Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eager Belvoir (Park)

pics to follow

Based on my experiences when I came up and played a few courses in September last year, signposting for golf courses in Northern Ireland is far superior to down south. Sadly I am finding that this is not the case, so my thanks to the folks behind the bar, in the pro shops and the punters who I accost in car parks. Without their directions I would never have found Balmoral or Belvoir Park (or countless others).

Belvoir Park has been mentioned to me on so many occasions I have lost count, so when I arrived at the club and walked out onto their balcony, high above the course, I was thrilled to see that it deserved its praise. The food was good, the atmosphere was good and the course was in superb condition (Open Week had just started).

The thing about my book is that it is subjective – utterly subjective – so when I arrived at the pretty downhill par three 4th, I was taken aback by the bunkers that cluttered the front of the green. They completely detract from the beauty of the hole (the par three 8th is the same) and yet these bunkers are regarded as brilliant by many, as they date back to Colt, the original designer.

I was stopped by the course ranger as I played 15. All friendly, mind, but he asked if I was the journalist who was supposed to be playing with the pro the following morning. Unfortunately, Ann, the General Manager had arranged this for me, but she hadn’t mentioned it during our phone calls and I was a day ahead of schedule. Having only played with one other pro on my travels (Philip at Ardglass) I was disappointed to have missed the opportunity.

Then it was on to Castlereagh Hills, a municipal course, where I encountered Edel (who had arranged for me to play) and Elaine who was taking green fees. It was all very friendly until I was asked to pay the £15 green fee. Shock, horror. A green fee – what’s that? Fortunately, Aileen, a lady who was also part of the conversation was able to help. Clearly she carried some weight and got me out on the course for free. Edel wrote a little note on a post-it and I handed it to William, the course ranger on the 1st hole. Not exactly official, but it worked.

The clubhouse at Castlereagh is an impressive, new facility, used not just for golf but for plenty of other council function. And there’s a restaurant too. Compare this with the old clubhouse that stands up by the 18th tee box. To say it was small is to insult small, but have a look at the pic and you’ll see what I mean. The glass structure in the distance is the new clubhouse.

Then it was off to Shandon Park – and thanks for the directions, again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Malone – bigger please

When you arrive at a golf club in a 1989 camper, and try to squeeze between a Porsche and a Jag, you start to feel slightly nervous. Especially with my reversing record. It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was jammed with big flash cars. The clubhouse is elegant, opulent and refined, so you know you’re somewhere posh.

The purpose of my book is to outline the golfing experience. More often than not, that does not include the clubhouse – either because it’s a straightforward affair, or the place is empty and quiet (during winter months for example) – but at some courses the clubhouse and the atmosphere is very much a part of the experience: Fota Island is amazing; Ballybunion is enormous; Luttrellstown is remarkable; and Malone falls into that category where you feel you have to be on your best behaviour.

I was warned long ago that Malone was terribly stuck-up and that visitors were treated with barely a glance. And yes, I did encounter this to a degree, but it’s a matter of not letting it bother you. After all, you’re not coming here to worry about what Malone thinks of you – you’re coming here to play a superior parkland golf course. If the club has a stuffy, jacket and tie approach to things then let them keep it. What does it matter to you? At best you can laugh at them; at worst you can resent them. And life’s too short.

Malone has so much going for it. The big, big course, the beautiful lake that greets you on arrival, the clubhouse, the cars you can ogle at… but I do have one huge complaint, and it’s an important one: if you’re going to provide towels for the showers, please, please don’t make them so small that you can’t get them around your waist. I’m not that big, honest, but I have a complex now. I needed two to get dry.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lisburn, Lambeg, Dunmurry

[Photo: Par 5 Lisburn 8th]

Now here’s something that gives some credence to the belief that golf has hit a stumbling block. In Northern Ireland this year, 700 golfers did not renew their club membership. That’s official. And they didn’t join anywhere else. They simply gave up their rights as members and are content to pay green fees as and when they choose to play. There are plenty of golf courses up here and the value is astounding, so rather than pay an annual sub of £700, they play during the summer for, say, £30 a round (or pick somewhere like Down Royal for £17 including food) and are quids in. It all makes for an interesting dilemma, and I can see that some of the lesser courses will struggle. What do you do to keep members?

