Like its people, Irelands great golf courses seem to embody a special kinship with the land such that they do not seem to have been built simply to withstand the strong elements as much as they have been shaped by them.
From May 2 to May 9, I embarked with three friends, Jocko Alpress, Paul Ferreira, and John Simmons, PGA Director of Golf at Newport National, for a golfing tour through Ireland with the same objectives as any foursome of men traveling to play golf would likely have. To play some great golf courses and soak in all of the cultural nuances that makes Ireland so much fun. The following journal chronicles our trip. I will let you be the judge if we succeeded in our objectives.
Lahinch Golf Club, Lahinch, Co. Clare, Ireland
Par 72 - 6,882 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 11th Hole, Par 3, 170 Yards. Part of a recent renovation, the green is slightly elevated and often plays into a mighty wind.
Well our first day and round of golf was to say the least, interesting. After a sleepless night-flight of excitement, anticipation and cramped coach seating we arrived in Ireland ready to bring the Lahinch links course to its knees. We went directly from the Shannon Airport about one hour north to the beautiful town of Lahinch. The forecast for the day was ominous; cold temperatures, gale force winds and a 90% chance of rain. The Irish weather did not disappoint, in fact it exceeded its own capable intent.
As predicted, the rains and winds came early and were reluctant to leave. Remarkably, we all played quite well none-the-less, with our golf professional, John, leading the pack (I think John shot a 78). The irony, of course, is that the scores did not reflect the quality of play so much as the ferocity of the conditions.
The rains were married to a conspiring wind that grew in intensity as the day progressed. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all was how the saturating round ended. In fact, it was an experience of which I have never had before. Our adventure started on the beautiful 16th Hole (a downhill par 3 that measures 175 yards that was playing into the wind, to an effective 210 yards). On the green we felt the first piercing pains of a lateral rain that soon would be much more. By midway through the 17th hole, it had become a full-bore, gale-driven tempest fueled by tiny pieces of HAIL! Eventually, the white stuff covered the ground; yet as one must do in Ireland, we carried on.
Waterville Golf Links, Waterville, Ring of Kerry, Ireland
Par 72 - 7,225 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 12th Hole, Par 3, 200 Yards. A long, hard par three but this hole means so much more than just being a hard hole to par (see story below).
Well, day two brought with it as deep a golfing experience as the day before.
We were originally scheduled to play an Ireland vs. America fourball, but it wasnt to be. Our round of golf was cancelled due to damage to the course we were to play, by the severe weather we had played through the day before. Now, we faced a full day of possibilities without any formal plans.
The Pro made the mad suggestion that we pack up from Lahinch and race down the coast (which includes the awing beauty of the Ring of Kerry), to the links of Waterville. Our new friend, Alan Reardon, Secretary/Manager of Lahinch, made all the necessary arrangements to clear our path to Waterville.
It serves to mention that the ride down the twisting, curving, tiny and torturous Irish road system does not become any more comfortable regardless of how often you do it. One ride, particularly through the countryside, and it becomes clear why the Irish are so religious. None-the-less, I tried to bury my anxiety in the pillar of tabloid journalism known as The Sun. I think my traveling partners have come around to the merits of the same.
Waterville is not only beautiful but it is as pure a test of golf as any I have ever seen. The weather was cool and breezy (20 MPH) and only served to heighten the natural splendor. Waterville has undergone extensive renovations since my last visit with my brother, Bob, five or six years ago and from my perspective it made a great course even better. The landing areas were for the most part wide and the greens were accessible and very fair. Waterville is, however, a true championship links course and would rank in my book next to Muirfield in that category.
As golf often allows for the convergence of the here-and-now with more mystical realms, the 12th hole at Waterville deserves note (see photo above). The hole is a monster par three, playing from a tee box atop a dune to an equally perched green dotted some 200 years away. Originally, the green was designed to be built in the valley between these two mountains, but the Irish laborers that shaped these links simply refused to allow the green to be placed there. The reason why is that during this lands long history, the protected area between the dunes was once used as a place to celebrate Mass and conduct weddings during a part of this countrys tortured history when the same was prohibited by foreign occupiers. It is truly a sacred place and you cannot help but feel reverent.
Due to the fact that we teed off after 3 PM, by the time we came to the finishing holes the wind was really wiping off the sea. The Par 5 finishing hole reminded me of the same at Royal County Downs and it took even John four shots to reach the putting service (his last shot was a 15 degree hybrid from 140 yards). Our scores were nearly the same as the day before on account of difficulty, not conditions. We began our match of Paul and I (playing to handicaps of 8 and 11, respectively) against John (scratch) and Jocko (18) at Waterville. The good-guys would win this one 2 and 1.
