A journey to the heavenly Hidden Heartlands of Ireland 

Golf courses in Ireland
Ireland’s hidden heartlands are still largely an undiscovered gem

It’s remarkable how you can grow up on what is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty small island and yet reach the age of 40 having seen so little of it.

In Ireland, we tend to stick to the coastline. That’s where you’ll find all the big cities – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast. It’s where you’ll find some of the most stunning tourist attractions – the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry or the Giants Causeway. And if golf is your bag, it’s where you’ll find some of the most celebrated golf courses in Ireland, world-class links masterpieces such as Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Lahinch… I could go on.

But a few weeks ago, I ventured to Ireland’s Midlands, its hidden heartlands, for the very first time. It remains a largely undiscovered gem where you’re guaranteed to receive the warmest of welcomes and leave with a deep appreciation not only for some of the lesser known golf courses in Ireland, but for the area in general and with the burning desire to return.

Glasson Lakehouse
Our base for this three-day trip was Glasson Lakehouse, nestled on the banks of the breathtaking Lough Ree on the River Shannon, an hour and half’s drive from Dublin Airport. This boutique hotel offers impeccably decorated rooms with a real eye for detail and lots of classy little touches, a range of options to grab a drink or a bite to eat, from an outdoor sunken bar by the heated pool, to a traditional Irish pub with its customary wood-panelled booths and hidden nooks and crannies, and a restaurant with a delicious menu and huge windows offering panoramic views of the Lough.

Golf courses in Ireland
Jamie fires another tee shot down the middle at Glasson Golf Club.

It also boasts an immensely fun 18-hole golf course designed by the late, great Christy O’Connor Jnr (he of Ryder Cup fame, with that 2-iron into the 18th at The Belfry in 1989 to seal a famous victory against world no 1 Freddie Couples). While some 6,700 yards from the Championship tees, it’s immensely playable for golfers of any standard, offering variety, constant changes in elevation and if, like me, your game fluctuates between the distinctly mediocre and utterly hopeless, stunning vistas at every turn to take your mind off that most recent three-putt double bogey.

The course begins with a parkland feel, before the tree-lined fairways clear as you play towards a par-3 with an infinity green backed by the Lough. Back up the hill you go, before a beautiful par-4 sweeps back down towards the water’s edge. While the front nine offers views of the Lough, the back nine overlooks Killinure Bay. The 13th green and 14th tee are horseshoed by trees, before you emerge from the forest over the brow of the hill to be confronted by the tranquillity of the lake, the final four holes still to come and the hotel itself – all laid out before you like a watercolour painting.

Christy himself called it “one of the most scenic pieces of land I’ve ever seen in my life. There is nothing that comes close”, and it’s hard to disagree. The 17th has a touch of the Sawgrasses about it, as you stand on the tee box, surrounded by Lough Ree with a daunting green, seemingly perched upon rugged timber sleepers, beckoning you from 160 yards away. The 18th takes you back up towards the hotel, where a well-earned pint awaits.

Golf courses in Ireland
Glasson was designed by Ryder Cup legend Christy O’Connor Jr

And if it’s pints you’re after, you’re not too far from the small town of Athlone – considered the exact geographical centre of the island – and Sean’s Bar, officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest pub in Ireland, dating back to around 900 AD. We visited on a random Tuesday evening and found the place packed to the rafters with a charismatic duo playing live music. The warm, cosy atmosphere and smiling faces everywhere are the kind of thing that make me misty-eyed at having left home over two decades ago.

Our next stop-off for golf, takes us to Portumna Golf Club, where the River Shannon meets Lough Derg. Consistently ranked as one of the best parkland golf courses in Ireland, it has been allowed to naturally evolve over time with members suggesting tweaks here and there, rather than being designed by any famed golf architect. The result is a beautifully-presented, yet challenging, 18 holes which flow naturally through Portumna Forest Park.

Golf courses in Ireland
Portumna Golf Club flows elegantly through Portumna Forest Park

The course eases you in gently, with a reachable-in-two par-5 followed by a picturesque par-3 towards an elevated green. Before too long you’re in amongst the forest, feeling almost cocooned by the huge looming oaks. Curious little stone forts stand guard on several tee boxes, adding to Portumna’s quirkiness.

The back nine features two par-5s which seem almost airlifted from Wentworth and plonked down in the Galway countryside; the first doglegs at a right-angle requiring a huge cut around the corner for the right-hander, or a booming drive over the trees for the braver, longer hitters. As you round the corner you’re confronted with a halfpipe-shaped fairway flanked by trees and an inviting green guarded by bunkers and framed by the backdrop of the forest. The second of them, the 17th, is Portumna’s signature hole, this time requiring a draw to the top of the hill. A good drive will leave you in position-A over the brow of the hill, where a fairway which snakes around a lake awaits.

