Everything its craiced up to be
Which country's welcome flings its arms open to you with coast-to-coast golf courses, culture oozing from every orifice, gleaming and brooding natural beauty and an attitude that if you ‘sing for your supper', you'll be valued by all, even with any quirks you might have in your bag?
There is only one place on earth this applies to: the Emerald Isle. This report is not just about golf in Ireland; hopefully it will give an insight into what makes the place and people tick, why it produces some of the world's best cultural and sporting performers, and why every time you touch down,
that feeling of people accepting you just as you are, even if a bit barking mad, is what the inhabitants are interested in.
What can you ‘bring to the table'? What is your contribution to the day? Are you entertaining to be around? Or are you simply full of bull?
What is it about the Irish that hypnotises us to join in their fun? At the 2002 Ryder Cup, the vision of Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley all draped in their flag, overflowing with joy, made us all wish we came from the land of the little green men.
Irish character and resilience is surely partly moulded by the unpredictability of their weather, which involves regular doses of the wet stuff (hence lush fairways). Irish humour is always close to the edge, and expressions like “the mad Irish” remind visitors that it doesn't take much to push things over into the bottom of a Guinness or peat-whafting whiskey glass.
Driving through towns such as Tipperary in Limerick, the wall-to-wall pubs – O'Shanks, Flubbedigins, Yipperty's, Hook O'Slice – provide biblical-sized temptation, with the result that you either drink none of the hard stuff or you need the constitution of a concrete elephant. Either way you can't win.
When they're not celebrating or commiserating with old and new friends, the ‘Micks' are making money. Dublin is buzzing; Galway, on the West Coast, is a happening place; Limerick has a funky new arts centre; and Cork, down on the bottom, is not exactly quiet and retiring.
But it is the Dublin area that is noticeably awash with euros and building signs “funded by the European Commission for...” that emphasize that the canny Irish have tapped into that pot of golf and their rainbow is well under construction.
As with many places, the best way to get a feel is to drive on their roads. Yes there are motorways, but try driving this route in four days and staying sane: Shannon (bottom left)-Tipperary (bottom middle)-Dublin-Kilkenny (bottom right)-Dublin-Tipperary-Dublin. That's three rounds of golf, two hacks by horse, three swims and a spa. Think of St Andrews#' greens.
Those large humps known as “buried elephants” are a regular tarmac feature. At least, the avoiding of tyre-bursting and clashing with dubious drivers keeps the adrenalin flowing all the way to the first tee, and where better to begin our Irish jig than 40 minutes south of Dublin Airport with a little breakfast at the K Club.
Opulent splendour sums basically it up. We all know about the K Club – Ryder Cup 2006 venue and home to the Smurfit European Open. The Arnold Palmer-designed challenge is well above par, and with the amount of euros being pumped into renovating, earth-moving and teasing, it will be an even grander proposition come the big day three years hence. Watch out for the 600+yard 7th hole, ‘Half Moon', a double-dogleg over sand, rough and water with an island green cradled in the forearms of the River Liffey.
Dangerous territory. And it might be wiser to take in the impressive views of Straffan House (now the K Club Hotel) than to go for it. The par-five 13th hole, ‘Arnold's Pick', should have your alert antennae buzzing. What was the great man known for?
Taking strategic risks and being a bit cavalier. Success here depends entirely on the placement of the drive.
Finally, of course, the 18th. Any Ryder Cup must have an operatic finish (Valderrama has its 17th drama-queen), and throw in a good-sized lake for either the ball to be drawn into or excited Irishmen to dive into (like Paul McGinley at The Belfry) and you've created a rich viewing recipe. Back to why Ireland attracts some of the sporting greats to relax and stay a while. Adorning the clubhouse walls are photos of Tiger Woods and his big buddy, Mark O'Meara, grinning like kids with rods in hand.
They are hooked on fishing, so much so they annually fly the boss of the K Club, who has become a close friend, out in their jet to exotic hunting grounds to check that their casting
style is up to scratch. In a world where the Tiger has limited freedom to roam, is it not heartening to know that he chooses Ireland every year.
And why? Because it's a great place and the people have sufficient sense to welcome him and then leave him alone with his mates (and in some deep parts of the country they either don't care who he is or have never heard of him). There are three types of golf venues in my trip, starting with that flashy but friendly K Club.
