Trump International Golf Links, Doonbeg: review

Doonbeg is a study in contrasts: the rugged and quintessentially Irish beauty of the Clare coastline with the 2006 American-built stone castle that overlooks it. The flat farmland that stretches for miles around with the towering sand dunes that dominate this visually stunning golf course.

And yet anyone who has stood here,  felt the power of the ocean forcing its way along the coastline and tasted its rain washed air, knows what a special piece of land this is. The backdrop is Doughmore Bay and its crescent-shaped beach which clings to the golf course like a child to its mother – 16 of 18 holes in sight of the Atlantic at some point. It’s hard to go wrong with this canvas. 

The 17th green at Doonbeg

Nature is, however, both a friend and an enemy in this part of the world.

The course has been battered by a two huge winter storms since 2013, a timely reminder not only of the power of mother nature but also just how much this golf course and the land on which it sits, is at her mercy. 

In recent years, the fairway on the 18th has been significantly narrowed  by the erosion, while the course’s two best par 3s the 9th and 14th were badly damaged. That none of that is even remotely noticeable during our round is down to the tireless work of  Director of Golf, Brian Shaw and the work of the highly-regarded architect Martin Hawtree, who has updated Greg Norman’s original design. Between them, they have produced a golf course that feels like it has been built with hands and shovels, not bulldozers. It is immediately clear that this entire resort makes the most of  the incredible natural beauty of the land. And although we know that greens have been ripped out and replaced, tees moved and bunkers added – you would never, ever know it. 

The approach to 18 at Doonbeg

Whatever your political views (and this is a piece about golf and not politics) the resort is hard to fault. Some 300 jobs now exist here where they did not before and that makes the man who created them as popular as any man. The isolation of this resort is part of its allure, but no detail has gone unnoticed.

The resort is modern luxury meets manor house, chimneys everywhere and tall glass windows set beneath granite arches. The staff are as welcoming as you will find anywhere in Ireland. The public areas as beautifully done, the restaurants are delightful and lively, and there are a multitude of diversions for non-golfers, including dolphin watching, treatments in the spa, or the simple joy of drinking a pint while watching golf and the endless ocean beyond.  

The steps up to the main reception

I was, however, here to play golf and not watch it – thank the Lord. And having eaten a hearty lunch overlooking the 1st tee, it was our turn. I had heard the opening hole here described as the most beautiful in all of golf. Quite a claim.

It’s a gentle 567 yard par-five that plays slightly downhill to a green surrounded on three sides by towering, 10-storey sand dunes. From the fairway the Atlantic Ocean can be glimpsed through gaps in the dunes.

The 1st green at Doonbeg

The bunkering challenges you off the tee and on your second shot, whether you go for the green in two or not. There are no fewer than eight bunkers within 50-yards of the putting surface. And the natural amphitheatre created by the dunes does make it a stunning way to start. 

The 3rd is a short par-4 with a large bunker at the elbow of a gentle dog leg left before the gargantuan 4th, measuring 659-yards (one of the longest holes in Ireland) from the back tees comes into view. Our day at Doonbeg was brought to life not only by the beauty of the landscape and the excellent golf course but by the two brothers who carried our bags. 

Ben Smith on the 9th tee, flanked by caddies Douglas and Odhran Lynch. 

It took us 7 holes to work out that our caddies Douglas and Odhran Lynch were brothers. Their stories, humour and wit kept us laughing even when the  course was punishing our wayward drives. It was an education – in golf and life. And a pleasure to spend a few hours in their company. You could do worse than to ask for them. Although if Douglas tells you a putt comes from the left it may well come from the right! That’s my excuse and I am sticking firmly to it!

The pick of the front nine are the tremendous par 4 6th and the spectacular par 3 9th. At only 365-yards, the 6th it is not long but accuracy from the tee is paramount and anything left will end up on the beach, which the tee sits directly above. The 9th is a challenging par 3, with the stunning beach running the entire length of the hole. Anything left and you will be shouting down to the dog walkers and surfers to ask for your ball back. Good luck with that. 

The 6th tee at Doonbeg

Anything right and you will end up blocked out by a vast sand dune. It’s a really terrific par 3, although not the best on the course. That is to come. 

The back 9 begins by turning away from the ocean but really gets going with the brutal 13th that should, on the face of it, be a birdie opportunity at just over 500-yards but in reality is anything but. Likely to play into the prevailing wind, the second shot requires a big carry and a piercing ball flight to avoid the bunkers and dunes that line the way. A 3-shot approach is a good idea. 

But it’s the 14th that really steals the show. Another stunning par 3. This is and perhaps always had been the signature hole here at Doonbeg. Writing in his terrific book, “A Course Called Ireland”, Tom Coyne described it as “perhaps the most beautiful 100-yard hole I’d ever played, the green stuck into the side of the beach head like a saucer of grass hanging over the ocean.”

The view from the tee at the incredible 14th

And that describes it beautifully still. It’s a 150-yard hole these days but it’s still breathtaking. The tee high above the green. The ocean just five steps to the right. On that day, I knocked it to six feet. I missed the putt, of course, but I was already surprised and delighted at how much I was falling for this place. 

There are six sets of tees at this golf course, the largest difference from back to front is 161 yards. So although it is like wrestling a bear from the back tees when the wind is up, it doesn’t have to be for everyone.

A long putt for birdie at the par 4 15th

The 18th is an excellent finishing hole, with the ocean once again back at your side for the final 432-yards of your round. A good tee shot up the left side should leave a mid to short iron into a green that slopes sharply away to the left and that is protected by the beach and the ocean to the right.

