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.

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