Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rory McIlroy Classic - August 19th

[Photo: Holywood's tough par four 14th]

Let's be honest, calling it the 'Holywood Classic' wouldn't have quite the same impact, would it!

I read in the Irish Times(GO supplement) on Saturday 25 June, that the timesheet was open for entries to the Rory McIlroy Classic, at Holywood Golf Club, Rory's home club. The cost was a mere £20 per person... with Rory showing up to present the prizes. The date? August 19th.

The wonder kid has just won the US Open, so this is going to be a popular event. I called the club and had a chat with the guy in the pro shop. The first tee time is 6am; the last tee time is 6pm. Are there any tee times left?

[Photo: Holywood's downhill par three 3rd, with Belfast views]

Er, no! The timesheet went live online the day after Rory won at Congressional. It was sold out in 30 seconds...

Even if that was an embellishment and it was actually 30 minutes, the Irish Times was still five days late! Still, probably enough time to put your name on the waiting list... but expect to be waiting a long time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Waterville - a trip back to heaven

[Photo: the club's official mascot]

5.55am and my alarm goes off. I’m on holiday so it’s a bit of a brutal start to the day… but I’m heading for Waterville Golf Links, thanks to the very generous invitation of Noel, the General Manager. I asked to play early, to keep out of the way of fee-paying golfers, but I hadn’t really thought how early I’d have to rise and how long it would take me to get to the club from Parknasilla Hotel. 45 minutes is the answer.

Denis, the hotel’s night porter, had put together a breakfast for me – nothing fancy, but enough to get the day started. A 6 o’clock breakfast usually calls for quiet and a slow crawl to normality, but Denis was up for a natter. I cleared the cobwebs and learned some interesting facts: if you don’t already know, Parknasilla has a 9 hole course that is well respected. Denis told me that when the hotel was bought a few years ago (from the Great Southern), there were plans (and drawings) for an 18 hole course that would have torn through the woods and slipped between the new hotel lodges.

[Photo: Waterville's Clubhouse at 7am]

Truth is, I was delighted to hear that it never happened. After all, it’s not like we’re short of golf courses, and Parknasilla is a perfect hotel as it is, with its many coastal and woodland walks within the grounds.

[Photo: Waterville's 1st hole, 'Last Easy', from green to tee]

Waterville Golf Links was deserted when I arrived – not exactly a surprise – and I was teeing off by 7am. The first hole is called the ‘Last Easy’ which is apt, if a tad misleading. It’s probably the most straightforward hole, but it’s not exactly easy. Mine was not a good start. It was too early for my bones and muscles to function as one. Still, after a first hole where the ball barely got airborne (not always a bad thing on a links course) I played the dogleg second hole in a more traditional fashion: a drive pushed right that shortened the hole but put me in the rough. I saw no distance markers so judged the shot by eye and hit a 9 iron that bounced short of the green and rolled up towards the hole. I walked about 20 yards and passed the 150 yard marker, which meant I’d knocked a 9 iron some 170 yards.

No, this is not about bragging, it’s about appreciating how differently a links golf plays, how a ball runs and how firing at pins is downright stupid (unless you’re hitting straight into the wind). I’m playing in the Atlantic Coast Challenge in a few weeks (over Carne, Enniscrone and Co. Sligo), so it was a good chance to practise sensible links golf. My second shot turned out to be a fluke and the dew on the green showed that I missed an eagle by an inch. When you’re used to parkland golf, it’s a battle to convince yourself to play low running shots. Sadly, it was a battle I lost on almost every hole.

[Photo: the Inny Estuary wraps itself around the 3rd green]

I’m no loner on the golf course, but there are times when playing by yourself on a completely empty course is sheer bliss (I was out before the greenkeepers). Hares lolloped around me, the air was cool and crisp and the scenery was dazzling in the early morning sunlight. The Inny Estuary appears at the start (holes 2 and 3) and the end (16 and 17), before streaking out into Ballinskelligs Bay alongside 18. The best views are from the 16th tee. Or maybe the 17th, or 3rd – it’s hard to say, since they’re usually of the 360 degree variety with mountains rising almost all around you. If you want to see for yourself, visit the club’s website or click here for my 40+ photos.

Playing Waterville is always a privilege but on this particular morning it was heaven. It is the most attractive links in the country – of that there is no doubt – and it plays so sweetly from tee to fairway. There are only three holes here where a flag is not in view, which makes the gentle doglegs, rhythmic dunes and distant flags utterly mesmerising. Time and again you look across at the views and your eye is caught by fluttering white flags in the distance.

[Photo: Waterville's approach to 15, with some steep slopes around the green - a common feature]

The bigger challenge here is approach shots to deviously protected greens. Because so much of them is on display you think they’re more manageable than they are. It’s a brilliant piece of deception and may even be at its most cruel on the 18th green.

