Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ireland's Top Ten Hidden Golf Courses (Parkland) - No. 1

The par three 11th
Perhaps the hardest part of creating this list was deciding what comprised a ‘hidden gem’... a Fairway Less Travelled

Can Carne still be called hidden? Can Concra Wood or Bunclody or even Headfort? Both Connemara and Dooks don’t make the mainstream, but does that qualify them for this list? What about Carlow? It is one of our greatest parkland classics but it seems to have been forgotten in the melee of glamorous newer courses.

Then there’s the exceptional Macreddin, which has become ‘hidden’ despite the news-splash that accompanied its Paul McGinley-designed arrival and its subsequent troubles (now resolved). As much as I admire the course and its many excellent holes (the 12th is my ‘best 12th hole’ in the country) it didn’t make the cut because: a) it was designed to be a big course (as was Moyvalley and New Forest); and b) you need to use a buggy, which detracts from the experience… in my opinion. But for those issues, Macreddin would easily make the top five.

There are plenty of courses that almost made the list – Moyola Park, Gowran Park, Skellig Bay, Dunmurry Springs, Coollattin – but just couldn’t barge their way on for one reason or another. Limerick County is another favourite, but it is only reopening fully this year, as Ballyneety Golf Club, so I haven’t had a chance to revisit it.

Carlow's par three 6th hole, green to tee.
No, not one of the above makes my list… and I have to state that this is my personal list and therefore it has to embrace what I consider to be hidden. The 20 selected here are courses that have smaller roots, less financial clout and a lower profile… but still pack a terrific punch.

Here is my top ranked parkland course. You can Win a Fourball to this club at the end of the blog. The top links will be posted in the next few days.

For the 2nd-ranked parkland, click here
For the 2nd-ranked links, click here
For the 3rd-ranked links, click here
For the 3rd-ranked parkland, click here
For the 4th-ranked, click here
For the 5th-ranked, click here
For the 6th-ranked, click here
For the 7th-ranked, click here 
For the 8th-ranked, click here
For the 9th-ranked, click here
For the 10th-ranked, click here

Rathcore Golf & Country Club

The intrigue of Rathcore comes from its rolling county Meath landscape, the hand of designer Mel Flanagan, the bucolic surroundings and the scale of the course. Then of course there’s the vision of Austin and Mick Lyons who were behind the course’s development in the first place. There is nothing hugely dramatic about any of these things, but when you combine them you discover that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Rathcore is a mere 10 years old. You wouldn’t think it playing here. It has that natural settled feel, lulling you into the belief it has been here for decades. Maybe that comes from Rathcore not being like other new courses which so often pursue length as such an important element of design. It isn’t. Guile, subtlety and intrigue make golf far more entertaining and that’s where Rathcore comes up trumps. You won’t – or at least you shouldn’t – stand up on every tee box thinking the ball needs to be thumped as far as possible. Do that here and you’ll find water, gorse and even sheep. You have to think about shots.

The par three 16th at Rathcore from the 15th fairway. The 11th green
sits just beyond the tee.

Because Small Is Beautiful

Courses that were designed to be big – say Moyvalley, Knightsbrook and Killeen Castle, (all in the vicinity) – came with big aspirations. Rathcore didn’t: it was designed as a golf club where people would come to play and join and enjoy what the course offered. That in itself is a positive as it embraces everything that is special about Irish golf. I’m all for big, famous and glamorous courses, but the heart of Irish golf beats around country clubs such as this (and all the other courses that have made this Top 10 Fairways Less Travelled list).

Covering 130 acres (Killeen Castle boasts 600), there are lakes and ponds (from natural springs) which you play around and over, two ring forts dating from pre Christian times and tree-lined horizons which hold you in the palm of the county’s rhythmic hands.

Rathcore is packed with sweet holes but it is those draped around the two hills, drenched in gorse and home to greens and tees with water laced below, that are the star elements.

The Holes

The 3rd is a love it/hate it hole – a short par four dogleg (311 yards, back tee) so sharp you could cut yourself. In between you and the green is a hillside shoulder of impenetrable gorse. No more than a five iron is needed to reach the corner with an eight or nine approach. Some people find that mickey-mouse… I think it’s fun and yet still strategic.

The short par four 6th at Rathcore
Holes 4 to 7 form a sweet run of holes, still using the hills and weaving between trees, gorse and beautifully presented ponds. 11 and 16 are side-by-side par threes and each is superb and terrifying in its own way. 11 hits from high on one hill while 16 hits into the base of the same hill. Philip Reid did an Irish Times series a few years back, attempting to pull out the best 18 parkland holes on the island. Both of these Rathcore par threes were on the short list – with good reason.

The entire closing run, starting at the 14th, promises a good, tough finish before you retire to the striking circular clubhouse. 

This is a par 72 of just 6,000 yards. Given the scale of most courses, yes, it's short... but the most beautiful things come in small packages, don't they!

Green Fees: €20 - €25

Free Fourball
To win a free fourball for Rathcore, leave a Comment below with your name, email and the answer to the following question: Which newspaper does Philip Reid write for?
(Comments will remain unpublished to ensure privacy)

You have until 10pm on Monday 17th February.