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: clich├ęs 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!

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