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Fairways of Life

February 2009 - Posts

  • Poetic Rhythm: Southwest Ireland Golfing Journal Part II

    There is a certain poetic rhythm to life in Ireland.  Traveling this land as replete in stunning visual variety as it is in bridges to its timeless nature, one comes to understand why the ancient pagan Druids and Celts, then Christians, embraced the mystic.  How else could one explain so much that is clearly outside the hands of man?

    It is simply impossible to traverse this island with soaring mountains, plummeting valleys and rugged, fractured shorelines and not be struck by the realization that we all tend to take ourselves too seriously, for our time upon this earth is but a grain of sand.  Like the blowing reed, we are better to bend in the direction of the wind rather than spend our lives fighting the forces of nature. 

    Thus was our mindset as we set off to play the Tralee Golf Club (www.TraleeGolfClub.com).  Designed by Arnold Palmer, proponents of the Tralee Golf Club like to point out that the course was “Built by Palmer – created by nature.”  A fitting description of this links course laid out on a stunning piece of links land from which one can see the ocean from every hole.  Everywhere you look, the land stands in mute testimony to the history it has hosted, as the nearby birthplace of the world traveling St Brendan in 484 AD, to the Castle of Barrow (one of three castles that originally protected Barrow Harbor) completely frames the backdrop of the par 3, third hole.  Extensive renovations have been undertaken in recent years and in particular, the back nine at Tralee could be as fine a nine hole stretch as you will find anywhere in Europe.  Extraordinarily massive dunes define its routing and wild variety is the order of the day.

    Barrow Castle ruins behind the 3rd Green

    We were greeted in the doorway by Anthony Byrne, Manager of Tralee, sporting a wry smile.

    13th Green

    “Good morning, Lads.  You look no worse for the wear.  There’s a wee bit of a breeze today,” he understated in classic Irish refrain.  The “wee bit of a breeze” was sustained winds of over 40 mph, with gusts considerably beyond that.  To my way of thinking, the mark of a proper links golf course is the course is playable in conditions bordering on the extreme, as we were very much subject to this day.  Both Mr. Palmer’s original vision and in the modifications enacted since, Tralee embraces it all and provided us with what we came for, a joyful links golfing experience whereby due to the conditions and the idiosyncrasies of the land, one’s most formidable golfing asset on this day is pure imagination.

    Following the round, we set out along the Dingle Peninsula, bound for the Dingle Skellig Hotel (www.DingleSkellig.com) and our date with the Ceann Sibeal Golf Course (www.DingleLinks.com). 

    One of the things that make a golf trip to Ireland so inspiring is the manner in which Ireland has the ability to lift one’s experiences to a new, higher level (even after you have become convinced that you could go no higher).  The road that hugs the steep cliffs encircling the Dingle Peninsula offered as much beauty and fascination as the Ring of Kerry had earlier, yet with even more of a rugged and natural profile (this perspective was supported by the reality that the road itself was little more than a trail; winding, twisting and always precariously offering tantalizing views into the craggy rock formations and massive waves crashing below).  For the next couple of hours, time stood still as the passing famine-era cottage ruins, roofless frames of abandoned churches and ancient castle remnants were accompanied by the musical score of Atlantic-fed rain, pounding waves and a swirling, dancing wind.

    Driving along the Dingle Peninsula
    (notice the farm house on the upper right)

    We checked into the Skelligs Hotel, under the cover of darkness.  Comfortable, warm and welcoming, the Skelligs Hotel was literally our shelter from the storm, and sleep that night was a welcome respite.

    The Dingle Skellig Hotel

    Morning greeted us with a surreal embrace.  One would think that we traveled through a transitory mist en route to the most westerly golf course in Europe, called Ceann Sibeal (since its Irish name is difficult for many to pronounce, the club is well known as the Dingle Golf Club) is a golf course that could as easily be called Brigadoon Links.  The golf course welcomed us with great variety and a calling for as much creativity as any links experience I have ever had.  The course sat brilliantly into its rich landscape, marked by hazards that date back to the very beginning of the ancient Gaelic culture that the region still embraces (Irish, or Gaelic, is still spoken here), and well before the game of golf was even a consideration.  Strong, shifting winds and intermittent, vital rains marked the round such that when we were done, we came to the realization that we were the only golfers on the course!  Whether this fact was accountable to the weather or the course’s remote location is open to debate, but the reality only served to support the concept that we were still in some kind of links golfing paradise, in between the pages of reality.  The one thing I can say with certainty, is that whenever the opportunity presents itself to play Ceann Sibeal, I surely will take advantage of it, for in the book of unique golfing experiences, Ceann Sibeal surely deserves its own chapter.

