Thursday, October 21, 2010

Enniscrone: Risk and Reload

[Photo: View of the par five 4th]

It was a nice touch. Pat Sweeney, Enniscrone’s General Manager, had turned the all too abused golfing cliché ‘risk and reward’ on its head. And aptly so. Enniscrone is a beast of a links course and one of the finest in this country. Remarkably, after being awarded Golf Course of the Year a couple of years ago, Enniscrone still remains one of the best links that people don’t talk about.

The two travelling Kiwis had Enniscrone on their original schedule, but let it go as they decided to play Ballyliffin’s two courses instead. I like both Ballyliffin courses well enough, but not compared with Enniscrone. The size of the dunes, the routing of the course, the imagination required on each hole – it all adds up to one of the most enthralling rounds of golf you’ll play. Jamie and Michael missed a beauty.

Once again Dad and I arrived early and got onto the course well ahead of time. And the sun was out which seemed a good omen for our final round. With dunes this big and the wind sending coils of patterns through the marram grasses, it was like playing through a living, breathing thing.

[Photo: Dad ponders the approach to the 12th]

Dad had never played here, so I kept my mouth closed about what was to come – apart from giving him a line on the blindish holes (2 and 4, and later, 12 and 13). I wanted him to enjoy everything as it arrived. After some distinctly poor golf the previous day, his game picked up after the 2nd. He birdied the par three 3rd, sinking a putt of well over 30 feet, while I was stuck down the back and was lucky to stay on the green with my recovery. If there’s one simple lesson to be learned about Enniscrone, it is not to go off the back of the greens. There is no room and no relief. After the 3rd, dad added a run of pars and bogeys over the following holes to put a smile on his face. Risk and reload… not something my dad does and his sensible play reaped the rewards he was due. It was a great way to finish, and into a strong headwind he almost got his four on the 429 yard 18th.

Enniscrone is not a course to blaze away at. Positioning off the tee is paramount. Take the 15th which is Index 1. Your shot has to be to the right of the fairway or else you see nothing of the green and going for it in two is suicide.

[Photo: view back up the 13th fairway]

Something I alluded to in an earlier blog was a forthcoming book by a gentleman named Craig Morrison. He is producing a book on the 18 best holes in Ireland. He’s already done a similar book for Scotland, and now he’s decided Ireland deserves his full attention. He’ll get no argument from me.

Picking best holes and best courses is always a tricky proposition. I picked Scrabo in County Down as having the best opening hole in Ireland (I still think so), yet a journalist who reviewed my book said that the 1st wasn’t even the best hole on the course.

[Photo: Tee shot on the par four 12th - no driver needed]

And so it is with Craig. He has picked Enniscrone’s par five 16th as one of the top 18, yet I would put holes 12 and 13 ahead of the 16th. The 12th is simply magnificent: Cnoc na gCorp (Hill of the Dead) is a perfect description for the terrifying second shot you will face, but the hill that the name refers to is the monster dune that rises to your left and reaches some 80 feet high, stretching on and on into the distance. Why is it known as the Hill of the Dead? According to Pat, some 1500 years ago when the Vikings landed, they tried to come inland through the dunes. The natives were waiting and slaughtered them all, burying the bodies under the dune. A great story and one to keep visitors intrigued and aiming ever further right.

[Photo: Cnoc na gCorp]

Pat had a heap of stories about the course and I particularly liked the one about four Swedes who took out life membership and now keep their clubs in the top of the clubhouse so that they can come back whenever they want for a few rounds.

Enniscrone will never bore you, crammed as it is with its complex and myriad challenges, its views and its beauty. You will not beat this course, of that you can be sure, but you will be happy to keep trying for the rest of your life. As we left and said our goodbyes to Pat, Dad picked up a leaflet promoting the Atlantic Coast Golf Challenge – a tournament in July 2011 that covers Carne, Rosses Point and Enniscrone. “You up for that?” he asked. I’m guessing that will be his 80th birthday present.

[Photo: the par five 14th]

Thanks Pat, and good luck with the Eddie Hackett golf tour. No better way to promote the man’s genius.

Lough Erne 18th

A quick update on my last blog: the 18th at Lough Erne was not voted the best par three in the British Isles by Golf Monthly - as I and the sign by the tee stated. It was voted the best finishing hole par three - which makes a lot more sense.

I have been corrected by Lough Erne, which is fair enough, so now you know!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lough Erne and heavy metal?

Lough Erne Golf Resort is a big, elegant and glamorous venue. It is only open a couple of years but you wouldn’t know from the exceptionally high maintenance that makes fairways play like carpet and greens flow like silk. And, alongside Old Head, it is the most pampered golf experience you will encounter on the island.

[Photo: the view from the 1st tee of the hotel, clubhouse and lodges]

After our adventures in Rosses Point, Dad and I made it in plenty of time to the outskirts of Enniskillen, and into Northern Ireland. Neither of us had brought Sterling, so we wondered how that would affect things. It is undoubtedly a problem for many visiting golfers (and tourists) who see no border as they pass between south and north.

