Killeen Castle a worthy host for Solheim Cup

The par-5 sixth hole on the Faldo Championship Course at Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

DUNSANY, COUNTY MEATH, Ireland – In the lead-up to the 2011 Solheim Cup, there undoubtedly will be some chirping about how wonderful it would be if one of the great Irish links – Royal County Down, say, or Portmarnock – were to host the event. Instead, the U.S. and European teams will meet at Killeen Castle, a fine, if unabashedly American-style, property.

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

– William Butler Yeats

Killeen Castle, however, might just be the ideal Irish showcase, and for reasons that Yeats, who was born not far from here, probably would appreciate. For just as Yeats neatly captured the Irish experience in those 17 words – the ironic wit, the sense of foreboding – so too does Killeen Castle concisely embody the story of its country.

The castle around which Jack Nicklaus built the Solheim Cup course dates to the Norman Era, and in the 19th century it was refashioned in the image of a miniature Windsor Castle. In 1981, the castle was torched and left in disrepair by a band of drunken IRA dunces who apparently mistook it for their intended target, nearby Dunsany Castle. With the Celtic Tiger in full roar several years ago, plans were hatched to turn the 600-acre estate into a golf resort by converting the castle into a five-star hotel and adding vacation homes and a Dave Pelz Scoring Game School. But Ireland has been consumed by a banking crisis, which understandably has caused ownership to slow-play the lodging plans.

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The par-5 second hole at Killeen Castle.

The Pelz school and golf course, however, have been open since mid-2008 and were in fine form in August for the AIB Ladies Irish Open. The field included five Americans who were doing reconnaissance, with the expectation that they’ll return Sept. 23-25 as members of the U.S. Solheim team.

What they found is a big layout that sprawls across 350 acres – roughly twice the land used for a typical course. Angela Stanford said spectators might tire of some of the walks between greens and tees, but added that she felt right at home.

“It feels like I’m in America when I play it,” she said.

European captain Alison Nicholas likely will try to make the Americans more uncomfortable. Stanford’s potential teammate Kristy McPherson predicted the Solheim setup will be much different than at the AIB, where players often were able to fly fairway bunkers and attack greens with short irons.

Several holes on the back side are likely to be pivotal in Solheim matches. No. 12 is a high-risk, high-reward par 5 with a stream cutting diagonally across the front of the green. And the three holes starting at No. 15 are tailor-made for match play. The par-5 15th and short, par-4 17th are strong birdie opportunities, and the 16th is an all-carry par 3 that should cause players some uneasiness.

The Solheim Cup will serve as Killeen Castle’s international coming-out party. Given the exposure and its proximity to Dublin’s recently expanded airport, Killeen Castle likely will attract its share of golf tourists, particularly if the lodging component moves forward.

America’s affection for the Irish is rooted in genealogy: Some 36 million Americans – roughly one of every nine – can trace their ancestry to Ireland, an island that is slightly smaller than Indiana in size and population, with only 6.2 million inhabitants. But it goes deeper than that. In the Irish, perhaps more than any other European culture, Americans see themselves – aspirational, striving, dreamers, hard workers. The Irish might love their Guinness, as do we, but they earn it with their sweat.

It’s little wonder that the Irish long ago inculcated American culture to a degree that far exceeds their relative size – whether it be Yeats or the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, Van Morrison or U2, Bushmills or Jameson.

And Lord, do we envy Ireland’s links courses. In 2006 and ’07, North American visitors to the island peaked at more than 1 million, and about 5 percent of those were there on golf vacations. (Those numbers slipped in ’08 and ’09, reflecting the global economic ills.)

For visitors, one of Ireland’s most popular golf tours starts on the north coast and moves east, then south, back to Dublin. There’s plenty of big-game hunting to be done along the way – brand names such as Portrush, Royal County Down, Portmarnock.

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The par-3 seventh hole at Portmarnock.

Less well-known, for now at least, is Lough Erne Resort near Enniskillen, a colorful lakeside town northwest of Dublin, a convenient |stopping point as I headed toward the northern coast. Lough Erne, which opened two years ago, is the vision of Jim Treacy, a local man with a stocky build and gravelly voice who “wanted to do something for my area.” Treacy reasoned that people in this part of Northern Ireland endured enough darkness during “The Troubles” – most infamously the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing that killed 11 and wounded 63 in Enniskillen. He wanted to remind them of the beautiful setting they enjoy.

For a man who made his money in the hardscrabble Dublin supermarket business, Treacy has created an unusually elegant addition to Ireland’s golf landscape. His hotel, defined by iconic turrets, is the only Caterersearch AA five-star property in Northern Ireland. But it’s the golf course, a Nick Faldo design, that is attracting the most attention. The layout seems in constant transition – along lowlands, through dense thicket, across marsh – before rising gloriously to the par-5 sixth tee, where players confront not just stiff crosswinds but panoramic views of the eponymous lake.

