November 8-15, 2009
This summer we were fortunate to spend some time in Ireland and golf four top quality courses. Part of this quest was to discover just, "What is Irish golf?" Why do so many golfers make the journey across the Atlantic to play golf in a foreign country when they could play a number of top notch courses here in Canada or the USA?
The other reason for this golf junket was to research and set up two new golf packages. We have offered Australia, New Zealand and Fiji golf packages for eight years and this year we decided to expand our line to include Ireland and Spain. We have concluded our preparations and have formalized our packages for both Spain and Ireland. All our packages are priced the same at $2999Cdn for four sharing car and condo or $3499Cdn for two people sharing. Ireland has the same price but the length of time is shorter but you play some of the worlds most outstanding courses.
I had heard a lot about golfing in Ireland and I wanted to experience it and try to understand what drives golfers to this part of the world.
Let me give you a brief report on our experience and hopefully define Irish golf.
My wife and I stepped off the plane in Dublin on a cloudy, rainy day in July. Our stay was very short, just one night and two days. It only took a few minutes walking around the central business district of Dublin to be captured by its charm and location on the banks of the Liffey River. We explored the city by foot and by the Hop On Hop Off bus. Everywhere we looked there were old churches (such as Christ Church), pubs, castles, and shopping.
Out of everything we saw, I enjoyed the visit and tour of the Guinness Brewery and the Jamison's Whiskey Distillery. A visit to Ireland would not be complete without a visit to these iconic establishments. Where else could I purchase head covers with Guinness and Jamison embroidered on them. However we were not the only ones there. Guinness is the most popular tourist destination in Ireland. We found the Guinness tour to be very crowded but enjoyable. We stayed to the end and got our free pint of that dark, seductive beer at the end of the tour.
Jamison's was just as interesting and not as crowed. We took our time and enjoyed their hospitality.
It was late in the afternoon of our second day that we finally got started on our golf tour. Our destination was the Druids Glen Resort and Country Club which is located about 40 minutes south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains.
The Marriott, a five star resort, has two courses, the Heath and Druids Glen. It was the Druids Glen that attracted us to this resort. We knew it was a very good course but we were not fully prepared for our round of golf the next day.
We passed through the entrance gates and drove parallel to the first hole on our way to their clubhouse, which was first built in 1760. The first hole provided us with a glimpse of what was to come. It looked very, very green, well conditioned, and the hydrangeas were in bloom. We were warmly greeted by John Kinsella, the Director of Golf, who got us ready and answered a few questions about the course.
We found that the course had been the home of the Irish Open in '97, '98 and '99 and was named the Golf Resort of the Year in 2005. He showed us some reviews that claimed Druids Glen was "The Augusta of Europe".
One of my questions brought a surprise answer from John. I asked him if we had to keep to the cart paths. In Spain and Wales, our previous destinations, we had to keep the buggies on the path and off the fairways. This always irritates me as it slows play and besides that my ball is always on the opposite side of the fairway from the path. John's answer was, "no you can drive anywhere you want but not on the greens."
Our experience that day proved the quote about Druids Glen being the Augusta of Europe. I have never played a course as beautiful as this one. The beauty builds just like Augusta until you reach the 8th. This is a great par three with a carry over a small lake to a green with hydrangeas in full bloom on the banks to the right and behind the green.
After making the turn we reach the 12th, a par three, and the 13th. What a great combination. Number 12 is played from an elevated tee, with flowers, and beautiful hedges across water. The thirteenth offers a risk reward situation. Go for distance and risk landing in the creek, play safe and you are forced to lay up in short of the lake that fronts the green.
From the 13th on water comes into play on every hole with maybe the hardest two finishing holes in Ireland. The 17th is a longer par three which requires you to hit a postage stamp sized island green. Long is better as there is a good amount of room behind the green. After surviving the 17th you are faced with a long par four up a hill to a green fronted by three lakes that are joined by a small stream that cascades over weirs forming picturesque waterfalls.
One test I use to determine quality courses is, how many good to great par threes are on the course. Druids Glen had four outstanding par threes. Number two is a carry over gorse and tall grass to a green surround by an old stone wall. Number eight, 12 and 17 are mentioned above. They are all quality par threes.
This is the first time I have been in a club house and the talk at each table was how wonderful it was to play such a well conditioned course, with beautiful flowers, hedges, waterfalls, bridges and at the same time experience a challenging and well designed lay out. We left the course feeling we had started to get a handle on what Irish golf was all about.
Our next destination was to the west and the charming city of Killarney. Killarney is located on the Killarney Lakes and surrounded by the highest mountains in Ireland. Killarney would be our home for the next five nights.
