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    O'Toole's of the Trade - The Northwest

     The links golf in the northwest of Ireland is an area that is crying out to be discovered. The links are magnificent, affordable and offer you a glimpse of the past. These courses are located in little villages that offer you a sense of welcome and a slower pace of life. The scenery is striking and you can drive on some of these roads seemingly forever and not see another car. Just recently a new direct air service from NY and Boston has been started into Knock Airport in County Mayo. This new service combined with the marketing initiatives of companies like North and West Coast Links should only help these gems to be unearthed by those outside of Ireland

    County Sligo Golf Club is a splendid links course located just outside of Sligo town. Aside from a few holes located up on a hill, it is a flatter, more traditional links. The tee for the second holes offers one a view of the 15 holes below as well as a long stretch of beach. It is a view seemingly from a postcard and I had it all to myself. I made my way around the links in fine fashion shooting a personal best 74 (+2). I used the bump and run to perfection as I got up and down no less than 9 times that round. It may not have been pretty but a 74 is a 74. I decided to celebrate my round by taking in a music session at the Anchor Bar in Sligo town. I got there around 8:30 and there is barely a soul in the place. An hour later and the bar was packed. What follows is a 2-hour music session as good as I’ve heard in Ireland. By the end of the night there were 4 tables pushed together and 15 of us buying pints for each other. It was a night to remember and a morning to forget.

     My hopes for better weather did not come to fruition as I got rained out of my round at Strandhill the next day. Upon arrival into the parking lot it was POURING sideways and I counted 2 cars in the parking lot. Rather than walk to the Pro Shop I called from the car stating who I was and that I was thinking of coming back in a little while to see if the weather improves. He paused and said, “Well, the sheet is pretty booked up today so I don’t know if I can get you out.” I waited a second for him to tell me he is kidding, but he is dead serious. Since I knew I wouldn’t be back anytime soon, I put on every stitch of DryJoys raingear I could find and headed out. A few people huddled under an overhang looked me over like I was out of my mind (I was thinking the same thing as well). I went out into the worst weather I have played in on this trip or any of my previous 6 visits. I made it through 5 holes and there was so much standing water they had to close the course. I know Ireland is known for it’s rainfall but this was starting to border on the ridiculous.

    I played the next day at Enniscrone and I was paired with 2 guys from Sweden who offer great company for the day. It was an enjoyable links, but certainly one to test any golfers mettle. We spray golf balls over most of the property and one of the boys decided to pull out a few cans of Carlsberg and enjoy the round in another fashion. My golf bag is filled with rain gear and golf balls so I had wait to until the 19th hole for my pint even though I could’ve used one at the time. This course was originally a 9-hole track but the great Irish golf course architect Eddie Hackett designed the extension to 18 in the 1970’s and he has produced a true gem not to be missed.

    A visit to Carne Golf Links followed. The course is located in the extreme northwest of Ireland outside of Belmullet, Mayo. The course was built with the purpose of attracting tourists to the remote area of Ireland and is owned and operated by Erris Tourism, a community owned and controlled company. The course played like a fine symphony. It starts relatively tame, but each hole is better than the next. The back nine builds to a fever pitch through some of the most intimidating links land Ireland or the world has to offer. During my round I catch up with 2 members and play a few holes with them as they are only out for nine. I notice one of the fellas is wearing a Red Sox hat and in his American accent he asks me where I am from as we are introduced. I tell him I am from Red Sox Nation and a wide grin come across his face. In talking with him I find out this area had such a profound affect on him 9 years ago, he quit his job and moved here for good. “I found paradise”, he said. I think I may agree.

    My last round before my week off and a visit from my very understanding wife was played at Connemara Golf Club. It was a sparkling day; finally the weather gods smiled down upon me. I have the good fortune of being teamed up with a group of 11 Americans looking for one more player. I am immediately made to feel part of their group and we have a grand time on the course. Connemara Golf Links is a course that grows on you as you play. The landscape differs from most links courses as rocky formations dominate the landscape. From the tee box, the course looks pretty straightforward and not overly difficult. Yet, Eddie Hackett has produced a links that will jump up and bite you in the behind if you go astray. The views of the bay are spectacular. Even from a good distance, you can see how crystal clear the ocean is. It’s quite a sight to see.

    The 13th hole is a 200-yard Par 3 and is one of the most enjoyable holes I have played in Ireland. It’s a beautiful sight from the tee and an intimidating tee shot to say the least. None of us make a birdie but it is a hole you could play over and over again. After the round, the 12 of us sit out on the deck overlooking the course at the brand new clubhouse at Connemara. We salute the round (and the sunshine) with a few pints. Cheers to the Friends of Mark (FOM)!

