Experiencing golf in Ireland, the sights, sounds, tastes ...
Sir ? … Sir ? … As my mind made its way back to consciousness and I was staring in the face of the bar tender, I suddenly remembered where I was. ‘Sir, a pint ?’ he asked … I said, ’Sure, a pint of Guinness’. He laughed and said; ‘What else is there?’ I was sitting at the bar of the Portmarnock Links Hotel just North of Dublin in the ancestral home of the Jameson Family. I just played the Portmarnock Links with a couple of international golf writers as a warm up to the heavy lifting later on and looking fondly back on the day.
It was a beautifully sunny but crisp day in April when I touched down in Dublin. The taxi driver asked me where to, at least I thought that’s what it was and we ended up in the right place so I got that right. Playing the relatively new Bernhard Langer designed links course along the Irish Sea in windy conditions was a great introduction to Irish golf. To be fair, after a bit of travelling, the last thing you want is knee-deep rough and bunkers so cavernous you need a miners’ lamp to find your ball. The course has undergone some changes and improvements over the past few years. First it was rerouted and now a new first tee has made the opening hole a bit less daunting while keeping all the challenges intact. The limericks were hovering, the beach was full of people, pars and even a birdie here and there made me enjoy this round and left me wondering if things could get any better than this.
And then they did as the next day we headed North into Northern Ireland and arrived at the little fishing village of Ardglass where the medieval fortress at the entrance of the small harbour houses the club’s facilities. The starter greeted us on the first tee and in typical Irish slang he announced that this tee shot was the easiest on the course as you have the Irish see on your left but the whole of Ireland to your right. Things got progressively better as the views of this quant cliff top links are nothing short of spectacular. There are a number of very good holes and some are nothing short of great. You always seem to be flirting with danger while seals are basking in the sun along the rocky outcrops. After a glorious day on the links and about half an hour north, the iconic towered building that houses the Slieve Donard Hotel and which sits a mere 9 iron away from the first tee of the Royal County Down Golf Club, awaits the hungry and sleepy. Stay in the well appointed rooms, indulge in the spa offerings and taste some of the local produce before finishing the day with a taste of the local brew, this 5* hotel never disappoints.
The next day, we were on the outskirts of Coleraine and within touching distance of Portstewart GC when the bus gave out. Sean, our Irish driver, got slightly nervous … only slightly … when a few red lights started popping up on the dashboard as he needed to get 16 eagerly anticipating golfers to Portstewart Golf Club for what was to be the third round of our Wild Atlantic Way Golfing Trip. It all worked out in the end and even breaking down by the side of the road adds to the charm of Irish golf trips. There is never a problem but always a solution.
The first tee at Portstewart is named Tubber Patrick and is arguably the ‘finest opening hole in links golf’. The teeing ground is way above the dogleg right hole with the splendour of the Atlantic waves lapping on the extensive beach on the right hand side. It’s a daunting tee shot to say the least but the quality and diversity of the holes that follow is worth those first tee jitters. A proper links course with towering dunes, high tee boxes, blind shots, elevated greens, pot bunkers … they don’t come more challenging than that … or do they? The next day we’re at Portrush GC which has now been awarded the 2019 Open Championship for the first time since 1951. The course itself is undoubtedly one of the best courses one will ever play apart from the last two holes ! These holes will be flattened and two brand new holes, completely in line with the existing ones will be carved out of the extensive dune land next to the 6th tee and will play on, what is known as ‘the Valley Course’ … the second course on the Portrush coastline. Host to several Irish Championships, the British Seniors Open, the Irish Open and home to Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory’s 61 in the North of Ireland aged 16, this is an iconic golf experience.
We’re staying at the Bushmills Inn where the Guinness flows freely, the food is local and therefore honest and the rooms are charming and comfortable. This is a real golfers’ place where you will eat, drink, laugh and share with other golfers independent of where they come from. It’s within walking distance of the Bushmills distillery where regular tours are organised and close to the Giant's Causeway, one of the seven wonders of the world.
We’re heading South now and on our way down we take in one of Ireland's many underrated courses called Castlerock GC where the General Manager Bert McKay was recently named ‘Manager of the Year’ by the Irish Tour Operators Association. It shows as the welcome is out of this world. The course itself is challenging, be it not as punishing as some of the other courses although the first couple of holes are flanked by an active railway line so some thought required there. The phrase to describe Castlerock has always been … where the greens are as quick as a flash and as true as a preacher’s prayer. There is another shorter original 9 hole Bann Course built in 1901 in the dune land above the main 18. A great practice course with small greens and the same links turf as the main course.
Taking the ferry from Magilligan Point to Greencastle in Donegal shaves off some driving time but also gives you a bit of a different perspective on travel in Ireland and the beauty of it all. The Ferry takes 10 minutes but it allows you to take some time out and smell the salty air on which this landscape thrives. We’re on our way to Ballyliffin, the most northerly golf club in the whole of Ireland and home to two courses. We will tee it up on the Glashedy Links, built by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock and situated in the dunes above the Old Links. A meandering voyage into Irish links golf with strategic and penal bunkers while preserving the skill of bumping your way onto the undulating greens. An exciting prospect and with a four-ball match for the drinks, it didn't disappoint when we squared on the last with a 12ft birdie half. A challenging but fair course, reasonable golf played, friendly company and great camaraderie, these were the ingredients of an amazing round of golf before we retired to the Ballyliffin Lodge with views over the links land in front of us, reminiscing over a pint of Guinness on the day we just had.
Did I mention the weather ? For the second year in a row and in April, no rain suits were unfoldedduring the making of this story ! I rest my case.
For our last round, we were heading to Rosapenna with two courses and a hotel wedged between Sheephaven Bay on one side and Drongawn Lough on the other. The original Old Tom Morris course has been complemented with a the Sandy Hills Links designed by, one of the best modern links designers, Pat Ruddy of European Club splendour. This is links golf on steroids and not for the faint hearted, stray of the fairway and prepare to suffer. You will unlikely play your best score of the week on this beast but when you get back to the club house, battered and bruised, ego dented … you will appreciate how tough some of these Irish golfers are. We had one in our four-ball, a Dublin man and representative of the First Tee Ireland. While we were all layered up, as it wasn't as balmy as we experienced before, he turns up in shirt sleeves and plays the full 18 holes without a bother. Tough as nails these locals. The hotel is quant and old school but the food and hospitality, the surroundings and the atmosphere will stay with you forever.
Donegal is such a spectacular county with several golf clubs hugging the north westerly coastline that it is impossible not to be in awe of the landscape and surroundings. The villages, the pubs, the people … it al contributes to an unforgettable experience. Nothing different in Culdaff where we spent the final night at McGrory’s Pub and Hotel. The town itself is a little fishing town renowned for its spectacular beaches and McGrory’s has always been a music venue. We weren’t disappointed as that night, after a scrumptious dinner, we headed for the pub with the peat fire lit, where several musicians showed their talents during a night of music, laughter, sharing experiences and friendship. We were even treated to an impromptu ‘session’ with the doors locked for those of us who managed the strength to stay out late.
I have Irish connections, my son was born in Dublin and my wife is half Irish. For golfers, Ireland is as spectacular as they come. Venture along the Wild Atlantic Way, take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes and play some golf along the way ! You will not, and I repeat, you will not be disappointed !
Our trip was made possible through North & West Coast Links and John Mclaughlin /Paul Collins. Further I would like to thank all the courses, hotels, the drivers and bus company and everybody who was involved in the organisation. Plus I would also like to thank all EGTMA members who participated.
Jo Maes - President of the EGTMA (2006 - 2015)