Friday, April 27, 2012

Portstewart Perfection


It’s a long drive north, from Wexford to Portstewart, but you certainly appreciate the Major Inter-Urbans (motorways to you and me) when the trip to the Border takes under two and a half hours, courtesy of the M11, M50 and M1. Then you’re back on the ‘A’ roads, travelling through Northern Ireland on winding single lane roads, and sitting in traffic jams in country towns on market day wondering which idiots haven’t built a bypass.

The Celtic Tiger didn’t leave us much in terms of a positive legacy, but at least we have one hell of a good road network.

My tee time was 2.20 on a sunny Saturday afternoon, courtesy of an invitation from an American golf writer, Dave Owen. Actually, that’s a lie, because I invited myself. Dave wrote an article on his Irish golfing travels last year and in it he said he would be returning this Spring, so I got in touch, wrangled an invitation and arranged the weather – it was the least I could do.


Dave was starting at Portstewart and Royal Portrush and then making his way west, playing a bunch of his personal favourites (which just happen to be mine too). He’d brought along six friends for the journey, some of whom had never been to Ireland before, and some of whom had never played links golf before. This was a slap-in-the-face introduction if ever there was one.
I chose to meet them at Portstewart for four reasons:

·      It was a weekend
·      It has a new clubhouse I had yet to see
·      It has the most stunning start in Irish golf and what is often considered the best opening 9 holes on the island
·      I needed photographs (and boy was I snap-happy)

Perfect Views
The clubhouse was opened in 2009. It is big, luxurious and perfectly positioned with a vast expanse of glass wrapped around the bar so you can look out on the course and down the spectacular 1st hole. I was watching fourball after fourball tee off, but only after most of the golfers stopped and stared at the glorious surroundings: the Inishowen peninsula rises out of the ocean to the north west, dark and brooding; Mussenden Temple stands proudly on the headland in the distance, almost directly ahead; and the perfect beach streams off into the distance below you, white caps racing like stallions across the sand.

[Photo: views from the 1st tee]

When it comes to kicking off a round of golf, it doesn’t get better than this, and the dunes that await you are as mesmerising as they are terrifying.  

And all this from the bar in the clubhouse!

We were eating our food when Delwyn, the bar manager, passed by. He's been with the club for 22 years, so I asked him about the new clubhouse and he was happy to fill me in.

The place can host a wedding for 280, he told us, and couples regularly have their photographs taken on the 1st tee.

I wondered how many brides were golfers, and how many expected their new husband to get up the following morning and return to the same spot for entirely different reasons.

“It’s alright, love,” he’d say, “we’ll have plenty of time to catch our flight, but I’m just going to squeeze in a quick round before the honeymoon starts.”

Liar. There’s no such thing as quick round of golf at Portstewart. It’s too big, glorious and tricky for that.

[Photo: the approach to the dogleg par four 8th]

Dave arrived shortly afterwards. I recognised him from his New Yorker picture. He introduced his six companions and I introduced my golf widow wife – it seemed a fair exchange.

And shortly after that we were on the tee. My wife watched from the clubhouse, no doubt hoping that I started with a good drive. I’d played a match the previous day with my father and we had been thrashed 7 & 5, so I was not in the best of golfing spirits. Then again, this was not about playing good golf – it was about experiencing the heady thrills of playing Portstewart again, and weaving my way through a run of dunes known as ‘God’s Own Country’… and picking Dave’s brains, of course.

[Photo: tee shot on the 1st]

I was playing alongside Dave, David and Tim, and we stood on the tee and made the appropriate noises of approval, even as an anvil-head of dark clouds and rain swept across from Inishowen. They never reached us and we spent most of the next four hours playing in glorious April sunshine.
In Hooked I talk about the ‘golf experience’ of playing a course. Early on, before the reviews start, I mention the different things that are a vital part of that experience: weather is one; great company another; and playing well a third. Two out of three ain’t bad, and playing poorly matters little when you’re having fun. It makes you realise that you can play any course and, no matter how bad the quality, as long as the company’s entertaining you’ll usually have a blast.

Five Penny Piece
The shot of the day belonged to Dave, on the par three 6th hole, which I rate as the best 6th hole in the country. Take a look and you’ll see why.

