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Avoiding southwest Ireland's dog & pony show reveals off the tourist path gems

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

Mike Kelly plotted and dreamed on his first golf trip to Ireland for years. Star Wars geeks spend less time anticipating a new movie opening than Kelly did picturing his first trip to the Emerald Isle. The hardworking New Yorker wouldn't just be playing some of the finest golf courses in the world, the tracks he'd seen on TV. He'd be visiting his family's homeland, hanging with the locals, maybe even running into a fellow or two who had known his late grandfather.

Then, Kelly got there and ended up sharing plenty of pints with...well, plenty of fellow Americans.

"We kept running into guys from New Jersey,'' Kelly said. "I'm not kidding. Every pub we went into seemed to have a few guys from Jersey in it. I mean, come on. If I wanted that, I could have just taken the PATH (train) to Hoboken."

People who know the Isle aren't surprised by stories like Kelly's. Like most first-time visitors Kelly and his group focused on Ireland's southwest region, the most famous golf area in the country. It is land of legendary courses and lengthy tourist lines. You can expect to fight for elbow space with that nice couple from Indiana and that band of gents from Berlin here, especially during the high summer tourist months. And chances are the few authentic Irishmen you do run into will be trying to hawk a nifty souvenir T-shirt.

"I call it the dog and pony show,'' said Graham Spears, the owner of the Golf Travel Company, a packaging service that puts together trips throughout Ireland, including the famed southwest. "If you want authentic Ireland, you're better off going elsewhere.

"In the southwest, you're liable to be stuck behind a tour bus full of German tourists."

Still, no matter how hard Spears tries to make his clients aware of the other options, the first-timers inevitability insist on the southwest anyways. They want to play the Ballybunions, Lahinchs and Watervilles of the world. Those are the courses they've heard of after all. Those are the courses that make Irish golf great, right?

Not exactly. Or at least not close to entirely. It turns out going north by northwest instead brings you to courses the equal of the storied southwest set. Places like County Sligo (otherwise known as Rosses Point), a 6,043-yard links track with enough elevation changes to make a man dizzy. Places like Enniscorne Golf Course, which boasts the longest starting holes of any course in Europe -- three par fives and par four to unsettle you before the round's even really begun.

Yet it is what the northwest lacks as much as what if offers that draws the in-the-know golfer, mainly a lot of tourists. Everything is a little quieter, a little smaller, a little more authentic in this part of the country. The northwest is still dotted with small villages where locals actually rule.

"This is where you can sit in a pub and have a pint with an actual Irishman,'' Spears said.

In other words, it is kind of place guys like Mike Kelly imagine from the beginning when they're dreaming of that Irish golf trip of a lifetime.

It just usually takes them at least a trip or two to find it.

"The first trip is almost always to the southwest,'' Spears said. "But if you have a golfer who's been to the southwest and northwest, they almost always go back to the northwest on the third visit. It's just so much more of what they were looking for, so much more authentic."

Northwest Ireland is the road less traveled, maybe even the road to keep a few more of those Euros in your pocket.

"There are still hidden gems in the northwest,'' said Mitch Healy of Scotland-Ireland Golf Tours, another packaging company. "A lot of people still don't go there. And it's not because the golf is not excellent, it's because of all the hype focused on the southwest.

"You can still find some very reasonable prices in the northwest."

This is in places like Donegal Town, the land of tweed. If it can be made in tweed, Donegal has got it. Pretentious college professors rejoice! Fortunately, it also has the Donegal Golf Club (otherwise known as Murvagh), a par-73 layout just outside of town on the Murvagh peninsula. It is reputed to be easy to get lost in nature in this course that runs through 180 acres of sand hills. If the wind's howling, it is supposed to be even easier to lose your golf ball.

Which is part of the charm of the northwest.

It actually remains shrouded in a little of that old Irish legend. When everyone and their Jersey buddy hasn't been here, some of the mystique survives. Roadside sheep sightings are still very frequent and expected on some of the remote paths to these northwest courses.

Of course with Ireland set to host the Ryder Cup for the first time in 2006, more attention will surely focus on Irish golf in general. Who knows how long any golf destination will stay pure these days?

Then again, the northwest has an awfully lot of catching up to do. Which just may be why so many experienced visitors swear by it like the Blarney stone.

"If you go to Ballybunion, they expect you to buy a T-shirt," Spears said. "If they haven't sold you a T-shirt, they don't feel like they've done their job and believe me they'll work on it. But at a lot of these courses in the northwest, it's still almost all about the golf.

"They'll tell you a story rather than sell you a shirt."

Must plays

County Sligo (Rosses Point): This is actually the equal in history to some of the southwest legends. Over 100 years old, County Sligo has hosted most of Ireland's major golf championships. Elevation changes are the norm which came make for some wicked rounds in wicked weather. The views of Ben Bulben mountains add to the allure.

Donegal (Murvagh): Infamous for its par-5, 473-yard 6th with its airtight fairway that shrinks and shrinks the closer you get to the green. Landing in the rough is regarded as given on this not-so-lucky six. It figures that shortest par 5 on the longest course in Ireland (7,100 yards) would cause all the fuss. This track is only a short drive from the town of Donegal, but it appears isolated by the imposing walls of woods surrounding it.

Enniscrone Golf Club: A recent makeover has toughened up this course already renowned for its lightning-quick greens. It offers a view out to the Atlantic along Killala Bay and enough sand obstacles to make you feel like you're playing on the beach. A nasty, windy Irish beach.

Solid seconds

Carne (Belmullet): No less a links expert than Nick Faldo branded Crane "the Royal Dornoch of Ireland." Like many of the courses in the northwest, this requires a journey through calm, uncluttered countryside to reach. No Ronald McDonald in sight.

Rosapenna: One of a few Harry Vardon courses in the northwest, it dates back to the early 1890s. Its links layout is supposed to more than hold up to today's modern equipment. Combining the new with the old, another 18-hole course is being build nearby.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • connemarra

    jim trainor wrote on: Feb 2, 2007

    Dont forget to play this excellent wind swept gem...its a wonderful challenge.In a match I played there a couple of years ago I was beaten by a bird...thats a bird,not a birdie.They have a local rule that if a raven takes off with your ball(as they frequently do I later found out)you get a free drop.Not knowing this and not finding my ball.I had to go back and play 3 of the tee...lost thehole,lost the match,and read about the local rule when I got back to the clubhouse.Thank God the Guiness was flowing.Would not have missed it for the world.Cheers Jim