I have played here only twice (but would play here every day given the choice) but on both occasions I have been circled by helicopters as they arrive to deposit golfers. The course is far enough down some of the craziest roads that helicopter is the most viable choice of transport, and it certainly indicates that the American golfer is still coming to play Ireland’s great links courses. Long may it continue. The course is owned by Americans, who brought over Tom Fazio to redesign aspects of the course. His work is a triumph and evidently American golfers think so too. Personally, I see Waterville's success as Eddie Hackett's vision and Tom Fazio's precision. What a team they would have made.

[Photo: views from the 16th tee, out over the Inny Estuary to Ballinskelligs Bay]

I walked in off 18, past the statue of Payne Stewart, and wished I was walking back to the first tee. It sure as hell beat the chaotic, violent drive back to the hotel. A statue of Charlie Chaplain stands in the centre of Waterville village and he gave me a grin as I went past: he knew exactly what the road held in store.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Parknasilla Hotel, Skellig Bay & Waterville

[Photo: shadows and sun play across the fairway on the approach to the 1st hole, with the sea and mountains as an idyllic back drop]

Memories are wonderful things… when you can remember them. Things get a bit rusty with age, as you know… or as you’ll soon find out. In 1998, I spent my honeymoon in Parknasilla in Co. Kerry. It’s the kind of place where it always feels like family. 13 years after our first visit and there are familiar faces to greet you and look after you. Sometimes that’s a wonderful reassurance, a bit like an eight iron from 150 yards. No fuss, no hesitation, you’re relaxed and content. We tried to get the same room as our honeymoon, but it was already taken.

I was down for a few days and planning visits to Skellig Bay and the mighty Waterville. Two very different courses that both capture the imagination but in very different ways. Skellig Bay came first and a late evening visit took me down the Ring of Kerry into a ball of sun that made seeing the potholes in the road nigh on impossible. This is one of the most bizarre routes on the planet: stretches of smooth blacktop interrupted with furious regularity by potholed chaos, narrow roadway and cliff-clinging barriers that look far too precarious for your health.

[Photo: stunning views over the 2nd green from the 3rd tee box]

Especially when buses come hurtling around corners towards you with a startling degree of indifference. It is just crazy and I feel sorry for tourists who are driving on a different side of the road for the first time – we encountered an American couple who had burst a tyre and buckled the wheel because they had driven too close to the edge. As we chatted to them and made calls to the hire car company, the wife threw in the classic “I told you you were driving too close to the edge.” A lesser man might have taken the jack to her, but the husband seemed remarkably unfazed.

[Photo: Skellig Bay's 11th - previously a brilliant closing 18th]

Because Waterville is almost as far west as you can go on this island the sun sets that much later, so at 9pm the sun was still high and Skellig Bay had a scattering of players across the headland. It looked glorious in all its hues and shadows as I walked up to the first tee. And this was where my reassurance took a knock. Skellig Bay has re-ordered its holes because there is a new clubhouse. The re-ordering is not the problem, nor the new location for the clubhouse which is far away from the old first tee. No, the problem is that the excellent old 18th is now merely the 11th. It was a great hole (par five, index 3), from high point to high point, and made for a brilliant finish. But the course is just as good as before, with beautiful flowing fairways neatly tucked between traditional and (mostly) authentic old stone walls, cairn and magnificent views of mountains that could only be Irish.

The holes above the ocean are the holes that are probably most memorable, but the best holes are further inland – holes 14, 15 and 16 – where a river runs and trees add to the atmosphere of startlingly rural Irish golf.

[Photo: The par three 14th - a magnificent hole]

It costs €500 to join here and while it is a long way for many golfers, it is worth a visit, especially if you’re playing Waterville five minutes away. The lady in the clubhouse was keen for me to revise my review of the course (which she hadn't even seen), on the basis that 84 out of 100 (I think) was not up to her high expectations. I think my review is a good one and Skellig Bay is something that you won’t be able to experience anywhere else. Of that you can be sure.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Golfbidder, the Doc’s Dawn Raid & Killeen Castle

The Doc’s Dawn Raid is a great set up: invite 12 golfers to a top golf club, ask them to analyse a range of drivers by bashing balls for an hour, give them breakfast and then let them loose on the course. And how much does this treat cost? Zilch… not a thing, unless you count being filmed giving comments about a driver as payment.

[Photo: The 'Doc' interviews Eamon] arranges the day and the ‘doc’ (aka Donal, aka the Spindoctor) is the host, along with Tom from Golfbidder. You’re probably asking: what’s Why not follow the link and find out? The company has a simple set up selling golf equipment. They sell second-hand clubs (drivers, sets of irons, putters…) and these are given a rating (1 to 10) to indicate their condition. So, if you fancy some Ping i10 irons and you see that they’ve been given a rating of 8 out of 10, you’ll be buying clubs that are in really good shape and have been used maybe a handful of times. You’ll save a fair whack off the regular shop price and if you’re concerned about what you’re buying, there’s also a 12 month warranty and a 7 day return/full refund policy. So, whether you’re left-handed, right-handed or merely cack-handed, you’ll find it on their site.