[Photo: Par 4 Lisburn 17th]

There are two sides of the coin: either don’t put up annual subs (levy, anyone?) or increase your green fees in line with the sub. Think about it: if you’re asked to pay an extra 10% on your sub, but the green fees at your club stay the same, it becomes a double-edged sword. I know, I know, it doesn’t address how these ex-members maintain a handicap, but there are ways around that – and the GUI is not doing enough to stop it. Slievenamon, down south, is practically giving away handicaps with every packet of cornflakes.

Courses like Lisburn, Lambeg and Dunmurry (I managed all three on the one day) should not suffer – though for very different reasons.

Lisburn is quality – old school, if you like – and has a wonderfully relaxing and dark layout that keeps you enshrouded in trees all day. Considering the variety of courses played in recent days, there is one thing that really stood out: the quality of the tee boxes. Oh yes, I know that sounds silly, but when you step up onto the smooth, stone fronted, colorfully bedded 1st tee box, you feel so much more positive about the course. ‘Here’s a course where maintenance is important’ you’ll think (even if only subconsciously). It simply delivers an extra buzz, and the hydrangea bushes lining the front of the 13th tee box are almost too distracting.

[Photo: Par 4 Lambeg 3rd]

On several occasions I passed a green keeper who was meticulously smoothing out the bunkers – and there are lots of them, on average about five a hole. That’s a lot of raking and smoothing. It does make you realise how much work is required on a course. Compare this with the two green keepers at Down Royal – they must work 24 hours a day.

Lisburn will have a new clubhouse in 2010, which will complement the course perfectly. If I had one complaint it would be to sort out the dogleg 11th. The tee shot is tough enough without having the 16th green directly in your line on the corner of the dogleg. It’s confusing.

Lambeg falls into a whole different category as it is a municipal course. Then again, it was packed on a Friday, with kids and messers who just want to swing a club. It serves a huge niche and there are some very interesting holes – 3 and 4 would look good anywhere.

[Photo: The excellent Par 5 Dunmurry 4th]

Dunmurry falls into the Lisburn category. It has a smart clubhouse, good food and – as much as I hated having Darts on the telly for the whole night – a good atmosphere. The course is good too and guess what – nice tee boxes.

Combine all of this in one day with the need to buy a new trolley and find a new propane gas cylinder for the camper. I managed the former, but was stumped by the latter as the nozzles up here are different to the ones down south. So no fridge, which means no eating in the camper, which means clubhouse food for the next two weeks. Oh well!

[Photo: Par 4 Dunmurry 15th]

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Down Royal and Edenmore

[Photo: brilliant Par 3 17th]

It’s odd the little things that happen to you as you travel around – and I don’t mean golf necessarily. After leaving Lurgan I decided to take the opportunity to get clothes washed, so I dropped them in to a local laundrette and headed off to Edenmore – golf club/leisure and conference facility. I expected a decent sized bar and restaurant but, remarkably, the place closes up at 4pm – even on a Wednesday in summer. It was a tame night for me in the camper van, that’s for sure.

[Photo: Par 5 dogleg 1st]

While I won’t rave about the course, which should be in better condition considering the time of year, I will rave about a 25 yard putt I sank on the Index 1 2nd – for a birdie. It lights up a round, at least until you take a double bogey at the par three 4th. No matter. I found a rather old ball on the 5th, and dropped it in front of the green which sits in front of the clubhouse. After my round, my shower, my lunch and my review, and a few other odds and ends, I left Edenmore and noticed that the ball was still sitting where I’d left it. Obviously the kids from Lurgan weren’t around.

The thrill of the day was collecting my laundry. Shock horror, they’d discovered my favourite t-shirt on the floor of the van, along with socks and jocks, after my other clothes had been washed. They were due in at 4pm. Regrettably I had to move on, but I still pine for my Mount Juliet shirt. Perhaps I’ll get back there one day.