    Well, it’s time for some R&R. I’ll check in once back on the Emerald Isle.

    - Mike

    [Mike traveled to Carnoustie, Scotland to witness yet another unforgettable finish and the 2007 Open Championship]

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    O'Toole's of the Trade - Golf Karma

     These last 6 days have brought me to some spectacular settings. My first stop was a little 18 hole track in Donegal called the Northwest Golf Club. It is a spot most folks have not heard of but it has been around for over 100 years and is a founding member of the Golfing Union of Ireland. I arrived at the club in an absolute downpour only to find the door to the pro shop was locked. I noticed a few people out on the course so I ventured out, figuring I would pay upon completion of the round. A soggy 3 hours and 18 holes later, I returned to the pro shop only to find the door was still locked. Believing it was the right thing to do -and to protect my ‘golf karma’- I took out some money and slipped it under the door. Northwest will not be mistaken for Royal County Down or Lahinch but I found it to be a fun little links. What made my round even more interesting was that I did not have a scorecard (locked in the shop)- so I had to make a few educated guesses along the way…..

    Rosapenna was my next stop. This facility offers two 18-hole championship links courses; Old Tom Morris and Sandy Hills. What I like most about this facility is the fact that each course presents it own unique test of golf. The Old Tom Morris course, designed by its namesake, is a much more traditional links in the vain of the famed St. Andrews. The fairways are flatter and wider but the greens and bunkers are a true test-- you can make a big number in a hurry. On two holes you actually have to hit across the town’s main road (which was probably a dirt path when this course was designed back in the late 1800’s). I found it to be a wonderful links despite the fact that we were temporarily chased off the course due to the driving rains that came in. The Sandy Hills course, which only opened in 2003, offers a much different experience with links running through a series of massive dunes presenting you with elevation changes, tall rough and uneven lies. Accuracy off the tee here is crucial- my playing partners found this out the hard way on the first 5 or 6 holes. Both courses were in excellent shape and the round was perfectly topped off with a pint and hot bowl of soup in the new golf pavilion. Rosapenna is located in the little town of Downings and if you are ever in the area you need to stop into The Singing Pub. This thatched-roof pub up on the hill guarantees a great night of music and craic, as I can attest. Not to mention a wee little headache the next morning.

     For the next leg of the journey, I headed south out of Rosapenna to a wonderful little links course called Narin & Portnoo and for the first time all trip, I got lost trying to find the place—not bad considering all the miles I have logged thus far! I was greeted by one of the members of the club, Tom Plunkett who was a fantastic host. He joined me for the round with the challenge of a match- to which, of course, I accepted. Tom is the principal at the local school and he provided me with some excellent background on the course as well as the surrounding area. Narin & Portnoo have recently finished extensive renovations and this links is definitely worth taking the time (and skill) to get here. The views from the holes are truly amazing, especially the 10th. This breathtaking par 4 runs down the hill and out to a green that is nestled out into the bay. It is as fun a links hole as you will find anywhere in the world. The secret is to NOT hit it into the 11th fairway off the tee- the unfortunate route I chose. The tee for the 11th hole extends right out into the water and in the late summer dolphins can be seen up close frolicking in the bay. In addition to being a wonderful little links, this is one of the better values in Ireland with greens fees averaging 60 Euros.

    After a very enjoyable experience at Narin & Portnoo I headed south to Donegal Golf Club. There I joined up with a group of 6 Americans who provided great company for my round. One of the golfers in my foursome turned out to be a 16 year veteran of the LPGA and current member of the Legends Tour. It’s refreshing to watch someone take a swing at a golf ball with sound mechanics. The sun was out for much of the day but the wind kicked up to a steady 30-35 mph. Holes into the wind played so much longer that a bogey on the par 4’s into the wind are great scores. Donegal is a natural links providing a nice variety of holes as well as wonderful views of Donegal Bay. The course has only been in existence since 1959 but it looks as though it has been there forever. After the round, we retired to the pub in the spacious, modern clubhouse and watched a bit of a hurling match on TV. Hurling is a gaelic sport and they say it is the fastest field sport in the world. I just think they are plain crazy. If you don’t know what hurling is, look it up on the internet and you will think the boys in the NFL have it pretty easy.

    I am off to Sligo, Mayo and Galway and will check back in a few days.

    - Mike


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    O'Toole's of the Trade - The Northern Swing

     Cead Mil Failte from a cold and wet Causeway Coast in County Antrim Northern Ireland. (“Cead Mil Failte” is an Irish Greeting meaning “a hundred thousand welcomes.”)