    Ceann Sibeal

    Following the round, we set off for Dingletown to visit the Dick Mack’s Pub for a quick libation and to gather our thoughts prior to our drive up to Ballybunion.  Dick Mack’s dates back to a period when this pub was both a place to enjoy a pint and get a pair of shoes!  The dusty confines of Dick Mack’s may not seem to be a place where well-heeled (and not so well-heeled) would wander, but it is cozy and comfortable in the typical manner of Irish hospitality, a place where one feels instantly at home.  For me, finding the authentic Ireland. Like Dick Mack’s, is as important an experience as enjoying its golfing gems.

    Friends Geoff Klinger and Matt Adams toast at Dick Mack's Pub

    On account of our propensity to make frequent stops at any place that caught our eye, we arrived at the Cashen Course House (www.PlayBallybunion.com) in Ballybunion, after sunset.  The lobby of this large, country B & B, glowed with the dancing flames and warmth of a coal fed fire.  We had arrived home and our impeccable hostess, Deirdre O’Brien, greeted our arrival as though we were family coming home for the holidays.  My room was massive, literally large enough for five or more to stay comfortably, but alas, it was just me, and knowing I had two nights ahead of me in such splendor only added to my comfort. 

    Guest Lounge at Cashen Course House

    We had anticipated the next morning as a pinnacle of our experience for we were scheduled to play the Ballybunion Old Course (www.BallybunionGolfClub.ie), and the classic masterpiece did not disappoint.   Ballybunion Old is a course that rises and falls, twists and turns and ultimately, gives and takes, in a wondrous union of vision and nature.  Gazing over the Old Course’s peaked and rolling dunes, one cannot help but wonder if this land has always been a golf course; that it was not “built,” but simply discovered.  Never before in the world have I seen a better marriage between what was and what is, as the line appears to be seamless.

    The magic of Ballybunion Old

    Our golfing performance on the Grand Old Lady could hardly be described as seamless, however, as we all seemed to be leaking considerable oil, both on account of our pace over the last few days and the subtle (and ingenious) challenges that await a golfer that fails to employ forethought.  Regardless, our day was nothing but a pleasure and while it may be a cliché, if I had but one course to play for the rest of my days, the Old Course at Ballybunion would be the one.  This course deserves its lofty world stature.

    Our day concluded, fittingly, at McMunn’s Pub, a typical Irish pub in comfort and décor; a place where everyone feels as welcome as a local resident.   However, McMunn’s is different in that it benefits from the culinary talents of Greg Ryan, Head Chef and Manager, who creates gourmet selections on a nightly basis that can only be described as world-class.

    Much is made of power in the game today, but golf in Ireland requires perspective, imagination and a sense of humor that is capable of embracing nuance, the very rhythm of life itself. 

    For more information on touring Ireland’s southwest, visit www.SwingGolfIreland.com

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  • Southwest Ireland Golfing Journal Part I: Views Come Cheap

    “Views come cheap in Ireland,” infused our host, Paddy O’Looney, in a matter-of-fact tone. 

    As with so much of Ireland, I did not fully understand or appreciate the depth of his simple words at that time, but have since come to the conclusion that a golfing trip with friends to Ireland, if not a life-changing journey, then it is at least life-affirming.

    Our trip concentrated on Ireland’s stunning southwest, home of perhaps the finest collection of golf courses anywhere in the world.  Our focus was upon Ireland’s famous links courses, a couple of gems that seemed to avoided global scrutiny (until now) due to their remote location and a couple of Irish parkland courses that deserve particular note.  Along the way, we were met with Irish warmth and hospitality that was without comparison.  I have had the honor of traveling all over the world reviewing golf courses and can attest to the fact that the Irish people are the most friendly and welcoming of any who’s threshold I have crossed.  Their charity of spirit is simply without limits (this point is demonstrated in the story of our car breaking down in the middle of the Irish countryside and the efforts the village made to make us feel at home; in Part 2).

    Such as it is, it is easier for me to fly from Boston’s Logan Airport to Shannon, Ireland, then to try to fly from my home to California.  My flight touched down in Shannon about thirty-minutes ahead of schedule at about 5:30 AM.  Shaking off the effects of a sleepless night spent rather on adrenaline and anticipation, we eagerly climbed into our caravan and headed off to the Killarney Golf and Fish Club (www.killarney-golf.com) to launch our journey.  Under brilliant blue skies and puffy white clouds we set off on the championship Killeen Course to sharpen our blunted golfing swords.  The Killeen Course is set in a magnificent lakeside (it looks distinctively like a Scottish loch) and mountain setting.  Behind a genteel veneer lies a 7,123 yard, par 72, parkland style golf course that called for demanding shot values and was the perfect start to our golfing odyssey.

    That night we checked in for the first night of two at The Malton House hotel (www.TheMalton.com) in the heart of Killarney.  Killarney is an excellent local to base oneself due to its central location to so much of Ireland’s southwest and its array of pubs, restaurants, shops and points of cultural significance.  The Malton House was the type of accommodation that one should both start and finish their trip with.  It was regal and gracious, housed in a building that dates back to the late 1600’s, yet it made us feel completely comfortable, as it you were invited to stay a couple of nights at a friend’s mansion.  After our efforts to get to Ireland and a hard day spent on the Killeen course, The Malton’s heavenly bed put me into a sleep that I thought I would never again awake from. 

