A trio of gems on the Emerald Isle

DAVID BIRTILL discovers that Ireland is the perfect destination for golfers of all levels  

AS the coach meandered down seemingly endless, winding country lanes we began to wonder if our driver had taken a wrong turning. It wouldn’t have surprised us because he confessed, as we pulled out of the hotel car park, that it was his first foray into this part of his native Ireland. Our fears were allayed when, a couple of hours or so later, we spotted unfolding in the distance a necklace of sand dunes strung along a rugged coastline buffeted by Atlantic rollers. “Begorrah! That must be the place,” exclaimed one of the recent recruits to our

WILD AND WONDERFUL: Doonbeg links

group in a truly awful interpretation of the local dialect. And, to be sure, he was right for around the next bend a sign protruding from the roadside heather read: Welcome to Doonbeg. The name conjured up images of horsemen galloping across the moorlands and romantic tales of unrequited love. Could this, we speculated, have once been the ancestral home of the Irish side of the Bronte Sisters or perhaps there was a Lorna Doone connection? Enough of the fantasising for this was just a typically small but bustling Irish holiday resort full of charm and colourful bunting and where bars and restaurants dominated the High Street. Doonbeg is also the name of the local golf club, if you can call it that, because it’s owned by an American company and it will cost you $30,000 to join. But don’t let that put you off a visit for, in these austere times created by the fluctuating economy and troubled euro, there are deals on offer as there are at most courses on the Emerald Isle.

SCENIC: Dromoland course and its castle

And that includes Doonbeg, for all its opulence in this breath taking West Clare location where the course wraps itself around Doughmore Bay. It’s a true links, voted Europe’s best golf resort by tour operators in 2010, designed by double Open champion Greg Norman and carved out of the existing landscape without a solitary artificial mound to be seen. The Great White Shark, as the Aussie is known, adopted his “least disturbance” philosophy of routing courses to fit existing terrains. His layout follows what nature had designed thousands of years ago. Some 14 greens and 12 fairways required no changes but a simple mowing of the native grass. It opened for play 10 years ago yet it looked as though it had been there for a century or more. At nearly 7,000 yards, it’s hardly a stroll in the park but its undulating terrain is not too arduous provided you keep your ball on the straight and narrow. A choice of five tees on each hole also regulates the degrees of difficulty and although there are plenty of bunkers they are not as cavernous as some you find on other links. Doonbeg was the second venue we played of our trilogy of clubs in a country basking in the success of its champion golfers. The recent exploits of Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington – all winners of major titles – have given the game even greater popularity in a land where there are more than 400 clubs. The unprecedented crowds of this year’s Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the first all-ticket sell-out event in the history of the European Tour, was further evidence of the acclaim golf is accorded. More than 130,000 fans poured through the turnstiles during the week and

WATER FEATURES: The Heritage

30,000 plus turned the 18th hole into an amphitheatre to cheer Macclesfield’s Jamie Donaldson to his maiden victory. It was an occasion the former Cheshire County amateur is unlikely to forget. But Ireland has much to offer us mere mortals as well as those from the upper echelons. Dromoland, also in County Clare, was our first port of call. The approach to the club, a sweeping driveway leading to manicured lawns, a glistening lake and overlooked by a historic castle, provided of foretaste of what was to come. The course, designed by Irish golfing legend J.B. Carr and opened in 1962, has undergone an €5m make-over over the past few years.  It’s even been described by visitors as the Augusta of Ireland which is some compliment! There was no proliferation of magnolias and azaleas but certainly plenty of water hazards to swallow up wayward shots. The first hole is a gentle, slight dog-leg par four which serves as a prelude of some of the tests that lie ahead but the forward tees help to make the round more enjoyable for the average handicapper. A shade less than 7,000 yards, there’s a lot of terrain to cover but for the most part the course is relatively flat and there’s little deep rough to speak of. Ireland, it’s claimed, is green because of the amount of rain it receives yet not for the first time we escaped a drenching while our homeland was desperately trying to cope with floods. It was shirt-sleeve weather at The Heritage, our final venue, which most of us remembered from the last occasion we played it eight years ago. Then it had only just opened and the designer, Seve Ballesteros, had a house built in the middle of the course which he inhabited from time to time. It stands as a permanent memorial for the charismatic Spaniard who died last year and there’s also a statue of him at the entrance to the clubhouse. Five lakes and a boulder-filled stream bring water into play on 10 holes although there’s no serious climbing to be done with the gently undulating landscape making it easy on the feet. The club, situated in County Laois with the Slieve Bloom Mountains as a spectacular backdrop, is less than an hour from Dublin Fair City where our journey began. FACT FILE David Birtill travelled with Irish Ferries (0875 171717, irishferries.com). discoverireland.com; Dromoland Golf Club (+061 368 444, dromoland.ie); Doonbeg Golf Club (+065 905 5603, doonbeggolfclub.com); The Heritage Golf Club (+353 57 8645500); Silken Thomas Pub, Kildare (087 054 6303, silkenthomas.com); Bunratty Castle Hotel, Bunratty (+353 61 478700, bunrattycastlehotel.com); Durty Nelly’s Restaurant (+061 364072); Tubridy’s Bar & Restaurant, Doonbeg (+065 9055041, tubridys.ie); Sandymount Hotel, Dublin (+0353 614 2000, sandymounthotel. Ie). 

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