Newcastle, Northern Ireland
I knew I’d been accepted by the locals when Gemma McQuoid, Downpatrick Golf Club’s lady captain, offered to drive me the 15 miles from her club to my Newcastle hotel. When I told her the offer was incredibly kind, even beyond the call of duty, she brushed aside my objections as if it were normal to taxi around complete strangers in the middle of the night. That’s when Dick Norton put his hand on my arm and said: “This is Ireland.”
Norton, a transplanted Englishman, used that expression a lot during the four days I was in his company. It was his way of explaining the innate kindness and hospitality of Irish people in general.
“They’re the most friendly people I’ve ever come across,” Norton said. “You wouldn’t think it from the stuff you used to read about them in the papers, but that’s far from the truth. They’ll do anything for you.”
Including giving up 30 minutes of their time in the wee hours to provide me with a personal shuttle service.
There was nothing romantic about Gemma McQuoid’s offer, I hasten to add. After all, I’d just played 18 holes with her husband, Mark.
She just wanted me to have a good time and not have to worry about flouting Northern Ireland’s drunk-driving laws. Nor did the hospitality stop there. Mark went out of his way to pick me up in Newcastle and drive me to Ardglass for the final round of the P&O Heart of Down Tournament, then ferry me back to Downpatrick for the party to close the tournament.
“Don’t think this is unusual,” he said. “Most people would do the same for you. Downpatrick will be heaving tonight. You’ll want to have a few jars and enjoy the ‘craic.’ You can’t be worrying about drinking and driving. Don’t worry, we’ll look after you.”
And they did.
Only those who have spent time in Ireland can understand the innate hospitality of its citizens. I entered the Heart of Down as a single player. If I had any doubts about bonding with the locals, they quickly were dispelled on Downpatrick’s first tee in the opening round of the tournament.
“Have you played here before, Alistair?”
asked Michael McAllister, the third member of the four-ball. “No? Oh don’t worry, then, we’ll put you right.”
Michael and my other two companions more than lived up to that promise, although Mark’s admonition to avoid the trees on the right as
I stood over the ball on the 17th tee probably wouldn’t rank too highly on Bob Rotella’s top 10 tips to enhance positive thinking. Thankfully,
I piped one down the middle.
Thousands of golfers visit the Emerald Isle every year to sample its many charms. Most do so in groups, playing and socializing together, strengthening bonds that last a lifetime.
For example, the eight Americans I met outside the Slieve Donard Hotel obviously were enjoying their time in Ireland. That there was much bonding going on was obvious from the banter between them the night before in the bar, friendly ribbing that continued the next morning as they waited for their travel bus to take them the short drive to Royal County Down. No doubt this group of American visitors strengthened ties that will endure for years to come on a trip that took them to Portmarnock, Royal Portrush, County Louth and other must-play Irish courses.
I think, though, the Americans would have gotten even more enjoyment from their trip if they had mixed more with the locals by playing in the Heart of Down or one of the many amateur tournaments around Ireland that are open to visitors.
The Heart of Down is well established on the Irish golf calendar. It’s played over Downpatrick, Spa and Ardglass, with a chance to play the jewel in the Northern Ireland crown: Royal County Down.
About 300 of the nearly 500 competitors in this year’s tournament were visitors from 15 nations, including the United States, South Africa, Greece, Japan and Canada. The majority of visitors came across the Irish Sea from mainland Britain. Many have been coming for years, long recognizing perhaps the best value in golf. For £99 (slightly less than $200) they get to play five rounds of golf: a practice round on one of the three tournament courses, the three tournament rounds and the chance to play one of Ireland’s best links. The first 100 applicants and top 48 in the tournament got to play Royal County Down. The rest finished on the adjacent Annesley Links.
I managed to sneak onto Royal County Down with 92 Stableford points over the three rounds – pretty average stuff, I admit, but it secured me an 8:40 a.m. tee time on next year’s Walker Cup course alongside Canadian Pat Howe and a father-and-son duo from Limerick.
“My view on this is that it’s one of the best deals in golf,” said Howe, a 20-handicapper from the Toronto Hunt Club who was making his first trip to Ulster. “Two hundred bucks to play five golf courses, including one of the best golf courses in the world – are you kidding me?”
Howe has a point. A green fee at Royal County Down during the first week in September, when I was there, cost £125 (approximately $236) for a morning round, and £110 ($207) in the afternoon.
The tournament is so attractively priced because the Heart of Down Council subsidizes the event in an attempt to promote this part of the country.
The Royal County Down carrot aside, all three courses in the tournament are a joy to play and different in nature. Downpatrick is a tight, tree-lined course calling for accuracy off the tee. Spa also is a parkland layout, although it plays longer than Downpatrick. Ardglass, on the other hand, is a little links gem worthy of inclusion on any trip to this part of Ireland.
Indeed, the 167-yard, par-3 second hole at Ardglass wouldn’t look out of place on any of the world’s championship links. It has one of the most daunting tee shots in Irish golf. You must carry a fissure in jagged, rocky cliffs to
a green that seems perched amid the cliffs.
Miss the green left and your ball will tumble
to the Irish Sea below.
Ulster’s rocky coastline is very much in evidence at Ardglass. The first tee sits on the water’s edge, and fishing boats pass by on their way out to sea or return with their catches to the small, enclosed harbor. Framing the course are the ruins of Ardglass Castle, which dates to the 14th century and forms part of the current clubhouse, allowing Ardglass to claim it has
the oldest clubhouse in the world.
Indeed, a few players who competed in the Heart of Down were intent on playing in the Donegal Classic the next week. Throw in the
fact that many clubs hold open weeks plus open competitions on certain Saturdays throughout the year, and you happily could spend a considerable time jaunting around the island playing golf and making friends. And it’s all good business not only for local golf clubs, but hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and the like.
Mark McQuoid more than lived up to his promise to act as my driver, especially considering the scorecard mix-up we’d had the day before. I inadvertently had marked down a bogey 4 on his card at Spa, the score I had made, at the short second instead of a 3. Since McQuoid signed for the higher score,
it had to stand. Yes, it was his duty to check the scores, but I felt awful at costing him a Stableford point. Not that he held a grudge against me. Just the opposite.
The genial Ulsterman went out of his way to make me feel better about my faux pas. “It can happen to anyone, but it’s my fault,” he said.
Then we turned up at Ardglass and he handed me his scorecard to mark. “I have complete faith in you,” he said with a smile, then added the line that sums up the Irish entirely. “Besides, you surely can’t screw up twice!”
That he could find humor in the incident came as no surprise. The Irish have an amazing capacity for craic – amusing banter and good cheer. It’s something from which we can all learn, and there’s no better way than by taking advantage of the Heart of Down or similar amateur events around Ireland. You’ll very
likely make a few lifelong friends.
For the record, I took a taxi back to my hotel from Downpatrick. After all, I couldn’t make a lady go out of her way, especially the lady captain of Downpatrick Golf Club. Mark cut me some slack on the scorecard snafu, but he never would have let me live that one down.