Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Foot Fault

When you consider how long you spend on your feet, playing a round of golf, you’ll appreciate the importance of good footwear. There are plenty of golfers out there who spend a minute or two trying on shoes, walking around the pro/golf shop, mimicking a swing or two, and then handing over the cash. And sometimes it’s up around the €120 mark, so you think folks would take more care when buying a shoe that is going to take one hell of a beating on the golf course.

At Ballybunion, Ronan played the last hole of the night (our 27th) in bare feet because the back of his heel was rubbed raw by a pair of old shoes that had worn through at the heel. That’s how much of a beating you give your shoes.
Am I offering advice about shoes? Not at all. I've digressed entitrely - but I will draw your attention to a more specific aspect of your footwear: orthotics. Or-what you might ask, or perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Essentially, orthotics fit inside your shoes and help your gait and the position of your feet relative to your body. They can be for flat feet, high arches or other foot ailments; they can be for knee and back pain too, because the pressure put on your back and knee by a poor footstep can be immense. Remember Olazabal’s foot problems? He had them for several years before they realised it was a back problem manifesting itself in his feet. And then he won the Masters.
I visited a chiropodist today who specialises in orthotics (I’ve used them for 15 years), and after walking barefoot across a special mat with hundreds of sensors he pulled up the graphics on the PC screen and showed me how I walked.

In a comparison that many golfers will be familiar with (namely, when you’re videoed during a lesson and then shown your swing compared with Tiger Woods – is there anything more depressing!), I got to see the progress of my footstep compared with a “normal” footstep. The two looked like they came from different species. You’re supposed to walk on every part of your foot, from heel through to toe, yet I land on my heel, miss out the centre, progress to the front foot and then completely ignore my toes.

It made me feel like an uncoordinated ape! But it got worse. When you put your foot down, your heel is the only part of your foot striking the ground for the first 20% of your footfall. That’s the “normal” footfall anyway. My right heel comes in at 46%; my left at 57% - meaning my balance is somewhat askew. I could go on with the figures, but I feel so abnormal at this point that I’d chop off my feet if I did.

I got measured for new orthotics and that was that, but walking down the street afterwards was an entertaining experience as I tried to walk like a “normal” person and ended up doing a Charlie Chaplin. So, if you have back, knee or ankle pain, or even tight shoulders, it may be your body’s way of telling you that you’re not walking as well as you should. Orthotics could be the answer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Here’s a little piece of customer service that golf clubs might like to take on board: get some mobile phone rechargers. It shouldn’t cost them a cent as you get a free charger every time you buy a phone, which means the average household has 23 chargers shut away in drawers and boxes. Ask your members if they have a spare one they don’t need, and then keep the rechargers from the different manufacturers in a box, ready to say to a member or visitor with a dead phone – “here, we’ll plug that in and recharge it for you, and you can come and get it in 20 minutes/after your round.”

[Photo: the par four 3rd at Adare]

[No doubt someone will quibble that there is no place for mobile phones in a golf club – but if you think you can stop their use, I have two words for you: King Cnut.]

When we arrived at Adare for our second round of the trip, the first request made in the pro shop was for a mobile phone recharger. One was produced immediately. Nice touch – keep the customer happy. Rod and I were delighted – yer man, Ronan, had been using our phones since the previous day.

Adare was preparing for the JP McManus Pro-Am (5 & 6 July) and a huge marquee was being erected near the clubhouse. The place looked superb and as there was no surly security guard this time, I started in much better spirits than my last visit (rain, puncture, obstructive guard). A great breakfast (highly recommended) and a leisurely wander around the pro shop were just what we needed, and the young lad in the shop told me that 12 of the world’s top 15 players were playing in the event (no Mickelson, Kim or Stricker). The confirmation, three days before, that Tiger was playing had boosted interest hugely, so I wasn’t that surprised to hear they had a full time sheet.

[Photo: the approach to 18th green, over the River Maigue, with a glimpse of the hotel]

Adare is one of those grand venues, with a long drive up to an elegant clubhouse (not to mention the 19th century hotel and former residence of the Earl of Dunraven), excellent facilities and a relaxed air that matches Mount Juliet. It puts you in a great mood. I’d also wanted to play Adare rather than another links course so that we could savour the differences between a top links and the best parkland in the country. It started well, too, as three drives found the fairway, but after that balls ended up in the water a bit too often.

We played skins, 20c a skin, and I had eight skins after eight. After that, nothing could ruin my day. Ronan, as is his way, had a late surge that pulled in two birdies and a back 9 of two over. The second birdie came on the famous 18th where he was able to have a go for the green in two, over the River Maigue. 511 yards with all carry to the green makes for two fine blows. Rod’s golf was up and down, literally, as he dug his way out of the rough and bunkers to make several elegant pars.