To enter the resort you drive through the Castle Hume Golf Club (a sister club of sorts, but please don’t play it by mistake) and past the big clubhouse. You cross a bridge and you have arrived. The trouble is, it’s not that easy to figure out what you’ve arrived at. The first building is the hotel and everything has been built to blend together, so you’re not sure if it’s hotel or clubhouse. Keep going. There is then a run of lodges and, tucked in between, you’ll find the clubhouse.

We drove past and kept going, looking for somewhere to park. The place was packed – it was something common to all the clubs we played.

If you like to be pampered and treated like royalty, then the experience starts when you arrive at the check-in desk outside the clubhouse: you will be greeted and welcomed; you will be asked what time you’re playing, whether they can get your buggy, fetch your golf clubs from the car and generally make life easier for you. And all done with genuine friendliness and courtesy. The golf shop is the same – and it’s one of those shops that has everything and is well stocked. The Lough Erne Challenge is prominent and you can buy momentoes of Darren and Rory’s victory over Padraig and Shane. North vs. South. If only all the North’s difficulties could be resolved this way.

[Photo: the walk to the 1st uses a bridge to get you there]

We ate fish & chips in the dining room next door, listening to gentle music drift from the speakers overhead, wondering who had selected the music as it turned to heavy metal. This is not a ‘heavy metal’ type of place. Then again, what golf club is? The menu is good, the food excellent, and you can have Faldo wine if you so choose. We didn’t.

Outside we met Lynn McCool, the Director of Golf and head professional. Her office is just behind the check-in desk and she brought me in to introduce me to Amen Corner.

A red mist descended. There are certain things guaranteed to rile me: clichés like ‘hidden gem’; ‘you’ll use every club in the bag’; and ‘we have an Amen Corner’ are high on the list. There is one Amen Corner, and it’s at Augusta National, Georgia, not in Ballygobackwards where you have a handful of interesting holes that happen to be difficult.

“There,” Lynn said, pointing at the computer screen. Not holes, but courses. On screen were Rosses Point, Donegal and Lough Erne golf clubs. “A perfect triangle,” Lynn said. “Our own Amen Corner.”

[Photo: the approach to the par four 2nd.]

The three clubs form a perfect triangle and they are putting together a special offer to play all three. It’s a novel take on the Amen Corner idea, but it brings together three top class courses: parkland and links.

Now here’s the thing: I’ve had comments about Hooked that I clearly rate links above parkland, and that is true. The reasons are many, but that does not mean I dislike parkland. Far from it. I like it in a different way. You can’t beat the elegance, the trees, rivers and lakes, the soft greens and that easy rhythm.

Lough Erne satisfies on all these fronts, and the long bridge that takes you to the 1st tee is a perfect and unique appetiser.

We had a buggy and I got the distinct impression that the course is designed to be played by buggy, and not by foot. Then again, the course is built in an environmentally sensitive area (signs for bats and otters are evident) and they don’t want people trekking into certain areas where they could do damage. You’ll find this as you leave the 1st green where you have to take the long way round to reach the 2nd tee.

There’s no doubt you can have some fun in the buggy too, and they will have a few damaged vehicles if they’re not careful. The blacktop weaves through the trees on the 2nd hole like a run of chicanes, and one wrong move will send you into a tree. Who said golf wasn’t dangerous.

[Photo: the par five 9th green sits over the water, the halfway house to the right.]

The wind from the morning persisted, adding considerably to the challenges: first, it tunnelled down the early woodland holes, then swept across the hilltop for holes 6 and 7 (where a sign proudly proclaims that Rory was the first person to drive the green 396 yards away – it’s a dogleg), before finding more woodland and lakeland holes to charge along. It gave Lough Erne some teeth. This is a course where shots fall into two categories: relatively easy driving and tricky, dangerous approaches. From the white tees, the course is just 6,241 yards so it’s not long by any means for a Par 72, but those approaches and artful design make you work hard. (There are also blue tees, 6700 yards, and black tees, 7167 yards.)

Our original plan had been for dad to drive and me to play. After three consecutive rounds I thought dad would be happy for the rest. Not a bit of it. There was only one hole he didn’t play because he thought it looked boring (the 12th), and he insisted on playing the 18th which was voted the best par three in the British Isles by Golf World, in May 2010. Two things to point out there: it’s not often you get a new, ultra plush course finishing with a par three; and it is in no way the best par three in Ireland, let alone the British Isles. A fine par three, to be sure, but the best? I think not.

[Photo: the par five 14th shows off the wildness/manicured contrast]

How you view Lough Erne will depend on how you like your parkland golf. Pampered, polished and perfect is the order of the day here. There is drama and beauty, and a wonderful contrast of manicured vs. wild on almost every tee box. Views from 6 and 7 are heart-warming and the Lough is never far away.