The windows of the clubhouse are a pitch-and-run away and the overriding emotion as you walk off the 18th green and back past the 1st tee on your way to the bar, is ‘is it OK if I just go out and play that again now, please?’. 

The 18th green at Doonbeg

I genuinely didn’t think I would like Doonbeg as much as it did. I was prepared not to , I was prepared to be critical, if I am honest. And yet all that melted away not because of the luxurious resort but because of this magnificent golf course. It may not have the history or even some of the subtle charm of its near neighbours, Lahinch and Ballybunion, but make no mistake, this is first and foremost a really tremendous golf course and then a fabulous resort. 

All I can suggest is that you, like me, park any preconceptions (and I had plenty) you might have at the door and let the golf win you over. Because it will.

The immaculate grass paths between holes at Doonbeg

  • Best hole: The 14th – 138yd Par 3. The best view on the golf course, the 14th is without bunkers but there is plenty of protection elsewhere. The green is some 20 ft below the tee, framed by dunes and with the ocean only a few yards to the right of the putting surface. When the wind blows, good luck…
  • Most memorable hole: The 18th 432 Yard Par 4. A fantastic closing hole. Once again the ocean runs down the entire length of this par 4, shades of Pebble Beach, with well -placed bunkers down the left to catch the careful tee shot. The approach must be long and straight. Anything left will catch the slope and run away or the bunkers. Anything right and you will need your bucket and spade to get it back. As impressive a sight as you will find.

The scorecard for Doonbeg
  • Best par 5: the gigantic 4th will test the very best golfers with challenges and hazards off the tee, in the landing areas and around the green. A really excellent par 5 that never lets up until the ball is in the bottom of the cup.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number:  +353 65 905 5600
Designer:  Greg Norman and Martin Hawtree.
Green Fee Range: €95 – €180
Length: Par 72 – 7,026 Yards
Where it ranks: Voted the best golf resort in Ireland 2017. 
Website: www.trumpgolfireland.com

WHERE TO STAY
This one is easy. At the hotel. It’s beautiful and luxurious and the pillows are as soft as clouds. There is plenty to do for families and the food is excellent. 

A bedroom at Doonbeg

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
If you want to venture outside the resort, which you should, you absolutely must visit Tubridy’s Bar & Restaurant in the village of Doonbeg. The food is fresh and the menu inventive. The fish is excellent but so is the steak. You can’t go wrong to be honest. The Guinness is cold and smooth and there is an excellent variety of whiskeys on the menu too. Give it a try. 

Lahinch Golf Club: truly a wonder of the golf world

The 10th at Lahinch Golf Club

Even at first glance, it is obvious Lahinch is not just another seaside town.

Golf is woven into the fabric of this otherwise unprepossessing village on the County Clare coast. It feels like it’s on the lips of a everyone in town, in the craic. It’s in the pubs (one of which is called the 19th hole) and restaurants, it’s wonderfully unavoidable. And that’s because the churches, shops, pubs and homes of this charming place of 700 or so people sits just a pitching wedge to the south of what is a truly stupendous golf course.

Lahinch goat
The goat is the symbol of Lahinch golf club

Lahinch Golf Club is a mythical destination for golfers all around the world. It’s a place of impossible beauty, challenge and, above all, adventure. It’s a calling, a pilgrimage for many. And nothing about it disappoints.

Despite its standing, there is no air of pomposity or privilege. There are no gates or walls to prevent people from getting in. The opposite is true, in fact. Local kids could be found practising on the putting green on the day we played: learning the game, laughing with friends, being made to feel this club somehow belongs to them. The warmth and humour of staff was only exceeded by the pride in belonging to Lahinch. Who can blame them?

This, after all, was the venue for the 2019 Irish Open,won by the Spaniard Jon Rahm. The tournament came to this part of the world not because Lahinch bid for the right to host it but because Ryder Cup legend Paul McGInley asked the club if it would do him the honour of hosting the tournament.

The 11th at Lahinch

This course is no stranger to the greats of the game. For years, they have flocked here ahead of The Open Championship, to acclimatise, practice and get the feel of the game. Mark O’Meara was a regular visitor in the 90s, Jim Furyk, and Greg Norman too. Phil Mickelson is an overseas member and Tom Watson, who has done so much to enhance the reputation of links golf in these parts, is too. But golf is always changing.

Paddy Keane, Lahinch Golf Club’s charming general manager, comes out to meet us before our round. He is a busy man with a vast to-do list but he is also clearly a man bursting with pride to represent his club.

The town sits right behind the 2nd green

The bond between place and golf club is something you see a lot in Ireland. The grand private clubs of the United States or England tend to want to protect their exclusivity. But on the links of Ireland, at least, community and every day town life are bonded together as one. But few do it as effortlessly as Lahinch Golf Club. And it only adds to the allure.
The Irish Open here was an event for the many, not the few. It touched, in some way, everyone who lives here, not just those who work at the club or even play golf.

And so to the golf. What of it? The practice area across the road from the 1st tee is beautifully set up, even if it is only to tune up your short game. The starter is a real character, a bundle of energy, barking instructions that are both important and useful as you prepare to get going. I remember thinking I wish I had recorded a video on my phone of what he said but it was marvellous nonetheless. The rain stopped just as we began our round. And didn’t return again until the 16th tee.

