Ireland Golf Spectacular!
by Scott A. Sumner
When you are a golf enthusiast ( notice I didn’t say NUT) like I am golfing in Ireland is probably quite high on your list. Links golf is something I have always enjoyed and I recently experienced some real links golf near the birthplace of the game. After having traveled to the west coast of North America twice already this year I was readyfor a long flight. In reality you can spend 5 hours traveling from say Toronto to San Francisco or 6 1/2 hours from Toronto to Dublin. My luck was good on this trip as when I asked the Air Canada ticket agent if he had a seat with more legroom, he looked at his screen, ripped up my old ticket and gave me a new one. Is a window I asked and he replied you’ll like it. Like it I did as it was business class with tons of legroom for this 6ft 3in middle aged golfer.
After a smooth flight with a newly graduated pretty female Irish Doctor to talk to sitting beside me it was off to Murray’s Eurocar to pick up my rental car. I was hoping for an automatic with lots of leg room so after switching from two smaller cars it was a Skoda Octavia diesel for me. The next smart move I made was to get GPS. I had learned in San Francisco just how valuable GPS can be in unfamiliar territoryand I was right again on this trip. Driving on the left side of the road takes some getting use to as well as the roads in Ireland can be less developed than here in Canada. After putting some 1000 kms on in Ireland I got to experience the full gamut of road conditions from super speedways like you might experience in Toronto to almost trails the width of maybe one car you might find as a bush road here. But Iwas off and running for my 4 hour drive to the Northern part of Ireland to Letterkenny a small city of 15,000 in the county of Donegal. It would be here I would play 4 links golf courses all on the Atlantic ocean in the next week.My base of operation would be the new 4 star Radisson SAS Hotel Letterkenny. This was a great place to stay in a new development of the city. The area showed off the economic growth of this part of Ireland and was quite a contrast to the traditional agricultural setting found elsewhere. As the time change is 5 hours from Thunder Bay I decided to get some rest and be ready for my trip tomorrow to Ballyliffin Golf Club.
The Radisson SAS Letterkenny provides a great buffet breakfast for their guests and I would have a hearty breakfast of bacon, sausages, eggs, cereal, toast, fruit and of course tea each morning. It started the day off well and provided the strength for the golf activities. It turned out the Senior Irish Open European Tour was having theirtournament at Ballyliffin on the Old Course and many of the hotels in the area were booked up. My first course was some 2 hours away driving north to the ocean. Ballyliffin is one of Ireland’s best courses. My GPS held in me in good stead and I arrived on time for my tee time seeing some very scenic Irish country side along the way. Ireland is really a beautiful country and the people there very friendly.
The Ballyliffin course was fully decked out for an important golf tournament. As I pulled in a helicopter landed with a participant in the days Pro-Am. Players competing included Ian Woosman, Constantio Rocco, Sam Torrence, Bob Charles and Stewart Ginn. I got to see many of the players having their lunch before golf.
John McLaughlin is the North and West Golf Links Marketing Manager, a marketing group set up 18 years ago to market the links golf courses of the west of Ireland. It has grown and today has 12 courses in the organization. I had met John earlier this year at the 2008 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida. “ We attend trade shows, tour events and make sales calls to the the international tour operators. Wehelp people put together trips to Ireland o work with golf courses and hotels and have a tee time reservation system on line on our web site,” said John McLaughlin. “ People can come to us and we will put the whole package together. We can do the golf accommodations, dinners and special events- whatever they need from 1 person to groups of 80. Typically people fly into Belfast or Shannon from Canada which makes it easier to play the courses in the area. We have 12 destinations with 17 golf courses. It is pure links golf with only 153 courses like this in the world. We have the least expensive links golf in the world and have fantastic value for money. One tour operator told me recently he can put trips together today here at the same price as other parts of Ireland 5 years ago.”An average price for golf in the North & West Coast Links of Ireland is 65 to 70 Euro’s or 150 dollars, except for Royal Portrushwhich is rated number 5 in the world. The development of new quality hotels has been fantastic in the area as well.
“ We have always had good golf courses but now we have had unbelievable expenditure in the accommodation sector and can offer 4 star value and good value. The hotels have their own marketing people to promote their properties. Ballyliffin is a small place but has 5 great hotels. “ smiled MccLaughlin. “ Most of the people who play here are Irish people. You will meet Irish people here more often than othertourists. Ballyliffin has 20% US, 50% Irish and then N. Ireland and Scandavia as their golfers. Royal Port Rush for example has 80% US visits. We have gone to the PGA merchandise show 12 years in a row. It is what you make of it with and we go with preset appointments. We also had a stand at the Honda Classic in Florida . We do the Toronto Star Golf Show show each year and meet the golf tour operators. To
travel here there are good fares eg Continental at $600 to $700US or sales of 300 Euro's return.”
“The Irish people are a big part of what we have to offer with their hospitality. You also meet other Irish golfers. Our golf courses are so different and the elements make the golf course. There is lots of wind. Constantino Rocco hit a 2 iron and then 9 iron on the same 155 yard par 3 yesterday. But it is not just the golf. You need toexperience the restaurants and have some Crack- Fun,” smiled McLaughlin.” Tourism Ireland last year had150 writers and tour operators visit. We need the publicity.”