[Photo: the par four 10th. Designed for you to go for it]

I only have two requests of you if you visit this premier venue: play off the back tee on 16, which is right beside the 15th green – it is an awesome drive; and have a go at driving the signature hole 10th – it is 294 yards downhill, with the green sitting out in the lake. You’ll probably lose your ball, but oh those bragging rights if you make it!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Portarlington Food

[The lovely par three 3rd, from right in front of the clubhouse, below the restaurant!]

There is that ever present concern when you eat in a clubhouse, that you're going to end up being rather disappointed by the encounter. I ate in a fair few places and I had some terrible grub, not to mention some interesting interpretations of the staples like lasagne and curry. I had good food too: Seapoint jumps to mind as does Scrabo and Nuremore, but there's always that doubt in the back of your mind. Will it be tyre-tough or enough to last me until I get home?
Paolo Tullio is the restaurant critic for the Irish Independent, so it was an intriguing read when I opened the paper today and found he'd reviewed the restaurant at Portarlington Golf Club. The golf course is one of my favourites (and the 14th hole is my 'Best 14th hole in Ireland') but I can't say that I even remember what I ate on my visit. I wasn't expecting him to gush about the place, but he was clearly impressed. And it was interesting to note his comment that there aren't any other good restaurants in Portarlington.

So, worth it for the food, and definitely worth it for the golf.

[Photo: the par four, Index 1 7th]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rosses Point - All Change

The second round of golf for dad and I was at County Sligo Golf Club, or Rosses Point. It was only after I’d finished the book and looked back over the scores that I discovered Rosses Point was the highest scoring course. 97 out of 100.

People automatically assumed that this made Rosses Point my favourite course. It is one of my favourites, for sure, but whether it holds that top position would require me to play probably a dozen links and a couple of parklands all over again. I will do so willingly, but what I love about Rosses Point can be summed up in one word: change.

[Photo: views back down the fairway, towards the clubhouse, on the the par four 2nd]

Our tee time was at 9am, playing in an open singles for €25. Consider that a bargain, and if you arrange your trip here and are canny enough, you’ll discover similarly priced opens at Strandhill and Enniscrone.

We arrived early. And just as well. At 8am there was a large bus in the car park and golfers milling about. The cold fear of being held up by Americans washed over me. It is a generalisation to say that Americans are slow golfers, but they are here to enjoy the best links golf in the world so it's no wonder that they take their time. And it was great to see them on courses like Rosses Point, Strandhill and Enniscrone in October. The slow round wouldn’t have mattered too much but we had a tee time at Lough Erne, 50 miles away at 2.30pm. I legged it into the pro shop and queued behind two Americans.

[Photo: the par five 3rd drops down over ridges and bumps and bunkers, curling left towards the clubhouse]

I asked them where they were playing on their trip. Rosses Point was their final round and they’d played The Island, Portmarnock (old), Royal Dublin and somewhere else. They couldn’t remember where they’d played the previous day. Hmm, not exactly memorable then! A third member of the group arrived and ‘remembered’ Donegal Golf Club. I'm sure they won't be best pleased to know that they'd been forgotten so quickly.

[Photo: the par five 5th drops onto a flat fairway well below the tee, showing off the distant and glorious views all around.]

When I got outside, I held some hasty negotiations with the Americans and they were kind enough to let us out ahead of them. It helped of course that we were in a buggy. It was 8.15am. And by 11.15am we were back in the clubhouse. In between we had a great round of golf, switching between the different styles of hole and absorbing the views that make Rosses Point such a great golf experience. We met three more Americans on the par three 4th tee who, like ourselves, were avoiding the busload of their countrymen. The 4th was being hollow-tined so we had time to chat. They were playing early as they were heading off to Donegal Golf Club (they remembered the name too) and despite being a three ball, they easily stayed close behind us for the rest of the round. making a mockery of my earlier generalisation.

[Photo: the homeward stretch viewed from the 9th tee, starting with the par three 13th green on the right]

Where Strandhill is dynamic, amusing, unexpected and infuriating (in a good way), Rosses Point has that dramatic quality that runs through the soul of links golf. The constant changes that demand you to switch gear, the deception, the distraction of the views and the run for home that takes you in one direction from holes 14 to 18. We had the wind against us, which is the whole point of that closing stretch, and low punched shots were prayed for on every blow. Dad used his driver off the 16th, a par three of 172 metres (white tees) and put it pin high, 20 feet from the hole. It was remarkable watching the wind pull and snap at the ball in flight. It stayed true and it was his best shot of the day.

[Photo: the par four 14th. The 15th, 16th and 17th all stretch into the distance]

After a great start, I had started to struggle. If you asked me at the start of the year: ‘before you start your swing, what do you look at?’ I wouldn’t have been able to answer. I can’t remember if I looked at the ball as a whole, or the back of the ball. But a couple of months ago I started looking at a spot on the ground just underneath the ball. And now I suddenly find that mid swing my eyes look at one spot and then another. You won’t be surprised to know that I then duff it all of 10 feet. It happened on the 16th from 15 yards left of the green. It’s as frustrating as hell.