And on to Down Royal. The club is unique in a number of ways: there are just two greenkeepers and two fulltime members of staff – both named Billy. No worries about getting the wrong one. When I walked in I asked if the man behind the desk was Billy. He said yes, so I asked which one, to which he replied that he was the one who worked. Fair enough since Billy 2 was on holiday. As Billy welcomed me he was desperately trying to keep his grand daughter away from the fax machine in the office (where he was taking green fees). She seemed determined to empty the machine of paper, and every time it spat out a sheet she’d gleefully shout ‘papa’.

Down Royal is a heathland track – quite literally – as it sits inside the Down Royal racecourse. It is another of these rarely talked about courses that deserves more credit. Put it this way, you can come here on a Tuesday or Thursday, pay £17 and get a meal after a round of golf that is a lot of fun. Gorse is your main challenge, similar to The Heath, and in its exposed position wind will make all the difference. The greens need serious improvements, but their bareness works in the given setting, so not too much tinkering is required.

Afterwards, in the clubhouse, I was sitting with Ian, Michael and Tommo. Billy was now serving behind the bar and making sure that the boys didn’t fill me with drink and tall tales. Certainly one tale about Spa caught my ear, for the simple reason that I loved the course. A recent, alleged, confrontation by the club with a green keeper led to the green keeper spilling diesel over eight greens, completely ruining them. No, that’s not the story I liked. The one I liked was Tommo’s tale that goes back to the days when Spa was a 9 hole course. On the third hole, this guy – I’ll call him John – stands up on the tee and smashes his drive into the huge tree off the tee box. The ball never reappears. He hits a second shot, that also hits the tree and disappears. A third tee shot has exactly the same result, and a furious John turns around and stomps off back the clubhouse. That night, at about 2am, the neighbours in the vicinity of the club call the police because of ‘activity’ on the golf course. And when the police arrive they discover John, with a chainsaw, cutting down the offending tree.

Tommo held up his hand at the end of the story and proclaimed it gospel truth as John was a friend of his. Good story, just be sure to take a pinch of salt with it!

Lurgan – you could have killed him

After my round of golf at Lurgan I was up in the bar typing up my review. Around me was a gang of youngsters – anywhere between 10 and 14 – who were looking out the window, down at the first tee. The first hole, pictured, is a par four of 240 yards and I certainly had a wind at it. The boys were watching as more people tried the same, laughing at the failures and applauding everything else.

[A visitor beside the 6th green - a regular judging by his indifference to a brilliant approach shot (I almost hit him)]

Then lunch was served – chips, obviously. One hapless lad became target practice for flying chips. A tomato-drenched chip hit him right on the heart. As he stared down at the red patch on his white shirt, one of the other boys whispered to the perpetrator: ‘you could have killed him.’

Shortly afterwards they started the drinking game. You know the one: when a pint glass of lemonade has salt, pepper, ketchup, vinegar and heaven knows what else added to it, and then someone is dared to drink it. Takes me back to my rugby playing days.

A while later, after the chip throwing incident had induced tears, an older man arrived. “Would you lads like some second hand golf balls?” The boys went ballistic and the man returned a few moments later with a bag full of balls. It was a modern day version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As they all flocked around him. Once the bag was empty everyone was bragging about the balls they’d got. And then the exchanges began – a Callaway for a Taylor Made? How about a Taylor Made and a Pinnacle for a Pro V1? No one seemed to swap.

[Photo: the par three 17th]

As they made their way outside with their booty, I heard one of the boys say: “This is the best day of my life.” I hope he gets out more, but it reminded me of my wedding day. Charlotte, my niece, was six at the time and was one of two flower girls. At the end of the day she was asked if she’d enjoyed herself. “That was the best day of my life…” she said, wide-eyed and breathless. And then, with a wisdom beyond her years, she added: “…so far”.

Portadown and Silverwood

There aren’t many clubhouses where you walk in at 5pm to find SpongeBob Squarepants on the television. Yet here I was at Portadown, the day after Padraig’s monumental British Open victory, with the TV blasting cartoons at me. The audience of two girls under the age of 10 was entranced. [Photo: Portadown Par 5 17th]

As a golf club, Portadown has an easy pace, with one very flat section in the middle of the course. As a clubhouse it has some interesting quirks, with a variety of buildings scattered about. It’s easy to navigate but it’s just different.

