Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bearna Golf Club Complaint

There are always going to be complaints - either from golfers who disagree or, more likely, from golf clubs who aren't happy with their review.

So when I got a call from Pat at Bearna Golf Club, I was intrigued to discover that he was complaining about the review. The thing is, Bearna is different. It's built on a bog and it has features and colours and plant and animal life that you won't find elsewhere. And great views too. That's why it's different and that's why it is a joy to play.

Pat's complaint? I rated the course too highly! I guess that means he's going to have to work harder to keep it in shape. If you're over in Galway, it's an experience you shouldn't miss

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bunclody Golf Club Review

[Photo: 17th green and the famous lift]

You know what annoys me about the Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club? That damn lift. People talk about the ‘golf course with the lift’, or ‘what’s that course with the lift?’ They don’t say: ‘hey, have you played Bunclody with its brilliant finishing stretch down through the woods and along the river.’ No, the lift gets top billing and on a course this thrilling that’s a shame.

Despite being brand spanking new, the only evidence is the drainage lines on holes. Everything else has settled in perfectly. Take the mile long driveway through a perfect avenue of dark trees (some in the middle of the drive): you get tempting glimpses of the river and the course. Then there’s the magnificent clubhouse with its thatched roof and luxurious interior. It’s a thrilling introduction and you can rely on Jeff Howes’ design to throw a great golfing experience in your path as well. [All 19 photos can be viewed on my Flickr page]

[Photo: the approach to the par four 12th, with the thatched clubhouse on the right]

Essentially, there are two lots of holes: nine of them play within an open, undulating landscape, bordered by dense trees. They are populated with water features and hundreds of surprisingly mature plantings. This space will age well but it feels a bit barren for now. The other nine are the holes that look and feel like they’ve been there for years, and are far more dramatic. And tougher. They run alongside the River Slaney, and the mature trees of the old Hall-Dare Estate form an impressive defence against errant shots. There are places where it’s pointless to look for a ball, and the thick grass around the edges of the waste bunkers (on 6 and 7) may prove just as pointless. These waste bunkers help to drain the plateau by the river, which is on a separate section of the course, and one of the most beautiful (think Woodenbridge, only better). They have ‘islands’ in them and you’re allowed to ground your club. It’s a good splash of something different.

[Photo: the par four 15th. A stream snakes in front of the green]

Holes 10 to 13 bring you back to the open section where there’s lots of room to play, until you approach the green on 13. Now you head back into the woodland that gives Bunclody its brilliant, tight and dangerous finish. 14 and 15 are the holes of the course, and the walk down to the 15th tee gets the heart racing as a steep hillside comes down from your left, and a lone tree stands in the fairway. 16 and 17 play alongside the river before the lift takes you up to 18, a short but tight par five.

The quality is excellent, as you’d expect, and the greens are both receptive and true. They are also surprisingly uncomplicated. Bunkers are a bit over the top, in places, but they do an excellent job of defending greens, some of which are angled behind them.

Bunclody sits in a pleasant setting, with hillside, woodland and some mountain views. It is well spread out and it changes pace often enough that it promises a thrilling round of golf. There are three tees and the best challenge is from the middle whites (6,728 yards) as the green tees, which I played off, felt a touch too short at 6,291 yards.

Favourite hole: Par three 14th. 180 yards. It’s a downhill hole, in deep woodland, and it just looks delicious. There’s no room to the right. 15 is a brilliant follow-up.

[Photo: the par three 14th]

Toughest hole: Par three 5th. 208 yards. Also downhill but with big water, tight and right, and woods to the left. There is room to bail out (short and left), but a threatening hole and tough in any kind of wind.

[Photo: the par three 5th]


Course Design 17

Appeal 8

Greens/Fairways 9

Water/Bunkers 8

Location 7

Facilities 10

Value for Money 9

Golf Experience 18

Total 86

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Connemara, Ballinrobe & Westport

[Photo: Connemara's par five 7th hitting down onto the plain]

Finally, after two and a half years, I finally took my wife and our dogs on an actual holiday. One that didn't involve me going off and playing golf. We found a cottage in Roundstone, tucked away on a beach, with no phone line, internet connection or mobile phone coverage. Bliss. We set off in mid October for a whole week, heading to the wildness of Connemara on a Saturday morning.