We did manage to avoid some other frustration though: we teed off on the 15th, standing on the edge of the sea. As we watched, the final of the three groups of Americans were teeing off on the 7th alongside. One thing is for sure: we would never have reached Lough Erne if we’d waited for our official tee time. As it was, I’m guessing we were having lunch in Lough Erne’s clubhouse by the time the Americans finished.

Thanks to David O'Donovan, the club's Director of Golf. And thanks for the directions to Lough Erne - via Ballyshannon if you're planning a similar trip.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

4 Club Wind at Strandhill

[Photo: view back up the fairway on the par four 13th]

A while back, on, the question was asked: ‘who would be your dream fourball?’

The usual answers flowed in: Tiger Woods, Rory, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan… Then some stranger ones crept in: John McEnroe, Obama… and finally came the most poignant of all: ‘My dad’. This came from a lad whose dad was no longer around and he was regretting that he hadn’t played with him enough.

I’m very lucky to have a fit and healthy dad of 79, who still plays golf twice a week. On Saturdays I get to play with him from time to time, and this year we got to the semi-finals of the Father & Son at Greystones (we lost on the 19th, if you’re interested). But he mentioned once that he and his father went away together to play golf for a few days, so I decided we should do the same.

[Photo: dad watches the Americans on the par four 13th. Rosses Point is over the water.]

I planned the trip – it was not a difficult decision choosing where to go. I picked my favourite corner of the golfing planet: the north west, with golf to include Strandhill, Rosses Point and Enniscrone. As it turned out, we got to sneak in another 18, at Lough Erne.

But Strandhill was first on the list. We left Dublin at 10am and were in Strandhill a little under three hours later. Declan Basquille, an ex-captain of the club, had arranged complimentary green fees for us, and after lunch in the bar (€10 for two courses – not often you get value like that these days, and the grub was good) we returned to the car to get our clubs. We passed a young lad – twenties probably – opening his boot. I glanced in: golf clubs and surfboard. Now that’s what I call surf and turf. Strandhill is renowned for its surfing and you get to see plenty of the waveriders from the 7th tee. Perhaps a few holes of golf was the perfect warm up for an evening’s surfing on the Atlantic.

[Photo: the par four 7th and the surf alongside. Benbulbin in the distance]

Strandhill is a links course that doesn’t like to make life easy. There are elements that you might call rustic (uneven tee boxes), unkempt (some fairways/paths) and insane (several holes), but these all add to the charm of Strandhill. No pretensions, no standing on ceremony and one brilliant course that can surprise you, delight you, terrify you and thrill you at any given moment. The fairways are a riot – literally – and nowhere moreso than on the 5th hole. Rollercoaster is the only word that describes it. There are plenty of blind or ‘impossible to gauge’ drives (the 13th remains one of the most memorable and remarkable holes I have ever played) but it is such an adventure that you don’t mind the chaos that can follow a great shot. That’s shorthand for saying that great shots don’t always get the reward they deserve.

I hit a drive on the par five 5th that appeared nowhere near where we’d seen it land. I then punched a 7 iron over the sea swell of dunes that hid the green entirely and couldn’t find the ball anywhere. It finally appeared in the rough behind the green. A drive and a 7 iron and I’m over the back. Just crazy. Dad lost three golf balls, each of them after a perfect shot. It was all part of the Strandhill adventure and we were playing with a stiff breeze that was getting stiffer by the minute.

I guess the seal of quality for a links course comes with the arrival of the Americans. And we had two fourballs on the course. We caught up with them on the 12th (they started 90 minutes ahead of us) and we went so slowly thereafter we almost went backwards. They didn’t have caddies and on a course like Strandhill that’s suicide. It’s not long, but if you don’t figure out what’s over that dune or beyond that rise, you’re in deep trouble, and these guys were heading off in four different directions from every tee box.

[Photo: views down the 2nd (par three), 3rd and 4th (par fours)]

We were waiting on the par three 14th tee, waiting on the Americans and watching two lads putt out on the 7th green alongside. We passed the time of day and then one asked: ‘is that a three or a four club wind?’ It had picked up considerably, and after some debate we agreed it was four. I looked at the five iron in my hand and went back to the bag for my four. The hole is 125 metres, normally an 8 iron for me, but we were hitting straight down the throat of the wind, so I gave the four iron the best I had. Straight at the flag the whole way, the ball landed two feet left of the cup, pin high. My unofficial caddie had moved on by that stage, so I couldn’t thank him for what was one of the best and truest shots of my life.

I missed the putt.

For anyone who wonders how much I like Strandhill, the photo on the front of my (golf) business card is a view back down the fairway of the 5th, over the most sensuous rolling dunes I’ve ever encountered. Here’s another view of it, taken from the 15th green.

Thank you Declan, and Cyril in the pro shop, it was great to re-acquaint myself with the rugged brilliance of your course.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ireland's Best 18 Holes: Hole 8

Druid’s Glen Par 3 140 yards

Of all the picture-perfect par threes in Ireland, Druid’s Glen boasts four of them. And of these, the 8th is the most stunning. The green sits perfectly over a double-pond in a dell of trees that rises up steeply on three sides to create a magnificent ampitheatre. Add in the flowerbeds and the kingfishers and it is one of the most tempting shots you will hit. Even in the depths of winter it is a good-looking hole. It’s not designed to be difficult (wait for the 17th) but all that water can be very distracting, and the slope on the green is severe in places.

