Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 10, 2017
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The Kingdom of Golf

Rain or shine, nothing puts a damper on Ireland's brilliant links

To be sure, some of the world's best courses are in Ireland. But that's not what makes a golf vacation on the green isle so special. It's the laid-back attitude. Not that the Irish don't take their game seriously; they just have great fun doing it. Whether teeing off at one of the greatest links courses in the world or at some unknown gem, you'll be welcomed and teased like an old friend. Nothing takes the kinks out of a backswing like being relaxed.

Last June I also discovered that the Irish have a blasé attitude about rain. (There's good reason for all those shades of green.) "I'm a fair-weather golfer, but this will blow over," announced our playing partner, Vari McGreevy. We were at the sixth hole at Druids Glen (tel: 011-353-1-287-3600; www.druidsglen.ie), a half-hour drive south of Dublin when the azure sky suddenly turned an ominous grey. Seconds later, the heavens opened and my umbrella blew inside out. My husband, Bill and I sought shelter under a tree. I assumed that we were going to make a dash into the clubhouse. But no, Vari zipped up her rain jacket, gave the peak of her cap a tug and drove a beauty about 200 yards down the middle of the fairway. The Irish lass seemed unfazed by the downpour and the ripping wind.

By the eighth hole, the storm had passed and we were thoroughly enjoying this championship parkland course, home to the Irish Open in 1995. Nestled between the Irish Sea and the mountains of Wicklow, Druids Glen has been dubbed the Augusta of Europe, no doubt for its manicured fairways and marvelous gardens.

This course has everything: swans, stone walls covered with roses, a floral Celtic cross planted on number 11, an ancient Druids' altar blessing (or cursing) the 12th green. "Everything but an easy hole," remarked Vari.

After the island-green par three on the 17th and the three ponds on the 18th, we were ready to drown our sorrows. The clubhouse, actually an 18th-century manor house, was memorable, not just for the Classical columns and exquisitely ornate plasterwork but for the tale Vari told of a bishop who once resided there. It seems he suffered from a rare skin condition that required him to bathe in red wine. The story goes that his enterprising servant bottled the bath wine and sold it to a local pub. Eventually he was fired and the pub lost its licence.

Along with that tidbit, Vari advised us not to miss the nearby Powerscourt gardens. You don't really need a guidebook in Ireland. Just belly up to the bar in the clubhouse, order a Guinness and in no time the locals will advise you on where to eat, sleep, swing and sightsee.

Powerful Course
Powerscourt mansion, built in the 18th century, is surrounded by magnificent gardens, including a series of Italianate terraces with statuary leading down to a lake guarded by a winged bronze horse. Rumour has it that the landscape architect, Daniel Robertson, who suffered from gout, directed operations from a wheelbarrow, sherry bottle in hand. When the sherry was finished so too was work for the day. No doubt, several litres were drained by the time the walled gardens, pet cemetery, dolphin pond and sunken Japanese gardens were completed.

During summer, it stays light in Ireland until about 10pm so there was still plenty of time for a round on Powerscourt's golf course (tel: 011-353-1-204-6033; www.powerscourt.ie/golfclub/), a parkland tract with tough tiered greens and grand views of the Wicklow and Sugar Loaf Mountains.

Just south of Powerscourt, Tinakilly Country House makes an ideal base for golfers. You'll find no less than 20 courses within three to 120 kilometres, including the prestigious K Club, Mount Juliet and some lesser-known village gems with greens fees starting at about €35.

In between all those parkland and seaside courses, the Wicklow coast is dotted with sweet little towns where civic pride is obvious. Hanging baskets of flowers festoon the tidy streets and the shops and pubs are brightly painted like a handful of shiny Smarties. Stop in to watch the artisans at the Woolen Mills in the vale of Avoca (where the BBC series Ballykissangel was filmed) hand-weaving Irish tweed and mohair on flying shuttle looms.

Corkers in Cork
We headed inland and west through Waterford (home of the world-famous crystal) to Kinsale in West Cork, often referred to as Ireland's gourmet capital. Smart shops and eateries line the steep narrow streets and yachts bob in the fjordlike harbour of this upscale town.

We'd intended to splurge on a round at Old Head (tel: 011-353-21-477-8444; www.oldheadgolflinks.com) but a tournament in play saved us E250. Inspired by a heli-ski vacation in the Canadian Rockies, owner John O'Connor decided to offer his well-cleated clients chopper rides from Cork Airport to this stunning 18-hole promontory rising out of the Atlantic Ocean with nine exhilarating fairways playing along rugged cliff tops.

