Club Choice Ireland are the experts at tailor-made golf packages to the East & South East of Ireland.
This is a golf tour company with a difference… when they say ‘experienced’ and ‘personalised’ they mean it. The background to Club Choice Ireland is a father and son duo (Larry & Tiernan Byrne) with over 40 years combined experience in bringing golfers into Ireland. You only need to spend a few minutes in their company to know that they are genuinely passionate about their region as a golfing destination and in April we got the chance to experience it first-hand…
ClubChoice wanted us to capture the very essence of a society based trip to the region, so we decided to leave the better golfers behind and send the hackers instead, modest standard golfers but high standard personalities. The reliable Phil (myself) and Bill combination boarded the Holyhead/Dublin Stena Line ferry 2.30pm on Sunday April 17th to take up the challenge.
Following on from Part I that took us from Dublin to Co Wicklow, from Dun Laoghaire to Druids Glen, we continue on our merry path with much to pack into the remaining two days of our trip to East Ireland……
Day two – Seaside charmer
This leg of the trip was for us to take a look at Club Choice’s new Arklow package. Following breakfast at Druids Glen we travelled to the coast to meet course superintendent Martin at Arklow Links (main image). A traditional seaside venue (1927) with a partly untraditional course, but with good reason too.
As Martin explained during our buggy ride, issues with drainage and coastal erosion prompted a re-design back in 2009 for renowned Irish agronomist Eddie Connaughton to solve. The solution was the raise the levels of the putting surfaces in a most un-links like way, but the results are there to be admired, effective, attractive looking and extremely testing.
Now, tricky little pot bunkers are built into the banks that surround undulating putting surfaces, and with the more normal prevailing winds gusting around, this is a tough track, but a rather lovely one too that looks like a lot of fun to play. Our favourite hole was the 16th, a twisting shortish par five where pleasure and pain look like they go hand in hand, a strategic one.
Arklow Links is still maintained as a traditional seaside course, retaining the rugged and untampered look, but it now also offers the sort of conditioning and all year round play that all links golf fans have come to expect. Martin was a passionate host, his love for the club was impossible to ignore.
A pheasant’s call
Now this was set up to be my highlight, I’d come across Woodenbridge by accident back in 2010 during a visit to Dublin with the missus to watch a Peter Kay gig at the O2. We hired a car to explore a bit, she wanted to get into the hills, to Wicklow Gap especially as this mountain range was where the film Braveheart was shot. On the way there, we passed the village of Woodenbridge and I spotted the sign for the golf club and drove in for a quick peek. The scene I saw that day stayed with me and went high up on the bucket list, now six years later I finally had the chance to return.
It truly is the most beautiful and peaceful setting of rushing water and woodland, one where nature rules and you are never more than five minutes away from a pheasant’s call. Positioned in the heart of the stunning Vale of Avoca, it’s a setting where two rivers, the Avoca and the Aughrim meet and criss-cross each other, a natural arena for a series of memorable golf holes.
Woodenbridge is named Ireland’s Augusta for a reason which in mid- April wasn’t abundantly apparent on our visit. So slick and pacey are the greens though that we did enquire if that was a further reason for the proud moniker, but no, it’s all about the plants and flowers that in the summer make this an even finer feast for your eyes, the members here are truly a very lucky bunch.
It’s a bit of a slow burner to start with but the scoring opportunities are there and you’d better take advantage because by the time the rivers collide there are many challenges to conquer. Holes like the beautiful short eighth and the closing pair all demand decent carrys to stay on track, it’s a fine player that keeps a dry ball through 18 holes here.
A special mention too for the stroke index one sixth, a totally dry hole but one that has the woodland as out of bounds all the way down the left side, and somehow one that I managed to scramble a six on. Doesn’t sound too impressive does it? And no it wasn’t because twice I fired wildly to the left and deep into woodland, so it seemed. But no, not once but twice the ball bounced back out again and into play – something going on here, maybe some Druids Glen mystique, from the night before had stayed with me.
How did we play?
The sixth summed up a less than impressive display for me, and predictably the wet balls came along later. Yet I enjoyed Woodenbridge so much that despite my game’s failing health, I still wanted to roll it all up and take it home with me. Bill fared worse, mainly because despite the chances I gave him he just couldn’t get to grip with the outstanding greens. The purse grew to four euro in my favour with one round to come.