[Photo: Five Penny Piece]

A mere 135 yards, the hole is called Five Penny Piece because the green doesn’t look much bigger than that from the tee and the sides are steep and will swat balls away into deep troughs below. If you get this far and haven’t realised the premium placed on finding the putting surface, you are guaranteed a long day. 10 holes have severe slopes rising up to them. They will make you cry!

I don’t know what Dave hit into the two club wind that was coming from about two o’clock, but the ball never budged from the flag. It cut through the wind and landed close to the hole. All the way I thought he was going to bag an ace and when we reached the green, his pitch mark was less than an inch away. It started the inevitable conversation about holes in one. I wasn’t contributing much since I’ve never had one, and ‘almost’ doesn’t cut it.

[Photo: David tees off on the par five 4th with Tim looking on]

My only quibble with Portstewart is not an uncommon one. The club promises the most exhilarating start, which lasts for 12 holes, before the pace slows and then ends tamely, with 16 and 18 being the least interesting on the course. After holes 1 to 9, it would be almost impossible to maintain that level of excitement, so Portstewart offers the best of whatever’s left… but you might find yourself walking towards the 16th and 18th greens (side by side under the clubhouse), glancing across at the dunes of the front nine, at the flags of holes 8 and 9 that shimmer in the late sunlight, and at the glory of the 1st tee box that will remain with you for a very long time.

[Photo: views across the 16th to the 9th green (left) and 8th green (centre), and God's Own Country beyond]

Despite that sense of longing, Portstewart is a thrilling round of golf, and the bar is as welcome a spot in the evening as it is in the morning. The rest of the lads – Tony, Tim, Jack and Howard – joined us in the bar for the post round analysis and scoring. My wife and I were invited for dinner, but we were heading in the opposite direction, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome – the guys had landed from New York that morning and were about to embark on seven days of 36 holes. They were going to need their rest.

As they left, it was made clear that I was welcome to play golf in Washington, Connecticut, whenever I happen to be over that way.

Our hotel was the York Inn, in Portstewart, overlooking the Old course. After dinner we walked into town at around 11pm and found Morelli’s open and buzzing. No, not a bar - an ice cream parlour. Despite my dinner I managed to squeeze in some Toffee Crunch and Rhubarb & Custard ice cream. That’s what I call a perfect end to a perfect day.

Links:
David Owen is a writer for Golf Digest and the New Yorker. He is the author of several books, and not just about golf.

The Point of a Great Itinerary (my scores for David's chosen courses)
Portstewart 89
Royal Portrush 92
Ballyliffin Old 92 Glashedy 90
Portsalon 90
Narin & Portnoo 92
Donegal/Murvagh 94
Enniscrone 96
Carne 93


[Photo: Dave reflects on what might have been on the 6th green]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

4000 Photos

You'd think having 4000 photographs of golf courses up on Flickr would pretty much cover every course in Ireland... sadly, no. I am missing 70, and I need more photographs of another 20 or so.


[Photo: A view across the 13th green of Royal Portrush's Duncluce course, with the Valley's 5th green in the distance below, and the remains of Dunluce Castle in the top right]

It is a tale of loss and regret... and no, not the latest Chick Lit by Cecelia Ahern (about her Dad, probably. Plenty of loss in that story, to the tune of billions)... this tale of loss concerns a virus wiping my desktop and consigning photographs of 30 Northern Ireland courses to the ether. Ballycastle, Dungannon, Gracehill, Roe Park, Moyola Park were among them, as were the three greats of Castlerock, Portstewart and Royal Portrush. There there one minute; gone the next.

Still, 4000 photos is probably a record - of some kind.


[Photo: The 17th at Portstewart Old course - a tough and fun holiday course. Portstewart in the background]

And with 70 courses still to go, there are lots of reasons to keep playing golf across this beautiful island of ours.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Winner of Atlantic Coast Challenge Free Line

Regrettably, Dave has not got in touch within the two weeks required to claim his prize. It will now be given to someone else. 
Sorry Dave!



Congratulations to Dave Boylan who left the 25th comment on my Atlantic Coast Challenge post, on April 10, 2012 at 9:19 PM. Dave was picked thanks to the Random Number Generator (see image above - right hand side).


Dave, send a comment to this blog post (I won't publish it) with your email and mobile number and we'll sort out  the prize.


[Approach to Enniscrone's 12th hole - may your ball find the green or you are in serious trouble]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Portstewart Golf Club - April 21

It's my mother-in-law's birthday today, so I thought what better way to celebrate than playing golf at Portstewart in beautiful Northern Ireland.