Upon completion of our round we were greeted by a pipe smoking Noel who sat with us until after 9 PM supplying us with equal measure of Guinness and wonderful stories of Henry Cotton, Harry Bradshaw and the many champions and characters who have helped shape the club's storied history.
Needing to travel 2.5 hours back up to Ballybunion, Paul made the wise decision for us to find a B&B along the way. We stopped in one of the many cute little villages that dot the countryside enjoying once more a wonderful experience and departing feeling that we had made lifelong friends.
Ballybunion Golf Club, Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, Ireland
Par 71 - 6,598 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 11th Hole, Par 4, 453 Yards. Tom Watson considers this hole one of the best par 4s in the world and I cannot disagree. Your heart will beat a little faster on every shot on this hole that features a drop off area in the fairway and requires an approach shot needled through protecting dunes to reach the putting service. The undulating green is equally challenging.
Perhaps like an athletic team, if it is possible to peak too early, then certainly Ballybunion was our trips crescendo to date (with five days remaining in our odyssey).
Ballybunion is Irish golf, pure and simple. The course is not long by comparison and Waterville is more of a championship caliber test, yet in its way, it is without comparison.
The club's Secretary/Manager, Jim McKenna, sat with us following our round and enjoyed a few Guinness and dialog. I asked Jim what made Ballybunion so unique and his succinct reply was 'originality,' a comment so accurate that I will not diminish it with further commentary.
While we played our round under brilliant blue skies and passing clouds, Ballybunion did mount its defenses in the form of very strong winds that even our Irish caddies admitted were stronger than usual. We felt quite full of ourselves as we started down wind and laughed and slapped each other's back as we lipped out birdie putts and tapped in pars...and then...we came to the 7th tee and turned back into wind. The day changed dramatically. In the end, the day was our collective best from a scoring perspective and our match was a punch-counter-punch affair that only heightened the experience (it ended in a draw).
Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland
Par 72 - 7,212 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 12th Hole, Par 5, 564 Yards. From the tips (picture below is from the tee box, the green is at the upper right of the large cave), the tee shot must carry a massive cliff to reach a fairway that looks as narrow as an Irish country road (actually, that is a bit of an illusion as the fairway is much wider than it appears from the tee box). Depending upon the wind, the green is reachable in two, but the approach shot must be very accurate.
We arrived in Kinsale very late on Thursday night after another harrowing and paint-scraping ride through the southwest of Ireland. Kinsale is a wonderful harbour town not far from the Old Head Golf Links we were about to play. Kinsale is known as the gourmet capital of Ireland and all of the incredible hospitality experiences we have had to date were about to be raised to a new level (more on that later).
The Old Head golf course was built in 1997. I originally visited this course on a tour with my brother, Bob, some years before. The course sits on a kind of octagon shaped peninsula of land that is only accessible by driving down a narrow land-bridge that features massive caves that the sea has bore through the solid rock over the millennium. The entire area sits hundreds of feet above the violent Atlantic serf and the land is littered with ancient castle ruins, stone monk huts, the foundation of a medieval lighthouse and an archeologically significant ancient Druid burial ground. In what the land would surely view as more contemporary times, this was also the site where the Spanish Armada came ashore and staged their attack on Kinsale/Ireland in 1601 (the Irish were soundly beaten, once again crushing Irish hopes for freedom). In different parts of the course one can still view the steps carved into the rocks where the Spanish sailors unloaded their ships. This also was the closest point to where the Lusitania sank in 1915 and where much of the debris and bodies washed ashore. The town's graveyards are scattered with the sad graves of those lost souls. Simply put, of all the golf courses I have seen in all the world, I have never seen a more impressive, dramatic or beautiful location for a golf course.
The owners of Old Head have engaged in an aggressive program of changes, modifications and refinements since the last time I saw it. The golf course is now, in my estimation, a first-class, modern addition to the Irish golfing landscape and a golf course befitting its impressive setting. For anyone traveling to Ireland to play golf, the Old Head Golf Links should be paramount on their agenda. I am confident that if this course existed in the U.S. It would be ranked in the top five in the nation.
As to our day on the course, Paul and I were defeated by John and Jocko. It was a 2 and 1 defeat and I shall neither wallow in the loss nor celebrate their victory for we had more days ahead of us in which to attempt to extract revenge. I should note that we do not play for money; we play for pride, and no price can be placed upon that.
Once more, the facilities staff were accommodating, warm hosts. The General Manager, John Dwyer, joined us for lunch following our round and as the self-induced and self important lore of our round gained in furor he graciously encouraged us to go play another round to settle the matter, an offer we were reluctantly forced to decline in deference to the evening that lay ahead.
