I might as well lay it right on the table. Of all the places I 've been blessed to tee it up, Ireland is at the top of the list. When first there in '85, I found the golf and the people absolutely enchanting. For sure, I discovered the famed Irish hospitality of "one hundred thousand welcomes." Yet at the same time, I vividly recall how bittersweet the experience was 10 years ago. "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland were at dangerous levels. Military checkpoints, armed guards, the spectre of terrorism all made my trek to famed Royal County Down one of the most tense and unsettling travel times I've encountered. Nothing bad or violent occurred; admittedly such incidents rarely if ever take place in the tourist regions of Northern Ireland. Still, it was impossible not to internalize the anxiety and tension of a country besieged by strife.
With those mixed emotions in my memory, it was especially gratifying to follow during the past two years the peace process in Northern Ireland. And when the opportunity arose last fall to pay a return visit to Ireland, I jumped at the chance quicker than any homesick leprechaun. For golfers, Ireland is indeed the elusive 'pot of gold.' Here are the highlights of our week's journey:
Adare Manor & Golf Club: After our Aer Lingus Jumbo A330 jet landed in Shannon, we headed for Adare Manor, a country hotel in nearby County Limerick. Adare is an elegant place with stately charm, beautiful surroundings, expansive accomodations, and a most promising golf course. Just recently opened, the Adare GC was designed by the venerable master, Robert Trent Jones Sr. Being new, course conditioning was still maturing at Adare. But our group found the parkland layout to be a pleasant test with a number of memorable holes. Jones claims the 501 yard 18th is the "best par 5 in Europe." Can't confirm that, but it's an impressive hole nonetheless. The hole points out toward the high stone walls of the Manor and next to it the green nestled over the banks of the Maigue River. With a big drive, one is enticed by the classic Jones risk/reward proposition: to lay up short of the river for a safe third shot or go for broke and carry the river. It's a terrific finish to a course, when fully ripen, that should prove enjoyable to all those who visit.
Lahinch Golf Club: One of the classic links courses in all of Eire, Lahinch is in County Clare and rests majestically alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Ten years ago, I wasn't impressed much with Lahinch. It seemed rather short and quirky in design. But what a difference a decade makes. This time around I relished the experience even though a two club wind coming home on the inward nine was a bit much.
Although orginally designed by Old Tom Morris ("for one pound per day and expenses"), Lahinch today is the handiwork of Alister Mackenzie (Cypress, Augusta National, Crystal Downs) who reworked all but one hole--the famous Dell. The Dell is the par three 6th hole where a wide but shallow green is completely hidden at the bottom of a gully formed by giant sandhills. A white stone marker high on the sandhill is moved daily to mark the line of the pin. My playing partner that day lipped out for a birdie which would've been a cherished feat on such a storied hole. Mackenzie's genius is evident at the short par four 250 yard 13th hole. One's windswept tee-shot must be accurate so as to avoid a deep gully on the right and two bunkers short and left. It's a terrific par four that eshews length for smart shotmaking. One final note: the famous goats of Lahinch no longer roam the course to serve as meteorological beacons (if goats are seen, no rain forseen). The members became weary of sidestepping droppings and so have penned up the goats near the 8th hole. But that's the only tradition altered here. The spirit of the game remains free and wild at Lahinch.
Kildare Hotel & C.C: This is Ireland's celebrated 5 star resort, the dream project of billionaire Irish business tycoon Mr. Michael Smurfit. Needless to say, no expense was spared to transform the bucolic 330 acre estate into a luxurious world-class facility. Located some 40 minutes from Dublin, The Kildare Hotel offers lavishly-appointed rooms, superb dining and an array of recreational amenties, including fishing along the River Liffey, horse-riding, and a Sports Centre. Oh yes, and golf too.
The K Club, as the 18 hole championship layout is called, is the new home of the European Open, a major event on the European P.G.A.Tour. Befitting such a venue, the K Club was designed by the Amold Palmer Group to provide a spectator-friendly, toumament-centered layout in a parkland setting. With 11 lakes and the River Liffey coming dramatically into play, the K Club appears to be a tough round of golf set down in a beautiful environment. Unfortunately, our round was rained out here. But from my expert vantage point in the hotel's jacuzzi, I imagined a fine playing experience marred only by three drowned tee-shots. Side note: The Course Superintendent here is Tom Brooks, a transplanted young American from Reno entrusted by the Palmer Co. to maintain championship conditions. Brooks says the K Club has the "most extensive drainage system in all of Europe. "
Royal County Down: Invariably ranked as one ofthe world's greatest courses, RCD in Northem Ireland must always find a place on one's Irish golf itinerary. The course is located in the scenic resort town of Newcastle where, as a popular song describes, "the Mountains of Moume sweep down to the sea. " Even on a calm day (which would be rare indeed), County Down is a most demanding links course--particularly offthe tee. Many fairways are quite skinny and set within imposing and unforgiving sand dunes. Local knowledge is also paramount since several key holes require blind approaches to landing areas. But even in a fierce 40 mile wind, County Down is a captivating, thrilling golf experience. The greens were very good and the fairways were firm and fast. A well-struck downwind drive seemingly scampered forever. On the other hand, I'll always remember the cruel fate of my compatriot whose 8 foot birdie attempt on the last hole was ignominiously putted off the green some 40 feet away by the sheer force of the wind. The now sedated player is now living under an assumed name in Grand Rapids.