I played with a great bunch of guys who flew in this morning from the US to begin a pilgrimage west, playing some of the most exhilarating links we have to offer, from Royal Portrush across to Carne. I am seething with envy at the courses they have yet to play. I hope the rain stays away, the sun is a constant companion and the wind is little more than a guiding hand. Good luck fellas.

I shall write more in due course but I am toast and need my bed. Here are a few photos that show off the beauty of the links, and the not-so-beauty of my playing companions.


Tim checks out the practice green - the Inishowen peninsula beyond


The 17th green, looking terrifying, from the 18th fairway


Dave finally finds a bunker, on 11


Index 1, par four 5th hole


David lets one go on the par four 2nd - the green is just to the left of his shoulder


Back to the 1st - the opening drive on what most people regard as the best opening hole in Ireland

Friday, April 20, 2012

House Passes Bill Honoring Jack Nicklaus

A short post this one - Neil (aka armchairgolfer) Sagebiel has written an intriguing piece on the House of Representatives approving legislation that awards the Congressional Gold Medal to Jack Nicklaus.


Take a look


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Play with McDowell & Lowry



Yourgolftravel.com are taking the world by storm it seems. Everywhere I look there's talk about them, promotions by them, emails in my inbox, retweets on Twitter...

They're savvy, that's for sure, and this current promotion is a no-brainer. All you have to do is fill in the entry form at http://www.yourgolftravel.com/cleveland and you're in with a chance to play golf with McDowell and Lowry, right after the Irish Open at glorious Royal Portrush.

What Yourgolftravel will do with the info I don't know, but what does it matter if you get a few mailings... it's worth it for the opportunity, right!

And that's not the only prize - this is from the website:

Your Golf Travel has teamed up with Cleveland Golf and Srixon to offer a very lucky golfer the chance to play golf with Graeme McDowell & Shane Lowry on Monday 2nd July 2012. This once in a lifetime experience will start with being whisked away to watch the final day's play at the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, accommodation on the Sunday night, followed by playing with the 2010 US Open Champion and former Irish Open winner Shane Lowry. Also if that wasn't enough the lucky winner will also get a set of Cleveland Irons and Wedges to be custom fitted at their Centre of Excellence in the UK.

I'm not about to quibble (I entered yesterday), but it doesn't indicate when the closing date is, and I'm not 100% convinced about how much golf you'll be playing with the two Irish stars - it says a 'round of golf' which would be incredible... or will they be standing on different par threes, demonstrating their prowess to you and every one else who's attending that day (as happens so often at sponsors' days). If it's the former, is that not the prize of a lifetime? And a hell of a lot better that a two week prize to the Bahamas or a sports car... for a golfer at least. Your non-golfing spouse might be less convinced.


[Royal Portrush - 5th hole. Par four dogleg out to the sea]

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hooked on Strandhill


On a personal level, it's very reassuring and rewarding to know that sometimes I can make an impact on a person's golfing decisions... they might try a course they have never heard of... they might pick one club over another based on my comments... and then there's actually joining a golf club.

I got quite a buzz this week when I received the following:

"Strandhill have you to thank for my membership, the photos up on your Flickr account are amazing. I played there and Co Sligo after going through your photos of both and Strandhill left the greater mark."

Sorry, nothing more than a bit of self-congratulatory-aggrandisement... try saying that after a beer of couples.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lahinch and €83 Accommodation (for two)


[Photo: the famous 'Klondike' 4th hole]

There aren't many conversations regarding Ireland's best courses, where Lahinch doesn't crop up.

Between its heritage (Old Tom Morris most famously, with a healthy dose of Mackenzie tossed in) and its weather-predicting goats and its views, there is more than enough to keep everybody happy.

And Lahinch must be fairly happy at the moment - a recent Irish Times article reported that the club had 'turned the corner and is back in profit'. There's a long way to go to reach the giddy heights of 2007, but little steps, people, little steps.

And now there's an accommodation deal which should help to lure even more golfers (and surfers) to this seaside village which has - in my humble opinion - some of the best drinking spots in the country. Have a drink, step onto the beach, go for a swim... my kind of place.

The Lahinch Golf & Leisure Hotel is doing one of those great discount deals... but I have to point out straight away, that this offer does not apply to June, July, August or September... and it expires in late December 2012. Hmm, a bit dodgy if you ask me, but Irish weather can deliver glorious Mays and Octobers, not to mention better value green fees as it won't be peak season.