[Photo: side view of the 8th, on way to 9th tee]

There are plenty of other 8th holes that deserve a mention – the par four at Narin & Portnoo most notably It falls from a high tee (with magnificent views) and drops steadily to the edge of the Atlantic, where the green sits perched in front of a dramatic postcard backdrop. One of those sweet drives that you want to hit again and again.

[Photo: Castlecomer's big drop - you have to come back up three holes later]

Another drive to be hit repeatedly is the par four dogleg at Castlecomer. From an even greater height, the tee box sits up in the tree tops, the fairway a mere speck in the green landscape below.

Two others worth a mention are The European and Moyola Park in Northern Ireland – the latter has one of the best approach shots you’ll have the pleasure of hitting: more woods and a wide river to cross.

[Photo: Narin & Portnoo and beautiful Donegal beyond]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Kiwi world wide adventure & Druid's Glen

[Photo: Michael Goldstein & Jamie Patton at Druid's Glen. 18 holes finished and looking forward to a good night's sleep]

How long does it take to get from Mount Juliet Golf Club, in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, to Druid’s Glen near Newtownmountkennedy in Co. Wicklow?

It was a question I wanted to put to Michael Goldstein and Jamie Patton as our 1.10pm tee time came and went. I know the guys at Druid’s Glen well enough that it wasn’t a problem, but it was a Friday and the time sheet was full. At this stage of the year/economy/recession (delete as appropriate) that’s good news for the club – or any club for that matter.

Michael and Jamie are the two Kiwis travelling around the world playing a different course every day, for a year. You’ve probably heard of them. They’ve played across New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Scotland and here they were, coming to the end of their three and half week trip to Ireland. Their website is and they’re raising funds for a charity called First Tee, as they go. Take a look at their excellent blog and you’ll get an idea of just what’s involved in their travels.

To most people, the idea of a year stuffed with golf at many of the world’s top golf courses is a slice of heaven. But you have to remember that this is hard work: travelling all the time, doing media interviews, arranging tee times and accommodation, taking photographs, blogging and playing golf… lots of golf. Boy, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it!

[Photo: Jamie hits his tee shot on the par four 7th]

We’d been in touch a few times over recent months, discussing their Irish tour and deciding where and when we could meet up. We finally settled on Druid’s Glen. My love of this club is well documented and alongside Adare it is my favourite parkland. They were coming from Mount Juliet, so it was going to be interesting to see how the guys compared the two. Along with Carton House (Monty), these were the only three parklands they were playing down south. The bulk of their golf was on links courses, and these read like a Who’s Who of Ireland’s (and therefore the world’s) top courses, from Royal County Down to Waterville.

When Michael finally arrived on the putting green he did not look 100%. This was to be his 259th consecutive round, so no surprise that he was tired but he had a stomach bug to add to his woes. And Jamie had enjoyed a late night in Kilkenny, so he wasn’t firing on all cylinders either. Gretta – Michael’s girlfriend who’d flown in for a week or two – was, however, full of bounce.

The answer to my opening question is three and a half hours. The lads got badly lost along the way. “Happen a lot?” I asked, assuming that travelling the world in a variety of borrowed vehicles and no GPS would lead to many directionally-challenged moments. “Not as badly as this,” was the reply.

Bert, the Course Ranger, was very accommodating and managed to slip us in at 2.20pm, and once we’d teed off all the drama and mayhem of getting lost was quickly forgotten. The tiredness wasn’t, and for two guys playing off 2 and 3 handicaps, there were some laboured swings and lengthy detours into the rough.

[Photo: Tee shot on the 13th. The hole drifts right, around the rock face]

[Photo: Michael goes searching on the approach to the 13th]

Druid’s 13th is famous and notorious. It is 461 yards off the white markers, and a driver isn’t always the best choice off the tee! The pictures don’t do it justice, but this is the hardest par four in Irish golf (the 12th at Druid’s Heath, next door, is a close second). Jamie and Michael found water and bushes, and then more water and bushes. It is a hole you need to play a few times to appreciate its difficulty fully, and the guys were suitably impressed.

Most top courses are judged by their signature holes. Druid’s Glen has a handful: the par threes 8, 11 and 17, the par four 18th and the 13th. A gentleman by the name of Craig Morrison agrees with me on the 13th, but more on that in the next blog.

I tried my best not to ask the questions that everyone else had undoubtedly been asking, day in, day out for the last 258 days, but sometimes it was unavoidable… best course? Where did the idea come from? Financing? Tiredness?

[Photo: side view of the beautiful par three 8th]

The ‘best welcome?’ question got an immediate response of ‘Ireland’. The guys had enjoyed themselves so much and been subjected to such great hospitality (Carne Golf Club received a special mention) that they were a week behind on their blog. We all know that Irish hospitality is legendary, but I was delighted to hear they were getting the full treatment. Irish golf clubs have been going out of their way to make their time here as enjoyable as possible, and that is coming through loud and clear in the tales they tell.