    My swing through the north coast began in Ballycastle and then brought me to two of the world’s premier links courses, Royal Portrush and Portstewart. These two courses are only 3 km apart and are a “can’t miss” on any trip to the area. My round at Royal Portrush actually provided a peak at some sunshine but fierce winds made this course a test of patience and accuracy. The sun only enhanced the wonderful ocean views provided on most holes as well as the views of Dunluce Castle that can be seen from the east side of the course. Royal Portrush was the first course to hold an Open Championship (1951) in Ireland and it truly lived up to its lofty reputation. Low and straight was the order of the day but these orders were not always followed. My caddie for the round was a wonderful gentleman by the name of Johnnie Martin. Johnnie stood about 5’3” tall and had to be about 70 years old. He had been a milkman for 35 years but now caddied 4 or 5 days a week for the exercise. He did his best to keep me out of trouble but I did not cooperate. The 14th hole at Portrush is their signature hole fittingly named, “Calamity Corner”. Measuring 210yards from the back tee this is one hole that is all carry over a deep ravine that covers the whole right side of the approach. Johnnie says to me, “It is playing all of 220 and make sure you don’t go right.” Naturally I hit the ball about 175 yards and to the right down the ravine. Johnnie mentioned on a number of occasions that he played in a lawn bowling league and it was great fun. I think he was trying to drop me a hint that maybe I should consider the same after my display of golf that day. All kidding aside, Johnnie was good company for the 18 holes and he even offered a place to stay at his house for the night. I thought to myself, “Only in Ireland!”

     My day at Portstewart provided no look at the sun, but rather heavy wind and rain. My new DryJoys have been an absolute necessity so far in this trip and have passed this test with flying colors. The front nine at Portstewart are as fine a nine holes of links golf as I have ever seen. Sadly, I witnessed a young man’s introduction into links golf at the second hole. It is a short par 4 to an elevated green surrounded by dunes. Any ball short of the green will roll back about 20 yards to the bottom of the hill. The young lad’s approach shot to this green had landed just in front and rolled down the hill. He chipped his next shot just short and it rolled back to the same spot. He repeated that shot and once again it ended up back at his feet. He made sure he got the next one up on the green as it stopped about 30 feet past the pin in the front of the green. As if three shots from the bottom of the hill weren’t bad enough, his putt went right by the hole, down the hill, and into the same position he had started from. He then chipped back on and 3 putted. Give the boy credit, he continued on with his round although he did end up playing with one less club than he started with after a brief battle between his club and his bag. You guessed it, the club lost. After drying out from my round, I spent a great night at the Anchor Bar in town watching a fantastic set of traditional Irish music. This type of music is a personal favorite and I was not disappointed. The music was first rate and I met people from France, Spain, England and of course, Ireland. It is this type of evening that makes the golf experience in Ireland so unique and one not to be missed.

    Castlerock is a charming links that is situated right across the River Bann from Portstewart. While it may not get the publicity of Royal Portrush and Portstewart, it is a superb links course and a delight to play. As we stood on the tee, the starter gave us one bit of advice. “If you hit a ball into the rough and you see it bounce, you don’t need to hit a provisional. If you don’t see it bounce, hit a provisional because you will never find it.” With that little bit of advise given, we followed it to a T more often than we would of liked but the weather turned brighter as the day wore on. I had good company for the day, being paired up with 3 lads on a short golf holiday from England. They had played the day prior in the same pouring rain and the brightening skies made this round even more enjoyable. After our round, we shared a pint and said our goodbyes as they were off to the airport and me back to the B&B.

    My next leg of my journey has me heading back to the Republic of Ireland for a week worth of golf in County Donegal. I have not played here before but have heard fantastic things about the area. Keep your fingers crossed that summer makes an appearance and I will check back in a few days.

    - Mike

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    O'Toole's of the Trade - Heading North

    Hello from Northern Ireland! My travels in the last few days have brought me north through county Meath and Louth and into the UK. That weather has been wet and cold so I definitely hooked up with the right company on this one. I am going to put this DryJoys gear to the ultimate test it would seem.

    Okay, a few things that you need to know before you come to golf in Ireland. First and foremost, bring lots of golf balls. You are bound to lose at least a couple of balls a round in the immense rough. Secondly, get used to walking if you are playing the links courses. There are very few carts (or buggies as they are called here) available, if at all. Pull carts are always available but if you want to ride you need to call ahead and reserve one of their precious carts as there may not be one for you if you do not. Lastly, bring waterproof shoes and outerwear!! This is probably not news but it rains quite a bit here. But that is no reason not to golf. Links golf courses can hold a ton of water and it is extremely rare that a course is closed due to rain.