The opening hole is a gentle start, a 373-yard par 4, with room to miss the fairway on either side, which I duly did. The par 5 2nd is an excellent hole at 523 yards, shaping downhill off the tee and to the right. But it feels like the course really begins on the 3rd.
Beyond this tee, slate grey and whipped into foam flecks by the stiff westerly that blew straight back into our faces, is the Atlantic Ocean. Red flags, standing to attention on a lifeguard’s turret, a playground filled with children sits just the other side of a fence. This is the kind of tee shot where you stand over your ball, screw up his eyes and hit towards the narrow, dune-flanked fairway up and over a mound. All carry. No easy way out.

The tee shot at the 4th at Lahinch

My tee shot, for once, was perfect. Bounding down this 418-yard par 4, to within a 7-iron of the green. The putting surface sits below the fairway and behind it the ocean awaits, it’s a picture perfect golf scene. The next two holes, Klondyke and Dell, are unique and charming.  Klondyke is a reachable par-5 at 472-yards. You tee off with the waves of Liscannor Bay crashing behind you and must land your ball between the dunes and into a deep, narrow valley. From there, you are faced with a towering dune in the centre of the fairway – the Klondyke.

To reach the green you need to hit it over the aforementioned dune, where a hardy man will stand with a red flag or a green one telling you when the green ahead is clear. When it’s wet or wild he retreats to a small shelter that clings to the far side of the dune. Who can blame him? We visited before the world’s best arrived for The Irish Open. When I ask the man with the flag if he will be there too, he replies with a wink ‘I’ll be playing in it!”

The 5th green at Lahinch.

The 5th is equally whimsical. Dell, a 148-yard par 3 requires only a short iron or wedge for most, but there’s no flag or even a green visible from the tee. You hit at the directional rock atop the steep dune right in front of you, then walk through a gap to see where your ball came to rest on the shallow green, enclosed on three sides. The caddies will often look on from higher ground to watch shots come in and have even been known to cheer as if the player has made a hole in one, placing balls in the hole while golfers walk toward the hidden green. Beware.

The opening 11 holes at Lahinch Golf Club are as good as anything you will find anywhere in the world, with the greens at three, six, seven, eight and eleven all within near sight of the ocean. The par 3, 156-yard 8th is a stunning hole. One of many. The par 5 514-yard 10th is another tremendous hole, shaping around the beach where river turns to sea.

The dunes frame many of the fairways at Lahinch

The 13th, a driveable par-4 at 279 yards, is another wonderful hole, with towering dunes and a dip on the right of the fairway that eats up wayward tee shots and makes par a huge challenge. From the 14th tee on, the course settles down a little and you know you have left the best of it behind. Not every hole can be as good as the opening 11 at Lahinch Golf Club, which are indisputably some of the most beguiling in all of links golf. It is generally thought that the front nine here and the back nine at Ballybunion Old just up the coast, would make a course unbeatable anywhere in the world. It has to be said, Lahinch itself comes close to that boast all on its own.

The clubhouse after the round was abuzz. Great characters and storytellers, recounting their best shots, drinking away their worst but everyone to a man, woman and child, toasting Lahinch. I will count the days until I return. And I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who has the opportunity and means to go.

KEY FACTS

Phone Number:  +353 65 708 1003
Designers: 
Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie and Martin Hawtree.
Cost:  €201 to €160
Where it ranks: On the first page of any list of repute.
Length: 6,613 yards from the white tees. Par 72.


WHERE TO STAY

The Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel
A wedge away from Lahinch’s famous Blue Flag beach and a short walk to the golf club, this hotel is right in the heart of this wonderful village. The rooms are comfortable and mine was modern and recently refurbished. The breakfast is hearty and you are right in the thick of the pubs and restaurants that come alive in the evenings.

A room at the Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

The restaurant in the clubhouse at Lahinch is excellent for food and drink, but if you want to venture into the village you can’t go wrong with The Moy House features, which has a modern menu with Irish influences built on amb, duck, game, lobster and shellfish. Once the food has gone down, walk across to Kenny’s Bar on the main stretch, a block from the golf course. From there proceed up to Kettle Street for a uniquely Lahinch experience at Frawley’s Bar, where proprietor Tom Frawley has been singing and pulling the Guinness for over 80 years.

Hebden Bridge Golf Club review: a Yorkshire gem

Ben Smith visits Yorkshire golf’s diamond in the rough, a memorable course that sits more than 1,000ft up in the stunning Pennines 

Golf is changing. Where once it was played by folk with wooden clubs. Now it’s a game played by super humans, capable of reducing 600-yard par 5s to a thunderous drive and an easy 6-iron

Hebden Bridge Golf Club

Golf courses are changing too. They’re getting longer, both in yardage and the time it takes to play them. More expensive too. It’s still the game we all fell in love with but it’s important to remember that there are courses, if you look hard enough, that can take you back to those more innocent times.

“Hebden is not like any other course you’ll ever play. You will always remember the day you visited and smiled from start to finish.”

It was in that spirit that we wandered to the Yorkshire dales, a stone’s throw from the iconic Pennine Way, to find a course that is a delightful throwback. 

The honesty box at Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge GC is an adventure before you even get there. You climb up and away from the charming West Yorkshire village and wind your way through victorian housing and then fields until you get to the very top. And it’s there, at what feels like the top of the world (1100ft above sea level in fact), that you will find this delightful golf club.

The views carry to York and Leeds in the east and west into Lancashire. When the sun is out and wind behaves as it did for us, it’s hard to imagine there’s a more breathtaking setting for an inland course in England.