I decided I should be direct and asked them what they thought of Mount Juliet and how it compared with Druid’s Glen.

Debates about the best links course in Ireland typically centre on Royals County Down and Portrush, Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Carne, Lahinch, The European and Waterville. For parkland, the list is shorter, with Adare, K Club, Mount Juliet and Druid’s Glen being the most obvious contenders. (In truth, Ireland’s newest clubs of Lough Erne, Killeen Castle and Concra Wood should be added to that list.)

[Photo: the water enshrouded 17th. A par three to be played from the back tee]

Their answer was interesting and intuitive – it is not my place to list what they said (check their blog in the coming days), but, like so many things, it proved how conditioned we have become to marketing hyperbole. They are such different courses and they offer completely different experiences. If you’ve played both you’ll know what I mean.

Gretta, a non-golfer, lasted nine holes. When the 9th brought us back to the clubhouse she slipped away. She confessed that she’d not be on the golf course at all, but she couldn’t drive the 1989 Merc that the guys had been in since arriving in Scotland.

“Insurance?” I asked. No, it wasn’t that. How about right-hand drive? Stupid question as they drive on the same side of the road down under. No, it was a mechanical failing. The driver’s seat was stuck well back, and Gretta – somewhat shorter than Michael and Jamie – couldn’t reach the pedals. So she got stuck at the golf clubs, waiting in the bar for her man, and undoubtedly repelling the advances of many a keen Irish golfer.

[Photo: view from the clubhouse back down the par four 18th]

I had one last question for the boys: ‘how are you two getting on together, spending so much time in each other’s pockets?’ There was a brief pause: “It hasn’t come to blows,” Jamie replied wryly.

259 rounds down; 106 to go. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Island

[Photo: Jon putts up the 6th green]

As starts go, it wasn’t a good one. I have been driving for 25 years and it was the first time I’d done it.

The petrol station was packed with those morons who insist on parking in front of the pumps even when they’re only going in for a pack of fags. I had to manoeuvre around them to get to the only free pump. I was annoyed, to say the least, but not half as annoyed when, €60 later, I realised I’d put unleaded into my diesel tank.

“We get two call outs a week,” Morgan told me as he towed me away to the local garage. “All of them men.”

It didn’t make me feel any better. At least, I rationalised, if I don’t make the same mistake for another 25 years I can claim senility. For now, stupidity was the only appropriate word.

I’ve spent more time at O’Connor’s Garage in Ballycanew than I have at my local pub. The camper van had a couple of lengthy stays and now it looked like I was in for another long one. But Morgan gave me a loan of a big Citroen, and my trip to The Island was back on track.

As salacious as it sounds, I met Jack online. is an American golf forum, and he’d been asking for advice on playing in Ireland. I happily made some suggestions and we ended up agreeing to play at The Island.

[Photo: views from the elevated 6th tee - the 5th comes down from the left, the 6th drifts right]

Jack comes from Phoenix and his playing partner for the trip was Jon, from North Idaho via Kansas City. It was their first time in Ireland and from what they told me, they particularly liked the Guinness. They’d played seven rounds in eight days, only missing out one round (at Galgorm Castle in Ballymena) because the rain was so bad. They’d also had to abandon their day trip to Scotland because the ferries were cancelled due to wind. It sounded a bit unfortunate, but they’d enjoyed Ardglass, Royal Portrush, Portstewart, Castlerock, Cairndhu, Baltray, and now they were finishing at the Island. And it was a beautiful day. At least, it was at the start.

Jack and Jon were playing a match. After six rounds of golf, using the Stableford scoring system, they were level, so this was the crunch game. They were playing for money although I never discovered how much. Jon plays off 6, Jack off 11. I’ve played in matches when the intensity is worse than the British Open – this was not one of those days, and we had a great round.

“God… Bless America,” Jack spat at one point after a poor shot. By the round’s end, America was well and truly blessed.

[Photo: the approach to the brilliant par five 15th]

The Island is undoubtedly Dublin’s most enthralling links, yet it rarely gets the credit it deserves. [All Photos Here]. Big dunes, twisting fairways, great green complexes. It didn’t make my top ten must-play links courses, but that’s only because the views here aren’t as spectacular as elsewhere. Jack hadn't heard of it until my recommendation. The course is known for a number of things: eight par fours to start; Index 1 to finish; the narrowest fairway in Ireland (14); the fact that golfers rowed across from Malahide to play the course (the old clubhouse was by today’s 14th tee); and the enduringly difficult par three 13th which invariably hits into the wind.

The rain had stayed away but as we walked up to 13 it decided to show us what it was capable of. It came at us horizontally, in a stinging squall that bites your face and soaks your clothes before you’ve even had time to say ‘waterproofs’. This was Irish rain, and it was coming straight at us from the 13th green, 192 metres away. How strong was the wind? Jon, head bowed, cracked a Driver straight at the flag and came up 20 yards short.

