Monday, November 24, 2008

Golf Show at the NEC

[Photo: The Heath's par three 9th, with sheep]
I got up at 4am to catch a flight to Birmingham for the Golf Show at the N.E.C. Not my best time of day and having parked, taken the bus, waited patiently to go through Security (asking myself where all these people are going at 5am) and then walked only a few short miles to reach the departure gate, I was anticipating a well earned snooze.

Have you seen the movie Airplane? Remember at the end when the out-of-control plane lands and swooshes past the nominated departure gate, and passengers rush from one gate to the next as the plane fails to stop? We had that at Dublin. Well, sort of. I was sitting at gate D72 when a murmur spread through the long queue. Someone had seen the departure board which indicated that our gate had switched from D72 to C61. Panic set in. Bags were plucked up and people began to hurry away down the concourse. The running of the bulls came to mind, especially the elegantly suited man who had been first in the queue and was now running with coat tails whipping behind him. Me? I stayed where I was, as did a few others. Ryanair don’t go anywhere near C terminal, and with 20 minutes before departure I doubted we were going to be sent to the far extremes of the airport – and if we were they could damn well wait.

It started low: a waterfall of indistinct sound that turned into a hissing of polyester and staccato heels as the flock returned at full speed, mister elegance in the lead. The gate change had been a mistake and the hoards were upon us once again. I thought, fleetingly, that the suited man was going to cry when he discovered his cherished front spot had been taken. He was now well back in the queue and he kept leaning to the side to look at the spot he’d once stood. And yet – and this is the remarkable thing about Ryanair – when the plane took off, every single one of us was on board. What’s more, the plane landed 35 minutes ahead of schedule and was announced with a dramatic fanfair over the loudspeakers. Not ideal at 7.10am.

The show opened at 10am and there was a queue of maybe 200. A good sign. Inside, the key focus of visitors was the longest drive, various putting competitions and the latest golf clubs. By about 10.02am you could hear the constant sound of balls being hammered into driving nets. The 100 foot putt challenge was also popular, offering free weekend breaks to anyone who could sink the putt. And it wasn’t easy! The carpet was obviously rigged against you and five feet in front of where you started, balls were hopping gleefully in the air. There were plenty of clothing suppliers, new gadgets to help you improve your game, including one putting gizmo where you blindfold yourself (I have yet to play a round blindfolded, but maybe you have), tour operators, buggy suppliers – check out for the new porshe of buggies. They even had one spinning on a glittering dais. Oh, and Bank of Ireland, obviously, with some rather aggressive sales people.

The purpose of my visit was to attract advertising for the book. There are probably four spaces (inside covers and in the middle where the photographs will appear) and this seemed like a good environment to talk directly to the relevant people. Clothing and club manufacturers seemed like the perfect place to start, along with the tour operators who send their clientele to Ireland. I spoke to several people and handed out cards, but it didn’t help that on my first attempt I asked where in Australia the guy was from and he replied, Guildford in Surrey. That slowed my momentum and getting that why-are-you-talking-to-me stare a couple of times never makes it easy. But, all in all, it was a positive experience. Only one Irish body attended – Golf Ireland Midlands – promoting the Laois International Golf Challenge which embraces some excellent midlands golf courses (including Portarlington and The Heath) and a Final at the Heritage (co-designed by Seve Ballesteros).

[Photo: Portarlington's par three 3rd]

Coming back was an interesting experience. A big soccer game had been on and a few dozen Irish fans were returning home, many of them the worse for wear. The flight was noisy and the safety demonstration was drowned out by people going ‘shhhhh’ and then giggling like schoolgirls. I was blessed to have a gentleman beside me who liked singing. He only seemed to know one song. Actually, he only knew five words and he slurred them eloquently: “We always beat West Brom”. Fascinating.

I do not like soccer. For one thing, is there any other sport where fans sing songs about the opposition, the opposing fans and the referees, constantly calling them ‘scum’ and ‘bastards’ and a whole lot worse? The song of choice on my flight was Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, with ‘scum’ being some part of the chorus that I couldn’t make out.

I simply don’t get football. The beautiful game? I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. Or, worse, watch synchronised swimming.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

“The best of the best of the best. Sir.”

OK, name the movie.