There is nothing wrong with these golf clubs, so don’t be thinking that. What do you think happens to your old clubs when you upgrade? Sure, you can give them away, to your son or a friend. Or you can stick them in the back room, from where they will never resurface… no matter how much you promise yourself that they will. Or why not take a shortcut and just throw them in landfill. No, seriously, wouldn’t you prefer your clubs to have a second chance at happiness? If you end up part-exchanging your clubs at your pro shop, then it’s entirely likely that they’ll end up on Golfbidder.

[Photo: Killeen Castle's deceptive par three 8th]

I’ve been very happy with my Taylormade R7, but I took a shine to a couple of Mizunos and the Wilson Staff Shockwave. Will I be getting one of these? Not just yet, but I do know that the Taylormade R11 that everyone is fussing over won’t be on my shopping list. With a driver, you know instantly whether you like it or not, simply from the look and weight. Hit a couple of shots and you’re hungry for more or putting it back in the rack.

[Photo: Eamon goes for the green in two on the par five 7th. 258 yards to the pin. He went long]

Yesterday’s event was held at the mighty Killeen Castle, home to the Solheim Cup in September. We kicked off at 7.30am, under perfect skies, and bashed away at range balls next to the Pelz Academy. Donal would grab some unlucky degenerate and put them in front of a camcorder to record their ‘driver’ thoughts. He then finished up with a message about Golfbidder having thousands of used clubs. Then came breakfast in the surprisingly understated clubhouse, and a deeply impressive breakfast bap.

We were divided up into fourballs, and I headed out with Tom, Michael and Eamon. John, from Killeen Castle, accompanied us to the first tee and suggested we play off the forward white tees. As it turns out, these are the same tees the ladies will be playing from in the Solheim Cup, so it gave us an interesting perspective.

[Photo: Tom drives on the 18th]

I played here two years ago and I liked the course. I won’t say I loved it because it didn’t quite capture my heart. It’s big and flash and corporate. Actually, it’s perfect in so many ways that it almost lacks soul…but in a good way. On almost every fairway if your tee shot is not going straight down the middle, you’re fretting it’s going to find one of a multitude of bunkers. Which is why it was a pleasure to play with Eamon. An effortless swing, with no fuss address, Eamon plays off +1 and you could see why. On a course he’d played only once before, he was putting for birdie on almost every hole and his drive always ended up on the correct side of the fairway to open up the green. I won’t say we were in awe, but take a look at the photo of Eamon in the bunker under the 14th green. The ball is plugged in the sand at about knee-height under the face. He has a look, pulls out a club, walks over and hits it. And leaves it two feet from the pin. Me? I’d have taken a shovel and started digging.

[Photo: Eamon works his magic on the par three 14th]

We all had our moments of brilliance; Michael had a wicked slice (bend your knees more, Mike) that never seemed to work when he actually allowed for it, but around the greens he was deadly; Tom, a lefty, hit some sublime irons although he’d left his putting boots at home; and Eamon was effortless. Me? I’ll remember one particular 6 iron that rolled to three feet to save par. But it was a fun and friendly day and it was a pleasure to play golf with the three of them.

Two things struck me about Killeen Castle: the greens were absolute heaven. There are some big swings and ridges, but they are as true as you could hope for… and yet deceivingly slow. They look like they should be lightening-fast (and aerial bombardment from the fairways left barely a pitch mark) but you have to be strong if you want the ball to drop. Secondly, we were all fooled time and again by the distances to greens. They are further away than they look and time and again we found ourselves landing short. When I say ‘we’ I exclude Eamon of course, who was always the last to play his approach and could see what kind of fools we were making of ourselves.

[Photo: Michael's slice lands him in trouble on the par five 7th]

On the 11th green, Eamon got talking to Mark Collins, the head greenkeeper, who told us that the green speed was going to be maintained for the Solheim Cup. Apparently the Americans don’t like fast greens… which begs the question: why are we playing into the Americans’ hands? Surely we should have the greens as fast as possible so that they struggle. Mind you, that’s a similar question to: why is the Ryder Cup played over a course that could be American-made (and was in the case of Arnold Palmer’s K Club) when it’s hosted in Europe?

The answer, my friends, is money!

And speaking of money… Killeen Castle green fees: Monday to Thursday it’s €100, Friday to Sunday it’s €125… if you have a fourball (or more), they are open to negotiation.

Find out more at (you’ll find loads of videos on Youtube as well), or visit Donal’s site: - sign up for his newsletter or keep a regular eye on his site and you could be in with a chance to receive a Doc’ Dawn Raid invitation yourself, here or in the UK.

And finally, while I am usually reluctant to take my camera into a public shower room, on this occasion I decided it was worth the risk! Fantastic showers always make for a great finish, and at Killeen Castle you can even choose where you want the water to come from. Perfect.