Golf in Ireland is, of course, almost as good as it gets but most people tend to think of the west coast - with the likes of Ballybunion and the Ring of Kerry - the Dublin area or the north-east, with that string of fabulous links courses south of Belfast. For a less well-known, perhaps, but equally enjoyable golfing holiday, you might want to consider Waterford in the south-east corner of Eire, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Dublin.
It offers good courses that are easy to get on and reasonably priced, stunning countryside and, as yet, it is not too crowded. But above even these considerations comes the legendary Irish hospitality, which seems particularly in evidence in this corner of the country.
Ireland itself has become expensive - the natives blame it on the euro - but there are still bargains to be had. The courses, in the main, are good to excellent clubs that offer a fair test without requiring your most heroic game to register a decent score. Base yourself in Waterford city and you can enjoy all the usual tourist trappings, including a much-recommended visit to the famous Waterford Crystal factory where you can even participate in glass engraving and watch the glass blowers at work, and several courses are within easy reach.
During a five-day trip my party played four, which are:
It opened in 1993 and is a good place to start a week of holiday golf as it is testing but not severe. It was designed by Irish architect Paddy Merrigan, runs alongside the River Suir and includes five lakes that have to be negotiated.
The course is characterised by tricky doglegs and blind tee shots but has generous fairways. The greens are large but in some cases severely contoured, so two-putts are by no means a given. But the most characteristic feature is the contrast between the two halves. If you stand on the 10th tee feeling really pleased with your front nine score, be warned that you're unlikely to repeat it on the inward half. The course measures 2,716 yards on the outward half (par 34) and 3, 568 yards coming home (par 38).
Faithlegg also has a beautiful 18th century hotel, part of the Tower Hotel Group, and residents get significant reductions in their green fees.
The most noticeable thing about Waterford Castle is its setting. It sits on an island and can only be reached by ferry - an unusual and romantic way to set off for a round of golf. It's also best to ring the pro shop as you board the ferry (the crossing only takes a couple of minutes) because there is a long uphill walk to the clubhouse but if they know youre coming they will send buggies to fetch you. Alternatively, you can take your own car onto the ferry. The course was designed by Des Smyth, opened in 1992 and features a number of changes in elevation - in other words, it's damned hilly. If you're going to make a score it is essential to get through the first three holes relatively unscathed. The first is a long downhill par four, followed by a long-iron par three with water on the left, and then you have a dogleg par four that involves driving over water between two stands of trees. Negotiate that safely - and many of my group did not - and you turn left towards the green with water guarding the right side. Some of the views from the higher parts of the course are beautiful and, after climbing to a few of the tees you might be grateful to spend a few moments taking in the sights and getting your breath back.
On the day my party played we were put off the very back tees, which stretches the course to over 6,800 yards, and is not recommended unless you are an exceptionally long hitter or a masochist. The 193-metre (approx 222 yards) par three seventh was a case in point. Steeply uphill on a damp day with heavy conditions underfoot, I felt inordinately proud to be only three feet short with a driver.
Played off the white tees the course is a manageable 6,409 yards. Play off the back, (blue) tees and you could be out there all day.
Tramore GC (17th pictured over) dates back to 1894 when it was opened as a 9-hole links but in 1939 it re-located to its current site as a result of being swamped whenever there was a big storm.
Captain HC Tippett designed the course with no previous experience but his layout has so successfully passed the test of time that it has now staged three Irish Close championships. It has a few idiosyncratic holes, such as the almost horseshoe-shaped stroke index 1 par four that requires an accurate, uphill drive towards a copse of trees. Reach the plateau, turn 90 degrees right and you face an approach to a well-guarded green with water short. Many handicap players might think about laying up with a 9-iron or wedge and playing for a five.
Overall it is sloping rather than hilly, with several holes playing between tall stands of trees, although some are fairly open. Despite this it is not too tight yet still rewards accuracy over raw power. One of the most notable features of Tramore is its friendliness, and to stand out for the quality of your hospitality in a land famed for the warmth of its welcome to visitors takes some doing.
Quite simply, this is a magnificent golf course that has instantly leapt into my personal top-20 of favourites. It is designed by Jack Nicklaus, opened in 1991 and recently hosted the most recent WGC - American Express Championship, won by Ernie Els. It offers a beautiful, challenging test that nevertheless is playable by virtually all standards of golfers. A relatively innocuous start (which should be compulsory, in my view), quickly leads to some of the best holes you are likely to play anywhere in the world.
The 10th is a great par five, where trees across the middle of the fairway force you to decide whether to go left, right or over for your approach - to a green guarded by numerous bunkers. And it is immediately followed by a short but delightful slightly uphill par three. The par three third (pictured above) involves a mid-iron to a green with water all the way up the left and in front, and the signature par four hole needs a heroic downhill carry over water - best to lay up and play for a five.
Water features, which are as attractive to look at as they are dangerous to visit, are in evidence on several holes and the greens are the type you simply want to roll up and carry around with you. They have many borrows but these can be clearly seen and the quality of the putting surfaces is just superb. Considering that we played in mid-October, they were a testament to build quality and skilful maintenance.
My only criticism is that, in contrast to the other courses we visited, Mount Juliet, although welcoming, did not seem particularly friendly. Golf here is obviously big business and it's something I've noticed at other 'name' courses, that can't quite get the balance right between efficient and impersonal. But its a small niggle and if you get the chance to play here, seize it.
You also must try the famed putting course, which is a challenge in itself, involving 18 holes, wicked slopes and a lot of fun. No matter how good a putter you are, to break par here involves both skill and luck.
A good place to base yourself in Waterford is the Tower Hotel, a three-star facility in the middle of town that, in contrast to Mount Juliet, manages to be efficient yet friendly. It has 140 bedrooms and a sample rate is 130 euros per person for two night's B&B, including one dinner, in January or February. From May-October, the same arrangement would be 170 euros per person. And because it owns the Faithlegg Hotel, staying at the Tower can get you a significant discount at Faithlegg, and other local courses.
In addition, the Tower Group has hotels at:
CastleRosse Hotel Killarney (good nine-hole course in the grounds)
Temple Bar Hotel - Dublin
Castleknock Hotel & Country Club - Dublin. Six miles from the city centre with an 18-hole golf course.
Tower Hotel - Derry
Castleknock hotel is under construction and will open March 2005.
Flying to and from Dublin is available from most major UK airports via Ryanair, but although ticket prices are cheap you will almost certainly be charged for golf club carriage - in my case £17 each way. The airline is also pretty strict on baggage allowance and you will also have to pay for anything over 40kg.
Finally, between now and March you can play Mount Juliet, Faithlegg and Waterford Castle, midweek, for a combined fee of 115 Euro per person. From April-December next year the rate will be 165 Euro, which is still very good value.
Tele: +353 (0)51 386170
5,777 metres (approx 6,354) green tees, par 72
Green fees: (until March 05) 30 Euro midweek; May-Sept, 45 Euro.
Tele: +353 (0)51 382000 (hotel)
+353 (0)51 382241 (golf course)
6, 284 yards (white tees), par 72
Green fees: Midweek; 45 Euro for non-residents; 35 for residents.
Waterford Castle GC
Tel: +353 (0)51 871633
6,409 yards, par 72
Green fees: (until March '05) midweek, 41 Euro. April-Oct next year, 49 Euro.
Mount Juliet GC
+353 (0)56 7773064
7,299 yards (championship tees), par 72
Green fees: 75 Euro; Mon-Thurs; Nov-March (May-Sept, 140 Euro)
Martin Vousden, 11 handicap
|| 3 - NOVEMBER 2004