I won't bore you with the details - the cottage was not like the pictures on the website (it was small and rather grotty) and a bout of food poisoning ended the holiday after only three days - but in the time I did have, I managed to get to Westport, Ballinrobe and Connemara Golf Clubs.

Yes, I know, I said no golf, but I wasn't playing. I was taking photographs and two of these were done when my wife was otherwise occupied. I didn't feel too guilty.

I played Connemara in the summer of 2007 and found it a strange beast: a front nine that feels prairie-like with large bumps scattered about; a back nine that contains three exceptional holes (12 to 14); and two reverse par fives to finish. After a long drive in from Ballyconneely (keep an eye out for the castle on the left - it's amazing to think that someone would come this far out and think, 'that's a perfect spot for my castle'), one of the things I like most about this club is walking around the clubhouse, seeing all the flags fluttering (or being bent in half) at different points around the place. It sets you off on the right note, and Eddie Hackett got the pace just right.

[Photo: the brilliant par five 14th]

I arrived at the crack of dawn and got some great photographs (Connemara Photos) before reaching the 14th and catching up with a buggy-driving golfer who had started on the 10th.

The 14th tee box is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring places to stand on this, or any, golf course. The Twelve Pins are away to your left, and Slyne Head is directly over the green. Creg Curran is an American and he was in a rush (never the best way to enjoy links golf), as he was heading up to Carne later that day. Then it was on to Donegal. He had forgotten the memory card for his camera so I gave him my blog address and told him to take anything he wanted off Flickr. He asked if I knew of Tom Coyne's book, ' A course called Ireland'.

[Photo: Creg tees off on 14]

Tom is the guy from Philadelphia who walked around Ireland playing all the links courses in 2007. I knew the book and told Creg that it had stirred up a bit of resentment because of an incident that happened at one of the B&Bs during his travels. Tom had found great glee in writing about it, and perhaps that was a mistake on his part, although having read some golfing blogs I know people found this incident hilarious. I won't go into detail, but suffice to say that his brother-in-law was unable to control himself one night.

That aside, Creg thought it was a great book. He also asked where he should play if he decided to head over to Donegal from Carne. I took him through Enniscrone, Strandhill, Rosses Point and then Donegal GC itself. Then I mentioned Narin & Portnoo and his eyes lit up. Tom Coyne ranks it 6th in his top ten, apparently. I think, after my endorsement, that Creg will be heading there. I should have asked him to send me some feedback on the new clubhouse.

Five years ago I promised my wife a day at the Delphi Mountain Resort health spa. It's taken a while to get there. I dropped her off and headed off to Ballinrobe, which was a lot further than I thought. I was due to photograph the course and meet Donal Hughes, aka The Spin Doctor for the Irish Examiner newspaper. I rushed around the course taking the photographs on a dull, overcast day (Ballinrobe photos), and encountered two ladies on the 14th, hitting in to the green. One of them was on the phone and just stood beside her ball while she babbled away. I was 80 yards away and could hear her conversation. I left the hole, walked over to 15, took some shots and then worked my way back around to head for the clubhouse. It took me behind the ladies, and yer woman was still yapping away while her poor companion stood a few yards away looking decidedly hacked off. I think I've made my point.

I played Ballinrobe around the same time as Connemara and played with two lads in an open competition. Neither was a member but they knew the course well, and when they found out about my book they gave each other a knowing grin. 'See what you think of the 15th green,' Billy said. 'And the 18th', said Shane. It turned out that 15 has this enormous lump on the putting surface, that will divert your putt in any number of directions. It's definitely an odd one if you end up on the wrong side of it. 18 is a short par five dogleg and a perfect drive will leave you with a shot at the green. Or so you'd think. Trouble is, there's a large tree immediately in front of the putting surface and you have to play away from the green in order to access it on your third. Again, a bit daft, but Ballinrobe is a quality parkland and the best in the area by some margin.

