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]