Ben sends an 8-iron towards the 8th green

On arrival, it was obvious we would not find a pro-shop selling £400 drivers, no pro shop at all as it turned out. No parking spaces for captains, vice-captains, past captains or captain my captains. No cars except ours. No people in fact. Sunday afternoon in August. Sun shining, warm and we had the course to ourselves. Entirely to ourselves. 

We knew the club operated an honesty box for green fees. So we filled out our tickets, placed our £10 into envelopes provided, took a scorecard and posted our money. The last ticket stub had been from three days previous.

A view back down from the 9th tee towards the 1st green and the valley below. 

This is a 9-hole golf course, with a second set of tees that allow you to play around a second time. It’s not long. The longest hole is 394-yards, in fact, but it is fantastic fun. The first hole plays away from the clubhouse to a green that is raised up above a fairway that slopes from left to right and has as many ups and downs as a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

The vibrant purples of the heather, illuminate the areas around the greens and fairways. Finding a lie where the ball is on the flat is rare and shots need to be carefully placed to avoid being swept away. But what you find, pretty quickly, is that you can’t wipe the smile from your face. 

The 2nd green at Hebden

The second, a short par 4, runs back along the edge of the mountain, go left and you will need to drive for 15 minutes in your car before you can start looking for your ball. The 3rd is a longish par 4 with a green that slopes sharply towards the back, taking shots that are overhit sharply away.

The 4th is a lovely hole. The fairway can’t be seen from the tee but it’s there and wider than you might think. Anything right and you will never see your ball again. I was 50 yards short of the green in one and walked off with a 5.

The only car in the club car park

The 5th is the longest hole on the course at 394 yards and requires a tee shot over the brow of a hill to a well-guarded green that has a slope in front that makes you think it’s closer than it really is. And the 6th doglegs left around a dry-stone wall to a green that nestles into the hillside.

The 7th is a hole like few others. A par-3 that tees off from right in front of the clubhouse to a green some 75ft above you, with the wind whipping across the tops. The green has a false front and any shot to the right will dive down the slope and leave you desperately scrambling to get back up onto the green. The 8th climbs higher still. A second successive par-3, this time 178-yards long. 

With a bank of heather and thick rough to the left of the green and a sharp drop to the right, it’s a small, square target to hit. The ideal shot is into the slight slope on the left edge of the green that will run the ball gently back down to the flag. It’s the highest point on the course and it’s worth taking a minute to drink it all in. Stunning. 

The 9th tee is another kodak moment. Although if you are with a trolley, don’t go down the back of the 8th green or you will find yourself, as I did, having to go down 50ft of stone steps to get there. This par-4 demands a long straight drive over the thick stuff and onto a fairway that slopes right to left. The green, which sits in front of the clubhouse, is guarded by bunkers but the overwhelming feeling is that you have come to the end of a lovely round. 

Hebden Bridge will never feature in a top 100 list. Probably not even in Yorkshire. It is not a critically-acclaimed design the greens aren’t perfect and it is a little rough around the edges. But it is dripping with charm and quirkiness. It is not like every other course you have or ever will play. And the great joy of it, is that you will always remember the day you pitched up (pardon the pun), probably had the course to yourself and smiled from start to finish. I hope those of you who read this take me up on that challenge, to keep places like this going in the age of the 400-yard drive and 5hr round, there is still a place for a course that reminds us what golf is really about.

PS. Incidentally, the next morning one of the Wanderers (who shall remain nameless) realised he could not find his wallet. He was in the process of turning his house and car upside down in search of it, when his phone rang. It was a man whom he had never met. But this man was in possession of his wallet. We had managed to leave it on the floor of the car park at Hebden Bridge Golf Club. A man had arrived the next day to find it lying on the floor. He had managed to find a membership card for our wanderer’s home club and called the number on the card. He asked for his phone number and delivered the good news. Now, I would like to think that would have happened at most golf clubs around the world – golfers are generally a very good lot – but it only added to the charm of the club and the course. Please go before courses like this do.

The Hebden Bridge scorecard
The Hebden Bridge scorecard

KEY FACTS

  • Phone Number: 01422 842896
    Designers: Thornber, Sutcliffe, Jackson, Peckover and Heyhurst
    Cost: £15 high season for 18 holes. £10 for 9 holes. Honesty book
    Where it ranks: Nowhere, but that’s its charm.
    Length: 5,173 yards from the back tees. Par 68.

Best par 3: The 161-yard 8th is a fabulous hole. The green is a tiny target high on a hill. But it is reachable with a short or medium iron that lands softly on the left edge of the green and runs down towards the flag. Anything right is gone.

Best par-4: The 345-yard 1st is a brilliant par 4. A straight drive is a must. Anything right will leave you with a long second. If you can aim up the left side of the fairway with a slight draw, you will leave yourself a short iron or even a wedge into the green, which is a small target and is well defended by heather and long rough on the left and a short drop off on the right. A great way to begin your round but also a hole that demands concentration and respect.

Most memorable hole: For once, I won’t pick one. All nine holes were memorable. The whole course. Great fun. Next time I go back, I will try and play it with four clubs. And a bunch of imagination. Definitely the way to go. 

WHERE TO STAY: There is a Bed and Breakfast right at the front entrance to the club. We didn’t stay in it but perhaps we should have done. Perfect location and a 1 minute walk to the 1st tee.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:  If you are prepared to drive for 10 minutes and it’s a delightful drive, I would recommend the Hinchcliffe Arms on Crag Vale (which was part of Stage 1 of the Tour de France in 2014). Good local ales, excellent hearty meals and a delightful rural setting. 