We were hosted for dinner at a B&B/Pub called the White House. Kinsale is the sister city of Newport, RI (where we are from) and we were treated like royalty. Our dinner was fantastic and full of equal measure of wine, gin, beer and laughter. Following dinner we put aside any inhibitions we may have been harbouring and the night took flight. Soon, Jocko was bellowing out verse after verse of Irish music (isn't it just 'music' here?) along with a rollicking band and we were paraded before a line of Kinsale officials. I was honored to be presented with an official Kinsale tie by the Mayor. In fact, he took the tie off his own neck to present it and we were informed that such an act is meant to be perceived as a great honor, and I took it as such.
We were given the wise advice, early in the evening, to 'not put down an anchor,' and to keep moving in our quest to visit a number of Kinsale's finest (pub) establishments. We were not greatly successful in this effort as it is hard to part company with people you now feel are close friends. As evidence of how classic this evening was, our host Paul O'Shea, manager of The White House suggested we go to an 'after hours' night club down the narrow, cobblestone, winding, medieval streets some distance from his. Paul and I happened to ask the Mayor how to find this place and in typical Irish fashion he said 'follow me' and off he RAN through the streets with Paul and I in tow, tie a-flying. Upon establishing the location we all ran back from where we originated having worked up a considerable thirst. From there the night progressed as one might imagine and I vaguely recall my head hitting the pillow at half past two in the morning, which I justified by saying it was near my normal bed time on the East Coast (of the U.S.), some five hours behind us.
Carton House Golf Club, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
Par 72 - 7,301 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 8th Hole, Par 5, 552 Yards. This hole is actually built to play with constant cross-winds. It is slightly uphill, adding to its length. It is smartly bunkered and reminded me of Royal Troon. I did not take a picture of it (as I was busy taking a double-bogey). The picture of the 8th green was provided by the club.
On Saturday evening we arrived in Dublin after the four hour drive from Kinsale. Thankfully, the ride was without incident, other than the fact that each of looked like a Titleist that had spent the better part of the winter buried in the mud.
We were greeted in Dublin on Saturday night by our host Stephen Mallaghan. Stephen is the youngest son of Lee Mallaghan, owner of Carton House, where we would play the next day.
Stephen is considerably younger than anyone in our party and his intention was to show us just how vibrant and dynamic Ireland's capital city is. He soundly succeeded in his objectives.
We started with dinner at a contemporary gourmet restaurant. I enjoyed grilled scallops and roasted pork with a deliciously glazed-crispy finish. It serves to mention that while I have heard people malign Irish cuisine, I find it to be fantastic and have never had a meal I did not enjoy. However, as would be the case traveling in any country, I like to order meals that are particular to their culture.
Following dinner we visited a few of Dublin's famous pubs before settling in to my friend Art's favorite, O'Donoghue's. The trumpet player from Bruce Springsteen's band came into the tiny pub and began to jam with the local (traditional) musicians. The result was an eclectic mix of music that combined elements of Celtic, jazz and rock in a big musical stew. Needless to say, the pub became crowded to a point where we could hardly move and Stephen signaled that it was time to move on. From there, our party which had grown to eight or ten people, were led through secret alleys, pathways, hallways, crawl spaces (not really, but it felt like it), and past endless earpiece wearing security before emerging at an after-hours, private Dublin night club reserved for Dublin's young-elite. Unknown to me at the time, Stephen decided that my authorship would be better placed on a higher plane in such a setting and he whispered into the ears of some of the young dukes and barons that I was Dan Brown, author of the De Vinci Code. For the most part, I was warmly welcomed. As usual, Jocko was our undisputed ambassador and a credit to the Australia from which he hails and the America which he has adopted as his home. The Dubliner's loved him and the evening, which had long since spiraled into deep night, was as unique as any other we have enjoyed in Ireland.
Sunday morning's 8:15 AM departure time arrived rather abruptly and we were ushered off to Carton House for our tour and golf. Carton House is the ancestral seat of the Earls of Kildare and the Dukes of Leinster. The very powerful Fitzgerald clan, near royalty in Irish lore, called this massive estate home for generations. The 1,100 acre estate features the Fitzgerald's 'Great House' which looked very much to me to be a castle. It was built in 1601, and the Mallaghan's have nearly finished restoring it to its full grandeur They are weeks away from unveiling a new luxury hotel and spa in addition to other amenities including horseback riding, fishing and target shooting. It is one thing to offer multiple luxuries, but quite another to wrap them in a package of deep Irish heritage that Carton House embraces.
At the conclusion of the round, we were joined for a drink by Conor Mallaghan, GM of Carton House and Stephen's older brother, and Lee Mallaghan, Carton's owner and visionary. I asked Conor what made Carton House unique and he gave me an answer that I thought epitomized the day's experience. Conor said, 'We are Ireland's best kept secret.'
Now the secret is out.