The Mac Lads
We’d made a deliberate point of not checking out the courses online before we left, apart from Woodenbridge, Druids Glen and Dun Laoghaire we knew nothing, we wanted to be surprised. I had a feeling that the next stop at Macreddin GC, Paul McGinley’s first Irish design was going to do just that, the hunch was spot on, and how.
Macreddin is a buggy course, of that there is no doubt, one nine sits on one side of the road, the back nine on the other side via Macreddin village, a purpose built and quaint looking holiday resort. Quite simply it took our breath away, Mr McGinley clearly has the talent for great imagination to place holes around this inspiring and mountainous landscape as expertly as he has.
We over-stayed our welcome, two and a half hours we were there, unable to resist playing the majority of these inspiring golf holes. We waited for a weak hole to simply buggy through to save time, none came, they all deserved to be conquered, even though that wasn’t too likely.
Highlights were many, the Eagle’s Nest par three sixth, a 40 metre drop down to a distant green, the only hole we played from the medal tees all week. Impossible to resist this test and the lottery for club selection it provides. Amazingly for our faltering games we both found the green from 185 yards out with differing clubs but also with unerring judgement and skill, great stuff and if you ever come here and manage it yourselves check out the pitchmarks you create!
To the back nine where if anything, things go up in standard a further notch. The views are breathtaking and so is the golf especially on the winding 12th and 13th holes, undulating dog legs travelling in opposite directions surrounded by tall pines with the winding brook in full flow, pretty as a picture. Macreddin’s Course Superintendant Aindriu Jackson has seen it all in his years at the club, helping with the design in the early days, he’s only too happy to have it described as an undulating challenge. That’s probably an understatement, so grab that buggy when you’re here and enjoy. Macreddin is proudly a tough walk, but it’s also an unforgettable play that will live long in the memory.
It took us an hour to reach our hotel for the night, via the Wicklow Gap again as we were to check out a segment of one of Club Choice’s newer packages situated only an hours drive west of Dublin. Our lodgings for the last night of the trip came at The Portlaoise Heritage Hotel in the county town of Laois. Despite our herculean efforts of the day and our adventurous round at Macreddin still a fresh memory, we still managed to nip into town for a couple, the hotel is situated very handily in the town centre, with a number of bars in close proximity.
Day three – Early start at The Heath
After being ridiculed on social media for my healthy omelette and fresh fruit breakfast at Druids Glen the day before, I returned to type and joined Bill for the full Irish before we left Portlaoise and headed to The Heath GC for a quick buggy ride before Wednesday’s round. Once again the weather was set fair and 8am at The Heath was a pleasant time to look around this golf course.
This is one of Ireland’s oldest golf courses, it’s history dating back to 1889. Set on free draining heathland terrain and truly in the middle of nowhere in particular, it’s an ideal spot to lose yourselves in your surroundings and thoroughly enjoy a knock.
Just a buggy ride again, this time with head pro Mark O’Boyle who showed us the course which is pretty generous from the tee but tricky around the well banked greens which have many a subtle contour or two to work out. A sound short game is required to score well at The Heath, a layout with history and more than a little bit of Irish charm thrown in.
Our visit came just a little early to truly appreciate the ‘blaze of yellow’ that traditionally erupts in late springtime to transform the look of the place, but the signs were there.
Although not as heralded as some of others we visited and were yet to visit, The Heath is worth it’s place in Club Choice’s new Portlaoise package.
A true Seve finish
So the stage was set for the final showdown at The Ballesteros Course at The Heritage Resort, Seve’s only Irish design, and despite the certainty of knowing that the great man wouldn’t of approved of the golf that Bill and I produced on his golf course, he might have been proud of the fighting spirit that ensued and a few of the miracle shots that we pulled out of the locker in producing a true Ryder Cup style finish to our little tussle.
All of that later though, first and foremost there is much to admire about The Heritage Club, a lakeside golf course with more than a Spanish style flavour about it. The epicentre is the large lake that sits in front of the ultra modern clubhouse, making big demands of your approach shots to both the ninth and the 18th holes, reminded us very much of La Torre in Murcia if you’ve ever played there. Altogether water appears on 10 holes in total, the winding creek that runs up the side of the eighth hole was a further stumbling block, later on there’s an eye catching seemingly driveable par four 11th, except it isn’t really, with the hazards that exist it’s true hit and hope for those who dare to try.
