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Golf in Ireland
Tim Glover

Go in the off-season, if only to avoid the trail of small logs, otherwise known as cigar butts which serve as loose impediments on the courses during the annual American invasion, but whatever you do...go.

If there was a travel agency called Close to Heaven on Earth Tours, they might possibly come up with the following itinerary for golfers, or those who just prefer the scenic route, to take in ports of call that will enlighten the memory through the dog days of winter and beyond.

Forget, for the moment, package trips to locations such as Florida, where the sun wears a visor rather than a tweed hat. Discover instead a winter warmer with the craic (Ireland's version of waxing lyrical while burning the candle at both ends) an obligatory extra.

First off, fly to Belfast. Your destination is Portrush, about an hour's drive from the airport, but make a short detour to Stakis Park at Templepatrick where the finishing touches are being applied to a new course designed by Northern Ireland profession¬al David Jones. It isn't open for play yet but the hotel bar is, and from there you can gaze down upon an imposing line of poplar trees which have been lovingly preserved by Frank Ainsworth, the course manager.

And for very good reason.

The trees were planted by Hitler's gardener. A Bavarian Jew, he survived the Holocaust because he was a dab hand at nurturing orchids, which happened to be the dictators favourite flower. After the war, the horticulturist put his green fingers to work on Ireland's green landscape.

There is a reminder of a more modern conflict at the approach to ROYAL PORTRUSH GOLF CLUB in County Antrim. The Royal Ulster Constabulary police station looks like a fortress, although with hopes of a lasting peace and an end to the troubles in the north, the barbed wire, like the Berlin Wall, may come down. It is an incongruous sight, so close to a dramatic stretch of Atlantic coastline and an area of outstanding beauty.

Portrush boasts the Dunluce Links, the venue for the Seniors British Open and one of the masterpieces from the ageless design of Harry Colt. A true links where the difficulty is determined by the strength of the wind, many believe Portrush would be a worthy stage for the Open Championship itself. It had the honour of hosting the Open in 1951, when Max Faulkner lifted the old silver claret jug, and Ireland is still waiting for an encore.

"There is no doubt that Royal Portrush is one of the finest courses in the world," says Darren Clarke, who grew up in Dungannon, County Tyrone. "The challenge it provides is demanding of all the golfer's skills."

The Coleraine Tourist Office is offering an extra­ ordinary deal: play four links on the Causeway Coast - Portrush, Portstewart, Ballycastle and Castlerock - on one ticket.

A note of caution: when playing the first hole at Portrush, do not leave your ball above the hole. From such a good position, a putt hit with a feather duster still has a good chance of rolling clean off the green and into a cavernous bunker which looks as if it could have been designed by Hitler himself. And take lots of ammunition. You need plenty of balls to play Portrush. The holes don't have names like Giant's Grave, the Himalayas, Calamity Corner Purgatory for nothing.

Portrush was founded in 1888; a few miles west along the coastline is PORTSTEWART, which was established in 1894, although its main attraction, the Strand Course, set in towering dunes with views of the blue Donegal Hills, the estuary of the River Bann and, of course, the Atlantic, only opened in 1992.

The 2nd hole at Portstewart does not offer much room in which to land a long iron.
The 2nd hole at Portstewart does not offer much room in which to land a long iron.

You're never alone on The Strand and the first hole is the ultimate introduction to a links of beauty and subtlety. If anyone thinks Portstewart lives in the shadow of Portrush, its more famous neighbour, they are mistaken. Both are extraordinary examples of the genre.

And the news gets better. Portrush is on Bushmills Road. Ring a bell? Yes, we are talking

about the home of Irish whiskey. Check in to the Bushmills Inn and enjoy a night cap or even a night shirt.

For the apres-golf, there are tours of the distillery where the wonders of mixing water, barley and yeast are revealed. Humble ingredients all, so the mind can only boggle at the rake off on a bottle of whiskey to the taxman. Bushmills are bringing out a limited edition 25-year-old malt to celebrate the millennium and barrels, containing 250 bottles, were offered to investors for £4,250. They should have limited it to one purchase per customer. One American bought nine barrels. It's just not cricket. It was slightly shocking to discover that the world's oldest whiskey distillery is now owned by the French.

There are no boundaries or borders between the hospitality in the north and the south. To experience the best of both worlds we took our clubs to Kenmare in County Kerry. Our base was the Sheen Falls Lodge, our mission to play two of the most contrasting courses in Kerry, if not the whole of Ireland.