We were about to give up on golf when we spotted a sign outside Clonakilty for Lisselan Estate Gardens and Golf Course (tel: 011-353-23-33-249; www.lisselanestate.com/golfcourse.htm). A real corker, this six-hole course is not to be missed. You play the six holes three times from different sets of tee blocks. Number four is a gorgeous par five playing over a pond to a green set in front of the owner's French-style château. A raft on an electric pulley delivers you to the green surrounded by rose bushes. On number five you tee off at the foot of the stairs of the château, sending your ball over the owner's private heli-pad. A new nine-hole course is scheduled to open this July.

 

Kerry Me Home
By now we were eager to take aim on the renowned links of the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Our base was Killarney, a town with a magnificent lake and mountain setting. The morning we arrived at the venerable Dooks Golf Club (tel: 011-353-66-976-8205; www.dooks.com) (founded in 1889) at the head of Dingle Bay, we had to pull on our rain jackets and head for the clubhouse.

"You'll need leggings," advised Mary, captain of the ladies' team. So began the start of a new wardrobe that would protect us from the Irish elements as we tackled the links.

An ocean gust blew my ball off the fifth tee. The gorse and rough were insatiable. The new leggings kept our bottoms snug but our Canadian rain jackets weren't made for this kind of downpour. Water dripped down our necks. Bill decided to throw in the towel on the 13th par three when his grip slipped and his nine-iron flew farther than his Titleist. I sloshed on and was rewarded with a brief patch of sun as I hit my ball over the natural mound to the 18th green, known by locals as the "nuisance." According to manager Declan Maglan, "Dooks is about as traditional an Irish links course as you'll find."

In retrospect, the weather at Dooks was grand compared to Waterville. We had a lovely drive to the tip of the Ring of Kerry, stopping to photograph the panorama of three lakes with mountain backdrops at Ladies View and to buy some traditional Irish music in the picturesque hamlet of Sneem. But, by the time we reached Waterville House & Golf Links (tel: 011-353-66-947-4102; www.watervillehouseandgolflinks.com) I wondered if we should start building an ark. Bill decided to read a newspaper in the cosy clubhouse.

"Perhaps I should wait until it clears a bit," I suggested to the starter. "It's looking pretty good now," he responded as if we were experiencing a fleeting shower. Okay, I decided, I'm here and I'll play this course come hell or high water. I was joined by a couple of locals, Mike and Maureen, who seemed oblivious to the precipitation. At the end of the ninth hole they suggested I invest in a pair of all-weather gloves and a decent jacket. Happily I did.

There isn't a weak hole at Waterville from the flatlands at the beginning hole, aptly called Last Easy, to the turbulent and winding dunes at the end. No wonder this is where Tiger warms up before the British Open. And who could forget the finishing hole, a long par five that carries you home along the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay? Nothing could put a damper on this beautiful monster.

After about four hours, I stopped thinking about the rain. I ignored the swishing sound in my shoes as I stepped up to the tee. Mind you, at this point Maureen had shared a wee dram of Irish whiskey from her hip flask. Maybe that would be my next investment.

Drive to Dingle
On our last day of golf we drove to Ceann Sibeal (tel: 011-353-66-915-6255; dinglegc@iol.ie), Celtic for Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, the most westerly golf course in Europe. The weather was glorious and sunny. Each hole on this links course is carved from the natural, unspoiled landscape. One of the hazards is a natural "burn" (stream) that winds throughout the entire course. Play a round here and the panorama of the Dingle Peninsula unfolds — tiny fishing villages in hidden bays, the Blasket Islands out in the wild Atlantic, glorious hills and mountains and more shades of green than you can imagine. The staff and members here speak the lyrical Gaelic as their first language, as they do on many parts of the Dingle Peninsula. Even the scorecard is written in Gaelic.

But the locals were happy to switch from Irish to English and give us some après-golf advice. We checked out the 200-year-old Foxy John's Hardware and Pub on Dingle's main street. Half of the property is a general store selling rubber boots, tweed caps and fishing tackle; the other half is a vintage pub complete with a snug where the ladies can imbibe. Very quaint.

'Twas time to find our way back to a B&B recommended by a chap in the pro shop. The Irish are so helpful and polite, it's one of the few places my husband actually enjoys stopping and asking for directions. On this occasion, a young lad actually hopped into the back seat of the car to guide us to the Old Pier Guesthouse where Padrig O'Connor is the host and local historian; his wife Jacquie presides in the kitchen. We ordered crab claws in garlic butter, black sole with prawns and rhubarb crisp and watched the sun setting on the Three Sisters, craggy outcroppings in the harbour. The plaque on the dining-room wall summed up our serendipitous state: "Be it resolved that there are but two kingdoms in this world: the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry." To which I might add the kingdom of golf — rain or shine.

 

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