[Photo: the River Maigue runs peacefully across the par three 11th]

In ‘Hooked’ I made two observations about Adare that I should revisit. The first comment was that the bunkers are too firm. When I read my review before this trip I thought I had made a harsh judgement, but the bunkers are hard. There is a fine layer of soft sand on top and then firmness underneath that can bounce the club. On this visit there was no rain to soak the soft sand and playing out of the bunkers was a pleasure – you get more check. This is the way Adare likes its bunkers, evidently, and that’s fine with me.
My second comment was that Adare was tough. If you play badly, almost any course is tough, but I remember Adare having much tighter fairways and trees that squeeze you a lot more (at the start and on the back 9). This time I was playing some of the best golf I’ve ever played and realised that sensible placing of the ball makes all the difference – yes, I know, that’s true of any course, but with trees and water crowding your line it’s not as obvious at Adare, where you are tempted to force it.
[Photo: the looping par five 7th, with water threatening on all shots]

It is big and spacious; the design and routing flow easily and, apart from one open stretch (holes 5 to 8), there is a denseness that makes the holes solitary and beautiful.

Up for debate
There is a considerable debate about the best parkland in Ireland. K Club, Mount Juliet and Adare are usually mentioned, alongside Druid’s Glen, Fota Island and Slieve Russell. Then there are the new pretenders: Concra Wood, Killeen Castle and Lough Erne. The oldest of them all is Carlow, so there is plenty of choice. I put three courses at the top of my list: Mount Juliet for hospitality, Druid’s Glen for dynamism, and Adare for scale and beauty. I suspect that Concra Wood and Lough Erne will be challenging that top three very soon, but for now I’m content to say that I played the best parkland in Ireland last week, and one of my top three favourite links (Ballybunion).

[Photo: downhill approach to the dogleg, par four 13th]

Not bad going when you consider that Ballybunion was free (a fourball voucher), Adare was 50 euro a head (thanks to the lovely Orla), the accommodation was free and Ronan refused to accept any petrol money – so just food, drink and crisps (not strictly a ‘food’ group). And poker money of course.
The only negative is the size of the changing rooms, which are too cramped and dark after the expansiveness you get to enjoy everywhere else. But seriously, after a course this good, who cares!

Ballybunion the 2nd

[Photo: the magical par three 16th]

When we’d first arrived at Ballybunion, I took Rod and Ronan up to the left of the clubhouse to show them some of the holes on Ballybunion’s second and much younger course - the Cashen. I mentioned what a stunning back nine it is, never thinking we’d have the chance to play it. But Vari, said we were very welcome to play it after we’d finished on the Old course. As we sat in the bar after the first 18 holes, the evening was so perfect that it would have been irresponsible not to have accepted her generous offer.

It was approaching 6pm and, as it had been for my first trip around the back nine of the Cashen course in 2008, so it was again: the sunlight made giants out of the mountainous dunes, their shadows stretching across the fairways, wrapping around our feet and pulling us onwards. The grasses burned gold and looked good enough to sleep on. See the photos and tell me I’m wrong.

[Photo: Cashen's par five 15th]

For those of you who don’t know the Cashen course, it is an interesting beast. It was designed by American, Robert Trent Jones Senior (although he was born in England, so perhaps there was the faintest hint of links in his blood), and it is a divisive course. From tee to fairway, it is links golf. From fairway to green, it is not… it is target golf. In other words, you have to land the ball on the green because there are few opportunities to bump and run the ball up severe slopes to greens. On a windy day that can prove nigh on impossible and not all links purists are emphatic in their praise. But I have two things to say about that: I love a challenge and it is such a beautiful setting that it needs to be appreciated for its unique design and the excitement it delivers - hole after hole.

Ronan’s golf was getting better by the hole, but his long drives were getting him into all sorts of trouble because he was getting too close to the greens. When you can bump and run that’s not such an issue, but delicate sand wedges are not the best option to seriously difficult and hard greens. It didn’t seem to matter – he was practically drooling over the holes. I think he preferred it to the Old. Rod was more phlegmatic and was enjoying nine holes that were completely different to those he’d played earlier.

Me? I love both courses equally and I’d play them again and again. The setting is perfect, the dunes enormous, the history rich, and the challenges complicated and varied – when you see your ball on the fairway it is not just a sense of achievement you feel, it is uplifting too.