I often find that marker distances can drive me batty. On the third at Portumna I hit my second shot 160 yards, clear over the back of the green. According to the distance marker it was 150 to the centre and I was hitting a 9 iron. Granted, it was slightly downhill, but that’s way out of my range. It happened time and again, so either I’ve beefed up or the distances are wrong, and I’m pretty sure I know which it is.

[Photo: Portadown Par 3 6th]

The afternoon took me to Silverwood. Restaurants may serve surf ‘n’ turf, hairdressers may offer cut ‘n’ snip, but how about ski ‘n’ golf? Silverwood has a par three course, an 18 hole course and a ski slope right alongside. This is a pay and play facility and it is brimming with potential. It rolls all over the place, in and out of woods, up and down, hillsides, doglegging around big trees.

[Photo: Silverwood Par 4 10th]

Yet the clientele are of the thrash ‘n’ bash variety, at least that’s what I thought until I reached 9 where I met a whippet thin teenager from Lurgan Golf Club who chatted away happily as he birdied the hole like he did it every time.

[Photo: Silverwood Par 5 1st]

With all the slopes and hillsides, this course is crying out for Christy O’Connor Junior.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Ode to Feet – Oh what joy

Think about the amount of money that you spend on a new driver. €300, €400? How often do you replace it? I know a man who always wants the latest ‘big dog’ and no sooner has he received the latest Titleist from America, than the next Callaway is on order from Japan. Has his golf improved? Have a guess.

Yet for €300 you hit the club only about 14 times a round. Do you lavish the same devotion on your putter, a club you’ll be using anywhere from 18 to 40 (or 50) times a round? The answer is probably not. I have some big fancy driver, yet my putter is an old Ping that I pulled out of my dad’s umbrella stand, and while my putting is rubbish I wouldn’t change it for the world.

One of the great characters (and bandits) at Greystones golf club is a gentleman named Aubrey Shaw. His putter is famous, because it gives a ‘ping’ that is unmistakable. He could be four holes away and you’d know it was him from that one sound. I don’t even know if it’s a real putter.

But there is something even more important to your golf game than any club in your bag – and that’s your shoes. Comfort is a serious business and having the wrong shoes can make a four hour round of golf excruciatingly uncomfortable. How often do you sit on the boot lid of your car and find yourself removing your shoes gingerly, or rubbing your feet once the shoes have been removed, or changing your soaking socks because ‘waterproof’ doesn’t actually mean waterproof?

On this particular golfing adventure I have gone through a number of pairs of shoes. I started with two pairs of Adidas, a pair of Hi-Tec and a pair of Footjoys. Considering the amount of use and abuse I put them through, I can tell you this: Footjoys are the best by far. I have worn them EVERY day, with one of the other three pairs being worn for the afternoon round. And yet it was these three other pairs that, quite literally, fell apart on me. The Hi-Tecs were almost new and they were €120. So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a new pair of Footjoys. It took all of a day to wear them in. They’re comfortable, waterproof and surprisingly stylish (this is golf after all). The other three pairs were dumped in a bin at Cloverhill Golf Club. With 60 rounds of golf left I’m confident that they’ll cope.

Next time you decide to invest in golf, be sure to include your footwear in the equation. It might be the best €40 to €120 you ever spend – and the most comfortable.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Banbridge/Tandragee - All cooped up

[Banbridge: Par 4 11th]

At Banbridge there was a man my father’s age (70 something) who drove up to the clubhouse in a spanking new, bright red, Mini Cooper. Proud as punch he was. I wanted to suggest that he act his age and buy a Jag XJS like any normal older gentleman wanting to show off his viriity. For one thing, the Cooper does not take golf clubs very easily – so no ideas Dad, please.

Banbridge has that rollercoaster effect for a number of holes and is perfectly capable of wearing you out. When I spoke to Chris in the pro shop and mentioned that my afternoon stop was at Tandragee, he said to expect more of the same.

