Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lough Erne elegance

[Photo: the short par four 7th heading down to the lake]

It had taken a while to organise, but I finally managed to get to Lough Erne, the course designed by Nick Faldo. This is a five star resort with hotels and lodges (very odd looking round towers!) and all the glam you’d expect of a top-notch place. With the current doom and gloom on the financial markets, I imagine there are a few worried people up here.

Then again, the buzz about Lough Erne is phenomenal. I know, I know, a new ‘big’ course arrives on the scene and everyone starts comparing it to Mount Juliet, the K Club etc., but on this occasion the buzz is justified. But the whole thing is still fairly under wraps, with only 9 holes open and a strict instruction that the other holes can’t be photographed. I’m sure they have their reasons but it seems like overkill. That said, what I could see of these holes looked magnificent, and Lough Erne promises a remarkable setting that the K Club and Mount Juliet can’t match. And, to be brutal, the only other seriously good course around here is Slieve Russell – and it’s not in the same class at all.

[Photo: the par five 6th runs across the top of a ridge – currently the 1st]

At the moment only 9 holes are open and getting out on the course is very difficult. I had to arrange to play with Dave Peden, the resort’s Golf Sales Manager. The policy is members only for the time being – everyone else plays with Dave. My, it must be terrible having to come out and play on this beauty of a golf course time and again.

When Dave appeared he had a companion – Terry, the Course Manager from Clandeboye, who was down with his wife and sampling the delights of the resort. He had read my blog about the two Clandeboye courses, both of which I loved, so that set us off on the right note. Actually, Clandeboye is one of the best value courses in the country and I said so on my blog, urging people to come and play it before green fees went up. Now I know my blog is not exactly influential, but it was shortly after that that green fees rose from £25 to £35. And they’re still excellent value.

The three of us played the 9 holes currently open, which are in no particular order. It was a lazy Autumn evening with a low sun casting deep golden shadows across the course and Lough Erne. Dave pointed out the new holes as well as giving some background on the course’s development. The halfway house really caught my attention: where halfway houses appear in Ireland (a handful of big courses only) they are small and functional. At Lough Erne it is restaurant size. This big two storey wooden structure on the lake’s edge will double-up as a fish restaurant in the evening – for the hotel’s guests. It’s a nice idea, and having sampled the delights (some great – Ballybunion, and some dreadful – Gleneagles), a good halfway house will add greatly to the golf experience here.

We heard about Rory McIlroy’s recent visit. He played the Index 1 14th, measuring 642 yards, and claimed it was one of the best par fives in Ireland. It certainly has danger and drama in equal measure, but for me the par five 16th is even better as it runs beside the lake and – from the back tees – offers a towering drive.

[Photo: the par four 17th – such a shame about the turret like lodges]

Dave also reckons that the 10th hole (part of the unseen 9) will be one of the most photographed holes in Ireland as it heads straight out into the lake and the green is reached by the narrowest strip of land. I’ll take his word for it because this is a great, luxurious course where every hole works.

Interestingly, for comparison purposes, I played here the day after I’d enjoyed another new lakeland course – Concra Wood, and seeing two magnificent new courses back to back was an intriguing exercise. Concra Wood is far more intimidating, with lots of movement on and around fairways; Lough Erne glides along like silk with its manicured feel and impressive playability. But the greens at Concra Wood are something else and you always have work to do. Concra Wood wouldn’t be as elegant as Lough Erne but it is a stiffer challenge with changes in elevation used to maximum advantage. And both sit in picture perfect settings – although Concra Wood just nudges it with wider views.

Our round finished as it was approaching dusk and Terry legged it to grab dinner with his wife – but not before finding his ball behind the 18th green, a long way from where we had seen his tee shot enter the water. It was an amusing finish, but one that summed up a Faldo trade mark here – water edging its way in front of the greens. You’ll lap it up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Seconds of Scrabo

[Photo: the stunning 1st at Scrabo - Index 1]

A few weeks back I was chuffed to receive an email from my publishers, which they had forwarded from an organisation called the Washington Ireland Program ( I was being invited to play at their inaugural Irish event, based on a glowing review I had given Scrabo in a Belfast Telegraph article.

