"Slainte" (Cheers) to Ireland
Lesser-known Irish parkland golf courses well worth seeking out
by Dale Leatherman
Mention golf and Ireland in the same breath and the image of links courses
comes to mind. True, many of the world's best links courses are here, but there
are also parkland courses well worth a trip inland.
"Caed Mille Failte." One hundred thousand welcomes. The oft-repeated Gaelic
phrase is symbolic of the Irish, a people given to natural ebullienceand
sometimes exaggeration (i.e, the Blarney Stone). But the friendliness of the
Irish is not exaggerated. Nor is their claim to a lion's share of the finest
golf courses in the world.
An island slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, Ireland has 402 courses,
more than any other country of comparable size. Many of them are the stuff of
legendLahinch, Ballybunion, Royal County Down, Portmarnock, County Sligo,
Donegal, Rosapenna, Portstewart, Ballyliffin, to name a few. Others have
escaped international attention, but stand ready to reward the golfer who seeks
out lesser-known tracks, the gems favored by locals.
Forty percent of the world's true links courses are here, scattered along 3,000
miles of Ireland's ruggedly beautiful coastline. But Irish golf has a fitting
yin to the linksland yangparkland courses as fair and beguiling as any garden,
where flowering plants and dancing waters offer consolation if the layout
Faced with a very short stay on the Emerald Isle, I chose to save the links
courses for another time and seek out two resorts known for their parkland
layouts. I drove 20 minutes south of Dublin to the "Garden of Ireland," County
Wicklow, and a resort known for its garden-like settingDruid's Glen Golf
Resort. The 400-acre enclave lies between the Wicklow Mountains and the Irish
Sea near the small village of Newtown-mountkennedy.
Druids Glen Golf Resort
Ten years ago architects Par Ruddy and Tom Craddock were asked to create the
best parkland course in Ireland, no matter what the cost. As a measure of their
success, the Druids Glen Course is known as the "Augusta of Europe," and
Augusta would have to go some to top it visually when the thousands of azaleas,
rhododendrons, magnolias, gorse and other flowering plants are in full bloom. A
variety of mature trees, an abundance of tumbling waterfalls and pools,
historic stone bridges and hedges clipped into symbolic designs make this a
garden of earthly delights with a golf challenge to match.
A year after Druids Glen opened in 1995, the 7,046-yard track hosted the Irish
Open and continued to do so through 1999. It was also the venue for the 2002
Seve Cup between Ireland and Great Britain and continental Europe. Many
European players and officials have called it one of the best venues on their
pro tour, and Colin Montgomerie, two-time winner of the Open, says the Glen's
thirteenth hole is the toughest on the tour.
The hole in question, a 471-yard par 4 called "the Snake," is a dogleg from a
very elevated tee to a slender, angled fairway alongside a stream. It takes a
long second shot across water to reach the green, and conservative recreational
players settle for a three-stroke approach. On the hillside beneath the
championship tees, the course's full-time gardener has sculpted hedges in pale
green "snakes." Linking tees and fairway is Three-Eye Bridge, an ancient stone
span with three arches over a rambunctious stream.
Thirteen is the signature hole, but it is the twelfth that gives the courseand
the resortits name. During construction of the hole, workers discovered a
12th-century altar used for worship by the Druids, the priests of ancient
Celtic society. A statue of a Druid now overlooks the altar and the green.
Before my round, players' assistant Desmond Byrne escorted me through Woodstock
House, the restored 1770s mansion that is now the course clubhouse. In the
basement, a small museum is housed in a tunnel used by the staff to enter the
house. That way, the owners' view across the great expanse of the estate was
not spoiled by the presence of servants walking to work. The nearby Spike Bar,
a breakfast area with a vaulted stone ceiling, was originally the wine cellar.
On the main floor is a comfortable bar with deep leather chairs overlooking
waterfalls tumbling past the eighteenth green.
Out in front of the clubhouse, flags of several nations snapped in the breeze.
It is the club's custom to fly the flag of every golfer scheduled that day. On
the underside of his cart roof, Byrne had jotted phrases translated from more
than 20 languages so that he could greet players with a familiar remark. During
my stay I found that this sort of personal attention seemed to be de rigueur
for the resort staff.
Aside from scoring, playing Druids Glen was literally a walk in the park. The
second hole, a par three from an elevated tee, drops to a green beside a
12-foot stone wall that has surrounded the estate for more than two centuries.
An arched opening in the wall leads to the third tee, set in a former orchard
now replanted in fruit trees. A curve in the wall gives space to a pair of
gnarled redwoods that would have been saplings when the wall was built.
One beautiful hole follows another, presenting fresh challenges and views at
every turn. Fairways parallel each other in only two instances, so there is a
wonderful air of seclusion as the route winds through wooded garden-like copses
and across meadows bordered by tall yellow gorse. Three of the four par 3s play
across still pools with cascading falls nearby, including the 17th, which has
an island green. Another is the twelfth, where the bank of the elevated tee
boxes is decorated with a huge Celtic cross sculpted in shrubs and flowers. The
finishing hole, a 450-yard par 4, plays uphill alongside a succession of
waterfalls, culminating in a diagonal water crossing to the green.