For convenient and affordable accomodations, the nearby Burrendale Hotel is recommended. Although not in the lavish leaque of Adare or Kildare, the Burrendale is a clean, efficient, service-minded establishment that's just the right spot for golf groups. And having been there 10 years ago to the week, I can reconfirm Burrendale's dining is still premiere in the area.
Royal Portrush GC-Dunluce Links: In my humble opinion, this was the paragon course of the week. In fact, I would personally rate Portrush, venue of this past summer's British Senior Open won by Brian Barnes, as in the same elite company of Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Crystal Downs. Re-designed by the the legendary H.S. Colt (who incidentally designed CC of Detroit and Orchard Lake) in 1929, Portrush dates back to 1888. It is without question a magnificent piece of land that sits high above the coast offering wonderful views of the sea, the Giant's Causeway (a geological landmark area) and on a clear day even bonnie Scotland. The course itself possesses a marvelous routing with natural twists and turns into and behind the prevailing winds. The bunkering is strategically placed and the greens are subtle and well-attended. Standout holes are numerous. Most savored were the fifth and the 14th. The 384 yard 5th hole is named White Rocks (all the holes are charmingly dubbed) as the dogleg from the tee bends around a immense sandhill and toward the bluffs where the green sits. A big cut drive with favoring breeze will leave one with a short pitch to the green. Greenside there's a stunning view of the The Skerries islands, the Whiterocks stringing down the coast and in the far distance Dunluce Castle (circa 14th century).
Another fine hole is Portrush's celebrated 14th, aptly named Calamity. It's an uphill 213 yard tiger of a one-shotter that indeed has calamity in store for all those missing the green short and right of the green. There lurks a deep gully of no return. One added plus here: the tee offers a terrific view of Portrush's sister course, the lesser known but equally inviting Valley course. Many locals rate it as the third best in Northern Ireland.
Portrush is a splendid layout that begs one to play it twice in a day to savor all of its magic. Yet having played it only once every hole still glows fondly in memory.
Ardtara Country House: This meticulously restored Victorian country home is a gem. Located in the village of Upperlands in South Londonderry ( a half hour from Portrush), the eight acre Ardtara estate dates back to 1855 when it was presented by local mill owner Harry Clark as a gift to his young wife Ann Moore (no relation). It's now handsomely restored with original and replica furnishings, vintage photographs, and antiques. There are eight exquisite bedrooms all decorated and appointed in a singular style. Forgive me for saying, but Scarlett O'Hara if she had only known better might as well have said: "There will always be Ardtara!"
Portstewart GC: Certainly, the sleeper of the trip. An exhilarating course with one of the most majestic starting holes imaginable. From the elevated tee, one has a seagull-view of the ocean and the gargantuan sandhills that dot Portstewart's front side. Although the course dates back to 1894, Portstewart's major transformation oddly enough didn't occur until only four years ago. It was then the membership decided to add a new front nine into a dunes area known as "Thistly Hollow. " The result is a classic links layout that by all appearance seems ageless. One of many, a picturesque and sound golf hole is the 445 yard par four 5th called 'Rifle Range.' From the tee, you have a wonderful view of the River Bann that parallels the fairway. The hole itself is a straightaway long par four with one of the deepest greens on the course, at some 51 paces. My first putt was at least 70 feet. I didn't know whether or not I should read my line or survey it. Kaboom.The back nine at Portstewart is not as dramatic as the front as it winds out of the sandhills area.
But overall, the inward nine is still a good test with back-to-back par 5's on 13 and 14. To be sure, golfers will find Portstewart one of most pleasurable courses on their itinerary.
What's the most indelible memory of my week in Ireland? Well, I'll always remember that incredible double rainbow that arced over Portstewart and the ocean. The elements--the wind, the squalls, the ocean views--all batter one's senses and leave one renewed and refreshed. It's pretty difficult to worry about petty office matters when playing a links course in a three club wind. And as someone once wisely quipped, "worry is such a misuse of the imagination anyway. " On the Irish links courses, a golfer's imagination is instead challenged by the elements and the terrain. The ground comes into wonderful play. Americans may rediscover the joys of the bump-and-run shot and chipping; fast & firm fairways, and open approaches to the green. Amen to all of that and more.
But my most lasting memory is what I didn't see this visit to Northern Ireland. This time I didn't see military checkpoints, armed border patrols, bombed out buildings, or even hate-inspired graffitti. The peace process has thankfully taken root. Belfast is no longer a city under siege. It's a thriving, bustling and quite a beautiful harbor city. On my last night in Ireland, I found myself walking alone in Belfast looking for a shopping mall for some last minute souvenirs. I stopped and asked a man coming out of the parking garage if he knew if the stores were still open. He informed that the stores had been closed for over an hour. But he introduced himself and asked me where I "might be from. " As we walked together back down the street toward my hotel, The Europa, the stranger talked about his family. Then as we approached a neighborhood watering-hole, he smiled and said: "Terry, this my pub. Do you care to join me and have a pint?"
Make that one hundred thousand and one welcomes!
For more information about Ireland, please contact The Irish Tourist Board at 800-223-6470 and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board at 800-326-0036.