Ballybunion & Killarney: The Wild Atlantic Way

‘We want you to come and play in the Irish Open Pro-Am,’ said the voice at the other end of the phone. ‘McIlroy is playing this year and if you are open to it, we’ll try and get you in the same group.’

How do you respond? Childhood dreams flash before your eyes along with the thought that maybe, just maybe, this is the moment the world realises that you, and not Rory, are the next big thing.

"Ballybunion is truly extraordinary - a place where nature, with all its mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a golf course as exists anywhere in the world."

And that was it. How could any golfer refuse. Killarney, a stunning course. With a day to warm up at Ballybunion Old, one of the world’s best. And all I have to do is write about it?

The flight into Shannon was straightforward. As was the journey to Killarney, my base for the coming week. I tossed in turned in my hotel bedroom - no wonder. The next morning Ballybunion, a mythical name in golf, awaited. Those images I had seen a thousand times ran through my mind, one after the other. Verdant greens. The blue sea. The black Guinness. Sleep could wait.

Tomorrow would be a day for dreams of the waking kind.

The verdant green of Ballybunion Old

1. Ballybunion Old

The 1hr drive from Killarney up to Ballybunion, via Tralee, was a brilliant introduction to this part of Ireland - the wild Atlantic Way - mesmerising landscape, sea-salted shorelines, a rugged and unspoilt beauty, a feeling of endless possibilities. As you wind your way along the narrow roads from the town of Ballybunion towards the golf course, you are struck by the remoteness of the place but also the jaw-dropping beauty of the land. Towering sand dunes dominate the links. Verdant green patches light up the avenues, tumbling down the hills, disappearing behind dunes and all framed by the deep blue of the Atlantic ocean in the distance. Stunning.

Nothing I found during my time on this spectacular golf course changed that first impression. Ballybunion Old Course is a truly extraordinary golf course. A place where nature, with all his mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a course as exists anywhere in the world. And in my view, it should always be in the conversation when the discussion turns to the world’s greatest golf course. It deserves to sit at the top table.

While a professional, James McKenna, laid out the original Ballybunion course and Tom Simpson supervised the extension of it, there is a sense that with this golf course nature herself did the hard work. And could not be surpassed. That’s the essence of this place. Golf beside the ocean, among the dunes and battling the elements. Pure golf.

Our arrival at the Old Course was warmly received. The clubhouse is not showy or flash but it doesn’t need to be. The summer sunshine surrounded by a sky as blue as in your dreams. The first tee awaited. The starter with his warmth and wit, did not disappoint. There were jokes and warmth. A laugh or two to lift the nerves.

And we were off with a solid drive down the right of the 1st fairway. It is often said that Ballybuinon doesn’t really get going until the 7th tee. And while I would not go that far, the opening six holes are certainly a preparation for the delights of what is to come. Yes, the 2nd fairway rises steeply up and away from you. Nothing is straightforward or mundane. But the 7th tee is where Ballybunion moves up a gear or two and leaves the rest of the field in its dust.

The 7th green at Ballybunion (credit: Gary Lisbon)

This par 4 is one of the most beautiful golf holes on earth. The Atlantic runs its length to your right, close enough to fly a wedge into the seething surf.

The fairway narrows between the dunes and the landing areas are tight. But the reward for a solid tee shot is a chance to find the green, with dunes to three sides, and the sea behind.

The 11th is every bit as good - it is another visually breathtaking hole which carves its way through the dunes, playing downhill to several tiered pieces of fairway lined with thick rough and heather all the way to the green. A piercing drive ran through the fairway but i found a good lie, then the green and two putts. Thank you very much. One I won't forget.

There are so many moments on this round that remain vidid long after your scorecard has turned to dust in the bottom of your golf bag. 14 and 15 are top par 3s, with 15 the pick - a par 3, 210yds, downhill, with your tee shot flying towards the deep blue endlessness of the Atlantic. You could be forgiven for taking your eye off the ball. But try not to. The 17th is excellent, a dog leg left. And then comes the moment you are not prepared for. The last.

The scorecard for Ballybunion Old

The 18th, whichever day you play this course, will be a disappointment because you simply don’t want this round to end.

There is a way to lift your spirits though. Once you climb the hill back towards the clubhouse, do yourself a favour - walk up the stairs in the clubhouse and out to the terrace that looks down onto the 18th green. Then order an ice-cold pint of the black stuff and sit down so you can let it all sink in as you watch the sun drop down into the Atlantic Ocean. Remember every moment, soak it up. It will be one of the best day's of your life.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
 +353 68 27146
Designers: 
James McKenna and Tom Simpson
Cost:  £185 in high season.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Golf Digest's Top 100 courses in the world.
Length: 6,802 yards from the back tees. Par 72.


2. Killarney (Killeen)

The Killeen course, Killarney

And so to Killarney and the Killeen course. After a day of golfing witchcraft at Ballybunion, even the prospect of sharing a majestic lakeland course with some of the best players in the world felt a little after the Lord Mayor’s Show. But bear with me, it was an awful lot of fun. There are, after all, not many days when you walk onto a practice putting green to find Darren Clark and Graeme McDowell putting next to you. You feel every fibre in your body retract with the tension. That goes to a whole new level when you step onto the range.

