A Bucket List Adventure

Reducing the Bucket List

A few years back, someone suggested to me that I should make a Bucket List. Maybe it was after that Morgan Freeman – Jack Nicholson movie. Since I’m a list-maker by nature, the idea greatly appealed to me. At least until I started. Then it quickly became apparent that the list would be endless and I had absolutely no idea how to reduce it to a manageable size.

Was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro still feasible? How do you decide between Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal? Was Marisa Tomei even available?

Evidently, too much to consider, especially since I don’t have an unlimited bank account and a private jet at my disposal. Instead, I decided to focus on golf courses I wanted to play. The obvious names come to mind – Augusta, Pine Valley, Cypress Point. Across the pond I added Ballybunion, Lahinch and Doonbeg amongst a larger list of famed UK courses.

When the opportunity to visit the southwest part of Ireland came along, it was an easy decision. The trip was courtesy of Golf Away Tours and Tourism Ireland and Matt MacKay and TJ Rule of Golf Away Tours would be our hosts. Five club pros from Southern Ontario rounded out the team: Mike Moniz (Maple Downs), Mike Horsley (Donalda), Jeff Mills (Wildfire), Nate Clingersmith (Lora Bay) and Josh Brunner (Weston).

I was the token media guy, old guy, short hitter and high handicapper. My usually respectable six handicap was no match for scratch golfers and, as I soon found out, my trusted 235-yard baby draw, when it was working, didn’t fare very well against 300-yard bombs – even when I played up a tee deck or two.

Following are my notes, anecdotes and tips from an exceptional golf adventure.

Get Some Sleep

Most flights to Ireland leave Toronto in the evening so that they arrive in the early morning local time. Flying time plus the time difference is about twelve hours. The recommended plan is to get as much sleep as possible on the flight, then stay up all day after arrival and go to bed that evening at your normal time based on the local clock. That way you’re pretty well adjusted to the time difference and pretty well rested.

I usually have no trouble sleeping on planes. In fact, I’m often zonked out before takeoff and only wake up when I detect the blissful aroma of airline food. Not so this time. I made the mistake of watching the first episode of House of Cards, an excellent Kevin Spacey series, where he is a manipulative U.S. Congressman. I think everyone but me has seen House of Cards but I was hooked. Six episodes later the pilot announced that we were on final approach to Dublin and he was turning off the system. So much for sleep.

We were met at baggage claim by Phillip who was to be our driver for the week. Phillip had a sixteen passenger van with tons of storage so we all had plenty of room to stretch out and get some more sleep. This is the best way to travel in the UK. Having done the self drive thing on the other side of the road a few times, tried to follow local maps and done my fair share of getting lost seeing alternate routes, turning responsibility over to a professional driver lets you relax and really enjoy the scenery.

After an all night flight, most of us were craving a coffee and something to munch on. The drive from Dublin airport to Doonbeg, our first stop, is about four hours so Phillip suggests a rest stop about ninety minutes west that turns out to be the Barack Obama Plaza. If the name isn’t enough to throw you off-kilter, the plaza also features one of only two Tim Horton’s in all of Ireland. Where are we?

According to information in the “Presidential Museum” upstairs, President Obama’s great-great-great-great-grandfather came from the nearby town of Moneygall. For full details on the connection between Obama and Moneygall, click HERE.

Suitably fortified with home cooking (Tim’s), it was on to Doonbeg.

Golf in the Land of Donald

Doonbeg had been on my Bucket List for a number of reasons. I’ve been a fan of Greg Norman the player for years and closely followed his foray into the golf course design business. Norman the designer generally gets mixed reviews in the media but I really liked his work at Wyndance in Uxbridge and his desert course in La Quinta, California. The building of Doonbeg Resort was hailed as a welcome addition to the area with its first class accommodations and modern amenities, but the golf course itself attracted all kinds of negative attention with plenty of opposition from groups who opposed the “desecration” of Irish coastal land. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

Check-in was a low-key affair in a small vestibule with a blazing fire. My new friend Dermot showed us to our “cottage.” Dermot was a local bloke who had travelled to Canada and worked in Oshawa for nearly twenty years. On other trips to Ireland I had met others like him and found it to be quite common. At a time when work was scarce at home, a lot of fellows left Ireland and found their skills were well suited to auto manufacturing work in Canada, many at the local GM plant. Some stayed but when the Irish government attracted lots of new business with financial incentives and no taxes, a major economic boom followed and many returned home to be part of it. Dermot was one of them and happy to have a gig at the new resort. As much as I wanted to find out about Doonbeg, he wanted to talk about Toronto. It’s a small world.