Druid's Glen has a new companion course, Druids Heath, which occupies a plain
300 feet higher than the Glen, with distant vistas of the sea. Stretching 7,434
yards, the Thomas Ruddy design is a combination heath and links style with few
trees, but riddled with gorse, heather, pot bunkers, rock quarries and streams.
In difficulty it is a good match for the Glen, especially when the wind sweeps
off the sea. The toughest hole is the twelfth, a 492-yard par 4 that calls for
a heroic drive and a long second to a sloped green. Two of the par 3s are long,
considering the windthe 233-yard third hole and the 250-yard eleventh.
Eighteen is another memorable finishing holea 415-yard par 4 channeled
through a keyhole of trees to a landing area ringed by bunkers and an elevated
green demanding a fly-in approach.
The Marriott Druids Glen Hotel & Country Club is Wicklow's only five-star
resort. Though built in a modern style, stone and wood used in the construction
and furnishings give the hotel a natural feel. In addition to 148 large rooms
and suites, the building contains an exceptional spa with swimming pool and
more than 8,000 square feet of space for large gatherings. Flynn's Steakhouse,
with its fireplace and views of Druids Glen, was my favorite place for beef and
Another great spot is the Thirteenth Bar, where I met with Denis Kane, CEO of
the resort, for a Bushmills (the Irish way, with no ice and just a dash of
spring water to release the whiskey's flavor). Kane is a left-handed golfer, as
I am, so we were able to discuss the nuances of the courses as kindred spirits.
The K Club
My next destination was Killashee House, a 17th-century stone manor house near
Naas in County Kildare. A bell tower looms over the structure, a reminder of
its use in the 1920s as a boys' prep school run by the local La Sainte Union
Nuns. Today the historic house is comfortably fused to an elegant hotel with
large rooms appointed with period furniture. Hidden behind the stately edifice
is a thoroughly modern spa and exercise facility with a large indoor pool.
I chose Killashee House because it is within easy reach of the Irish National
Stud, the Currragh Racecourse and the K Club, with its grand hotel and country
club set among 700 acres of gardens and ancient forest along the River Liffey.
The K, of course, stands for "Kildare," from the Gaelic "cill" (church) and
But the name on many lips these days is Arnold Palmer, who designed the course
for Ireland's first Ryder Cup, September 22-24, 2006.
As I waited my turn on the first tee of the Palmer Course, the starter, Sean,
and I discussed this passage in the course guide: "If ever a golf course
reflected the personality of its architect, it is surely the course Arnold
Palmer designed at the K Club. It may seem odd to describe a golf course as
charismatic and cavalier but from the instant you arrive at the first tee you
are enveloped in a unique atmosphere. You may have been forewarned that . . .
[it] is no ordinary golf course, and that it is widely acknowledged as the
country's most challenging layout, but still you will be unprepared for the
Sean concluded that the course was deceptive, with trouble lying in the most
After this build-up, and having experienced other Ryder Cup venues, I
approached the course with some trepidation. However, I found the gently
rolling layout to hold no big surprises for the recreational golfer; trouble is
always visible. Avoiding it is another issue. Palmer makes you exercise some
strategy and work for your score, but the route is not overly penal. Of course,
it will be a different story for the Ryder Cup teams playing from championship
tees to narrow fairways lined with three-inch rough.
The opener is an unassuming par five, but the next seven holes feature water
hazards, including the memorable par-3 fifth hole, "Church Fields," backed by
the ruins of a church and a waterfall that feeds a stream coursing in front of
the green. The seventh hole is a 600-yard double dogleg lined with flowering
trees and shrubs, but rife with water, sand and rough. It culminates in a small
green cupped between two branches of the Liffey, accessed by a 19th-century
iron bridge. A wooded walk to the eighth tee passes a pretty garden and
fountain and offers a view of the imposing backside of the Kildare Hotel. The
fairway and green hug the river, which widens into cruising territory for regal
The back nine is home to picturesque par-3s and a tricky trio of par-4s that
concludes with an island green on the sixteenth hole. Palmer's finishing
flourish, a 537-yard par 5 named "The Hooker's Graveyard," tempts big hitters
to drive over a hill riddled with bunkers and then go for a green closely
guarded by water and a nest of bunkers. Cooler heads will play three shots to
Palmer's mandate for the resort's newer Smurfit Course was to make it entirely
different from the Palmer track. Mission accomplished. A links-style course but
with no ocean roaring in the wings, the track does have 14 acres of water and
lots of dune-like mounding. While the parkland Palmer Course features cultured
plantings, the Smurfit is a random riot of bracken, gorse and other wild
vegetation, with four islands serving as wildlife havens.
The 69-room, 25-suite Kildare Hotel at the K Club offers every conceivable
luxury and all the activities you'd expect at a five-star resort. If you're in
the market for a second or third home, resort development is boomingmassive
homes and condos are sprouting up on both courses.
When visitors arrive at my door these days, they see a knocker inscribed with
"Caed Mille Failte." I always hope they ask, so I can explain the meaning and
the hospitality of the Irish. It's also a reminder to me that I have a lot to
live up to.
For more information on:
Druids Glen Resort & Country Club: http://www.druidsglen.ie
The Kildare Hotel & Country Club (K Club): http://www.kclub.ie
Killashee House: http://www.killasheehouse.com
Links Golf Trips: http://www.westcoastlinks.com
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