The lake also guards the green on one side, with a natural amphitheatre surrounding it on the other three. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment with a long iron or fairway wood in hand if you attempt to reach it in two. The 18th is a glorious little par-3, played from a raised teebox back towards the clubhouse.

Inside the bar, you can be sure of a warm welcome and a total lack of stuffiness or pretension – the case for all these hidden gem golf courses in Ireland. On the day we visited a society of at least 30 from the Welsh Valleys had also descended on County Galway, and as we enjoyed our hearty supper (washed down with a few pints of the black stuff, of course) we were treated to impromptu but stirring renditions of Bread of Heaven and Land of my Fathers, which left your hairs standing on end. When it comes to belting out hymns and arias over a jar or two, even us Irish might have to concede that our Celtic cousins from Wales have a slight edge.

Golf courses in Ireland
Shane Lowry grew up playing Esker Hills

And so, Esker Hills on our final day had a tough act to follow. But it unquestionably managed it, thanks to the course itself but also to the company; I was joined by captain Ger Egan who I could tell I was going to like from the moment we met. For the next, hugely-entertaining, four hours I was regaled with anecdotes and perfectly delivered punchlines which left me in hysterics. But the course itself is worth the trip alone.

Its website describes the backstory to its other-worldly terrain: ‘More than 10,000 years ago the unique landscape of Offaly was powerfully sculpted by the awesome natural forces of the dying Ice Age. As the great glaciers retreated, they left in their wake narrow ridges of sand and gravel which were deposited by the streams of water that had once flowed in tunnels beneath the melting ice. These ridges now comprise the magical Esker Riada, from which the course gets its name’.

The course is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy having been designed – again by the aforementioned Christy O’Connor Jnr – in the mid-1990s. Yet you would think it’s been there since the dawn of time, carved out of the sweeping valleys and natural plateaux. Every hole is visually breathtaking; the 1st is a dogleg par-5, unspectacular from the teebox, but striking once you turn the corner as you play up the ridge towards the green. The 2nd requires some strategy; an iron to the brow of the hill, leaving you with a short club into an upturned saucer of a green which sits, invitingly, some 30 yards below you. I could carry on and describe Esker Hills hole-by-hole, but I’m not sure I’d do it justice. Constant changes in elevation, ingenious use of raised tee boxes and greens, fairways which hug natural lakes and woodlands – you leave each green thinking the next hole can’t possibly be as beautiful or well-designed, only to be surprised yet again.

Portumna Golf Club
The charismatic Portumna captain Ger Egan with Jamie

It doesn’t demand that you stand on every teebox and just pound driver, but instead that you plot your way around, shaping shots both ways and working your way through virtually every club in the bag. Several tee shots are blind; a well-struck shot down the correct side will be rewarded with a friendly kick towards the centre of funnelled fairways but get it wrong or get greedy and you’ll be punished. Around the greens, subtle run-offs and cleverly-placed bunkers test your short game, which is why it’s no surprise that one of the world’s very best in that department honed his God-given talents here. This is where Shane Lowry first fell in love with golf. It’s where I further fell in love with this enchanted part of the island I grew up on.

Ireland’s Midlands offer value for money and a warm welcome

Ireland’s Midlands are a special place. For golfers, it has two USPs; value for money and the welcome you’ll receive. Anyone heading to these shores will, perhaps, understandably make a beeline for those world-famous links, where you’ll enjoy the experience but at a cost. Venture inland however and you’ll discover courses which are visually-arresting in their own unique way, which cost next to nothing considering the enjoyment they’ll bring and an incredibly warm welcome from people passionately proud of their little part of the country which continues to fly under the radar.

Our final treat is a long lunch at The Old Warehouse, part-owned by Lowry, in the village of Tullamore. Formerly the Tullamore Dew Whiskey distillery, no expense has been spared to convert it into a two-floor venue; the ground floor a sleek and stylish industrial bar, the top floor a chic and luxuriously-furnished restaurant. The food is, as you’d expect, top-notch and as we fill our tummies and reflect on the perfect end to a perfect three days, Ger leans across, pint in hand, puts an arm around my shoulder and says, “promise me ye’ll be back”. I assure him I will be, and I mean it.

*For more information on Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands visit Ireland.com

Jamie has become a well-known face and voice to golf fans across the world in his role as reporter, presenter and golf correspondent with Sky Sports. The proud Northern Irishman, who has travelled the world interviewing the biggest names in the game at the majors and Ryder Cup, is a dedicated family man and loves new adventures.

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