Now I will interrupt this broadcast to say a few words about the course, mostly because wherever I have gone and extolled the virtues of Scrabo, I have been laughed at. Scrabo is a hilltop, heathland type course drenched in gorse. It is hard work physically and mentally, and high handicappers will struggle. The most punishing aspect is that good shots are not always rewarded, and vice-versa. And with so much gorse, balls will rarely be seen again. But here’s the thing: Scrabo is a mighty adventure. It promises spectacular views, it has some amazing holes – including the best opening hole in Ireland – and it will test every skill you have. I confess that when I went back for this second visit I was apprehensive – apprehensive that I wouldn’t like it nearly as much, that I would find faults, that I would agree with all the critics I had met at other clubs. But I shouldn’t have worried, because it’s every bit as exciting as I remember. The one thing I did find was that there is a junction in the middle of the course where holes cross each other wildly: it is dangerous, and you won’t always know where you’re going, so it’s an important point for visitors. Some signs indicating direction and the dangers ahead would help.

So, after Concra Wood and Lough Erne (see next blog) I headed for Scrabo, where I met Nick Burke, the man who had invited me on the day. He, along with three others had organised the event which was bringing together Irish businesses who are involved in the WIP – it is a charitable organisation that takes applications from students all over Ireland and then sends the best ones to Washington DC, where they become interns in US government, media, business and non-profit organisations for eight weeks. Over a six-month period they also gain valuable leadership training to encourage them to continue and nurture the strong ties between our country and the US. Many of the programme’s 350 graduates are now emerging in important careers in politics, law, business and the community. Or, on this particular occasion, golf. Actually, that’s not strictly true: playing off 28, neither Nick or Jonathan – the WIP Ireland Director – would claim to be golfers. The fourth member of our team was Bob van Heuvelen, one of the programme’s key players in Washington and on his first trip to Ireland. Bob also chose a handicap of 28 – it was a pick ‘n’ mix kind of day – and it made me wonder why they chose golf as the event’s sport. On top of which, Scrabo is a nightmare for the best golfers, so it must have been hell for these guys. I distinctly recall the 14th, where Bob and Jonathan lost two balls each, I lost one, and Nick looked mightily pleased with himself having found the fairway on his first attempt. All in all, between us, I’d say we lost over 20 balls. Nick lost one with his first shot, slicing a drive high and arcing it towards my camper van. I tried not to take it personally.

[Photo: views down the 3rd from the 2nd green]

Then again, the golf was only a small part of the day so a hard and sharp hailstorm didn’t dent anyone’s enthusiasm. Dinner afterwards was a carvery, in a large function room that serves as the restaurant and also a wedding venue. When I was here last year (Sept 07), the clubhouse was still being finished, but Ivan, my host for the evening, was saying how the club hoped it would be popular for weddings. Personally, I’d say it’s a perfect venue, with incredible views from the balcony and that overall top-of-the-world feel. Scrabo Tower is just the icing on the cake.

I sat with Bob and Brian – Nick’s dad – and an assortment of other folk who came and went. There was Tony, who’d just got married for the first time in his 60s, Robert who is built like a tank – the kind of man if you bumped into him you’d bounce off and he wouldn’t notice a thing – he and Bob discussed marathons, seeing as Bob had run one and I lost count of the number Robert had done. There was Tom Hamilton, a local councillor with stories of meeting Mary McAleese, Roger who went round Scrabo with 43 points and won the event – 43 points will do that on most days but it is a truly spectacular score at Scrabo.

[Photo: the pretty par three 17th with views over Strangford Lough beyond]

The most entertaining conversations were around Bob’s stay in Ireland: first, Tony suggested he go to Dublin for the day, then Robert insisted he go and see a football match – to which Bob joked that we don’t play real football in this country. Skipping quickly over the wimp’s version of football (aka soccer), Robert pointed out that in GAA football the players don’t wear pads or helmets, and play for the full duration of the game, non-stop. ‘What!” exclaimed Bob, “No downs?” And then we completely bamboozled him because there’s no quarterback. Bob was perplexed and as I’m an American Football fan it was amusing to see GAA from an American’s perspective. History doesn’t relate whether he went to a game or not, but I would like to thank Bob for restoring my faith in Americans. For eight years I have refused to go to America (my sister lives there) but with Obama looking like the next president, I shall be going back next year – provided there are any banks or airlines in existence.

It was one of those entertaining evenings that flies by. When it came time for the prize giving, raffle and auctions, I even got a mention by Roger (different Roger) who is a member at Scrabo. He said I had ranked Scrabo in my top ten – an interesting claim since I don’t even know what my top ten are yet. But it will be close. And I managed to leave a good enough impression that I’ve been invited to next year’s event, perhaps somewhere further south. Now, if they asked me to play in Washington…

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Hats off to Concra Wood

[Photo: the downhill par four 3rd]

“Enough of this rubbish,” barked John, one of my playing partners, and Editor of the Irish Mirror. Those weren’t his exact words but this is a family show, folks.