    The weather has been tough, but the golf a treat. I had a day (& night) to remember at Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club. Aside from shooting a career best 75 on this sparkling little links, I was made to feel like one of their own by the members here. After completing my round, I spoke with the Honorary Secretary who gave me some great background on the club including the fact that L&B has produced 2 Ryder Cup players, Des Smyth and Philip Walton. After our conversation, he invited me back later to meet some of the member up in the pub. He recommended leaving the car at the B&B and walking here. I should have known that was a sign of things to come. I arrived back at 930PM to find the boys in the pub and was immediately handed a pint and interrogated about my project. It was a fine night with tall tales spoke, lies being told, and a good natured argument here and there. As they say in Ireland, it was good “craic”. We closed the pub and a taxi proceeded to drop us all about town. After watching a tournament with the boys at the club the next morning, I was presented with a jumper (sweater) from the club upon my departure. I was truly honored. Cheers to Jim, Frank, Dave, Pat, and Michael -- I look forward to a return visit.

    I tried for 2 days to play Ardglass Golf Club but the rain was torrential and 12 holes were all I was able to muster. The members were probably happy to see me go as it rained so hard they were about to take up a fund to get me out of town. All kidding aside, the members were great and we enjoyed a pint or 2 in the clubhouse when were chased from the course. This is a special place and one not to be missed when in the area.

    Royal County Down was next on my list and being rated the #1 course in the world outside the US by Golf Digest, I knew this was something special. Special is not the word I would use for the golf played by my foursome that day. We brought new meaning to the word “amateur”. The course had its way with us but I did have one shining moment. I managed to drain a putt from 30 yards off the green on the 12th hole. Walking to the next tee box, the caddies turned to me and said,

    “I have only seen one putt made longer than that here. It was by Michael Campbell.”

    “US Open winner Michael Campbell?” I asked.

    “That’s right.” He replied.

    I can be sure this is the first and last time I will be mentioned in the same breath as any US Open champion.

    Well, my next port of call has me along the north coast of Northern Ireland and I will check in from there.

    - Mike

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    O'Toole's of the Trade - The First Rounds

    Well, I made it. I arrived on time into Dublin at 545AM and was on the course at 8AM. Why waste any time I figure. The weather upon arrival was cool and wet which is something I suppose I better get used to. I was a bit tired from the overnight flight but once I got into the car and heading to the golf course, my body and mind came to life.

    My first few days have been a wonderful reintroduction to links golf. Portmarnock was my starting point and it was a wonderful choice to get the trip going. My caddie Sean was invaluable and guided me around the course in fine fashion. After getting used to the bump and run, the punch shot, and putting from 20 yards off the green, he joined me for lunch and a pint. Sean has been caddying for quite some time and has been on the bags for PGA Tour players and celebrities .

    Royal Dublin was an absolute treasure. The course and clubhouse just completed a multi-million dollar renovation and the results are outstanding. Cavernous bunkers litter the course and swallow all balls that come near. 12 greens have been lifted and redesigned to produce multi tiered and contoured putting surfaces. It is a true test of golf and my host for the day, Denis Murphy, only enhanced the experience. As we played the course he pointed out to me all the changes that had been made and provided me with some great background on the club. Aftewards, we dined in one of the clubhouse bars that provides a stunning view of the 18th hole as well as 3 or 4 others. Cheers to Denis and the staff at Royal Dublin, I look forward to a return visit.

    County Louth provided the next test of golf and what a test it was. The sun appeared for a good part of the round, but in place of rain, strong winds took its place. I was joined by 3 lads from London on vacation and it was good fun. On the first hole, it took one of the boys 4 shots to get out of the fairway bunker. I eyed his caddie who had a look of despair on his face, worried about what he had gotten himself into. The wind was fierce and made the course play extra long. On a 141 yard par 3, I was short right by 15 yards with my 3 wood. It was all about keeping it low and out of the wind if you wanted any chance at par. At round’s end, the course had taken it’s toll but we had a sense of accomplishment once done and we toasted our round with a pint in the clubhouse bar.

    The game of golf on a links course is one of patience, creativity and accuracy. The weather can make a course play any of a hundred ways and you have put your ego in the bag and hit clubs from distances you never would back home. It is an enjoyable way to golf and combine that with the Irish people and culture and you have an unforgettable golf experience.

    I am starting to make my way north and will check back in a few days. Check out this Custom Google Map to track my progress around the Emerald Isle.

    - Mike