The Ring of Kerry Golf and Country Club opened last July. President Clinton had accepted an invitation to be guest of honour at the opening ceremony but withdrew, citing a more pressing engagement. It was Clinton's loss.

The course, designed by the former professional Roger Jones, has been developed by the businessman Tom McNicholas and Dominic Reid. The former is chairman of a construction company based in Hertfordshire. You may have seen its distinctive green lorries and vans at roadworks throughout the country. He is responsible for holding up more people than Dick Turpin.

McNicholas, a member at Hendon in north London, came to Kerry eight years ago to play golf and liked the place so much that he bought a holiday home. "I had the idea of developing a course when I heard that 300 acres of land was for sale. I was still very skeptical until I saw the view. I've plated all over the world I've never seen anything like it."

You might not expect an objective view from the owner but his description of the Ring of Kerry has the ring of truth. To the south are panoramic views over the Kenmare River to the Caha Mountains; to the north are the McGillycuddy Reeks and almost every hole has a view of Kenmare Bay.

McNicholas, a mid-handicapper, is honest enough to admit that he found his own course extraordinarily difficult. "I lose about eight balls every time I play it," he confesses. In a howling gale, it could take you a day and a half to play the championship course. There is a touch of the beauty and the beast about it.

The 6th hole, from an elevated tee, is spectacular by any standards; the 11th, a par-five of 619 yards, requires a search party and a St Bernard. Not only can't you see the green from the tee but you are unlikely to see it after playing four shots. If the weather is harsh you may not see it at all. And there is a sting in the tail: a par-three over a lake to a four-tiered, steeply rising green. Whatever happens, playing this course is bound to end in tiers.

Roger Jones says he would like to see a grading system introduced for courses to give players an idea of the quality they can expect. "Based on a hotel rating system," he says, "the Ring of Kerry would get four stars."

On the same basis, Sheen Falls Lodge, four scenic miles away at Kenmare, deserves as many stars as Einstein's homework. Owned and developed by a Danish shipping magnate, the estate offers the luxury and style of an immaculate country house. Here you can pretend to be lord of the manor. Overlooking the waterfall on the River Sheen, the hotel offers outdoor pursuits, indoor pampering and gastronomy to die for. Catch a salmon along 15 miles of private fishing and they'll smoke it for you.

Forgetting for a moment the invasion of the Vikings in the 9th century, the history of Sheen Falls dates back to 1652 and the arrival of William Petty, physician-general of Oliver Cromwell's army. Petty was so taken with Kerry that he took possession of 270,000 acres.

When one has eaten one's salmon at the Michelin- star restaurant, and one tires of living like the Earl of Kerry, the market town of Kenmare offers the perfect alternative - a pint of the dark stuff in a rainbow set­ ting. The houses, shops and pubs are painted every colour in the spectrum. Every street is a palette, and not only for the eye. There are 30 pubs to wet the palate, and as the population is only 1,200, that means one hostelry for every 40 people. Even by Irish standards, this is a remarkable example of proportional representation. Put another way, virtually every other building, or every 25 yards, is a pub. Kenmare, which means head of the sea, is a watering hole bar none.

It is not easy to leave Kenmare but the hour's drive or so to the Waterville Golf Links on the south­ west tip is worth it. According to the Book of Invasions, written, in between rude interruptions, about 1000 AD, the granddaughter of Noah landed in Ballinskelligs Bay after the Flood. Ever since, through the laying of the first transatlantic cable and the arrival of Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Cotton and, more recently, Tiger Woods, Waterville has continued to provide a mythical, mystical links to the Kingdom of Kerry.

Golf in the Kingdom of Kerry. There are precious few more glorious places to play golf than at Waterville.
Golf in the Kingdom of Kerry. There are precious few more glorious places to play golf than at Waterville.

No doubt spurred by the presence of the Gulf Stream, and having given the excuse to their wives of the need to explore their roots, a group of Irish-Americans bought Waterville in 1987. Before winning the Open at Birkdale last summer, Mark O'Meara and his pal Tiger prepared at Waterville, a course described by Cotton as "one of the greatest ever built. I have never seen a more consistent succession of really strong and beautiful golf holes".

Remarkably, the course record, which is held by Tony Jacklin, stands at 71. It may not survive as long as the statue of Chaplin (who liked Waterville as much as Cotton) which stands in the village.

A notice in a pub in Kenmare recalls that John L. Sullivan, whose parents emigrated from County Kerry, defeated Jake Kilrain for the championship of America after a fight that lasted 75 rounds. Like Sullivan, you may feel that after playing golf on the north and south coasts of Ireland, you've gone 75 rounds - not all of them on the links.

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