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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

The New Course was designed by American architectural icon Robert Trent Jones and completed in 1984. There tend to be too many forced comparisons to the Old Course by golfers who have played both, too much nit-picking about too many holes that seemed contrived. Funny how holes on the Old Course, which appear contrived through they have never been violated by a bulldozer, never seem to come in for like criticism. The New Course, while not the Old, is just fine.

Ballybunion tends to be the most difficult of the public courses on which to obtain tee times. Those planning on going should phone a year in advance, at least for summer season times (011 353 0682 7146). Tour operators tend to gobble up a bunch of times in the summer. First-time visitors to Ireland might want to consider one of a legion of agents who specialize in Irish golf, though the thrill of exploration and serendipity is well worth the effort by the visiting golfer to find his own hacker's nirvana while getting lost a dozen times.

Down from Ballybunion is Tralee, where Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay built the new course for the town in 1984. The setting is dramatic, the cliffs high and mighty (the land was used for backdrops in the movie Ryan's Daughter). But the course isn't so much dramatic as difficult. The 12th hole is a backbreaking 440 yards with a green surrounded by rough high enough to lose your caddie. On a calm day a bogey five is acceptable. On a windy day a triple bogey seven is merciful, a quadruple bogey eight no embarrassment.

Farther to the south is Dooks, a course that Englishmen like to play. It is memorable for an 18th green that is virtually impossible to find and a 13th green that can be impossible to putt. The green of the 13th is in two parts, a high ridge and a low ridge, with fierce slope and several breaks of the horseshoe variety. It would be quite easy to be on the green in one, off in two, on in three, off in four.

Waterville is at the bottom of southwest Ireland, set near Ballinskelligs Bay. It is a long way from anywhere to Waterville, though those who make the journey are rewarded with a splendid course that was developed by American Jack Mulcahy in 1970 and designed by the old links master, Eddie Hackett. You must play the par-3 17th from the back tee, which is known as Mulcahy's Peak. It provides a view of virtually the entire course, a view that Mulcahy used often as the course was being shaped. The peak is also the highest point on the course, a dune top planed down to provide a small launching pad for the green. (Mulcahy's Peak also serves as a final resting place; his ashes were buried here following his death in October 1995.)

Inland, at the top of County Kerry, is Killarney. Around the shores of the achingly beautiful Lough Leane are two of the best non-links golf courses you could ever hope to find: Mahoney's Point and Killeen. The lake glistens and beckons and gathers in its fair number of balls on the holes that play around it. The long par-4 17th at Mahoney's Point plays along the lake for its entirety. The par-3 18th is the stuff of postcards, played over an inlet.

Many consider Lahinch to be part of the southwest, though it is at the midpoint of the west coast, just an hour northwest of Shannon. The course, first laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1892, redone by Charles Gibson and fashioned in its present configuration by Alister Mackenzie, the Scotsman who did Augusta National and Cypress Point, is beloved by most, though reviled by some who think it too quirky even for links golf. A par 3 known as the Dell includes a blind tee shot over a dune. Many other blind shots await the golfer at Lahinch, and a seeing-eye caddie for the first-time player is essential.

For those looking to be pampered after being hammered by the cruel game of golf for a week, the mightily impressive Dromoland Castle Hotel, near Shannon Airport, is an excellent place to end an Irish golf vacation. For those seeking the higher end of Irish hospitality, it comes no higher than this, and there is easy access to Lahinch and Ballybunion. The hotel has its own golf course, of no particular merit, but a good place to warm up before taking to the real links. The rooms are huge and well-appointed, the dining room superb, the bar and gallery area especially nice places for chitchat, Cognac and cigars. There is a pond out front, rowboats and fishing poles for the lending. Catch a trout or a pike and have the chef prepare it for dinner.

Then there's the North. Northern Ireland contains two of the world's finest courses, Royal County Down and the Dunluce Course of Royal Portrush. County Down makes just about everyone's "top 10 in the world" list, and Portrush, the site of the past two British Senior Opens, has revealed itself as an absolute gem. Portrush holds the distinction of being the only Irish course to play host to the regular British Open; an Englishman, Max Faulkner, won the 1951 championship.

County Down is about two and a half hours north of Dublin, just over the border to the north and to the east of Newcastle. For a course that used the old waiting room of a railroad platform as its first clubhouse, County Down has come a long way in both challenge and clubhouse facilities. It has some of the most lovely and terrifying holes in all of golf. And it is probably Ireland's snootiest club, with visitors rather disdained from coming into the main part of the clubhouse.