The offer is this:
Overnight (€83) or Two-Night (€122) Break for Two in Deluxe Double Room, and Main Course and Glass of Wine Each. There are other details, and you'll find them all on here, at Living Social.

The offer expires on the 18th or 19th April, so you've got time to sort yourself out - although 39 have already been purchased so who knows how many they're prepared to sell.

And for Lahinch green fees you should get away with €90 - €110







Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The '4 Seasons In One Day' of Irish Weather


I'm not saying anything new here... but these two shots were taken 20 minutes apart.

First up, at the driving range in Gorey, Co. Wexford...
video

... then on the drive home, a couple of miles away, this rather glorious panorama opened up.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Atlantic Coast Challenge Giveaway (free green fees worth €405)

A few months back I wrote a blog on the different Irish Golf Challenges that take place around this great island. Some go back 30 – 40 years, while others are much younger. I played in the inaugural Atlantic Coast Challenge in July 2011, and it was three days of pure bliss. Carne, Co. Sligo and Enniscrone are among the best links in the country… if you happen to have my book, look up the scores… and easily make my top ten.

Yes, there are other Challenges, but here you’re talking about three supremely exciting golf courses, each as good as the other two and in beautiful locations.


[Photo: the mighty 11th at Carne. The green, if you're interested, is tucked behind that enormous dune on the right]

That’s why I played last year; that’s why I’m playing this year on July 2, 3 and 4 (Mon-Wed). Golf doesn’t get better than this, and for €135 to enter the event, the value couldn’t be better either. That equates to €45 per course and it's during peak season.

But on this blog you might not even have to pay that, because the Atlantic Coast Challenge organisers have given me a FREE line, worth €405, to give away to one lucky winner… you can even choose what time to play (subject to availability).


[Photo: Enniscrone's clubhouse]

For official details take a look at the Challenge flyer here. And if you’re not the winner, you can book a line for yourself before the April 30 closing date (follow the same link). Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

How To Enter

All you have to do is leave a comment on this blog, with your name.



[Photo: views from the 9th at Co. Sligo, with the stretch of back 9 holes, 13-16, heading home]

It’s not a phishing exercise, or trawling for emails, and no information will be sold/given to any third parties etc. etc… it’s just an opportunity to win a real golf treat for you and two friends (the event is played as a 3-ball single and team competition).

So click the ‘comments’ link at the bottom of this blog and choose the ‘Name’ option, so you can leave your name! That's all.


[Photo: The view back to Enniscrone's complex of dunes from the 8th tee box]

The giveaway will be open until midnight on April 24th. I’ll then use a random number generator (who knew there was such a thing) to pick a winner, which I’ll announce here on the 25th. Please be sure to check back as this is the only way I can contact the winner.

If the prize isn’t claimed within two weeks, another winner will be selected. Please note that there is no cash alternative.

Links to Websites

Carne website and photos and Twitter @CARNELINKS

County Sligo website and photos and Twitter @CountySligoGC

Enniscrone website and photos



[Photo: views from the 17th tee box over the par three 16th (tee box top left) and holes 15 and 13 beyond]

Airports

If you’re flying in from Europe, Knock Airport is very close by (County Sligo) and flies to 11 destinations in Great Britain and a further 20 in Europe. Check out the map here

From the US, it has to be Shannon or Dublin.

Cars can be hired from all three.


Accommodation Recommendations

These are general recommendations and pulled from a Failte Ireland search. I have stayed in only a couple of them, so dig around and you’ll find everything from self-catering to 4 star hotels.

Ballina (Between Carne and Enniscrone)
Ice House Hotel is close to the centre and very fancy indeed

Something v. special: Mount Falcon

And drop in to Murphy's pub on the River Moy for a superlative pint and atmosphere (it’s also on the way to Enniscrone Golf Club).

Belmullet (i.e. Carne Golf Club’s home town)
I stayed at the Broadhaven Bay hotel which is just before you get to Belmullet itself and 5 minutes from the golf course.

Enniscrone
Ocean Sands hotel
Diamond Coast hotel, is practically on the golf course itself.

Several years ago I stayed in a self-catering cottage in Enniscrone and it’s a good solution if there are several of you.

Sligo

The big town and therefore has the most choice – here are just a few:

Sligo Park Hotel is a few minutes out of town and was a very comfortable venue when I stayed here a couple of years back.

