Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fota Island: A Return Trip, A New Nine

View from 1st green to 4th green on Deer Park
Cork is Ireland’s largest county by size and one of its most beautiful. It also has over 25 golf courses. In other words, it does pretty well for itself. The Rebel County may not be too happy at the moment, having failed to beat Clare in the All Ireland Hurling Final (the replay is 2 Sundays away), but a quick visit to one of their golf courses should cheer up the natives.

The most difficult decision is where to start.

My dad and I visited Fota Island Resort. I’d forgotten how pretty the drive up to the hotel and clubhouse is, drenched in tall trees and turning the lane into a tapestry of shadow. The Irish Open venue of 2001 and 2002, opened in 1993 and later extended to 27 holes with the opening of the a new nine in July 2007. I had yet to play the new nine, but word on the grapevine was that they aren’t as stunning as the original 18.

Approach to the par five 4th on the Belvelly course
It was one of those dull, heavy days. We remained dry for the entire round but the colour was bleached out of the 780 acre estate… which was a shame as the island is so vibrant. Fota Island boasts a famous Wildlife Park as well as Fota Island House and Gardens, so ‘colour’ is a vital part of its attraction.

Still, playing the ‘Belvelly’ 18 hole course (the old back nine (Deer Park) and then the new nine) means starting with an excellent par five that takes you down to ponds adorned with swans and ducks. The first four holes play around these ponds and it is a fun start… helped on this occasion by a birdie on the first. Thereafter, in terms of golf, it was pretty much all downhill.

Approach to the 9th on Deer Park (the usual 18th). That's a lot of water.
The front nine finish with another strong, tree-lined par five, made famous during the 2002 Irish Open, which saw the hole being played twice during a four-way play-off, until Soren Hansen took the prize on the 4th extra hole. Dad and I hacked our way left and right through the trees, avoiding the water around the green, but only just. Hard to believe that Hansen played it three times on that final day and scored an eagle (in regulation), a birdie and a par… which included a visit to the water.

This nine is the more thrilling of the two old nines, with most of the water and the tallest avenues of trees, but it was the walk up to the resort’s Golf Academy that got me buzzing. This is where the new nine start. Designed by Jeff Howes, they will have to wait some time to match the impressive statement made by the original 18, so the interior feels barren by comparison. The young tree plantings are coming along but you can’t rush nature. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of big trees, especially along the border of the 1st but, after what we’d just played, the new holes felt open. The design is different, too, especially around the greens. There is, however, one common trait… position off the tee is critical. This strikes home when you discover that three of the first four holes are par fives. Apart from the 1st hole you also have much more room to shape your drive… something I’ve been doing with great flair recently. So, after two lost balls into the trees, I entered a 9 on my scorecard and trudged to the 2nd tee, delighted to be free of all that woodwork.

Dad on his way to an almost-ace... if there is such a thing.
It was OK though, my dad matched me a few holes later with a short, sharp dose of the shanks which saw two balls follow each other into impenetrable rough. Next hole, a par three of 170 yards over water, dad nearly holed his tee shot. Golf can drive you to drink with its idiosyncrasies.

With a total of 27 holes, Fota Island retains its muscularity, its size and its colour. I would agree with those who say the new nine is not as impressive, but the trees will grow to give more shape to the holes and the design calls for strong shot-making. My only criticism of the new nine is that some of the drives are unrewarding – in that it’s not-obvious-where-you’re-going kind of way. Of course a GPS gizmo, course guide or local knowledge will render that argument invalid, but on these holes the tee shot felt too broad and undefined. 

The 2nd on Belvelly - a drive that doesn't excite.
It doesn’t detract from the fact that Fota Island is the full package, and the impressive clubhouse facilities are as good a place to start or finish as you could hope for. Green fees start at around the €40 mark with standard green fees ranging from €45 to €85. Booking online may be your best bet for a special deal.

In terms of the holes you'll play, Fota Island mixes up the nines into three different courses/routings, as follows:

Deerpark is the original 1-18  
Belvelly is the original 10-18 and the new 9
Barryscourt is the new 9 and the original 1-9

1 comment:

  1. Great to see that you enjoyed your visit to Fota Island's championship golf club in Cork. As you mentioned the original Deerpark course has really developed into both a stunning yet challenging 18 holes. The 18th still is a favourite among many visitors. The resort also offers golfers plenty of special golf offers available in the adjacent 5* Cork hotel so there's even more reason to go along and enjoy a round.