We were standing on Concra Wood’s daunting par five 15th, the wind and rain driving into us. The hole hits a long way over Lake Muckno and he’d just put his third consecutive drive in the water. He hadn’t lost a ball until the 12th, but between 15 and 18 he lost seven off the tee. The three free balls, courtesy of Concra Wood, had long since gone by the time we reached the 18th tee, and Marty handed him a decidedly dodgy ball after John put his first in the woods. Clearly, Marty knew what was coming next. He wasn’t wrong.

This was a different kind of day for me – it was Concra Wood’s PR day, when a bunch of people from the media turned up to assess the course. And the hospitality. Over the previous two weekends the course had hosted 800 golfers for their four open days, so the folks at Concra Wood were brimming with confidence – and rightly so. Sadly, it was only the weather that didn’t play ball. Rain drove into us from the high tee box on the 1st and, after a lull, it caught me unawares on 14, when a huge gust of wind whipped my waterproof hat across the tee box and out into the lake.

[Photo: the sweeping uphill par four 8th]

Our fourball was made up of John and Marty, who sensibly took a buggy, while Shane Derby (see Clandeboye blog) and I walked. It’s a long track, and in the rain it is not pleasant. Shane carried his clubs and I dread to think how uncomfortable that must have been.

This is the new home of Castleblayney Golf Club, although the 9 hole course behind Hope Castle is still open for play. One thing’s for sure, it is a big change-up. In motoring terms, it would be like shifting from second gear straight into fifth, or perhaps a Ford to a BMW would be more appropriate. This amazing lakeside location belonged to Coillte and was sold back in the 1990s. 240 acres were sold for what we would now consider an absolute steal. And when you experience the golf course that flows across the wonderfully rugged landscape you’ll see what an absolute steal it was. I’m sure that the golf club didn’t see it that way at the start – Mick whispered that their bank balance was an impressive £1,000 at the time!

The course tumbles down to the lake’s edge, from a high point that will soon be home to the clubhouse - at the moment it’s a prefab - and will offer almost 360 degree views. And what views they’ll be. This is a spectacular location for a golf course and I and my playing partners were hugely impressed, hole after hole. The surrounding landscape gives that rolling rhythm that you’ll find repeated on the course. I will have a little dig and say that some of the mounding and rolling fairways/channels seem a little too much – it’s not something I’ll put in my review because it’s just too early in the course’s evolution, and nobody else seemed to notice it. Suzanne Coyne, who sat next to me at the dinner in Hope Castle, and is the driving force behind Golf Ireland (the magazine and TV station), thought the course was superb – and this was the general feeling all round.

Actually, the dinner was an education. Here were people who analysed courses in completely different ways to me – Suzanne talked about the quadrants on the green, which sailed far above my head. These are not things I am looking for and, I hope, this is not what your average golfer is looking for either. If they’re like me they want to know if they are going to have a blast or a whimper. Concra Wood is definitely the former with challenges, thrilling shots and greens that are perfection. Stand at the top of the drop on 10 and tell me your approach is not the highlight of the day. The hole drops like a stone to the green. See photo.

It was a great pampering and Karen McCaffrey, the Sales & Marketing Manager, and Mick Fee, Project Manager, did a great job organising the day and hats off to them. Dinner was at Hope Castle, a hotel that could do with an injection of TLC, but the food was great and the conversation enlightening. Adrian, one of the directors, was asking me all about my travels. And, not for the first time that day I was being asked what I thought of the course. Coincidentally, whenever I was asked this question, Mick was hovering on the fringes. As I prepared to answer Adrian’s question, Mick leaned in and pointed a finger in my direction. “I’ll be watching you,” he said with a wide smile. No pressure then.

[Photo: from Concra Wood's highest point, down over the 3rd green and Lake Muckno to Hope Castle]

The following day was beautiful and it showed the lake in all its beauty. From Hope Castle you can see the golf course across the water and it looks steep – in reality it’s not, at least not continuously, and the shape and routing of the course has been done brilliantly to minimise the effort required. Mick arrived in his wheezing four wheel drive and he took me for a spin around the castle and the existing 9 hole course. He also took me down to Black Island which sits in the lake off the castle grounds, and gave me a brief history lesson along the way. This is a beautiful spot and several people were out walking dogs – there are marked routes around the island which is reached by a bridge. But back in 1947, the year of the Big Snow, there was no bridge so the only way to reach it was by water. Or ice. In 1947, the ice was so thick the locals were able to take horses across, fell trees and have the horses drag the wood back.

I have no doubt that Concra Wood will be a serious attraction in the years to come and it will be regarded as one of Ireland’s best inland courses. It has everything a golfer could want and it is a thrilling round of golf – so put it on your list for next year.