[Photo: The 'interesting' approach to the 18th]

I legged it to Donal's house and, by the time I arrived, I had only half an hour before I had to leave. I wasn't sure which house was his as there were four or five in a row, but the golf ball lying in the driveway gave him away. Our meeting was a typical rush job, which was a shame because once we sat down and started talking, we could have been there all day and night. Like myself, he's ex-DCU and he won the DCU Alumni Golf outing a few years ago, so he was a bit miffed when he discovered he'd missed this year's at the K Club. He has his own blog if you're interested:

The last course was Westport and I'd forgotten how good some of their holes are. (Westport photos)

[Photo: the par three 14th hits straight at Croagh Patrick]

Friday, October 16, 2009

K Club II and the Washington Ireland Program

Having not played the K Club for a few years, it was a bit of a luxury playing there twice in three weeks. This time I was a guest of the Washington Ireland Program (, an organisation celebrating its 15th anniversary and choosing the Ryder Cup course to attract as many of its supporters (from Ireland and USA) as possible.

[Photo: Reflections over the lake from the 13th green up the 15th fairway]

The WIP is a charitable organisation that brings together Irish businesses and universities, to send the brightest students from north and south of the border to Washington DC. Students 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 Ireland and the US. Many of the programme’s 380 graduates are now emerging in important careers in politics, law, business and the community.

It was another shotgun start so there was a whole crowd of people milling about the clubhouse. I’d spent an hour on the Smurfit course, taking photographs for my Flickr page, in the early morning mist, so I was a bit late. The first person I bumped into was Jim Carroll, a senior director from Accenture’s Washington office. I had never met him, so I was a bit surprised when he picked me out and introduced himself. I was then introduced to Liz Arky, his colleague, and the Managing Director of Global Government Relations at Accenture. I’ll see your job title, Liz, and raise you with one of my own: Direct Marketing Supervisor of Acquisition and Retention.

[Photo: the par four 17th, green to tee, Liz, Jim and Mark in attendance]

That was over 10 years ago when I was at One2One. Now I feel diminished just saying ‘freelance copywriter’. It turned out that we were playing together. I learned later that they had asked to play with me (after my book was given out at the WIP’s American golf event at Lake Presidential). Naturally, I was honoured, but later on I smelled a set up. The fourth member of our group, Mark Ryan, was from the Dublin Accenture office, and when I saw the golf club logo on his jumper, my blood went cold. Elm Park Golf Club. Not one of my favourite courses and, I’ve heard, one that is writing to my publisher to complain about my book review. I thought I was going to get it in the neck for the whole round, especially when I discovered we were sharing a buggy. I had visions of being driven into the deep rough and being set upon with a 7 iron, but it turned out that Mark didn’t know about the book so I was in the clear – at least until we got back to the clubhouse and he read the review in one of the copies that the WIP guys had accumulated. So I had 18 holes to breathe easily.