John Farren is the GM of Ballyliffin- Glashedy Links and Old Links. “ Nick Faldo came when there was only the old course and wanted to get involved. The members went their own way and built a second course (Glashedy) and the new clubhouse. There are 1400 members and it is a members club, a local club. Our membership doesn’t have any errors and graces. Everyone is treated equally. We give priority to local people,” said John Farren. “These are 2 very contrasting course. Glashedy is a new course and a strong challenge. It runs outside the Old Links which is a classic traditional links golf course mown out of the rough with the tees and greens built. The fairways on Glashedy are smoother. The Old Links was built in 1970 and the Glashedy in 1988.”It was very windy playing Glashedy as the course is on the most
northwest part of Ireland, next up is Iceland some 700 or 800 miles away. Wind is a major factor. The wind is what has made this landscape according to Farren. The golf season is Mid April until October but you can play all year round. Top temperature is 28c but normally between 15 to 23c . The green fee rates are 80 Euro. “We keep one course always reserved for members. The Canadian market is blossoming and especially to links golf purists who enjoy the tradition of the game. Lots are coming and the Northwest has been a forgotten paradise. Our road infrastructure sometimes are single car and you may have to give way for agricultural but this is a beautiful part of the world.” smiled Farren.
My next course was Narin Portnoo where Connor Mallon is the Head Professional. Originally from Donegal, Mallon has been a golf professional for 10 year including some years as a touring professional. He played 3 events on the Canadian Tour, the Hooters Tour and then joined the PGA. There has been a golf course at Narin Portnoo since 1900 starting as a 9 hole course. Then it became a par 69 course i n 1960 and was redesigned to a par 73. As typical in Ireland the members own the course. Green fees are welcome. There are 1000 members who pay 475 Euro's per season. Daily green fees are up to 60 euro's in the maximum and buggies rent for 35 euro's. “ I like everything about the course. It is a proper links course like they were supposed to be designed, not manufactured but a natural course. It is a fun golf course to play with spectacular views and the most scenic course in Ireland in my opinion. We had 30 journalists in last week from Ireland and they felt Narin Portnoo is the last hidden gem,” said Mallon. “A typical day temperature is 13 or 14 c. Very seldom do we not get rain. We went 7 weeks recently with out rain however and used our irrigation on the greens and tees. The rest goes white in the heat. Our clubhouse has been open for 1 week now. We tore the old one down and built new in 12 weeks at cost of 750,000 Euro. Size wise we didn’t want to go grand but cozy with 20 to 30 people.”
The season here is all year. As a seaside course the fairways never get wet because of the sand terrain. The Atlantic ocean is very pretty in the backdrop of most holes and at one point you are right adjacent to a beautiful beach. Narin Portnoo was a great course to play!Frank Casey Jr., a low amateur scratch golfer, is the Director of
Golf at Rosapenna which features 45 holes. Sandy Hills opened in June 2003 . The Old Tom Morris was opened in 1893. Old Tom was brought in during 1891, took a drive and once he saw the land by the sea decided to build the course there. The original Rosapenna Hotel was built then but burnt down in 1962. Sandy Hill is very natural to play with the dune holes with very little earth movement except for hole number 6where dirt was taken away to create the large drop off. It was designed by Pat Roddie the best local Irish architect.“ My father, Frank Casey bought the hotel and 790 acres of land with it in 1981. He began with 18 holes and added the further 18 and 9. The 9 holes were constructed in 2004 but are not ready yet as we have quite a long grown in time in Ireland. Sandy Hills has an irrigation system and we have 45 greens that are watered every morning and evening with our water supply. Recently we had 6 weeks with only 15 mm of rain and high temps which was crazy for Ireland. We have showers most of the time but they blow over and we seldom have days of full rain,” said Frank Casey Jr. who has a Degree in agronomy and worked on the golf course growing up. “ The courses are fully irrigated except for the tees and fairways. The Brown Top Bent grass and Chewings Fescue are very resilient. We water Old Tom by hand and hose.” The Rosapenna development also includes a 4 star 73 bedroom hotel with a leisure centre. The green fees are 60 Euro on the old and 85Euro on the new with good package deals to stay in the hotel as well. They do 10,000 rounds on each course and feature a club house that is 18,000 feet and can do most functions. “ You have to have buggies nowadays but we prefer no buggies. Our walkers are 75% of the course play,” said Casey Jr. “ The Sandy Hills course is more difficult. The Old course in more of a plot your shot course as you can’t get in the wrong areas. The wind is in a different direction every day and can turn during the round.”
Rosapenna is open all year round with very little snow and sometime frost. The courses are usually closed only 5 days of the year. In January it can be pretty windy, rough, wet and cold with 5 c but you can get some good days according to Casey Jr. There are 450 members at Rosapenna who pay 725 Euro's per year. The road has gotten better over the years and Rosapenna is 2 hours from Belfast, and 3 1/2 hours from Dublin. The roads may be narrow and windy but all part of the fun, the ambience of Ireland. Sandy Hills is ranked in the top 15 in Ireland and the Old Course in the Top 25. We have 30% of the world’s links courses and we have 2 of the m right here, noted Frank Casey Jr.After a great game in the pouring rain and cold temperatures it was fun to sit in the elegant clubhouse and have some hot tea and biscuits. The Old Tom Morris Links was one I was not going to miss and I appreciated my playing partner Shaun- AKA Larry showing me this beautiful seaside links course. It was back to my base operation at Letterkenny where I would travel back the next day to Dublin.
A city tour of Dublin complete with singing tour guide showed me the beautiful historic European city with so many attractions to see such as the Guinness factory. Ireland is really a fantastic place to visit. Everything comes to an end sometime and I was off to the airport for a business class seat back to Toronto and then quick flight back to Thunder Bay. Ireland is a destination I highly recommend for all golfers, at least once in their lifetime! visit www.northandwestcoastlinks.com for more information!