We have all watched that scene in Tin Cup when Kevin Costner gets a sudden dose of the s-word on the range at the US Open. Every amateur's nightmare.

Thankfully it wasn’t something I had to live out but hitting balls while sandwiched between Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els is both an extraordinary privilege and thrill but also the scariest thing you can possibly do as a golfer.

The opening hole at Killarney

Having survived the range, the next challenge was the first tee. Or the 10th in my case. The promise of being paired with Mr Mcilroy had gone, sadly. In his place the less well know Richard Bland, currently world 425. The four-ball was made up of two well-known Irish hoteliers. McIlroy was, however, in the group one hole behind me. Which had the affect of ensuring that the crowds who wanted to catch a glimpse of the biggest star in Irish golf, ran ahead to get their spot and ended up watching yours truly and his four-ball. Lucky them. Not very lucky me. The galleries were ten deep around most greens.

As if the pressure wasn’t enough.

In my naivety, I had planned to put my bag on a trolley and go around like that. Everyone else had a caddie. And within one hole, so did I. A youngster, no more than 14, came up to the ropes and asked if he could caddy for me. How could I refuse. For him, it was the chance to taste the limelight for me, perhaps a better chance to concentrate on my golf, rather than pulling along my trolley. What could possibly go wrong? And on we went.

A view across Killarney Lake

I played solidly, to my surprise. And even got a warm round of applause from the throngs of McIlroy fans around the 12th green (my 3rd hole) for a chip that almost dropped in. The trust golf galleries have in the pros ability to consistently find the middle of the club face is extraordinary and based on years of evidence. When the amateurs get involved, the risk goes to a much higher level. The irony was that the only injury on the day was caused by McIlroy himself in the group behind - one of his 350yd drives landing square on the head on one of the crowd behind me. Ouch. As we approached the final stretch of holes the atmosphere built, the galleries grew.

The scorecard for the Killeen course

The 18th at Killarney is a magnificent hole - a 440yd par 4. A tough drive with water left, three bunkers at driving distance to the right - a gentle dog-leg left. My drive flirted with the stream on the left but landed safely, leaving me 165yds to the centre of the green, over a pond. A big pond. To a green that was surrounded by not one but three grandstands, all packed in anticipation of Rory McIlroy. Of course. My 7-iron looked dead on line all the way. It was struck well. The flight was perfect. The distance, however, was not. And much ball plunged into the bank of the pond and bounced into the water with a resounding plop much to the amusement of the crowd.

That was the signal for a change of fortunes. As we headed for our 10th tee, (the 1st on the card), the crowds had long gone, following the big names who were all on the homeward nine now. My young caddy sensed this pretty quickly. And as I pushed my tee into the ground at the 1st tee, shouted something about his mum needing him back for his tea and ran off in the opposite direction with all the conviction of an Olympic sprinter.  Who can blame him? I would have done the same thing. Off he went. Haha.

The remainder of the round was delightful, actually. Without the crowds and the razmataz, it was easier to see the mesmeric beauty of this resort, sitting as it does on the banks of Lake Killarney, surrounded by mountains. The Killeen course was set up for the pros on that day. It is long and challenging but it is beautifully laid out. And perfectly presented. A true test of every shot you have. And I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

And so, that was it. I shot a round of 81. Which, on the day, wasn’t the worst. It was, in fact, better that one professional on the day, who will remain nameless.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
+353 64 663 1034
Designers:
E Hackett, W O'Sullivan and Tom McKenzie
Cost:  £111 in high season to £50.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Ireland's Top 100 courses.
Length:  6,590 yards from the back tees, par 72

Ireland's wild Atlantic coast

The contrast between the serenity of Ballybunion and the buzz of Killarney and the Irish Open was stark. And yet it was also a perfect illustration of the quality and variety of golf available on the Wild Atlantic Way. I didn’t play Tralee, or the mythical links at Old Head to name but two. You could spend a month in this part of the world and not see it all and experience all it has to offer both on and off the golf course. This is Ireland at its very best. And I can’t wait until my next trip. It can’t come soon enough.


THE REST

WHERE TO STAY:  The Great Southern Hotel, Killarney. A delightful property right in the heart of Killarney that has played host to many famous folk over  the years. Queen Victoria’s entourage stayed in the hotel when she visited Killarney in August 1861. While in the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy stayed here with her children - the presidential suite is named after her. Click here for more info.


WHERE TO EAT:  Rozzers, Killarney. This really is a must-visit dining experience on any visit to Killarney. Geraldine and Michael and all their wonderful staff not only love what they do and care deeply about their restaurant but they went the extra mile to give us a memorable night. The sheer quality of the food on offer sets it apart and the setting at the excellent Killeen House Hotel is delightful. Click here to make a reservation, to see the menu or for more information.

Sunningdale Old Course review: England’s best course?

Bobby Jones hit the nail on the head in 1926. “I wish I could take it home with me,” he said of Sunningdale Old. It may be the only thing he and I have in common but I share that sentiment as I step off the 18th green after a round I’d be happy to repeat every day for the rest of my life.

When you receive the invitation to visit Sunningdale for a round on the Old Course, the feeling is comparable to the excitement you feel as a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve. You know you are in for something very special, you hope the day lives up to the hype and you don’t sleep the night before.

The great American golfer, Bobby Jones

The Sunningdale estate is tucked away behind gates just off a quiet lane near the village centre. Once the gates close behind you, you could be forgiven for forgetting a world exists outside of this idyllic spot. It simply melts away, disappears delightfully into soft focus.