[Banbridge: Par 4 5th - Index 1]

There are certainly similarities, but Tandragee would have a more classic parkland bent, with more impressive tree-lined fairways, added finesse around tee boxes and clubhouse, while Banbridge has that wilder feel and a more entertaining routing.

When I arrived at Tandragee I was met by Alan Hewitt, the Hon Sec. We had a lengthy chat about the NITB (Northern Irish Tourist Board) website and then he grabbed a small silver cup. It was the Council Cup. On it were the words ‘replica’, ‘George Dixon’ and ‘1933’. The story goes that back in the old days if you won the cup three times in a row, or five times in total, you were allowed to keep it. George Dixon, a member of Tandragee, achieved the latter. So delighted was he at this achievement that he then had a replica made and presented it to the club. And what did the club do with it? They ‘misplaced’ it in 1934. So, the question is, how come it was now in Alan’s hands? Take a guess. In fact, take five guesses.
1. In a trunk in an attic?
2. On someone’s desk as a pen holder?
3. A goldfish bowl?
4. In the bottom of a musty shoe locker in the old changing rooms?
5. A long lost niece had found it under 40 years’ of newspapers?

Nope, none of these. Alan found it on eBay and bought it for 55 quid.

[Tandragee: Par 4 1st]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Concra Wood – Designed by Legends

My wife and I were on our way back from Donegal in the middle of April when I saw the signs for Concra Wood. I’d heard about it last year, but it was too good an opportunity to miss and so we drove in. The place looked dead. We walked around for a few minutes but could find no evidence of a golf course. So, I thought, another course bites the dust before it’s even begun.

[Photo: par three 14th]

But I was wrong and after making contact with their marketing person, Karen, I arranged to meet her for a tour of the course. If I’d been a week later I probably would have been able to play. As it was, the finishing touches were being applied to what is going to become a seriously, seriously good course. Everything you could ask of a golf course is here – except a clubhouse (due next year) – as it sits elegantly along the edges of Lake Muckno. But it has great changes in elevation, so views of the lake and the surrounding countryside make this ‘a good walk spoiled’ as Mark Twain said, describing golf.

This is old Coillte land and while the course has found its way around the flowing landscape, the club plans to plant thousands of trees in the times ahead.

As Karen explained the background to me, we drove around the course in a jeep that had seen better days. It had a wheeze like an old man who has smoked far too many cigarettes. She drove me to the highest point of the course (see pic, looking down over a distant green and the lake) and then to every corner, two of which see you driving over the lake. The collaboration of Christy O’Connor Senior and Junior is superb. Still, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall during their design meetings. However they did it, they have complemented each other beautifully.

This is a new job for Karen, just married, and looking fresh as a daisy. She’s brimming with enthusiasm (she might even take up golf!) and with a course that will be one of the inland stars of future years, she has every right to be. The fact that the cost of buying a share in the club – a ‘share’ entitles you to buy membership – is still going up is a sign of how successful Concra Wood will be. And there are still shares available, if you’re interested.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ashfield - Wedding Daze

[Photo: par 4, 1st hole]

So I’m sitting in the bar and this couple walks in. A man rises to meet them and I hear those classic words: “Sorry we’re late, we got caught behind a tractor.” It is the country, but it’s an excuse I’ve used on a number of occasions. To reach Ashfield you turn off the main road onto a single track road that runs and runs to the clubhouse. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find that the address of the club is 44 Crehhanduff Road.

The three people sit down and they start discussing the couple’s upcoming wedding. Well, when I say ‘they’ I mean the wedding planner and the fiancĂ©e, because the man remained very quiet indeed. Proper order too, I say. Wedding days are about the bride and the mothers, and the groom comes in a poor third. Ashfield has a decent sized clubhouse and I imagine it is a pleasant wedding venue.
[Photo: par 4, 11th hole]

I was told that you might need a hard hat playing the opening holes at Ashfield. Yes, it will probably help, although a shield might also help – you just never know what kind of deflections you’re going to get off the pylons and overhead lines that run across the course. Your opening drive is a case in point.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cloverhill and Tony the Pro

It’s official: I’m changing the name of my book. I’d always liked the title ‘Hooked: an amateur’s guide to the golf courses of Ireland’, but after my recent visit to Cloverhill Golf Club it has become apparent that it must be changed to: ‘Me and Tony the Pro’. I suppose I should be thankful that Tony didn’t insist on: ‘Tony the Pro and me’, or just: ‘Tony the pro.’