[Jack, almost dry, on the 14th]

By the time we reached the 14, the rain had vanished and the sun was back. By the time we reached the green, we were dry.

I asked Jack on 15 how their match was balanced. Jack was three ahead on the front nine, but Jon was three up on the back. They halved 15 and Jon missed a two footer on 16 to take a point lead, but the match as good as ended on 17. Jack hit a drive and three wood onto the green and then sank a 40 foot putt for birdie and four points. He was, understandably, ecstatic, and Jon could do nothing on 18 to claw back the points.

In the bar afterwards I asked about their best and worst experiences. From a golfing point of view, Ardglass topped the list. They said the experience and value (best in Ireland they said) were superb, and from my perspective I found it invigorating that they lumped the two together. You can play a brilliant course, but if the value doesn’t match up, you can walk away with a sour taste in your mouth. And it was a sour taste in their mouths that was mentioned as their negative experience.

“What,” Jon asked, “do they cook Irish breakfasts in? They leave this aftertaste.” As they knocked back their pints of Guinness I’m guessing they’ll forget about that aftertaste fairly quickly.

Thanks lads for a great day out.

[Photo: view back down the 1st towards the clubhouse]

Mulranny - 9 holes of pure adventure in Co. Mayo

[Photo: at least the follow-through looks good]

“You know why the mattresses have International Orthopaedic Association printed on them, don’t you?” My brother-in-law, Perry, was standing on the 1st tee at Mulranny Golf Club in Co. Mayo.

He took a practice swing and groaned. “Because that’s who you need to go and see after you’ve slept on them.”

He wasn’t wrong. The beds were on the concrete side of firm and all of us had been walking a bit awkwardly after two nights in the hotel.

This was a family gathering (6 of us) for my mum’s birthday. Dad, Perry, Fiona and I had slipped away to play nine holes on a perfect golfing afternoon.

We were spending a long weekend in Newport, and my dad and I had been plotting how we could get out for some golf – as you do. Mulranny was close by, a nine hole course (so we wouldn’t be too long), and Perry had mentioned that he’d like to play. These made persuasive arguments and my mum gave us a day pass for Saturday afternoon.

[Photo: cows cross the 7th fairway]

Unfortunately we arrived at the busiest time, not just of the day, but of the year. The front man, John Rooney, told me later that they had two competitions, casual members, a society and green fees. Combine this with people who drive across the course (to the beach), walk their dogs aimlessly across fairways, sheep who wander around the clubhouse and cows that have taken up residence on the 17th tee box and you will appreciate why a round at Mulranny is such a chaotic adventure.

But it is an adventure for sure. The scenery is heavenly as you look out onto Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick beyond, and the golf is the kind of links golf that will have you tearing your hair out. But in a good way. There aren’t any severe climbs but it’s rarely level, and the greens have big slopes on them that turn great shots into knee-quivering putts (or chips).

This is the last course in Ireland where livestock still roam freely (the greens are fenced in by barbed wire, so don’t try climbing over them), and while a golf ball in a cow pat is a rare event, it can still happen. This is the sort of course that should be in my book. It’s good enough, and a great experience and, at only 20 quid, it’s value that warms the heart. But it’s a 9 hole course.

[Photo: playing catch after a ball finds the stream short of the 7th green]

Perry is new to golf. I didn’t realise quite how new until he confessed on the 1st tee that he’d never been further than a driving range. This could be interesting, I thought, handing over my rescue club. Perry took his stance, shrugged his shoulders a few times and then hit the ball straight down the middle.

“Beginner’s luck,” he quipped with a grin. Sadly, so it was to be as a few fresh airs followed on the fairway. He persevered until the 6th and then resigned from the threeball, taking photographs instead. As an introduction to golf, this is a fun course with no airs and graces, and the views are captivating. I think he had fun.

On the 6th tee box we encountered a woman and her dog, looking very confused (the woman, not the dog). She asked us which way we were playing. It was an interesting question: in one direction was the green; in the other was the sea. She reappeared on the 8th oblivious to the golfers driving over her head. It’s that kind of course, and the informal clubhouse, made up of portakabins (but a lot better than that sounds) adds to the atmosphere of relaxation and welcome.

[Photo: views over the third green from the fourth fairway]

I handed John a sand wedge after we’d finished. I apologised and told him that my neighbour had been up a few weeks before and had forgotten to return it with his rented clubs. That, of course, was a lie. It had been sitting in the back room of my house for ten years. I played here with a mate, rented clubs and was given a driver, a five iron and five wedges. I left one of them in the boot of the car and forgot all about it.

Finally, a brief question for geography and history experts: Why is Mulranny spelt in four different ways? I saw Mulranny, Mulrany, Malranny, Malrany. True, there’s not a lot of difference, but this is a small place – does it really need four variations?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who’s the fairest of them all?