I awoke early wondering what kind of golf today would bring. We were to play our first links course. The Dook's course was selected for our initiation to links golf. We arrived at the course with a heavy drizzle coming down. Would we golf or not? What the heck, we came this far so lets give it a go.
We found a course with sand dunes covered in knee high grass, we discovered deep bunkers, very undulating greens, some of the best views of the sea in Ireland and winds blowing across the ocean toward the golf course.
The drizzle ended on the sixth hole and the sun came out. We spent a lot of time looking at the sea and the different views of the golf course. I had a good front nine, keeping the ball in play and not trying to hit the perfect shot. However, on the back nine I found the knee high rough on a few occasions and could not advance the ball. My score shot up and my supply of golf balls was depleted by at least three or four.
At the end of the round, sitting in the bar with the friendly staff drinking a pint of Guinness we discussed the round and our impressions. Links golf was very different to Druids Glen. It was tough, but in a good way. The views, the dunes, the wind, and the total lack of water hazards defined the course.
Our third round was back to a parkland course in Killarney, the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club. This club has three quality courses with two built on the shores of the Killarney Lakes. We were welcomed by Maurice O'Meara, the general manager.
Maurice gave us the history of club and pointed out it was the venue of the Irish Open in '91 and '92 and the course we were to play, Killeen, is ranked in the list of top 100 courses in the UK and Ireland.
Killeen was in excellent condition with outstanding views, of the lake and the mountains. The first four holes are played along the shore of the Killarney Lake thus putting plenty of water into play. At the fifth hole we turned in land where the fairways had a small creek running across a number of them.
Number 10 is their signature hole. It is a par three playing 167 yards from the white tees. The green is surround by a pond on the front and left, behind is Killarney Lake with the mountains forming the back drop. The green appears to disappear into the lake. Your only options are the green or long as trees are on the right. This is one of the most photographed holes in Ireland.
When we reached the 17th and 18th we regained the views of the lake. The 18th is a great finishing hole where a par is as good as a birdie. The 18th has a slight dog leg left with a series of four small lakes on the left and three bunkers on the right. The green has three tiers so pick the right club. Killeen was a great place to recover from the rough and tumble of Dooks. It is gentler and subdued but still presented us with a very good test of golf.
As always we saved the best for last. The last round of golf was 1.5 hours from Killarney. To get there we had to take the Ring of Kerry road. This is a very picturesque road that passes through beautiful country side, through enchanting villages and long some spectacular coast line.
Our destination was the world renowned links course at Waterville which was founded in 1889. At the present it is ranked number 6th in Ireland and in the top 100 of courses outside the USA. The 11th, and 17th holes are ranked in the top 500 golf holes in the world and #13 is ranked in the top 100 in the UK and Ireland.
Waterville is a links course and at first glance I thought it was flatter and tamer then Dooks, but I was wrong. It is flatter but the dunes are higher and you find yourself playing in valleys between the dunes. The design is outstanding, the condition superb. The course plays through the dunes, along the banks of the estuary, and on cliffs above the Atlantic beaches. The opening hole is named "the last easy" and clearly indicates what is store for the golfers. Waterville is a jewel and a must play when visiting Ireland. Links golf is habit forming and leaves one wanting more.
Links courses occupy the space between the ocean and the fertile farm lands. There are only about 150 links courses in the world and Ireland has about 1/3 of them. Links courses do have water but only in the form of small creeks. The courses contain sand dunes covered in very high grass or a plant called gorse. The bunkers tend to be deep so the constant winds from the sea can not blow the sand out of the bunkers. Links golf attacks your senses. The views, the dunes, the course, and the wind are all competing for your attention and trying to break your concentration. As Pat Ruddy, the great Irish course designer and writer said, "In its essence golf is a game of skill. So it is here. We make no apology for the fact that the thoughtless and inept player may suffer on our links. It was not created for such players. Yet, even the beginner will enjoy a game here subject to having some sense and choosing the correct teeing-ground and then playing within one's skills."
Having played Dook's and Waterville I will return and tackle some of the other outstanding world class links sometime in the near future.
So what is Irish golf? What draws players across the ocean?
Irish golf is lush green well conditioned courses, wind swept links, and warm friendly people who live in the prettiest, quaintest towns and villages on earth. Irish golf is an all weather sport so bring your umbrella and your rain gear. Irish golf is not cheap because the reason you travel that far is to play the courses we have read and dreamed about. Irish golf is pubs and Guinness. Irish golf is a balance of parkland and links courses and one should play both styles.