Ireland's great Northwest truly underappreciated
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
BALLINA, Ireland -- I was roughly a half-hour’s drive north of Shannon Airport, a few miles past the turnoff for Dromoland Castle, when my GPS went AWOL.
I had a three-hour drive to make my 12:30 tee time at County Sligo Golf Club, and nothing but open road ahead of me on the M18 motorway.
But the disembodied British female’s voice coming from the dashboard – she henceforth shall be known as Beatrice – insisted that I make a left-hand turn, which would have left me in a ditch by the side of the freeway.
Pretty soon the M18 disappeared from Beatrice’s screen and the pink directional line indicated that I was driving through a field and across the River Rine, sans bridge. I was the one who had been awake all night during my trans-Atlantic flight, yet it was Beatrice, all charged up and ready for my arrival, who was acting loopy.
Eventually, I pulled onto the R458 and continued north, if for no other reason than to stop Beatrice from nagging me. What the detour lost in time it more than made up for in charm, on a leisurely drive that took me through towns such as Laghtyshaughnessy and Cloonahaha under a brilliant early-morning sun.
Several days later, after a far-too-brief tour of Ireland’s northwest, I returned to Dromoland Castle, which lives up to every last one of its Five Stars and also has a fine parkland golf course.
I mentioned Beatrice’s hissy-fit to Dromoland’s bartender, and he nodded. Other guests had shared similar stories. For all of their technological wizardry, it turned out that Beatrice and her GPS kin had not yet been familiarized with the relatively new M18.
Given that the M18 serves as a gateway to the northwest, the fact that Beatrice was oblivious to it is something of a metaphor, for the northwest remains one of Ireland’s less-traveled regions. It also is Ireland’s best golf value; sub-$100 green fees at its great links, even on weekends, are not uncommon.
When I pulled into the parking lot at County Sligo – commonly known as Rosses Point – I opened the door and it blew back in my face. The flags on the practice range were starch straight. Across the street, a woman was bundled in a heavy coat, beanie and gloves, walking a white Pomeranian. Behind me, another woman dug an extra layer out of her car trunk, then marched briskly toward the clubhouse, pushing her trolley.
In other words, the weather on this final Saturday in September was ideal for Irish golf, and the packed parking lot reflected that.
Rosses Point has a strong pedigree. The club dates to 1894 but was redesigned by Harry Colt in 1928. This weekend, it is hosting the West of Ireland Amateur Open for the 91st consecutive year.
Most first-timers will, like me, probably feel a strong desire to pause on the third tee, one of the highest points on the course, to assess what lay ahead and enjoy the view of Sligo Bay directly ahead. (Even the club’s yardage book recommends doing so.)
There is a memorable six-hole stretch, beginning with the peninsular, par-5 12th, that runs parallel to the beach.
It’s so good that one might overlook the bulwarks of the course, a succession of inland holes starting in the middle of the front nine that may not be as scenic, but are at least as stout.
• • •
“In Ireland there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met before.” – Anonymous
If you want to understand that saying, pay a visit to Alan Maloney, proprietor of Mount Falcon, an hour’s drive southwest of Rosses Point. It’s a Four Star hotel with off-the-charts hospitality, and it’s a convenient midpoint for playing the area’s top links. (I should note that Beatrice once again was asleep at the wheel on the hourlong drive from Rosses Point, so I had to navigate the final few miles the old-fashioned way: stop on the outskirts of Ballina in County Mayo and ask for directions. Mount Falcon is three miles south of town.)
The establishment’s quaint formal name is Mount Falcon Country House Hotel, which captures its friendly aura, yet only hints at what is in store upon arrival. This beautifully restored manor home, which dates to 1876, actually is a sizable resort. It sits on 100 acres, with elegant sandstone lodges tucked away in clusters surrounding the main building, and has two miles of private fishing on the River Moy, clay shooting and the newest amenity, a 300-yard golf practice range.
When Maloney and his family bought the property and restored it in 2002, there was a clear vision.
“I wanted to retain the integrity of the house,” Maloney said, “and I wanted it to feel like a home.”
It’s elegant, yet informal. I met Maloney and his eclectic group of friends at 7 p.m., and by 8:30 one would have suspected we were all part of the same traveling party.
