The Wild ... but oh so friendly ... Atlantic Way - Part 1 !
If you've never been golfing in Ireland, you've certainly missed out and I presume everybody you've met during your golf rounds will have told you that. This article will not be any different. You indeed have missed out on a wonderful experience to play golf in what is undoubtedly and internationally recognised as one of the top golfing countries in the world ... and the Irish know it.
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to play many courses in Ireland. I've travelled along the East, North, West but not so much the South coast of Ireland to play and I can tell you ... golf, in its pure form of man and ball and course and elements ... it does not get better than in Ireland. Sure you can pounce around the sun soaked fairways of Spain and Portugal and I get that too as I enjoy that as much as anybody but to get to the pure unrefined, unfiltered and original form of the game ... head to the North & West Coast links of Ireland.
I'll do a couple of stories about our recent EGTMA trip as there is too much to tell to write it all in one go. So I will concentrate on two pockets of golf where we played and stayed during a recent trip to the region. It allows me to describe the hospitality, culinary delights and golf pleasures one can find when heading to the West of Ireland.
The first part focusses on the area in and around the counties of Donegal and Mayo. Our journey started at Harvey's Point on the shores of Lough Eske and just past Donegal town. The hotel sits on the shoreline of the lake and nestled below the Blue Stack Mountains. The rooms are spacious, to say the least, and you will not feel confined even if the weather might not be as good as expected. The octagonal bar allows for quick and easy access to the freshly poured draught Guinness and with views over the lake and the peat fire expressing gentle heat, many a late night will be had. Head for the restaurant and you will not be disappointed. I like open kitchens being a bit of a hobby chef and to see the chefs working on getting the dishes out gives extra value to what appears in front of you. And excellent it was with Gratinated Oysters to start and a delicate piece of Sea Bream to continue accompanied by excellent and value wines.
Amongst our group we seemed to have covered what was on the menu and with empty plates and plenty of praise upon finishing our meal, Harvey's Point's cuisine got the thumbs up. The next morning and at breakfast, the same scenario unfolded as the perfectly cooked ingredients of a full Irish breakfast were available from the pleasantly displayed buffet. We were welcomed by Deirdre who constantly and modestly referred to herself as 'being part of the family' but in fact is the owner when her and her Swiss born husband bought the property many years ago. The welcome doesn't get any better than that.
From there we headed South and past Donegal Town we turned right towards the Murvagh peninsula where at the end of a rural Irish road you end up at the Donegal Golf Club. The current course was laid out in the 70s after their previous site became not fit for the modern game. The late Eddy Hackett, Ireland's most prolific course designer received he modest sum of £200 to design a championship worthy links course measuring close to 6700 yards now extended to over 7300 yards. The front 9 surrounds the back 9 and both 9's end up at the club house.
Donegal GC, although far from being a pushover, provides a 'gentle' introduction into links golf. There are only a few blind shots and the course is pretty flat and straightforward. Don't be fooled and lulled into a false sense of golf security as the bunkers are still deep and punishing and the little stream meandering down some of the back 9 holes will catch you out. As with all links courses, the wind determines which holes play easy and difficult and that will have changed the next day. The clubhouse food is honest and hearty and the Guinness will flow freely if you allow it !
Driving further south past Bundoran, Sligo and Strandhill, all with excellent golf courses, we ended up in Ballina, Ireland's salmon fishing capital. Just past the town we turned right and drove up the magnificent tree-lined lane through the grounds of the 19th century estate to the castle that houses the Mount Falcon Country House Hotel. We stayed in the Woodland lodges which design is based on a Canadian log cabin. The castle was built to celebrate the marriage between two English noble families and completed in 1873. It only exchanged hands a few times before the current owners, amongst whom the Maloney family, restored it and turned it into what is now an impressive hospitality and activity estate.
Sure it has bedrooms and plenty different ones and you can eat, very well I might say, and drink copious amounts if you so desire. But where it stands out are the activities ... falconry, clay pigeon shooting, fly fishing, walking ... hit a few balls on the driving range, use the spa and the pool. It's all available within the boundaries of the estate. A lot of the food is made from estate grown produce and locally sourced ingredients and put together in a very tasty manner by the skilful chefs and put on the table by friendly and efficient waiting staff. If you get the chance and see Alan, the owner, ask him about the history of the place and how and where to catch a salmon and prepare to stay up late !
From Mount Falcon you have access to two of the most difficult and spectacular golf courses on this stretch of coast line. The little seaside town of Enniscrone is host to its namesake links course which was founded back in 1918 and played on its current piece of land from 1930 onwards. It was again Eddie Hackett who was asked to build an 18 hole course which incorporated some of the original holes and some extra holes carved out of the adjacent dune land. The course received acclaim by Peter Dobereiner and word reached the Americans who were regular visitors of Ireland and who then stopped ignoring Enniscrone. The course used to start with the famous Enniscrone Mile ... Two par 5's and a Par 4 on flat and uninspiring lands and it was in the late 90's when the club commissioned Donald Steel to replace some of the original holes and replace them with holes that would extend the dune feel you get from the other holes. As Steel walked the extensive dune land next tot he Atlantic, the shape and form of the present links was established.
The first, formerly the 16th is now a testing dogleg right into an amphitheatre green. Donald Steel followed Hackett's vision where nature shouldn't be disturbed and the golf hole will find its own way and should only be encouraged to develop. The dunes are spectacular and one in particular, the 'Hill of Bodies' towers over the Par 5, 14th and where, as the legend has it, the bodies of defeated Vikings were buried which struck to fear of Hel, the Queen of the Underworld into our Scandinavian counterparts. 1 Up.
The other course within easy reach of Mount Falcon is Carne Golf Links. The last design by Eddie Hackett provides 18 spectacular golf holes on the shores of Blacksod Bay near the town of Belmullet. An additional 9 holes (Kilmore) were opened in 2013 and are even more challenging. The course does suffer from harsh Atlantic winters and the conditioning is not what you would find on a pristine Floridian country club but this is golf in its original form. There is only one rule ... play the ball as it lies so hit it, find it and hit it again. Although you start of with a daunting looking Par 4, the front 9 initially gives you some confidence but it then takes you by the scruff of the neck on holes 7, 8 and 9 before you turn to the original back 9 where every hole is out of this world and you finish your round with what is probably one of the most challenging par 5's you will come across. The hollow to the right of the tee is an ancient burial ground and the valley in front of the elevated green is often the resting place of many what could have been a good score card. Soak it in along the way as every where you turn there is a photo opportunity, providing the weather is kind to you ... if not, batten down the hatches!
This combination of the two hotels and the three golf courses nearby gives you a great taste of Irish hospitality, 'craic' or ambiance and pleasure, local culinary delights and unsurpassed links golf, not at its 'finest' but at its basic, best and most rugged ... golf, the Wild Atlantic Way ... golf, the only way.
The EGTMA trip was made possible with the support of North & West Coast Links, the marketing organisation for golf along (part of) the Wild Atlantic Way. My thanks goes out to them and the courses and hotels mentioned.
North & West Coast Links Golf, 9 An Fuaran, Moycullen, Co. Galway, Ireland Tel: +353 (0)91 868642 | Fax: +353 (0)91868645 | Email:firstname.lastname@example.org