To say that our golf performance was distinctly unimpressive would be an understatement: Mark and I had similar rounds – bouts of great golf infected with total horrors; Jim and Liz were renting clubs and it took Jim – a mid teens handicapper – a good few holes to get the hang of his Callaways (he was hooking his irons on almost every shot); Liz is fairly new to the game and extremely enthusiastic. She’s caught the bug and has a swing that will take her far. She may also take Mark along as her caddie, such was the partnership they established. First of all, there’s an element of trust when you ask someone for help with a shot; second, you have to correctly interpret what you’re being told; thirdly, and most difficult of all, is being able to execute what you have been told. I suspect that these are challenges that Liz faces every day in her job, but being able to do the same thing on the golf course is a different matter entirely. Yet she did just that: on our first hole (the 6th) Mark gave her a line on the green and she sank it from 30 feet (welcome to the K Club); when she was stuffed under the trees on the 2nd, Mark pointed through a gap, recommended a club and told her to go for it – she did as instructed and put it about 12 feet from the hole (any pro would have been delighted with that outcome); on the famous par five 16th she hit three solid shots down the fairway, leaving herself 140 yards to the green, on the other side of a wide swathe of the River Liffey. “What do I do?” she asked. I replied with a question: when are you ever likely to be back? If you go for it and make it, I said, you’ll be dining out on the shot for a month. She decided to go for it, and Mark got to work telling her what and where to hit. Needless to say, she nailed it. Not only did it fly the river, it landed on the green. [I had a 120 yard shot and dumped it in the water – just to put things in perspective]. Perhaps the most remarkable display of her ability came on the par three 3rd. Liz ended up behind the green, on a down-slope, with the green above her. Her first instinct was a wedge, but Mark directed her to the 8 iron and a punch shot into the up-slope. This was not a shot Liz had ever played, but Mark pointed to a spot on the bank, gave her encouragement, told her to hit it with conviction and then watched as she executed the shot perfectly, the ball bouncing up the slope, onto the green and rolling to about six feet. Liz was ecstatic, Jim was celebrating, Mark was modest and I remained impressed at this golfer’s ability to follow instructions to the letter. She topped it off by getting a line from Mark and then sinking the putt. Magnificent stuff. My golf may have been rubbish, but I enjoyed the day and the company immensely.

[Photo: the par three 3rd]

Before the golf started we were told by the K Club that they had set the course up the way it had been on the final day of the Ryder Cup – not the tees, obviously, but the pin positions. If you know the Palmer Course, here are three pin positions to make you nervous: on the Index 1 15th, the flag was in the very right hand corner, with the large pond in front, a pond behind, and maybe 7 yards in between. On the par three 16th, the flag was two paces from the Liffey’s edge. On 7, it was at the very back right of a 50 yard green that had only trouble behind and the Liffey on the right.

So, I was mightily impressed when the winners came in with a score of 95 points – the competition was stableford, full handicap, with three of the four cards to count – an unusual and testing format.

[Photo: tee shot on the par four 11th]

It was a beautiful sunny, warm day and everyone enjoyed the event. For my part, it was thrilling to play the course in such great condition and it was a lot of fun meeting many of the people I met last year at the same event in Scrabo. Many of them are WIP Alumni (Nick, Jonathan, Robert and Shane), or WIP people (Bob), but I also met others so it was a very friendly affair. It does go to show how important a ‘good laugh’ is when it comes to golf. When I was at the buffet lunch (not the best, it has to be said) one of the guys on the table asked me what I thought of Ballyliffin. It’s a great course but he stopped me and started talking about the service – he and his pals had been treated brilliantly and that’s what he remembered. It says a lot and any clubs out there who have their heads too far up their arses should take note: real customer service makes people remember you, adore you and spread your name.

At the end of the prize giving (we didn’t figure!) there was a raffle that had numerous small prizes, including several copies of my book. Each winner was allowed to pick a prize of their choice. Near the end, there were four prizes left: one Belleek candle holder and three copies of my book. I like to think that everybody already had a copy, so that’s what I keep telling myself.

There was also an auction of a couple of fourballs: Druid’s Glen and Lahinch. Liz and Jim won the latter… I’m waiting for my invitation!

I wasn’t able to make the evening meal, which was a substantial reception at Dublin Castle hosted by President Mary McAleese, but there were over 300 people attending, including TDs and a number of Ambassadors. 15 years on and the WIP is still gaining pace.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Druid's Heath

[Photo: from the 18th green back to the tee, behind the trees]

Like Druid's Glen, I never got to photograph the Heath course, so, after a few phone calls and false starts I finally got to the club/hotel on a perfect sunny evening. During previous conversations with people at the club there had been no issue with my going onto the course to take photographs. Unfortunately I met a young man who refused my request for 'insurance purposes'. That's fair enough - he's protecting himself, the club and the hotel. But he followed it up with 'the course is very busy'.

He let me go up to the 1st tee, which meant walking behind the 18th and 9th greens. From the 9th green you can see across to the 17th. I then walked back towards the car park and across onto 10, 11 and 12. How many golfers did I see (or hear)? None.

[Photo: the par four 10th, moon and all]