If you’re thinking I’m about to list the best courses then you’ll be disappointed – you’ll find those in the book. Instead, I’m addressing some other ‘best’ areas of the golfing experience – a whole motley crew of different things that I have encountered along the way and just add that extra flourish or, perhaps, just put a smile on your face.

Best Apple Crumble: New Forest
Best Scone: Westport (it’s made fresh for you)
Best Cheesecake: Castleisland
Best Burger: Limerick – and there were lots to compare it to
Best Stir Fry: Seapoint
Best Salmon: Carrickfergus

An unfair category as so many courses never had a chance to shine – either closed during the winter, or my visit was a fleeting one. But…

Most impressive entrance:
Macroom, Tandragee, Waterford Castle, Old Head
Least impressive:
Narin & Portnoo (through a caravan park)

Best Facilities:
Showers: Knockanally
Changing Rooms: Fota Island, Moy Valley, The Heritage
Clubhouse: Clandeboye, Luttrellstown, Knockanally, Fota Island
Practice facilities: Moyvalley, K Club (Palmer), Cairndhu (you hit out towards the ocean)

Best Bar:

Best Restaurant: (not food-specific, and based on a limited number of encounters):
Clandeboye, Scrabo (views)

Best Practice Putting Green:
Mount Juliet (including an 18 hole putting green with water)

Quirkiest Practice Putting Green:
Bray, Scrabo (astro turf)

Best Air Guns: Portarlington (please don’t point in the wrong direction)

Most Peaceful Course:
East Clare (and a perfectly winding Irish road to get there)

Most Picture Perfect Course:

Best Greens:

Best Views:
Dooks, Waterville, Narin, Old Head, Scrabo

Best Bunkers:
Royal County Down

Best Trees:
Coollattin, Adare

Most places to have punctures?
Limerick (3 punctures: at Limerick Golf Club and then at Adare)

Most dangerous:
Fernhill (other golfers)
Old Head (cliffs)
Mahon (tidal sludge)

Worst man-made feature:
The huge and naff waterfall and cliff on the Smurfit course at the K Club.

Best man-made feature:
The water at the Heritage – between 9 and 18 specifically

Best skeleton-under-the-green story:

Best tree felling story:

Best name for a hole:
Leg of Mutton at Lisburn. One of the other legs can be found at Castlerock.

If you have any other thoughts, let me know.

And the movie is Men in Black

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Done and dusted

So there it is. In a little over a year I’ve had the pleasure of bashing my way around every 18 hole golf course in the country. Oh, I have no doubt that as soon as the book is published someone will say “What about XYZ course?” And if that someone is you, don’t expect any thanks from me. I have trawled the country to the best of my ability and come up with 349 golf courses, from the exquisite to the downright embarrassing. If I have missed a course, I hope it’s of the latter variety.

The book has been delivered to the publisher and I have to thank my wife for a huge amount of work over the closing week. Formatting, fonts, formulae, flags and footnotes are not my strength, and I’m more likely to throw a few other choice f words into the mix. Fortunately, Fiona sorted it all out and worked through the night to get the book into an appropriate state for Con at Collins Press. 380 pages of A4, bundled into a box and stuffed in the post. It all seemed like a very tame end.

Actually I still have a couple of photographs to take for the book.

There will be colour photographs of the 18 best holes in the country, 1 through 18. I’ve had a very entertaining time trying to create the best par 72 that includes four par threes and four par fives, and doesn’t have more than one hole from any course. I have no doubt it will cause some amusement among the golfing cognoscenti, but that’s the advantage of a book that is subjective. These are my 18 best holes.

So I’m heading up to Royal Portrush when the weather improves to take a photo of one of the holes. Most of the courses have been able to supply me with photographs, but Royal Portrush got a computer virus that wiped a lot of their files. A bit unfortunate that it’s so far from Wexford, but at least I can take my wife away for a night and pay her back for her efforts. As for her year of patience and understanding while I drove around the country, I guess that will take a slightly more impressive effort.

[Photo: Scrabo Golf Course, Washington Ireland Program Golf Event, September 2008. WIP Board member Bob Van Heuvelen, Kevin Markham, WIP Ireland Director Jonathan Chesney and WIP Alum Nick Burke]