[Photo: views over the 11th at Narin & Portnoo]

An interesting survey came out recently, ranking countries by their beauty. The catchy and memorably named Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index ranked Ireland well ahead of the UK. David Cameron wasn’t best pleased and queried how Ireland, ranked 12th, could come 12 places above the UK, ranked 24th.

As Cameron pointed out, one seventh of England (that’s England, not the UK) is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. In Ireland, we build motorways through our most cherished heritage. Hmm, no contest there. In England they have the Lake District, the New Forest, the Yorkshire Dales… in Ireland we have Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) that seem to have little effect on developers who see such areas as prime real estate.

[Photo: some of the 360 degree views at Waterville]

And let’s not forget that the UK includes Scotland with some of the greatest coastline in the world; Northern Ireland and her Glens of Antrim; and Wales with her Snowdonia National Park.

Ireland is beautiful for sure (The Burren, Connemara, west Cork, Kerry, Donegal among others), and I have been lucky enough to see a lot of it, but to be 12 places ahead of the UK is daft. The AGRNBI (even the acronym’s a mouthful) survey is spouting rubbish and has clearly been influenced by Ireland’s marketing efforts, which, it has to be said, is a great reflection on the work of Failte Ireland. The current advertising campaign is particularly evocative.

How is the rating conducted?

The study polled nearly 20,000 people in 20 countries, asking more than 40 questions about their perceptions of 50 countries. The survey covers several other aspects of ‘Nation Brands’, including investment, people and tourism. The ‘Most Beautiful Country’ is just one of these and I guess if you bombard people with enough targeted marketing messages and Ireland’s elegant landscapes you come 12th.

[Photo: some of the views from Dooks]

For golfers, many of Ireland’s beautiful landscapes and coastal views can be seen from our courses. Most prominent among these are Carne, Connemara, County Sligo, Dooks, Killarney, Narin & Portnoo, Old Head, Royal County Down, Scrabo, Tralee and Waterville.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Enniscorthy Classic

[Photo: Enniscorthy's short and delicious par four 16th]

“Put your hands like that.”

“Like that?”

“No, the other way around.”

“That’s mad, I can’t do that.”



“Go on, would you. There are people waiting.” The exasperation in the man’s voice was obvious.

The young lad tried it, complained some more and finally heaved that big shoulder-shrugging sigh so perfected by teenagers the world over.

“Now what?” the boy asked.

“Now hit the ball.”

“Jeese, this is a stupid game,” he muttered, stomping off the tee.

[Photo: Par four 7th - a tough downhill hole]

It had been a few years since I visited Enniscorthy Golf Club. It’s laid back, friendly and brimming with great country atmosphere - a natural (i.e. not over-designed) rolling parkland that flows with the landscape.

I had been invited to a Golf Classic (a four man team event) for the local GAA club and, after a miserably wet morning, the skies had cleared for our afternoon round. But the rain had delayed play and we were waiting for a man and three young boys. Now it’s not often that you see a kid hitting his first golf shot on the opening hole of a full-blooded 18 hole course, but that’s the no fuss, no pretensions of Enniscorthy. Wear jeans, wear whatever you like, come along and have some fun.

[Photo: Enniscorthy's best views on the approach to the par five 11th]

The hurling grip in golf is not to be sniffed at. True, there are no professionals on the tour who favour it, but there’s a golfer at Greystones, Shane O’Connor, who is one of the best in the club. This year Shane won the President’s Prize (matchplay) and he is a stalwart of the Barton Cup team. The grip may look cack-handed to traditionalists but if it works, it works.I’d love to tell you that the kid hit a screamer of a shot, but he duffed it about twenty yards. “Bollocks,” he said. He produced another ball, teed it up, reversed his hands into the traditional hurling grip and smashed the ball out of sight over the trees.

[Photo: The new par four 13th]

Since my Hooked review, Enniscorthy GC has introduced two new holes. Out went a very good par three and short par four, and in have come more fancily designed replacements in a big field alongside. They had to be replaced for safety reasons, I was told. The new holes are not as good and, because they’re brand new and stuck in a field, they interrupt the flow of the old part of the course. They’ll get better with age, but at the moment they feel a bit wrong.

I had been invited to the event by the three-brothers-Carter. Peadar, Noel and Seamus have handicaps in the high teens and twenties so, as the low man, I was put up first. The opening hole is a par three; I put an iron into the middle of the green and then four-putted from 20 feet. After that it all went downhill. The greens, drenched with the morning’s rain, were still lethally quick and their considerable undulations make it hard to gauge for the occasional visitor. That’s my excuse anyway.

[Photo: Peadar plays the par three 3rd]

After the wasp incident at Mount Wolseley, Enniscorthy offered up an alternative: small black flies by the thousand. My cream coloured shirt was covered for much of the round. After a few mouthfuls of the things, and the coughing and spluttering to remove them, the conversation was kept to a minimum.

Our combined score was shocking and we would have won the booby prize if there had been one on offer… which is a tad embarrassing when the group in front of us included someone who had never played the game before. On the plus side, I put some money in the raffle and walked away with a bottle of Jameson’s. And the clubhouse is still one of the friendliest I’ve ever been in.