“Cast your mind on other days that we in coming days may be still the indomitable Irishry.”

– Yeats, from ‘Under Ben Bulben’

What follows is a succession of memorable golf experiences: the downhill, downwind tee shot on the 396-yard seventh, with long views of the lake beyond the green; the delicate, magnificent par-4 10th with a peninsula green; and the par-5 16th, which parallels Castle Hume Lough and features postcard views of the resort in the distance.

Faldo’s greens sometimes are severe; like Nicklaus, he seems to search for a balance between testing쇓players’ putting skills and their patience. But if an architectural theme emerged early in the trip, it was that Faldo quietly is putting together an impressive portfolio. That was evident again the next day at Ballyliffin, 21⁄2 hours from Lough Erne, on the north coast.

Faldo, the story goes, fell hard for Ballyliffin on his first visit and later tried to buy the property, which includes Pat Ruddy’s Glashedy Links. Faldo’s offer was rebuffed, but he was called back to freshen up the Old Links, to good effect.

My playing partners were Dermot McCaughan, a priest, and Brendan Killough, a self-described “retired drug pusher” (a pharmacist, actually), lifelong friends playing their weekly match, a hardball affair with plenty of trash-talking, but no gimmes.

“We just love it here,” Killough said, explaining why they regularly make the hour-plus drive from their homes near Belfast.

Ballyliffin points out part of Ireland’s great appeal: Golf tourists have many opportunities to arrange 36-hole days of trophy-links golf. Heading east from Ballyliffin, I caught the ferry at Greencastle, crossed over Lough Foyle and was at Portstewart in a little more than an hour, with Royal Portrush only three miles away on the other side of town.

Some will tell youthat Portstewart’s front nine, which plays up and down through enormous dunes, is the most striking on the island. There are moments that are sublime, starting with the opening tee shot high above the beach on No. 1, and others that are almost surreal – the approach to No. 2, the tabletop green on No. 6. This is old-school links – untouched, no yardage markers and unusually firm turf (even by links standards), the type that crunches under your feet.

It only got better as I headed south, through Belfast, the anticipation building as I approached Newcastle, the light and clouds playing on the Mountains of Mourne near Royal County Down. What can one say about a course that many regard as the world’s finest?

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The par-3 third hole at Royal Portrush.

Locals recommend that first-timers take caddies to help navigate County Down’s blind tee shots, such as at Nos. 2, 9 and 11, and identify the bunkers, which tend to be hidden from the tees. But if you have the chance to play alone and meander, you’ll notice that the mounds will intensify the sense of isolation; one can hear balls being struck, but rarely sees other groups. I found myself walking progressively slower, prolonging the experience, stopping at a bench on No. 16 to enjoy the mountain views. Royal County Down is a place where one can arrive at the first tee with through-the-roof expectations and walk off 18 feeling sated.

That’s not an uncommon experience in Ireland. I had one day and 36 holes left as I drove the final leg south toward the seaside town of Portmarnock.

“You that would judge me . . . come to this hallowed place where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon; Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace; think where man’s glory most begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends.”

– Yeats, from ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’

While Royal County Down is the island’s most famous course, Portmarnock Golf Club is sometimes described as an even better test. That’s for others to debate. What is striking, however, is that such a flat piece of land with no water hazards can be so thoroughly memorable.

At Portmarnock, the wind is ever-present, as are the pot bunkers, which are automatic one-stroke penalties. (Good luck getting up-and-down if you find one of the four bunkers that bracket the wonderful par-3 12th.) Portmarnock also has the seaside par-3 15th, one of the most famous holes on the island – the sort for which anticipation builds throughout the round. Remarkably, the hole, which parallels the Irish Sea, wasn’t even part of the initial 1896 layout, but rather was inserted in 1927.

My last stop, just north of Portmarnock, was The Island Golf Club, which used to be reachable only by boat across the Malahide Estuary, but now can be accessed by what is generously described as a road. If you make the effort to drive out onto the peninsula, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most natural links experiences of your life, played through and around soaring dunes that seem to have changed little since The Island opened in 1890.

When Ireland hosted the Ryder Cup in 2006, it was in full flight, an economic freight train heading downhill, brakes off. It found itself in the unusual position of being the envy of Europe – even if those on the continent would never acknowledge it.

As the country prepares to host the 2011 Solheim Cup, it’s more chastened – not quite the “abiding sense of tragedy” to which Yeats referred, but certainly not a “temporary period of joy,” either. Roddy Carr, the man charged with orchestrating the Solheim Cup, described the national mood as a “monumental hangover” after a big party, but said his people “will always be survivors.”

He’s right. And so was Yeats. The spirit of the Irish people is indomitable. That’s why we love them.

Well, that and their wondrous links courses.

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