How did we play? – To be honest it was all rather woeful and a good job it was just the two of us. But somehow bad golf produced an exciting conclusion to our match as Bill dug in desperate to avoid four euro being turned into eight.
image…. A typical Bill spot – to be fair he got out of this quite well!
The Seve spirit was conjured up and during a tense back nine Bill chipped in at 14 to go two up, then we halved a par three with half a dozen each (seriously!) and then facing defeat I holed a monster putt from the 17th fringe to take it down the last hole. One fluffed sand wedge later though (it wasn’t a lone one) and Bill was gifted the final hole and we ended up owing each other absolutely nothing!
Carton House – Amen to that
So the golf may have been over but we had two more visits to make before the evening sailing. Firstly we caught up with Tiernan for a late lunch at Carton House, the second Irish Open venue on our agenda. It’s an incredibly vast place, we thought Powerscourt and Druids Glen were on the large side but they’ve got nothing on Carton House. 1,100 acres in total and aside from lots of other sporting and leisure activities here there are two Championship golf courses of differing styles.
Caddymaster Gerry was our guide and we chased him up the fairways towards somewhere very special indeed.
The O’Meara course is Carton House’s second layout and Gerry was very keen for us see three holes in particular, and we soon discovered why. Designed to be the courses own ‘Amen Corner’, two short holes over water are separated by a tremendous par five 15th with more than a look of Augusta’s 13th about it. The water feature here has a gushing weir running into it, on the top side sits the lake that you have to cross to reach the green on the 16th, voted as one of the best 18 holes in UK golf by Golf World magazine. An astonishing trio that we must come back and play one day, Gerry had a knowing smile, he knew we would be impressed.
Not only that, but we also got a look inside the historic Shell Cottage, a dwelling purposely constructed for Queen Victoria and in subsequent years decorated uniquely with a huge collection of shells from all parts of the world collected by members of the Carton House owners, the Fitzgerald family. It’s quite an eye opening spot by the side of the river and weir, you can see why it’s a setting fit for a queen.
The Montgomerie course was next, far less in the way of subtleties here, Gerry took us right to the middle of this long layout, you can practically see the lot, and fear was the sensation that gripped us. True exposed inland links with narrow fairways and wispy grass as your rough, that although lay pretty dormant in April grows into something very fearsome in mid summer, as Gerry was only too happy to explain. The bunkers though are something else as well, if anyone knows The Hotchkin at Woodhall Spa, then you’ll know the sort of thing, they are exactly the same here, take the steps down to your ball!
Gerry finally took us to the spot where Paul Casey played a famous three wood to set up an eagle to snatch the Irish Open title in 2013 on the very last hole. A spectacular par five it is too, water to the right with Carton House itself in full view in the distance, it’s quite a place is Carton House.
A farewell pint
With an hour to play with we headed up the road to the lovely town of Leixslip to snatch a late look at one of Club Choice’s most popular hostelries. The Courtyard Hotel is set on historic ground as well, to the side of the old brewery where Arthur Guinness created his first pint of the famous Irish stout.
Plenty of it is supped at The Courtyard too, a throbbing town hub with a selection of bars and eateries complete with live outdoor music, huge screen TV’s for major sporting events and for those wanting a quieter time and a quality bite to eat, the lovely Riverbank Restaurant too, overlooking the River Liffey.
It was a super place to end a memorable trip and as we drank that final pint we vowed to return just as I had six years previously in discovering Woodenbridge GC.
Trips like these
So that was that, 225 golf holes (66 of them played) , three superb hotels, one crazy night in Dublin, two rather more relaxing ones on days two and three. We boarded the 8.50 Stena Line ferry back to Holyhead, and were up for the school run the next morning as if nothing had happened.
Yet the memories of the fabulous golf, the scenery, the friendliness we encountered and ‘the craic’ will last for a lifetime, no doubt in our minds that Club Choice Ireland showcase the very best in golf and hospitality that this part of Ireland has to offer. We all deserve to have trips like these.