I was sharing a cottage with Mike and Mike – a large living room with a fireplace, kitchen, dining room, and three bedrooms, each with a king size bed and accompanying ensuite, including magnificent showers. We were a little puzzled about three bedrooms since most golf trips are organized in groups of four but everything was first class and incredibly well appointed. It would be ideal for three couples too.

As inviting as that king sized bed looked, the golf course beckoned. Doonbeg plays 6,785 yards from the back tees, which is where pros naturally go. Prudent thinking would direct me to play the white tees and gain a 500 yard advantage but my sleep addled brain decided it would be better to hang with the group. The weather was fine – temperature in the mid teens and just a gentle breeze. How difficult could it be?

Doonbeg is built amongst massive dunes along the coast but only a few holes actually get near the water. It’s a gruelling walk and demands that you hit your ball straight. The fescue alongside the fairways is deep and thick and likely contains terrorist training camps. Why not? Nobody can find anything there anyway.

Yardage is the least of your worries on most links courses and the back tees turned out to be OK. On downwind shots there was plenty of roll and into the wind you were smashing everything you had anyway. The course was very firm and the greens magnificent – huge, sloped beasts that made every putt an adventure.

Doonbeg has some serious erosion problems. One hole has been lost completely and a couple of others were being reconstructed away from the coast when we played. As we learned on subsequent days, the coastal courses have formidable anti-erosion measures in place – usually massive rock faces to absorb the pounding waves. Not so at Doonbeg. Apparently it’s political. Not sure if that relates to Greg Norman’s design or to the current owner, Donald Trump. Regardless, Doonbeg is not allowed to touch the coastal dunes and it is sure to jeopardize additional holes in the future. The edge of the 18th green is just a few feet from a hundred foot drop to the beach and losing ground annually.

How would I rate Doonbeg? It was definitely tough and could have even more teeth if the wind had been up. I’m glad I played it and would happily do so again. It wouldn’t make my list of favourite UK courses but should be part of any agenda.

One jarring note about the resort, now known as Trump International Ireland – almost all traces of the name Doonbeg have been removed. I collect bag tags when I travel but couldn’t find one that said Doonbeg – nor a hat, towel or ball marker. The Donald has branded everything. The lad in the pro shop said it has really hurt sales and they might bring the name back. Probably none too soon.

Pack Your Rain Gear

After a very restful night at Doonbeg and a sumptuous breakfast, Lahinch was on the agenda. I’d love to say the day dawned bright and cheery but it was pissing down rain, the wind was howling and the forecast was not very encouraging. Maybe it would be different an hour up the coast.

Weather forecasts are always a crap shoot and golfers in particular are tuned into the nuances of their prognostications. Forget it. This part of Ireland sits hard on the North Atlantic coast and anything and everything can happen – sometimes in the same hour. Storms blow in and out with great regularity, so best to be prepared for anything.

The Old Course at Lahinch is more of a traditional links than Doonbeg. Old Tom Morris laid out the original routing in 1892, which was altered by Alister MacKenzie in 1927. The land sits on a peninsula that juts into the sea and the dunes offer scant protection from the prevailing wind. Usually ranked as a Top 50 World Course, Lahinch has hosted countless Irish and UK championships and should be on any itinerary to the region.

With the rain coming sideways, the starter actually came out to see us off and provide some advice about the fourth and fifth holes. We’ll get to that in a minute but first a shameless plug for Galvin Green. If you play golf in Scotland and Ireland, you have to be prepared for the weather. On two previous trips to Ireland I had not seen a drop of rain but our day at Lahinch was more than making up for it. I have a Galvin Green rain suit as did five of the guys in our group. Every pro shop we visited in Ireland had only Galvin Green rain gear. Most of the European pros use it. It works. After four hours in wicked rain, I was bone dry. Thank you GoreTex!

Lahinch hugs the coast and moves in and out of the dunes. The fourth hole is a shortish par five (475 yards) that rises up a narrow valley, framed by fescue covered dunes. It requires a long straight shot to the fairway where you will be confronted by a huge dune called the Klondyke Hill. Somewhere on the other side sits the green. For big hitters it’s reachable in two but unless you’ve played it before, it’s as blind as any hole I’ve ever played.

At least until you get to the par-3 fifth. A simple 154-yard shot to a green that you can’t see. Perhaps if the pin were tucked on the front right you could catch a glimpse of the flag but otherwise just try and hoist your shot over the dune and hope it lands on short grass. It’s called The Dell Hole and would be subject to much criticism if some modern designer tried it in North America. In Ireland it just adds to the charm.