The clubhouse is majestic and traditional in equal measure. The main bar overlooks the practice putting green near the first tee and, of course, onto the famous Oak tree that has become the symbol of the club.

There is a driving range away to the left of the 18th green that is functional rather than fancy and the short game area is extensive and varied enough to ensure even the most dedicated of golfers is ready for the round of their lives.

The beautiful par-4 7th hole at Sunningdale Old

The course itself is a true inland masterpiece. As good as anything you will find anywhere in the world. Willie Park Jr, who designed it in 1900, carved through the Berkshire heathland and forest so carefully, delicately as to create a layout that feels natural. It rises and falls over varied and challenging landscapes and it presents so many wonderful and memorable holes. The condition of the course is, as you would expect, immaculate from tee to green.

Sunningdale Old Course 12th hole

The only reason the best players in the world no longer grace these hallowed fairways is because Sunningdale Old is not a long course. It is not a beast. It doesn’t need to be. It prioritises placement above distance, accuracy above power.

The opening hole is a good example. A 492yd par 5, that invites you to begin your round with a birdie. The second is a gentle reminder that things get harder quickly. A 470yd par 4 with a wicked green that slopes sharply front to back.  The 4th is a delightful uphill par 3 that always and then the 7th, with its blind tee shot, is perhaps the best hole on the course – certainly the most picturesque.

The view from the tee at the 10th

And the long 10th, with its incredible view from the tee, is another instant classic in a round full of them. The bunkering is clever and subtle throughout and the fairways, although not narrow, are framed delightfully by towering trees, vibrant heather and, at times, difficult rough. If you miss these fairways you will drop shots.

“It is majestic. It is beautiful. It is challenging and varied. It is a real joy to play.”

The halfway house is worth stopping at. The sausage sandwiches are wonderful and wholesome. The setting in the middle of a delightful woodland is idyllic and tranquil. A perfect spot to consider the final stretch.

The 12th is another outstanding par 4, stretching 416yds. I could go on, but I won’t. I am sure you get the picture. Sometimes golf courses and luxury resorts receive acclaim that, when you finally get there, does not live up to the reality. Sunningdale Old Course is the opposite of that. To many it is England’s best inland course. It is consistently ranked in the top 5 courses in the UK. And yet when you come to play it, as I have been fortunate enough to do on a number of occasions now, it still manages to surpass your expectations.

It is majestic. It is beautiful. It is challenging and varied. It is a joy to walk and to play. And I think I know what I want for Christmas next year …

Here’s all you need to know.

The scorecard for Sunningdale Old

  • Best hole: The 7th – 393yd Par 4.
    A blind tee shot over a hill, opens up to a truly beautiful fairway and green, in among the forest. When the heather blooms there may be no more picturesque par-4 in all of England. Really wonderful to play and not long.


  • Hardest hole: The 2nd – 470yd Par 4.
    After a gentle start, the Old course reminds you that it is no pushover with this challenging par 4. A drive up to the road that crosses the fairway, leaves you around 170 yards to a green that is down in a dip and slopes front to back. Par is an excellent score.

  • Best Par 3: The 4th – 157yd Par 3.
    An excellent and varied opening stretch is completed with this charming par 3. An uphill tee shot means it is hard to grasp the size of the green. With pin position varying by as much as 30 yards. Heather lines both sides of the fairway and will ensure any wayward shot disappears.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
 01344 621681
Designers: 
Willie Park Jr.
Cost:  £95-£230
Where it ranks: At the very top. 12th in Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses in the world.
Length: 6,329 yards from the back tees. Par 70.

Fulford Golf Club review: Langer lives on

It was an iconic image that travelled around the world.

Bernhard Langer, with a shock of blonde hair, playing from a tree 10ft off the ground. It was a moment in time. A moment of golfing history that put Fulford firmly on the map and ensured it always be associated with one image.

Langer plays his shot to the 17th green

I grew up dreaming of playing there. Perhaps it was the image of Langer, or the 23 successive years during the 1970s and 80 that it hosted the Benson & Hedges Championship, a prestigious European Tour event.

Winners included Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle, Sam Torrance and Mark James – many of whom are immortalised on the scorecard with the holes named after the famous faces that produced great moments at each of them.

Fulford Golf Club

The images of Langer in his tree endure at Fulford. The 17th is named after the German, of course., while there is a plaque attached to the tree, just to the left of the green from which he played onto the green. Langer would drop a shot on his way to a round of 67. And finished second behind the American Tom Weiskopf by, you guessed it, one shot. Langer never did win at Fulford. The event moved to St Mellion in Cornwall in 1990. The German won a year later. All that happened in 1981 and some 37 years later, it was my turn.

A plaque marks the spot where Langer played from a tree

Fulford is only a mile or two from the centre of York, hidden away in the leafy suburb. The clubhouse is imposing and impressive and the pro-shop, housed in a separate building close to the 1st tee, provided the warmest of welcomes.

The land on which Fulford sits is mature and varied. Each hole is set in its own amphitheatre, each carved through woodland and heathland that grows in this beautiful part of North Yorkshire. The first five holes take you out away from the clubhouse – the par-three 3rd is an excellent par 3 –  before a footbridge crosses the A64 to a stretch of eight holes that are the highlight of this excellent layout.

The 10th at Fulford

There is certainly a hint Sunningdale Old Course when the heather is in full bloom. On each hole, the bunkering threatens your tee shot, rarely is there an easy landing spot and the straight hitters will be rewarded over the big hitters.

