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Golf in Ireland - A Golfing Odessey
Michael Pask

The sun shone brightly on a beautiful spring morning as we made our way through central London. Life carried on as normal for all those left in the hustle and bustle of the big smoke. But my path, for once, lay towards paradise. For a number of years, the thought of a mini-golf tour had been bouncing through my mind.

The idea of excessive amounts of time dedicated to such a concept and coming up with a trip which catered for my broad menagerie of friends had, however, put me off taking it any further than an idea.

In retrospect, it could not have been simpler, perhaps made so by my choice of venue on the west coast of Ireland, between Galway and Sligo.

Most golfers are aware of, if not familiar with, the famous links of Ballybunion and Tralee, as well as the other great links of the southwest. Others, I'm sure, have heard of the mighty links of the Royals, Portrush and County Down, in Northern Ireland.

However, it was to the comparatively hidden glories of Carne Golf Links and its surrounding piece of heaven that we travelled! My mission now is to spread the gospel of this remote and enchanting delight of links golf.

As for arranging my own venture, a brief note to my golfing friends, accompanied by an itinerary, was rapidly followed by ten positive responses. A quick call to the courses of Westport, Co. Sligo (Rosses Point), Carne Golf Links (Belmullet) and Connemara and we had our four days of golf booked. A note to the excellent Harbour Mill at Westport and we had found accommodation for ten. That left a call to Ryan Air for flights from Stansted to Knock, and car hire. Sorted in a matter of an hour. There had to be some catch.

Friday off work was rewarded with glorious sun­ shine, and as I drove through London, watching everyone jostling to work, I began to unwind. Old friends, some from as far afield as Borneo, whom I had not seen for months, greeted me at Stansted and the 'Bravehearts Tour' was initiated (the name harking back to the days of our youth at St. Andrews University).

Unusually for all the individuals involved, some of whom had made being late a professional occupation, everyone was fully present and correct. All that remained was to savour a pre-flight pint of Guinness to commend to our taste buds for comparison with the real thing (for scientific purposes only, of course).

By the time we had reached the tiny coastal town of Westport and bathed ourselves in the rural beauty of Ireland, I had totally unwound from the stress of the week, captivated as ever by the magical land. Let the show commence.

Our first challenge was the pretty parkland course of Westport, lying just north of the town itself. The course was the perfect start to the trip and a great way to shake off the winter cobwebs which ensnared my swing for the first nine holes. The back nine, with its views over Westport Harbour, were extremely pleasant, and the friendliness in the clubhouse set the mood which continued to grow over the weekend.

We sampled the gastronomic delights of the Lobster Pot, near the harbour. Ireland's west coast is a haven for culinary delights from the ocean and this was no exception, washed down with a pint of the black stuff - a mighty combination which was to be explored fervently during the weekend.

An early start the next day left us an hour or so's drive through some amazing countryside to the Carne Golf Links at Belmullet, perched on the very edge of Ireland. The next stop is Newfoundland.

This was, for me, not merely the golfing highlight of the trip. Instead, I felt that I knew how Livingstone felt when he discovered Victoria Falls. With vast dunes, unbelievable scenic views of the neighbouring Blackwood Bay and islands, the place combines tranquility, beauty and golfing nirvana.

It is not for its ease of the challenge that you will fall immediately in love with Carne, but more for its sometimes brutal severity and breathtaking natural environment. The late Eddie Hackett, who designed the links, has truly created something special in this remote location. It was once said to me that to design a difficult course is easy, to design an easy course is no problem, but to design a course which caters for everyone is the greatest challenge for a golf-course architect. Hackett has managed to do this, and in doing so has utilised the natural environment in majestic fashion.

The back nine was perhaps the most enjoyable stretch of golf I have ever played. This is saying something bearing in mind that I only scored three stableford points. This is not a course for wild driving - my most favoured sin - and combined with a "slight breeze" (unquote any St. Andrews caddie), my nemesis was complete. The course kept getting better and better, and as the sun shone, the larks ascended and I managed not to lose my tee shot on the spectacular par-three 4th, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven.

Overlooking an azure Atlantic Ocean and white beaches intermittently sprinkled with rocks older than time itself, this really is golf at its best. The last four holes of must be the greatest natural finish on any course anywhere, and while I didn't play a great deal on them (I lost my tee shots on all of them except the 16th), I certainly enjoyed the walk.

The local clam chowder washed down with a pint of Ireland's best put the day into a realm of its own in my golfing memories, although it will always be my goal to keep topping them up - ideally by returning on a weekly basis.

The final word on Carne is best left to its creator. Eddie Hackett said: "I am thrilled with the way the dramatic Belmullet course has turned out, and again reiterate my first opinion that ultimately there will be no better links golf course in the country, or I doubt anywhere." It would be great to believe that we could all leave as beautiful a signature on the world when we depart as he managed to do.

The day provided good reason to celebrate and paint the small coastal village of Westport an off shade of red, culminating unfortunately in a local band singing Alanis Morissette songs all night, which would be enough to dampen anyone's fervour.

A full monty fry-up the following morning rendered at least some of our party human again. Post-hangovers, the golfing test was to be Rosses Point, home of the County Sligo Golf Club.

It was perhaps an unfair comparison after the delights of Belmullet, partly due to the low cloud which hid the towering mass of Benbulben for most of the day, and seemed at times only just above the reach of my skied drives, an all too frequent occurrence. The course, though, is a terrific links, with the dignity and maturity of age. Having hosted some of Ireland's major championships, it is indeed an inspiring challenge, and the wind off the sea never deserted us all day.

The final jolly of our little jaunt was reserved for the charming links of Connemara Golf Club in the tiny hamlet of Ballyconnelly, tucked away on the west end of the stunning Connemara peninsular. Once the final wranglings over handicaps had been resolved without any major assaults, it was time to commence the final chapter for the waning brave- hearts.

The links, at a demanding 7,229 yards, starts in a dreamland of austere beauty, as rocks and grass combine to form a stunning opening hole. Following this, the course meanders its way through rugged and often quite flat terrain. It's another Hackett design, and while I am sure the great man would have looked at Carne as the jewel in his crown, Connemara is still an experience not to be missed.

Since we went rather over-budget in allowing adequate time for dragging certain individuals away from the bar or from one more last pot of clam chowder, the car journey back to Knock was something of an event, since we needed to shave three-quarters of an hour off our arrival time. But, this being a truly special land, somehow we managed to do that.

Back in London with beaming faces, we retired to our separate ways. As I now sit once again in the hot city at night, I can reflect on a special trip which was easy to organise, laughter shared with friends, magical moments and a dream of the ultimate links.

See you there one day.

PS. It's true what they say. It does taste better over there.


 

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