The rain stopped on the 16th tee, the sun came out and the grassy dunes sparkled in the sunlight. The final holes played downwind providing a magnificent finish to a very special golf course. I’d love to play it again without the rain but Lahinch definitely deserves a place amongst my Top 10 UK courses.

Thirty-six Holes

Our evening consisted of a fine dinner at Morrisey’s Bar in the quaint town of Doonbeg, then on to Tubridy’s for a Guinness or two, where owner Tommy Tubridy entertained us with the history of his pub, which dates back to 1777. Tommy took over the pub from his Dad and bartending is the only job he knows. His son David will take over later this year when Tommy retires.

After another restful night at Doonbeg, we had to skip breakfast so we could be on the bus early (6 AM) for our trip to Ballybunion and an early tee time that would allow us ample time to play both the Old Course and the Cashen Course. Phillip timed our arrival at Ballybunion with a few minutes to spare so we headed inside to see if someone could rustle up some coffee. The young lady behind the counter was barely awake as we placed our orders. When my turn came, I ordered my usual decaf, to which she replied, “What’s the point?”

Long before I ever played golf in the UK, I knew the name Ballybunion. I can’t recall when I first heard it but there has always been something intriguing about the name and everything I ever heard or read indicated it was special.

Some will say that the first five holes on the Old Course are not very interesting. They skirt the dunes and feature back-to-back short par fives on relatively flat land. However, they provide a more-than-effective opening for what comes next – thirteen rollicking holes that hug the Atlantic coast, drift into the massive dunes and back to the water with breathtaking plunges and scary drops to the beach below. There are blind tee shots and impossible approaches that require the utmost accuracy, deep bunkers, dense fescue and greens that will leave you laughing or swearing at what a poor putter you’ve become.

Every hole is a post card.

There are no two holes alike and even with the enormous scale of the routing, there are subtleties that would require dozens of trips to understand. Originally built in 1893, the Old Course was tweaked in 1906. No architect of record is listed but it’s pretty obvious that genius was involved. I put Ballybunion Old amongst my top 3 Irish courses along with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. An absolute must to play.

A quick lunch of soup and a Guinness and we were prepared for the new course at Ballybunion. Designed by Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1982, the Cashen course doesn’t get the accolades it deserves. Part of the reason is that it sits adjacent to one of the best courses in the world. Maybe more to the point is the front nine, which has some mundane holes. However, the back nine could rank right up there with the best in Ireland.

While the Old course has spectacular dunes, the Cashen dunes are on steroids. We had been warned that if we were playing 36 holes back-to-back we might want to take a buggy (power cart) for the second round. No deal!

I’m not sure where I would rank the Cashen course but all of us agreed that it deserved a look and the back nine was a stunner.

With groaning backs and aching muscles, Phillip delivered us to the Malton Hotel in Killarney where we would be spending two nights. The Malton is a traditional, older hotel – think lots of wood, carpeting, big stuffed chairs and lots of chandeliers but the rooms had been redone in a modern style complete with WiFi, two double beds and a bathroom that included a tub. One anomaly though was the shower that had to be the world’s smallest. Think phone booth with a soap dish. If you dropped anything you had to open the door to bend down.

The Malton is situated in the downtown district, surrounded by block after block of more hotels and pubs. If there are other businesses in downtown Killarney, I’m not aware of them. It’s a really neat tourist town and even in mid-October the place was hopping with visitors from all over the world. Hiking, cycling and fishing are at least as popular as golf in Killarney.

Bring on the Wind

Our final day on the southwest coast involved a drive to Waterville along the famed Ring of Kerry road that traverses some of the most scenic spots on earth. With spectacular views of the water and the mountains that hug the coastline, it was an exhilarating ride.

Speaking of rides, most roads in Ireland don’t have shoulders. They’re typically two lanes of blacktop, framed by hedges, stone walls or occasionally a fence. They appear impossibly narrow and unfit for large vehicles. Even the most rugged of them often have a posted speed limit of 100 kph. Such was the Ring of Kerry where a moment’s distraction could have you plunging into the Atlantic. Phillip handled the bus beautifully.

Waterville is a small village on a tiny spit of land adjacent to Ballinskelligs Bay, renowned for its sea trout and salmon fishing. The town’s golf course was founded in 1889 as a nine hole layout but the club folded for some time in the 1950’s. It was bought in the late 60’s by an Irish American named Jack Mulcahy, who made his money in America but returned to Ireland to pursue a sporting life. Mulcahy commissioned 1948 Masters Champion Claude Harmon and Irish architect Eddie Hackett to design a new course and the result was the current championship course that has hosted many international events and is a favourite amongst PGA Tour players for its strong golf and spectacular fishing.

Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods and the late Payne Stewart annually used Waterville as a warm up for the Open Championship and Stewart in particular was very close to the members. In fact, he had been slated to become Club Captain in 2000, which never happened because of his untimely death in the fall of 1999. The club has erected a statue in his memory near the practice green.

The golf course is surrounded by water on three sides and our day at Waterville found us battling winds of 60-70 kph and gusting higher. It was warm and mostly sunny. Walking was difficult. There was no thought of playing the tips at 7,378 yards. Or was there?

Aside from me, everyone else had played the back tees at all of the other courses. I was back on two and up on two but with the wind howling, I made my decision early.

“I’m going up to the greens”, I announced. At 6,330 yards, the Green tees were the shortest available except for the Reds at 5,360. In retrospect, they might have been a wiser decision.

Jeff Mills decided he wanted to play the tips and Mike Horsley gallantly joined him, more to keep him company than a burning desire to bring the course to its knees. Matt MacKay decided to split the difference and played the Whites at 6,810.

On the 5th hole I hit my first 300 yard drive. Unfortunately, it was 150 yards out and 150 yards to the right.

The 12th hole is a beautiful little par-3 over a valley to a plateau green. It’s called the Mass Hole because long ago when practicing Christianity was banned, people used to huddle in the valley and worship out of site of marauding heathens. Jeff, Mike and Matt all played the tips and hit driver into the wind. It was 200 yards. I tried a 3-wood from 144. Nobody reached the green. I think that was when Mike abandoned the back tees.

The finish at Waterville may have been the best stretch of three holes we played anywhere. They follow the coastline, with gale force winds blowing off the Atlantic. No. 16 trudges uphill for 386 yards to a wickedly sloped green. No. 17, dubbed Mulcahy’s Peak, is a gorgeous one-shotter over a valley. The final hole is just a brute – 594 yards along a narrow fairway with dunes on the left and the beach out of bounds to the right, straight into the wind. Absolutely magnificent!

Three of us had long given up trying to keep our own score but we had Jeff at 80. It was one of the finest rounds of ball striking I have ever seen in perhaps the toughest conditions I’ve ever played.

As usual with great courses you want another crack at them and I’d love to play Waterville without the hurricane. Nonetheless, I rank this one amongst my favourites and a Top 10 in the UK.

The following day we returned to Dublin and Portmarnock Links. Initially, the plan had been to play Portmarnock Old but club functions didn’t allow for any guest play so we had to settle for the Links, apparently considered the lesser of the two.

All I can say is if the Links is the weaker course, then the Old must be spectacular. Both courses enjoy a flat coastal plain with views of Dublin across the water. There isn’t a lot of elevation like the dunes of the southwest coast but enough to delineate the holes and offer some pretty interesting looks. It’s windy and dry and the course has some teeth in it, including one 600-yarder right into the wind. For me, that was driver, driver off the deck, a 3-hybrid and a wedge – all hit well.

Dublin is one of my favourite cities in the world. I could easily spend a month there and never play golf, although there is no shortage of world-renowned courses. It’s as Irish as they come but also a very international city with immigrants from all over Europe, restaurants of every flavour and ethnicity and something happening all the time.

The history dates back more than a thousand years. Trinity College is one of my favourites as are the Jamieson distillery and the Guinness brewery. All can be visited on the Hop On Hop Off bus tour although after Guinness more people crawl than hop.

Our final night in Ireland included a visit to the Temple Bar district for dinner and a bit of nightlife. The only way to describe Temple Bar, especially on a Saturday night, is a combination of Oktoberfest and Mardi Gras. It’s a street party that never quits with lots of outdoor bands, drinking, dancing and mingling. There’s no curfew and more than enough to entertain participants and observers alike. Some cities do this kind of thing for a week or two a year. In Dublin, it’s every night!

Some final thoughts on a terrific week:

1. Matt and TJ did a fantastic job of organizing every detail of this trip. I suppose you could do it yourself with a lot of research but I’d let the experts handle it. Check them out at GOLF AWAY TOURS.

2. We didn’t have time for a couple of courses that usually form part of a trip to the southwest, namely Tralee and Old Head. To those I’d add Killarney Golf & Fishing Club and maybe Dooks.

3. If you have the time, add a couple of extra days for Dublin.

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