    Dining at The Malton House, Killarney

    The dawn of the Irish morning brought with it the obligatory “full Irish breakfast” that was more than enough to fuel us through lunch time (frankly, I think a full Irish breakfast could fuel the space shuttle), replete with great enthusiasm for the golfing adventure that was come.  Today, we are setting off for the Dooks Golf Club (www.Dooks.com).

    Traditional Links at Dooks

    Every trip to Ireland is a journey of discovery, no matter how many times you have visited.   Dooks was a discovery of a traditional links golfing experience that dates back to 1889, making it one of the oldest courses in Ireland.  Martin Hawtree was engaged to extensively update the course in 2002 and the results of his efforts are fabulous.  Walking from the first green to the second tee box revealed the views of Dingle and the McGillycuddy Reeks, the highest mountains in Ireland, from every hole the rest of the way.  It made for a fantastic variety of sights and alignments, augmented by persistent, yet not encumbering wind.  As much as we enjoyed the course, Dooks’ clubhouse was equally as enjoyable, making us all feel as well looked after and welcomed as if we were members.  

    That night we put on our sports coats (it was not required) and dined at The Malton’s fine restaurant, called Peppers, hosted by Conor Hennigan, The Malton’s manager.  One of the greatest myths about Ireland is that the food is bland.  I have found it to be completely the contrary.  The food is luscious, sophisticated and impeccably prepared.  So good, in fact, that I would happily travel Ireland simply for a culinary tour if there were no golf on the island at all!  I feasted on pan-seared scallops to start and a delicious sea bass as my main course.  Heavy servings of laughter and warm friendship, so ample in Ireland, were also in abundance.

    The next morning was an off-day for golf.  Such a concept may seem like blasphemy to many but we wanted to allow enough time to fully appreciate the stunning natural beauty of the Ring of Kerry as we wound our way down to Waterville (www.WatervilleGolfLinks.ie).  The Ring of Kerry did not disappoint as the views were plentiful (note comment above) and each possessed a beauty that was hard to describe.  What’s more, since the first time I made this trek many years ago, the roads have improved measurably, such that a glimpse of this little slice of heaven doesn’t make one feel as though they are only moments from heaven itself.

    The awing Ring of Kerry

    We checked into the Waterville House, after catching the waning minutes of the Liverpool game (happy to report they won) at one of the peat-fire warmed pubs along the way that dotted our path.  The Waterville House is owned by same group that owns the golf course.  It is a B & B, meaning that the feeling one gets is that they are a guest in someone’s home (only if your friend had a house like this you may not ever depart).  Due to their connection to the golf course, the Waterville House has its own driving range, putting green and two practice holes (two-tiered green with multiple tee boxes and bunkers, effectively providing for multiple holes). 

    Waterville, mystical and magical

    After another full-Irish-breakfast start (perhaps this trip should have been sponsored by Lipitor), we set off for the course.  We were greeted at the door by Waterville’s Secretary/Manager, Noel Cronin, a man who is legendary for his hospitality.  Ireland is often described as being a mystical place and Waterville embraces the quintessential essence of this reality.   As one of Ireland’s finest championship links courses, the likes of none other than Tiger Woods and the late Payne Stewart (a memorial statue dedicated to Stewart sits along side of the 18th green) used Waterville to hone their games, prior to the Open Championship in the United Kingdom.  The course measures a meaty 7,325 yards, par 72, from the tips.  Although golf has been played on this property dating back to 1889 with the arrival of the trans-Atlantic cable, Waterville bears the artist touch of Irish architect Eddie Hackett and more recently, Tom Fazio, and is annually included in any credible list as one of the finest courses in the world.   Marked by wild dunes, soaring views and distinctive routing and green complexes, Waterville is simply a must on anyone’s agenda.  As to its embrace of the mystical, the 12th Hole deserves mention.  The par 3, that measures just under 200 yards is played from the top of one dune to an equally perched green atop of another massive dune.  Ocean winds conspire to alter your ball’s desired path, yet the green is considerably larger and more receptive than one would think from the view at the tee.  Originally, the green was intended to be built at the bottom of the deep and flat valley between these huge mounds, but the Irish laborers who built the course simply refused, noting that piece of ground as Sacred.  Jay Connolly, a director at Waterville explained that it was on that piece of land that the Irish people used to celebrate Mass during a period of their tortured history when the practice of their religion was banned by occupying forces.  The dunes provided the faithful with protection from the elements and their peaks made for viewing outposts that could spot soldiers coming from far away, giving the locals the chance to disperse.  

    Matt, teeing off at the 12th Hole

    Every now and then golf becomes a conduit to something more than just playing a game, for as the views may come cheap, their real value is priceless.

    For more information on Southwest Ireland, visit www.SwingGolfIreland.com.


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