[Photo: early morning visitors in the car park]

After arriving at this very rural club, which takes some getting to, I was chatting to Colin who manages the course. That in itself is a story. Three years ago at the age of 21 he decided to take over the golf club as the previous owner (the local farmer) had fallen ill. Talk about jumping in headfirst. After three years he remains upbeat and his enthusiasm seems to rub off all round. This is a small club with a small clubhouse and everyone knows everyone. Newcomers (i.e. me) are welcomed with open arms – and generous offers of free pints! – which is how I encountered the resident pro. Tony asked a few polite questions and was then ribbed by the others when he got to the heart of the matter: “So how much will you make from this book?” Hmm, not much. “And are you getting free green fees?” I could see that Tony was forming a plan. Well, as a pro, I imagine that all the clubs would happily welcome him.

[Photo: the long par 4 1st over a stream]

I suggested he come back in the morning and we could go out for a round at 7.30am. Tony blanched. You see, Tony plays off 19, but clearly he has aspirations, and I admire him for that. It might be a tad early to be calling himself Tony the pro, but obviously he wants to keep himself motivated. The Captain’s prize had been played the previous day with the top 12 golfers qualifying for a 9 hole play-off. Both Colin and Tony made it to the final but they were beaten by a man who scored 44 on the first 18, and then finished off the final 9 with 21 points. He may now be nursing a victory headache but he’ll also find a handicap severely slashed.

Cloverhill presents two interesting dilemmas. First it is not a quality course and it needs significant sums of money if it is to lift itself up the ladder of Ireland’s golf courses. But how do you get the money if you can’t attract the green fees and new members? It is a problem I have encountered time and again. Compare this with Killeen Park – the Nicklaus course in North Dublin that hosts the Solheim Cup in 2011 even though it’s not yet open – where the snag list for correcting the original design came to €20 million. Yes, I took that with a pinch of salt too, but even if it was only €2 million imagine what some of the smaller courses could do with that.

[Photo: the long drop dead gorgeous par 3 9 th, with the 10th off to the right]

Second, Cloverhill has two remarkably distinct sets of holes: Holes 1 to 7 and 13 to 18 can only be described as open and straightforward parkland holes. Holes 8 to 12 are a different matter entirely. Lethally tight, they creep around the edge of the mountain and around a small lake. Great parkland holes, infested with rocks, gorse and ferns. Pure excitement, and the rocky perch for the 9th tee might bring on vertigo. But here’s the dilemma: societies are not coming back to Cloverhill because these five tough holes are too tough and they’re swallowing golf balls by the bucket load (while I was in the bar two youngsters came in with bags of balls). You can see why societies would want more of the open hole approach. I, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled by the open holes and anyone who is more serious about their golf will want to play 8 to 12 a few times, ignoring the rest (although the 1st is Index 1 for good reason).

[Photo: the par 3 12th]

But at least, either way, you play golf in gloriously rugged surroundings – this is the Ring of Guillion – a collapsed volcano apparently.

Colin was very interested in my thoughts when I came in the following morning and I was quite frank about certain things, but it does come down to money. However a few things did jump out:
1. Better tee markers would add – at present they’re cardboard on small placards of wood.
2. Directions to the 8th tee would help as the gate implies the path is for a local gun club.
3. The drive off 5 threatens golfers coming up the 6th. Even though hitting up 6 is OB, it would help if the view from the 5th tee was altered – and my suggestion would be to let the rough grow up properly under the trees dividing the holes.

