17th!

Limerick County is a fine parkland track, with its own private beach on 18. It’s meant to be a bunker, but at 80 yards long it looks like you should play in it, not play out of it. It is an adventurous course that delivers fun and excitement on every hole, but the clubhouse is a different matter. I don’t have a degree in contortionism but you’ll need one to figure out how to get into the toilet cubicles… It’s an open the door, step over the loo, lean back, try not to fall over and close the door kind of thing. [Photo: downhill approach to Index 1 5th]

After a long chat with Gerry, the Manager, I discovered that 17 and 18 are to be changed, to allow the 18th to return to a par five. It will make for a fine finish.

Rathbane passed quickly by – a municipal course that feels like a clock face with holes shooting out in all different directions.

Next was Castletroy and Eddie Connaughton’s design work is looking spectacular on a suburban golf course. True, it was a sunny day, but the course just looked perfect and trees seemed to be positioned effortlessly, both to look good and to frustrate. I had a couple of interesting encounters. First, I was invited to play with three young lads (mid teens), Donal, Kevin and Rory, for one hole. They then said to play through, but with all the three balls ahead it was pointless.

[Photo: the superb par three 14th at Castletroy with water around the green]

They were an entertaining and bickering trio who know how to push each other’s buttons – especially Kevin. Donal guessed that I was writing a book and from then on they were determined to get themselves into the book, no matter what. I was told – not by Kevin I might add – that Kevin had just won a Senior School’s Rugby medal with Castletroy School. He’s only in 4th Year, so who knows, we may see him in later years playing for the mighty Munster. Rory was the quiet one, and Donal, a leftie, has the most outrageous handicap of 15. The boy can hit the ball. He had a birdie putt on 15 and then chipped in for a birdie on 16. “Put that in your book,” he said. I will add that the 15 handicap is for Lahinch. And if you read this guys, you’re in the book. Happy now?

[Photo: Donal drives off the impressive 17th par four]

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Adare Adare

I wake up and it’s raining. Two weeks of glorious sunshine are forgotten in a heartbeat. I’m about to play the Irish Open venue and it’s raining. In June.

I’m parked in Adare Manor Golf Club as Adare Golf Club didn’t want me parking overnight. No problem, as the clubs are a few hundred metres apart – in fact the 3rd tee at Adare Manor and the 15th at Adare are practically joined.

[Photo: view over the 14th green to the ruined Abbey on Adare Manor Golf Course]

Just to clarify the differences in name: Adare Manor Golf Club ( is the old course (1900), while Adare Golf Club, which is home to Adare Manor itself, hosts the Irish Open and is the ‘big’ course. Confusingly, the web address is [Photo: par 4 14th at Adare]

So I drive the 500 metres only to discover at Adare Golf Club’s Security Hut that I have a puncture. As a quick aside, this is my third puncture in under a week. I had one at Limerick Golf Club last Thursday, and when I replaced it with the spare I discovered that had a puncture too – a slow one. I ended up driving home to Wexford for the long weekend stopping to pump up the tyre every 40 minutes.

It was too wet to change the tyre at the clubhouse, so I left it hoping that things might be better by the end of my round.

I got to the tee just as three Scots teed off and they invited me to play along. I happily accepted, a) because they were Scottish, and b) because it was raining. They were in buggies and the course’s Starter, Pat, took my trolley and left it back in the pro shop. I might add that when he heard I had a puncture he said to get the pro shop to call a local guy, Tom, who would come and fix it. That’s what I call customer service. So I ended up playing with Tommy, Jamie and Ian, all members at West Kilbride Golf Club, 20 odd miles from Royal Troon on the west coast.
[Photo: Tommy tees off at the all-water par 3 16th... he didn't make it!]

Did you know that the word ‘Scotch’ can only be used when talking about whisky or those rather revolting Scotch eggs. Sadly, you can’t ‘go Scotch’, the same way you can ‘go Dutch’ at restaurants. And Scotch whisky leaves out the ‘e’ that you get with Irish whiskey. My old Geography teacher, Mr Lush, Sir, informed us that the ‘e’ is for Everything.

Back to the golf. Adare is a stunning, stunning course. It is also very tough. Yes it was raining and windy, but it is a brute if you stray into the rough because the ball just sits down in it. You could go anywhere, if you’re lucky enough to go anywhere at all. And when the water appears after four holes, it is big and dangerous. I put two in the lake at the 7th, and was too wet to play a third.

When the sun finally came out on the 10th, it showed off the course in a whole new light (no pun intended), not least because the Manor makes a big appearance on the later holes. As does the River Maigue. On 15 and 18, the fairway hugs the river a little too intimately and you can quickly tell why the 18th, a par five, is Index 2 (pictured). Tommy, who had played with the others the day before – one of their pals from West Kilbride now works at Adare and they had come over to visit him – showed me the exact spot where Richard Finch fell into the water on his way to winning the Irish Open a few weeks before. It’s not an easy hole to par, even if you play it sensibly.

It was a slow round as we were behind two other fourballs – the first one going in slow motion – so when we got back to the clubhouse I was already an hour late for my second round, at Adare Manor. And that’s when I remembered that I still had a puncture to fix. At least the sun was out. The tyre was ruined as I’d been made to drive it from the security hut to the clubhouse and the wheel rim had torn the rubber to shreds (€80 to replace it). So a personal thank you to the beareded prat in the security hut for being so unhelpful. In fact, scratch that, he wasn’t unhelpful, he was plain rude. I had to wait while he ‘made calls’ just to get past the barrier. I guess my 1989 camper van can do that to people. Fortunately, everyone else at Adare was brilliant – so thank you to Joe, Valerie and Pat and the gang in the pro shop, and also to Tommy, Jamie and Ian for the golf.