The K Club, The Kildare Hotel & Country Club, Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland
Par 72 - 7,212 Yards
Matts Favorite Hole: 7th Hole, Par 5, 606 Yards (will play as the 16th Hole for the Ryder Cup). A slight dog-leg right, this hole does not play as long as the yardage suggests due to the shaping of the fairways, just past some drivable bunkers. The holes real challenge is its narrow green, built across the River Liffey, that requires a perfect second (or third) shot. The Clubs Secretary informed me that this hole will be set up for the players to reach it in two during the Ryder Cup as it will be the 16th Hole when they re-route for the competition. It should play a major role in deciding the competition. My third shot took a dip in the River Liffey and I did not take a photo of the hole, as I was pouting.
Our last round in Ireland and the site of our pivotal final round of our golfing competition would be the Kildare Hotel & Golf Club, better known as the K Club. Fittingly, it will be the site of the 2006 Ryder Cup Competition.
The K Club, which was founded in 1991, represents Ireland's rapid sophistication in developing an 'American style' luxury golf experience augmented by unmistakable European heritage and service. In 2005, Conde Nast Traveler magazine named The K Club as its 'Best European Resort' for the year. The property encompasses 550 rolling parkland acres of an estate known as the Straffan House on the banks of the River Liffey. Like most places in Ireland where even the smallest amount of research is conducted, this land reveals a long and significant past. The land's history dates back to 550 AD, after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and features a long line of Royal grants, intrigue, rebellion and privilege. The grand 'house' that sits on the property was built in 1832, was modeled on the chateau at Louveciennes, west of Paris. The massive building was converted by the current owners into a sumptuous hotel. The resort features a spa and a myriad of other amenities in addition to golf. However, for our purposes, we were there for the latter.
One can only hope (and expect) that when traveling to other lands you will encounter new experiences. Once again, The K Club delivered on this promise. One of two courses at the resort, we set out on the Palmer Course in conditions that had become somewhat cold and under a persistent rain. Admittedly, not the conditions we had hoped for, but at least we were not inundated by Ireland's famous winds. Regardless, the conditions insured that the long, lush golf course would provide little respite for our travel weary bodies and beer soaked minds. As to the point of a unique experience, here we were on this already famous golf course that has achieved celebrity status for the drama of an event yet to come, and we soon discovered that we were the only people on the entire course!
The Palmer Course is not your typical Irish golf links or parkland course of lore. I think this golf course would be every bit at home in Florida, Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head. It is a parkland course that seems to remarkably reflect the personality of its architect, Arnold Palmer. Each hole is keenly shaped and routed around the gently rolling terrain. Most of the green complexes are deceptively built up, often requiring one more club to insure reaching the pin. In keeping with its namesake, nearly every hole provides the opportunity to take a bold line of attack to attain glory or a more measured approach for the timid. The fairways are lined with numerous medium-height hardwood trees that as this course continues to mature, will one day be as formidable a defining feature as the shaping and contours of the holes are today.
Paul and I came into the round with a 2-1-1 record against John and Jocko. We started out in a manner that would make any mudder proud, at one point building up a 3-Up lead and feeling quite full of ourselves and our ham-and-egg tandem act. However, the capable team we were competing against and the unrelenting demands of the Palmer Course began to take its toll. By the end of the front nine our lead had been cut to 1-Up and carried on the wings of a two under par performance on the back nine by the Pro (which included a birdie on the finishing hole), the John and Jocko team came roaring back for a 2 and 1 victory. If our round is any indication of how matches can be decided on this course, come September, I would advise that an early lead is not a safe one.
Overall, I was immensely impressed with this golf course. From a competitive perspective it could easily host a Tour event tomorrow. However, the event it will host will be the Ryder Cup in September. It will be the first Irish venue in the history of the competition. As a traditionalist, I had felt that I would rather have seen the event staged on a course that is more indicative of Irish links golf like Waterville, Lahinch or even Old Head. However, as the Ryder Cup has become a massive sporting event with global stature. The needs of such an infrastructure demands proximity to all of the logistics that a resort near the city of Dublin can provide and as mentioned, their is no debate that the course is a championship caliber lay out. Some will criticize the course for being too much of an American Style golf course, but I do not agree with this perspective. This course is what it is and does not claim to be otherwise. It was chosen as the site of the Ryder Cup for many reasons, not the least of which is its fabulous design. The Palmer Course will provide a formidable challenge to both sides and will undoubtedly stage a great competition.
We discovered a real gem at the K Club.
Given the fact that we were all exhausted from our adventures, the plane ride back to Boston was remarkably quiet compared to the non-stop chatter and laughter of the prior days. In this time it gave me an opportunity to put the experience into context. I have come to the very biased conclusion that while Ireland is the most beautiful place on Earth, its truest beauty lies in the hearts of the people that call it home.
Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.