I have been treated exceptionally well at many clubs but Cloverhill was fantastic. Never mind the free pints (thank you Colin and Gerry), but Colin’s mother popped next door, prepared dinner for me and brought it back in to the clubhouse. I had a long chat with Joe, the father, who writes for local newspapers and was intrigued about my adventures, and I ended up doing far too little work. But this kind of hospitality is what makes country golf so enjoyable. I wish the family the best of luck with the course. And also with the ducks who insist on trying to break into the clubhouse on every conceivable occasion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Killin Park - Kids these days

[Photo: the enchanting par 3 6th]

Killin Park starts with an impressive entrance but quickly drops the level with a very basic clubhouse – the locker rooms are portakabins and a bit grotty at that.

But once you head down to the 1st you realise that this course is rich in big trees and drama. A stunning copper beech sweeps the ground beside the 6th green and the wood alongside the 12th is deep and dark.

Like any self-styled course, there are great idiosyncrasies, ranging from double dipping holes, a 185 yard par 4 and a walk up to one hole that will test the sturdiest of trolleys. The back of the 18th is a links-like panorama of bunkers (see pic).

The quality is not good enough, but the potential here is huge (the same goes for Ballymascanlon). A bit more space and - obviously – a bit more money could make this par 69 a serious must-visit course.

I was back in the camper at the end of the round and a group of kids that I had passed earlier rolled in from the 18th. One of them stopped at the boot of a big people carrier and looked around for his mum, who was up by the clubhouse drinking coffee with a friend. It was 40 yards away and the kid starts yelling: ‘Mum, mum, mum,’ loud enough for people on the course to hear. And so the mother comes running and dutifully opens the boot so his majesty can put his clubs in the car. He’s a kid, 13 years old and he can’t walk 40 yards to get the keys from his mother! No no, mother has to come to him. Tsk, kids these days.

[Photo: the superb 12th]

Dundalk – bare arsed cheek

“Barry’s is a good place,” said Bill, describing a good sandwich place in Dundalk town. “A bit small. The kind of place where you have to leave one arse cheek out the door.”

Brendan retorted, quick as you like: “Not that you’d be wanting to leave an arse cheek out in the open anywhere in that part of town.”

Ah yes, the banter of the clubhouse. I had just finished a round of golf with the two boys on the old, mature and rather classic parkland that is Dundalk Golf Club. Long, tree-lined, up and down and very enjoyable.

[Photo: par 3 9th]

It’s funny how you meet people who have an instant reaction to who you are. Bill was very interested in the book because his wife writes a lot of articles on golf destinations for various newspapers and magazines. Which is exactly what I want to do when I finish this book.

It wasn’t exactly what you call a good round. I had a N/R – having lost three golf balls in the first eight holes – and when Bill found one and donated it on the 8th I was too embarrassed to lose it. Here’s me playing off 7 and Bill is a mid-teen handicapper who plays a few times a year.

I tried to catch up with Leslie Walker, the pro. We have history, having gone to the same school in Dublin and played on The High School golf team in the Leinster School Boys Cup. The competition is a two pair, fourball better ball matchplay event. Every score counts, so even if you’re 13 up you keep going. On a day I will never forget we played Malahide in the semi-finals, on Malahide’s old golf course. Alan and I were 1 up playing the 17th and Leslie was behind and in complete control of their match. I had a six inch putt to win the whole thing and ended up on the side of the green waiting for the opposition to finish. I knocked the ball back and forth impatiently and got penalised for testing the speed of the green. We ended up losing the entire match. Malahide then went on and lost in the final at which point we discovered that the opponent who called the penalty on me had left Malahide the year before and was therefore ineligible to play. Salt in the wound you might say. It didn’t stop Leslie’s impressive rise into the PGA ranks, but I was a broken man with shattered dreams. I have never recovered.

[Photo: par 4 3rd]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good to be back

After a two week enforced lay-off for more camper van repairs I finally headed to Northern Ireland today – Sunday. In those two weeks I managed one round of golf at Charlesland, a course I hadn’t played in many years.