Still, County Down just has to be played. And blind shots have to be part of the repertoire. The ninth, a par 4, and the fourth, a par 3, are absolute beasts, although the whole course is an absolute beauty. Its ninth hole, returning to the white-and-red clubhouse with a steeple in the deep background, is the most photographed hole in Ireland.

These days, Ireland is in the midst of a golf course building boom. High-end American-style courses such as the K Club and Mount Juliet are serene and a joy, except they are very much an American experience for wealthy Irishmen rather than an Irish experience for the foreign golfer. Pat Ruddy has been part and parcel of the boom with his European Club and the recent Druids Glen, site of the 1996 Irish Open. On the business side of the ledger, he welcomes this boom. On the golf side, he hopes that it doesn't bust the everyman feeling, the everyman privilege of golf in Ireland.

"I don't think we are entirely driven by the economics of the game just yet and I hope that we never will be," says Ruddy. "We need to preserve what's best about the game, the access to the game for the average player with the average income. The game is about the battle within oneself, and the competition and camaraderie with others."

When Nick Faldo won his third Irish Open, at Mount Juliet in 1993, he was asked why he played so well in Ireland. His reply was a master's display of understatement: "You'll never get an ulcer playing golf in Ireland."

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday. High Above the Old Head

On the south coast of Ireland, near the precious harbor town of Kinsale and not too distant from the city of Cork, a new golf course is taking shape on land from the distant ages. In the years to come, it may be spoken of as one of the world's great courses, and it no doubt sits on one of the world's greatest natural sites.

The site is the Old Head of Kinsale, the course is the Old Head Golf Links and the visionary behind it all is John O'Connor. O'Connor is an Irishman who has managed to take an exquisite and rare geological and historic site and turn it into a spectacular 18-hole golf course, one that from an aesthetic point of view challenges America's Pebble Beach.

The Old Head of Kinsale is a rock promontory that juts out into the Atlantic midway along Ireland's south coast. Because it has two-billion-year-old exposed rock that once was on the coast of Africa, the promontory draws geologists from around the world. The Old Head is also part of ancient Irish history. The Stone of Accord is here, a freestanding limestone rock where people used to seal deals by placing their fingers through a small opening at the top. Remnants of Dun Mac Padraig Castle are also here, as is a sixteenth century lighthouse.

Now, there is a golf course whose symbol is the Stone of Accord and whose merit will be tested by players this summer. And what merit there promises to be. Nine holes play atop the cliffs, which rise 200 feet in some spots--twice the height of the cliffs at Pebble Beach. Designed by and brought into final form by Ron Kirby, Jack Nicklaus' longtime assistant, the Old Head will be 6,650 rugged yards of golf completely exposed to the elements in a setting so humbling that a four-putt green may seem irrelevant.

The course has been six years in the making, with the backing of O'Connor and the advice of the great Irish amateur Joe Carr, a three-time British Amateur champion, and the Irish links designer Eddie Hackett. It is scheduled to open this June. O'Connor and his brother, Patrick, are international real estate developers and agents based in London, though they still call Ireland home. "This is such a special place for the Irish and such a special place to build a golf course," says John O'Connor. "I don't know if there will ever [again] be anything like it."

Kinsale is one of Ireland's prettiest towns, and it boasts the world's oldest yacht club. It also is a culinary center of the country. There are some hotel accommodations in Kinsale, as well as the ever-present bed-and-breakfast homes. Cork, 40 minutes away, has several hotels. Over an hour from Kinsale is Ballymaloe House, the largest country house in Ireland with one of Ireland's best kitchens.

O'Connor has planned an interesting clubhouse in the middle of the site. Built of stone, it will rise as rock from the ground in an attempt to be in complete harmony with the environment. The small parking lots will be dug into the ground to keep cars out of sight. A variety of wild grasses and plants grown by O'Connor at his estate in Ballinskelligs will grace the course with natural beauty.

But there will be no more beauty than the natural wonder of the Old Head of Kinsale. The drive across the tiny neck of stone that connects the Old Head to the mainland is breathtaking by itself and the sense of anticipation is acute. The Old Head is a place to behold, and with the crashing waters visible from every hole, more than one golfer is going to be caught gaping rather than playing.

This course, which has come from the ages, will be a course for the ages.


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