And there’s the Radisson Blu

The Glass House is in the town centre

Where to eat?

All three clubhouses serve good food and last year we found that a big breakfast and a late afternoon, post-round meal was more than sufficient… and left room for a couple of pints later on.

So what are you waiting for? Enter away, and be sure to tell your friends (on the condition they invite you, of course).






Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ballymoney for some Easter Golf


[Approach shot over the small pond on Ballymoney's par four 10th]

With all the Dubs piling down to Courtown and Gorey for the Easter weekend (and enjoying their holiday homes for which everyone's expected to trump up the Household Charge never mind the €200 second home charge... but that's a rant for another day), there will be lots of people looking to sneak in a quick round of golf... and there are many ways to 'distract' the family while you do so.

I'd strongly recommend that you send the rest of the family off to the Gorey Craft Fair (10am - 5pm on Saturday) in the Gorey Shopping Centre (aka Dunnes Stores and other retailers). 20+ stalls selling a selection of Irish crafts.

As for the golf, you have three (18 hole) choices: Ballymoney, Courtown and Seafield

Green Fees (from their websites)
Ballymoney will cost you €22
Courtown €30
Seafield €35

Courtown
No one would argue that the cream of the crop is Courtown, which would be title-holder for the 'best parkland in Wexford' if it weren't for Bunclody's arrival a few years back. Established in 1936, there are some sweet drops to fairways, some tight doglegs and four thrilling par threes (including the watery 18th), and the course is, I heard yesterday, in great nick.

[Photo: the gorgeous drive on Courtown's par four 15th]

But getting out over a weekend can be a challenge, and the club is running a couple of events over the weekend... withe the Heineken Rugby thrown in. See below.


Seafield
A hotel too, so you can indulge your other half (even your parents if you feel inclined) in the Oceo Spa, while you swan off around the course. It is not my favourite track by any means ('sea' and 'field' summing the course up pretty well), but you won't have any trouble getting out.

[Photo: the par four 7th at Ballymoney, with Tara Hill beyond]

Ballymoney
Neither will you have difficulty getting out on this friendly, family-run course. It's a super little track that won't ever threaten the big boys in terms of quality, but it delivers plenty of fun. I dropped down a couple of nights ago to take some photographs and I'd forgotten how shapely a course it was... and it's matured a lot since my last visit (2008). It's a fun driving course and Tara Hill is on constant show. It is, put simply, a holiday course and a place where golfers grow into the game. Then again, I watched four kids teeing off and there was a serious bit of talent on show.


[Photo: teeing off at Ballymoney's 1st]

You also come back to the clubhouse after 9 holes on all three courses if you only have time for 9, but Ballymoney has a special green fee for that (€13).

So, get on yer bike and have some fun - this lad was on his way to Ballymoney.






Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easter at Macreddin

[Photo: views over the 6th and the 8th from the 3rd green]

I had plans to launch into a ‘what golf are you playing this Easter?’ and then extol the virtues of visiting Macreddin Golf Club on Sunday 8th, since the Macreddin Village Food Market is kicking off again at the Brooklodge Hotel in Aughrim.

I mean, think about it! You bring your other half… and even your family… and you leave them to explore the market, all that organic food, live jazz, a great bite to eat… and you go off and play a superb golf course. Quid pro quo. You’ll even get to wave to your family as you sail by in your buggy on the way to the 10th tee. Hey, it’s Easter Sunday – it’s all about family.

[Photo: approach to the 18th green]

Yes, that was my plan… until I discovered that the Food Market was last Sunday, and not this Sunday.

So, I’m scuppered… but if you’re looking for somewhere to play this Easter weekend, be sure to consider Macreddin. Let’s forget that it’s a quality course, designed by Paul McGinley… in a beautiful Wicklow-wooded-valley-distant-views-and-picture-perfect-river location… with some of the best holes in the country (try the 5th and the 12th). No, let’s look at the green fees, which are at a special price for the weekend.

A fourball will cost you exactly €80 – so €20 per person. For an extra tenner each you can get a buggy, which is probably recommended. And if you don’t have a four, it will work out at €25 each… hardly an enormous increase when you consider that for twice the price you can play courses half as good.

And if you don’t choose to play Macreddin… well, wherever you end up playing this weekend, I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, the Macreddin market is on the first Sunday of every month.