Two hours' drive south into Kilkenny, we reach Mount Juliet. This is idyllic riding country rich in hunting history, and the kennels are alive with the sounds of the hounds. If the Earl of Carrick and his wife, Juliana, were alive today, they would be proud to see how their MJ has developed into a 21st-century mind-body-soul haven.
This is something else about Ireland – a seemingly disproportionate number of splendid historic houses are now hotels, some family-run and some, like Mount Juliet, owned by hotel groups. With 32 bedrooms in the main house, you can swish open the bedroom curtains to view the River Nore, stuffed to the brim with brown trout, and out to the horizon you can inspect the paddocks of MJ's Ballylinch Stud.
On the golfing front, Mount Juliet played host to the 2002 American Express Championship, and the Jack Nicklaus course really does have carpets for fairways and greens that match Augusta National.
There are only a few times that North European greens blow your mind but here it goes ballistic. It is so pleasurable to putt on surfaces that improve the putting stroke. And if you make it to the green on the par-three, 182-yard 3rd hole, putting will be a relief. Think Amen Corner at Augusta. It is a massive carry over the fish habitat. The next mega potential card screw-up is at the par-five 10th hole.
Here we have Ireland's version of Twin Peaks, with two trees blocking the green's entrance. Staying in a Rose Garden Lodge, you can be as anti-social as you wish. Light the fire, bubble the bath, open the bottle and watch the telly. Then there's a knock
at the door and a special delivery from Kendall's restaurant tops the day off, apart from pigging out on Irish chocolates. Oh yes, Mount Juliet has a whacky putting course (possibly designed by Jack Nicklaus on speed) which has ravines and mini-bunkers and is generally impossible.
The estate is best inspected on horse. The long-nosed beasties are integral to Ireland. Horses, alongside Guinness, music, art and food, are what glue Ireland together. Breeding, racing – both jump and flat – hacks and hunts are part of the reason the Irish show their emotions; why they deal with birth and death issues better than we restrained Anglo-Saxons.
What is surely unique is the make-up of the golfing community in Ireland. It is everyone from every walk of life, with a large proportion of the horse brigade ripping 300-yard drives while discussing ‘form'. One of the most endearing examples of this are the owners of Mount Coote stud in Limerick. The Lillingston family have been breeding winners on their 500-acre estate since 1959. Alan and Vivi have bred more than 60 winners in Group and Listed races, and now Luke, their son, has taken up the reins.
Action man Alan has been Champion Irish Amateur Jockey and won the Champion Hurdle and National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham.
He won a team gold medal in the European 3-Day Event Championships in 1979, and in 2002 he was awarded a life-time honour for his contribution to breeding and racing. Go into the basement at Mount Coote, where the hunting boots are stored, and there are two Powakaddies and assorted golf clubs. They are golf nuts.
Swing practice takes place on the lawn, trying not to hit the roof. This crossover rarely occurs in the UK. The UK horse fraternity, particularly hunting, tend to look at a golfer as another, rather strange species. In Ireland, be you Viscount O'Kelly, plumber, artiste, groom or international business magnate (Michael Smurfit/J.P. McManus/Dermot Desmond/John Magnier), you will be a golfer.
Heading back up towards Dublin, we reach Dunlavin and Rathsallagh House Golf & Country Club. The O'Flynn family create a ‘hug me in a duvet and feed me with hot chocolate' feeling at their 18th-century home. Rathsallagh has more awards than Tiger has victories (well, nearly) and the curried bread at breakfast is a must. Jo O'Flynn and his wife, Sarah, have been in the saddle for some years, but “the old hunting man O'Flynn” (Jo's father) is a vivacious presence in the bar or on a tractor in the grounds. His wife, Kay, occasionally reins him in.
The golf is parkland, designed by Peter McEvoy with wide fairways and good greens – a cathartic wander while you contemplate the runners during Punchestown week.
Ah, yes Punchestown. Anyone who's anyone in racing (and thereby golf punters) either heli's or drives in and drops in at Rathsallagh for a spot of O'Flynn hospitality. Once a year, the golf course has a charity day known as ‘the Pink Wigs', with the obvious headgear worn.
The players compete for tonnes of turf and incidents are known to occur which, if captured on film, could easily shock Graham Norton, let alone the R&A. Wild? Nah, it's just part of the craic.