The closing stretch is utterly superb. After a short and innocuous drive on the par five 15th – when I finally convinced Ronan to put the driver back in the bag – the hole doglegs sharply to the right after some 220 yards, drops down into a hollow and then races low between the dunes, all the way to a precariously perched green. 16 is a par three that drops to a green above the beach, while 17 is a par five that curls around the dunes above the beach and has one of the toughest approach shots in golf (severe drops to the sea) - especially if you plan to go for it in two.

[Photo: approach to the par five 17th]

Ronan had been struggling with sore feet and played much of the 18th barefoot after the heels of his shoes had rubbed his flesh raw. Perhaps those extra nine holes were a walk too far, but he seemed so enthralled by what the Cashen had to offer that he wasn’t fussed.

We packed up the bags, had showers and then ate in the clubhouse with the first round of the US Open playing above our heads. Great food, great company and amazing golf. You couldn’t ask for more, especially as we watched Padraig roll in a birdie putt on 18 before we left.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The thrill of the west

There are certain things that tug at the heart strings: a song, an ocean, an ex-girlfriend, a dinner your mother used to make. Everyone has a weakness. When it comes to golf, I imagine every golfer has such a weakness – either a course they’ve played (and probably scored 48 points) or a course they’ve dreamed of.

[Photo: the exquisitely difficult par three 15th, into the prevailing wind, 200+ yards]

Ballybunion is my weakness (or one of them at least), and I got to scratch that particular itch recently when a friend invited me down. Since we were going all that way, I arranged for us to play at Adare as well, as it is my favourite parkland (alongside Druid’s Glen). There were four of us to start, but one had to drop out last minute. That left Ronan, Rod and me, trekking down to Listowel in Ronan’s car on a perfect Wednesday evening. As per a perfect boys getaway, our ‘food’ supplies consisted of beer and crisps (Rancheros specifically). In a brief nod to healthiness I brought carrots and celery for the houmous.

Thursday morning was perfect too – it helped that I’d won all the poker money – and we arrived at a sunny Ballybunion before 11am, for a 13.18pm tee time. Nothing quite like soaking up the atmosphere. I stuck my head into the office to say hello to Simon, the General Manager, only to find he’d left shortly after my visit in 2008, heading to ‘greener’ pastures in Dubai. Now it’s Vari McCreevy – ‘no relation of Michelle at Failte Ireland?’ I enquired. Sister, it turned out. ‘Are you as good a golfer?’ I continued. ‘Better,’ she replied. You’ve got to love that sibling rivalry. Imagine what the Maguire twins must be like!

Ronan discovered he’d left a couple of clubs at the house and headed back to collect them, leaving Rod and me to enjoy the practice facilities. We chipped and putted for an hour, and while I have always appreciated the value of practice, on this particular day it was telling. As the high and low handicappers, Rod and I took on Ronan and Evan (who came up from Killorglin) and we gave them a good thumping: 2 up on the front, 1 on the back (after three late birdies from the opposition). Combined, Rod and I had 44 points, and Rod made a mockery of his 17 handicap, rolling in 8 pars.

I put my good play down to the love of the course. Sometimes you just feel right when you step onto the 1st tee. A light breeze in your face, the sun splitting the clouds, good friends and the fact that you’re playing for free (Ronan had a fourball voucher) all come together to lift your spirit. And then you split the fairway. What could be better?

What worked so well about the day was a list of shots that any pro would be happy with: on the 3rd, from off the green, Ronan tickled a six iron up a bank, across the shoulder of a bunker and onto the green where it broke towards the hole and resulted in a par; Evan hit an even more delicate shot on the 9th, over a rugged bank and onto a green that was hard to hold from any direction; and Rod just kept knocking in putts for par, halving and winning holes from everywhere. There were plenty more too, including three eagle opportunities.

[Photo: the steep 6th green rises all the way to the back. View back towards the tee: JD, John, Peter approach]

Like any great links, your ball will be tossed about at Ballybunion, and after the 5th hole the greens become increasingly difficult. The 6th (after a brief stop at the halfway house where we met a mother and daughter suitably red and roasted – sun screen doesn’t rank high on the list round here) doglegs out to the sea and has steep fall-offs that will break your heart if you’re a fraction off target. The 7th and 9th are also brutes. Missing them in any direction makes getting up and down nigh on impossible for ordinary golfers, and if you’re unlucky enough to hit the downslope you’ll probably be in thick, impenetrable rough.