A string of tremendous par 4s culminates in the challenging 13th and at each the fairway appears to narrow at landing distance to make your task of finding the fairway, even harder.

The greens were fast and yet receptive to spin on the day we played. The slopes are subtle and you always feel that good putts are rewarded once you find the pace. As with all good golf in Yorkshire, the wind can, and likely will, have a major impact on your round. The final stretch of five holes back to the clubhouse played into the breeze for us. Making what was a relatively straightforward run into something much more challenging. And, despite our best efforts, we could not get the ball to stay in the tree on 17. That is a joke, by the way. Or an attempt at one.

One of the many brilliantly placed bunkers at Fulford

The clubhouse sits close to the back of the 18th green. Only a stumble from final putt to pint.

Fulford is not a club attempting to escape its past and that image of Langer. Why should it? What I found out on my visit to York was a golf course that is so much more than that photograph. I would recommend it to anyone and my feeling is that it is as good as inland course as any you will find anywhere in Yorkshire. It will test you, it will delight you and you would be mad not to add it to your bucket list. That said (and I speak from experience) I do not recommend trying to climb the tree!

Here is all you need to know.

The scorecard at Fulford

Key Facts: 

Telephone: 01904 412882
Designer: James Braid and Major Charles Mackenzie.
Cost: £35-£80
Where it ranks: 77th in Today’s Golfer top 100 courses in England, ahead of Stoke Park and Close House
Length:
6,743yds, Par 72.

Woburn Marquess course review: UK’s Augusta?

It’s early on another stunning summer morning.

I’ve just finished a hotel breakfast overlooking the pitch at MK Dons, surrounded by mechanics from Ferrari, in town for the British Grand Prix along the road at Silverstone. It’s fair to say the day has begun in the sportiest of ways. Surely a good omen for a trip to one of the UK’s top golf venues?

“There are so many memorable holes on the Marquess”

Woburn is a name that instantly resonates with all golfers of a certain age. In my formative years it was the annual venue for the British Masters, which at the age of 7 I thought was the fourth major. British Open, US Open. US Masters, British … it kind of made sense. Anyway, these days Woburn may not regularly feature on the European Tour but it does boast three beautiful golf courses and two world famous ambassadors in Ian Poulter and Charley Hull, who add a dash of star dust.

The 12th green of the Marquess

As soon as you enter the forest that engulfs this estate, you get the sense you are in for something special. The clubhouse is modern and bright. The welcome is warm and my bag is taken away as I pull up . All I have to do was walk in and enjoy a hearty bacon sandwich.

The layout at Woburn is excellent. The practice putting green and extensive chipping area is a bump and run from the pro shop and breakfast area. The range is vast and gives you the option of hitting from mats or turf. There is an even bigger practice area across the small road that runs between the clubhouse and 1st tee should you so wish. But the bottom line is that there are no excuses for a golfer to reach the 1st unprepared.

The Dukes and Duchess courses may have the history but the newest of the three, the Marquess is now widely regarded as the sternest test at Woburn, having hosted the British Masters in 2015, not long after opening. Since then it has become a regular Open Final Qualifying venue.

And so to the course. And what a course. What a thing of beauty. The 1st hole is as gentle as the Marquess gets.  A drive and a wedge to a flattish green. Things soon pick up, however. This is a course that rewards the golfer who plots and thinks his way around rather than one who simply hits and hopes, not least because of the vast and undulating greens which ran as true and fast as any I have ever played in the UK. Granted, Open Qualifying was to be held the next day, but at the time I visited they were running 12 on the stimp metre. My late Grampa would have said it was like putting on glass.

There are so many memorable holes on the Marquess. The 2nd is short a dogleg par-5 that vaguely reminds you of the 13th at Augusta. The long 7th with its split fairway is a brilliant risk/reward hole. The short par-4 12th with its island fairway. The long par-3 with a wicked three-tier green. The fantastic par 5, 15th and the 18th with a fairway bunker that demands a long straight drive. I could go on.

I genuinely loved this course and would highly recommend it . It does have an unmistakeable whiff of Augusta about it. More than enough to make it feel special and to draw me back time and again. You will love this golf course. Book it!

The scorecard for the Marquess

Here’s all you need to know.

  • Best hole: The 9th – 441yd Par 4. This is another beautiful hole to look at it. A long straight drive will leave you around 160yds to the flag but take more club than you think you will need, to find a green that sits atop a ravine and that is guarded by two bunkers that gobble up anything short and right. Long and left will leave a tricky chip back down the hill. Par is a very good score.

  • Hardest hole: The 14th – 230yd Par 3. Further than it looks and harder than its par. The 14th is a brute of a par-3 and requires a long iron or wood to get you anywhere near. Clever bunkering captures plenty of balls and if you manage to evade those, you will have a very tricky putt from a three-tier green. Good luck.

  • Longest hole: The 15th – 558yd Par 5. A really brilliant par-5 that rewards the golfer who plots his way down the hole. From the elevated tee, you can see the many bunkers that challenge your drive. The second shot must be guided carefully down the fairway to avoid more bunkers and should leave you with a wedge or a short iron in to a shallow green that slopes wickedly.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
  (01908) 370756
Designers: 
Peter Alliss, Clive Clark and Alex Hay.
Cost:  £105-£169
Where it ranks: Ranked 37th in England by Top 100 courses.
Length: 7,214 yards from the back tees. Par 72.