[Photo: par 4 10th at Charlesland]

The last time I played a swan and several cygnets had wandered calmly across the 10th hole. They weren’t in sight on Friday, but they are a focal point on a course that just seems to lack a little something. It has everything you’d expect from a parkland/seaside course but perhaps more definition on the opening holes would give them character. I’m no designer or landscape gardener so my suggestion of splashes of pampas grass between some fairways or behind greens might seem idiotic.

After all the rain it was a surprise to manage 18 holes without getting wet. But as you can see from the photos it was still dark. A lot is made of the 13th par three – 220 odd metres from the top of the hill down to the bottom. With wind in my face I barely reached with a driver. [Photo: par 3 13th at Charlesland]

It was my first round in almost two weeks so I was delighted to find pounding showers that practically pierce your skin.

Today saw me playing at Ballymascanlon and the start of three and a half weeks up in this neck of the woods. I wouldn’t even have known about the course had I not driven right past it on my way back from Greenore back in September. It’s short, colourful and fun. Trees rise up beautifully around the hotel and the pic below is the view from the 1st tee back towards the hotel/clubhouse.

For what is undoubtedly supposed to be friendly hotel golf (par 68) there are some tough but very pretty holes that need serious thought off the tee. On 7, the approach to the green is lethal with water across the front (x 2) and a horrible bunker behind the green (where I found myself) which offers no way of stopping the ball from rolling off the green. On 10 you are faced with one of the narrowest fairways around and on 12, I put my second shot into the wide stream immediately to the right of the green. Never saw it again, but did find three replacements after some fishing.

As part of a hotel (the house dates back to the 9th century although so many new additions have been added that the old part is swamped) this is a great golfing opportunity with Dundalk and Greenore Golf Clubs so close by. I imagine with such a variety of challenges, fun and challenges – not to mention the Proleek Portal Tomb, a megalithic dolmen behind the 5th green – this is society heaven. [Photo: view back from par 4 8th at Ballymascanlan]

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The wheels on the bus go round and round

Actually, they don’t. By now I should have played nine courses on my first of two trips to Northern Ireland. On Tuesday night I packed up the van, said goodbye to my wife and started the engine. Or tried to. It coughed, spluttered and complained. It belched out black smoke and stood firm. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I shall sum it up by using the words of Pascal Wyse from The Guardian newspaper:

“Apocollapse: A moment of blood-fizzing rage powerful enough to make you talk to inanimate objects such as hammers. Yes, they are involved in a global conspiracy to pervert the course of your DIY, but tools are trained to resist blunt interrogation tactics such as, ‘Why can’t you just do what I want?’”

Replace ‘hammers’ with camper van, golf club or, for that matter, golf ball. I imagine that this paragraph was a lot longer until the expletives were deleted.

[Photo: Scrabo par three 17th. I had hoped to drop in for another round on one of my favourite courses - not likely to happen now.]

So, the camper van was dead. The local garage came and towed it away the next day. Head man Jimmy said it was a timing belt problem – ironic since we’d had the timing belt replaced on our car only the day before – and it would be ready on Thursday. Not too serious, I knew I could make up the time.

Thursday evening I go and pick up the camper van. I see it being driven up the road as the garage gives it a quick test and I know everything’s OK. It’s parked outside and I get my keys back. I go inside, chat to Jimmy, buy a new wing mirror (previously broken on the way to Kilkenny), pay the man and head for my camper. I place the new mirror on the driver’s seat. I mean it. I literally place it there, and the mirror cracks. Ha, ha, ha, plonk (that’s a man laughing his head off if you don’t remember the joke). Jimmy laughs, which was good of him under the circumstances. He’ll get it replaced he says. Back in the camper van the engine turns over beautifully. Finally, I manage a smile as I put it into reverse. But no, it won’t budge. Just that horrible grating noise. I try all the gears but to no avail. I remain calm (ish) and find Jimmy and his son, Michael. They both try to find a gear but with the same result. Scratchy head moments all round. Clutch cable, they conclude in disbelief.

It should be ready next week. Wednesday if I’m lucky. Sure, it messes up this trip, but at least there’s a bright side: at least the clutch cable went when it did and not when I was up North, and the same with the timing belt. And let’s be honest, the weather is appalling at the moment.