We had expected (and been told) that a five hour round was on the cards. The course was busy (over 3,000 euro in green fees) and we were held up from time to time, so it was impressive to step off the course after four hours. These days there’s an expectation that it will take you five hours to get around the big, popular-with-American courses, so this was a rare treat.
[Photo: the 18th green back to the tee, shot from the 1st tee box]

A three-ball behind us – complete with caddy/wife – remained patient all day. And no sooner were we off greens than balls came zipping in at the flags. We didn’t see much bump-and-run, but when you can stop a ball as quickly as these guys could, why bother. The 18th tee sits up high above the beach, with the 17th green immediately in front of you. As we waited to drive we watched the three guys approach. The flag was tucked tight to the left, behind a bunker, and all three shots landed next to the pin and stopped. Two of our group who had tried the ground route ran off the back of the green. Not fair - this is links, damn it!

In the bar we discovered that the three ball was made up of JD Guiney, back from Orlando where he’s on a golf scholarship; John Fitzell who plays off 3, and went round in 2 over; and Peter Masters, the writer for Golf World who was over reviewing a few courses (Doonbeg, Ballybunion and Portmarnock Links). He plays off 9, but looked like he was comfortably matching his playing partners.

It was interesting meeting a golf writer who was reviewing a course. I got the impression from his comments that he preferred Doonbeg to Ballybunion. It will be intriguing to read his reviews in the magazine to see how he compares the two.

[Photo: the tee shot from the 1st]
I chatted to them for a few minutes, heard a few interesting Kerry expressions (unrepeatable on here), and then had to leave as three of us (minus Evan who had headed home) headed out the door to play nine holes on the Cashen course.
Ballybunion Old is a glorious track. It is packed with so many memorable moments: views from the 2nd green, tee shots on 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17, and the dunes that turn the back nine into a mountainous affair. You have choices all over the place: on tee shots, approaches and around the green. It’s about using your head, trusting your swing (and club selection) and putting with confidence. Grip it and rip it by all means (the par five 13th turned into a drive and 8 iron for Ronan, and he then drove clear over the boundary of the course and onto the beach on 17), but a well steered iron will serve you just as well. Remember that when you stand on the 1st tee and glance nervously at the cemetery alongside the fairway. It is a pertinent reminder of what can happen to your ball if you are over-exuberant.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Congratulations G-Mac

There’s no doubt Graeme has been threatening this for a while, not to mention his current run of form. He’s led before (2006) and wasn't able to finish, but this time he showed his ‘mental toughness’ (as the psychologist boys love to call it), and won the big one. The US Open is widely regarded as the toughest of the four majors (Winged Foot in 1974 anyone?) and now we have another Irishman winning one – and a different one at that. Only Augusta left – step up, Rory.
Let’s hope Graeme can continue this run of form into the British Open. How about Padraig and Graeme making up the final pairing on Sunday!

I read a couple of things a week ago that interested me particularly after this victory: the first was the veteran commentator Johnny Miller’s prediction that a score of around +4 would win: Graeme’s Level par total was not far off the money on a notoriously difficult track (despite what Tiget did to it in 2000). The second thing was a prediction that Dustin Johnson was one to watch, but that he might struggle with the pressure on Sunday… seems about right. I imagine that after his triple/double/single bogey run (holes 2 to 4), he was barely shown on the TV coverage again. After all, Tiger Woods’ navel gazing is far more interesting to the TV networks. I hope DJ bounces back.

Incidentally – the members of Winged Foot Golf Club in New York, turned down the opportunity to host the US Open in 2015 – apparently they decided that hosting the 2006 Open (won by Geoff Ogilvie) caused too much inconvenience. Oh how precious that Saturday morning tee slot!

Friday, June 4, 2010


I have been asked a few times why I didn’t include Ireland's 9 hole courses in 'Hooked' - especially as there are so many great 9 hole tracks. Cruit Island, Borris, Helen's Bay spring to mind but there are many more. And let's not forget that there are some truly awful 18 hole courses out there that should be turned back into the farmland from whence they came.

[ A security camera watches over the 10th tee (it used to be the 1st), with the M50, Killiney Hill and Irish Sea beyond]

On my travels I drove past several 9 holers and I was sorely tempted, but I was always on my way to another course - perhaps I shouldn't have let that stop me. One such course is Carrickmines - a place I played a fair bit during my youth as a friend of mine is a member there. It sits on a hillside on the outskirts of Dublin.

I hated the place. Unfair bounces, sloped fairways, fast greens, gorse and deep rough, together with some quirky green settings, made Carrickmines a disastrous score waiting to happen. Charlie kept asking me to play and I kept finding excuses.
[Photo: the par three 4th, up hill, into the gorse. It's no place to go left, but you can bump and run up the right]

Finally, I had to play the course in a competition.