The next morning, two things became apparent. First, I had committed a cardinal travel sin: I had overbooked, scheduling two rounds that day, at Carne and Enniscrone.
Second, my back was howling more fiercely than the wind at Carne, prompting me to seek relief in a stomach-churning cocktail of Advil and a more potent painkiller.
Carne, as currently configured, finished opening all 18 holes in 1993, yet it looks as though it has been there since 1893. Carne feels – and I mean this in the best sense – ancient. That vibe is underscored by the surrounds; road signs as you approach the town of Belmullet are written in Gaelic, which you’re likely to hear spoken at the club.
Carne was one of the final designs of Eddie Hackett, Ireland’s most prolific golf architect. It took seven years to build, and it is a point of pride at the club that heavy machinery barely touched the land.
“It was a cost issue, but Eddie was thrilled with it,” Eamon Mangan, Carne’s links manager, said of the low-tech construction.
Carne plans to open a much-anticipated nine-hole layout July 23, and if the eyeball test is any indication, Hackett would have approved. The new nine and existing back nine will become Carne’s tournament course, but any visitor will want to make time to play all 27 holes.
Carne has all of links golf’s endearing quirks. The seventh played only 154 yards but required a metalwood into the prevailing wind. On the tee of the short 14th, Mangan’s friend David Gough said, “I’ve often played a wedge off this, and I’ve played a 3-wood.”
Gough, an amusing fellow, took the struggling American under his wing.
“You’ve got to learn how to play this place, Martin,” he told me. “Don’t look at the flags; don’t look at the fairways.”
That links lesson also would apply at windswept Enniscrone, an hour’s drive east of Carne and only 15 minutes from Mount Falcon. Enniscrone is nestled between Killala Bay and the Moy Estuary. Just across the estuary from No. 10 is Bartragh Island, where Nick Faldo has long been frustrated in his efforts to build a links.
Not long after we teed off, we had to tug on our rainsuits, prompting an apology from Enniscone club captain Michael McNamara. I assured him that most American golfers would be disappointed if they didn’t get some true Irish weather during their visit.
“I could suffer their disappointment,” McNamara growled in a soft baritone.
McNamara was aware that I already had walked 18 holes that day and insisted that I join him in a buggy – a kind gesture, but one that seemed as unnatural as hitting putter off the tee. In time, I took to walking with Chris Calvillo, an American member who had married a local woman and settled in Ireland.
The hole corridors, particularly on the back nine near the bay, are defined by soaring dunes walls; local lore has it that the most imposing of all, the Valley of Diamonds dunes along No. 14, were formed centuries ago from the bodies of Viking invaders. Seriously, how many American courses have that kind of backstory?
• • •
“Ireland is the only place where I can’t have a drink alone.” – Jim Vincent
Vincent, a long-time American golf executive whom I met at Mount Falcon, is a serial visitor to Ireland, despite a troublesome back that makes it all but impossible to play golf. (Less than 10 percent of visitors are golfers.) As Vincent’s comment suggests,
Maloney and his countrymen make visitors feel at home.
Maloney encouraged me to return to spend more time exploring towns such as Ballina and Foxford and other parts of County Mayo. Then he sent me on my way south down the N59, to Connemara, the great links just south of Clifden. This stretch of road is on anyone’s short list of the most beautiful drives in Ireland – at times recalling a Montana river valley, at other times Canada’s Lake Louise.
When I finally arrived at Connemara, the parking lot was empty, and with good reason. “This is serious,” assistant pro Gareth Anthony said as I pulled my golf bag out of the trunk. “This is five clubs.”
When an Irishman says it’s a five-club wind, believe it. Reaching the Atlantic-facing par 4s – such as Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 9 – required a bare minimum of two knockdown shots. The par-3 13th, with a quartering, hurting wind, is one of the island’s famous beasts, but there is some hope for redemption on the two closing par 5s.
Post-round, Beatrice led me back through Galway to Dromoland, a two-hour drive. (Yes, she got lost again on the M18.) In the space of four days, I had played four courses that I’m certain most links buffs happily would play every day. Yet I left knowing that I had a lot of unfinished business.
Maloney was right: The northwest has so much more to offer. An extended future stay was in order.