All those reasons that I hated the course came flooding back - only now when I played it, I loved it for those very same reasons. You need to play it with guile, and the fact that it's 9 holes means that by the time you play the 'second' 9, you'll have learned a few things about the slopes and the greens. And there's a lot to learn.

[Photo: the 8th/17th green with vicious banks protecting it]

It is a short course - par 69 and 6,000 yards - but it has 18 tee boxes which adds variety and length: the 9th is a par four the first time around, but a par five as the 18th.

The last few times I've played it the condition was excellent and the greens are the most natural you'll find - things of beauty and deceivingly fast. You'd describe it as heathland, but during the winter it plays like a links, and the links tactic of bump and run will serve you well here all year round - even on the par three 4th/13th.

The M50 now races below the course, and if you look up the hillside as you pass the Kilternan exit, you'll catch glimpses of the course and golfers stamping about. There are still views over to Killiney Hill and the sea beyond, but that gash of cement, tar and ant-like cars draws the eye more than it should.
[Photo: the 5th/14th green looking back down to the tee. It's Index 1 and the rumble strip fairway that can throw your ball anywhere]

It is the naturalness of Carrickmines and the simplicity of it all that captures the imagination. It is a tricky test

The Half Set

I remember my granddad going out to play with half a set of clubs: one week he’d take the evens, the next he’d take the odds. Two rounds a week gave him ample practice to hit the ball longer or, more typically, shorter. Then again, in his heyday, he played off a 1 handicap, so he had that ability.

This week, I tried to carry my clubs and do the same. I played three lots of 9 holes: two rounds at Greystones and one at Carrickmines. I took the even numbered clubs (4, 6, 8), a PW, Driver and putter. The first two rounds I was just messing about with friends and I found it easy gripping down the shaft and hitting it with a punch for distance control. The third round was at Greystones in a 9 hole scramble competition, and that’s when it all went wrong. On the first hole I needed a seven iron. I used a six instead and flew through the green (lost ball). The same happened on the next. I needed a five later on, but put a four iron over the back. I forced an eight iron and found the bunker. So, nine holes and four disasters because I decided I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, carry a full set of clubs.

It’s a smart idea for casual golf when you’ve got time to experiment and practise. In fact it’s good for you and your game as it adds a new variety of shots to your arsenal, but it’s not worth doing in a competitive environment – at least not until you’ve being doing it for a while. And I’ve as much chance of getting to a 1 handicap as I have of being the Queen of England.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Giving Up

My guess is that every golfer does it. Whether they admit it, get angry about it or just try too hard, it happens. Look at Ian Poulter over the weekend. He came last at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Championships with 73 and 76 to finish. That gave him a total of 7 over, three behind the guy in second-to-last place, and 28 shots behind the winner, Zach Johnson. You can’t tell me that going down the last few holes, his head wasn’t screaming ‘get me off this damn course’.

Giving up is so easy to do when things aren’t going right. You play the opening holes and throw in bogeys, doubles, trebles and worse and you know it’s not going to be your day. The head drops, the swing tightens and things go from bad to worse. My solution was always to hit the ball harder and harder. Who cared where the ball went? The trouble was, it just compounded things. You’ve tried looking for a golf ball in six foot high gorse when there’s steaming coming out of your ears, right!

It’s taken me a long time – 20 something years – to realise that giving up is pointless. If you don’t agree with me, the next time you go out and you feel like giving up – don’t. Consider this: you’ve probably parred every hole you have yet to play. You can do so again. And if you can get your game back on track, there is no sweeter feeling than walking off the 18th having recovered from an abysmal start.

As an example, I played with a friend of mine in a strokes competition a few weeks back. He plays off 8. He was doing OK – nothing spectacular – when we reached the 4th: he put a ball in the gorse and had to reload. He birdied the hole with his second ball for a bogey. He then did exactly the same on the next. Despite two fine saves, his swing was getting faster and he was muttering that it was ‘the end of my round’. I turned to him on the 6th tee and said that he had parred every hole from here on in so he could do it again. The 6th at Greystones (see photo) is a terror for an out of control tee shot and he lashed it into the gorse again, this time running up a seven. The dark clouds descended and he gave up. By the time we reached the 10th he was 11 over. He stopped caring, but at least he relaxed. And he played the back 9 in level par. As he walked off the 18th, with a smile on his face, he said: ‘if only I could go back to the 6th tee and start over.’

Giving up defeats nobody but yourself. You can let it drag you down or you can use it to fire you up. The latter is infinitely more rewarding. I just hope I remember these wise words of wisdom the next time I return to that dark place.