|Darren Clarke, winner of the 2011 British Open, learned to play golf at Dungannon G.C. in County Tyrone. (Courtesy of Dungannon G.C.)|
DUNGANNON, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland – The night of July 17, 2011 will long be remembered by the members of Dungannon Golf Club.
Pretty well the whole club was crammed into the main bar, watching the drama at Sandwich unfold on television. When Darren Clarke tapped in that final tiddler to clinch the British Open, the cheer that went up could almost have been heard throughout Northern Ireland.
Not only did the new champion learn to play the game at this pretty parkland course right in the centre of the country, but also quite a few of the members had put £25 ($40) each way on him to win at 150-1 and picked up just less than £1000 ($1,600) each, which is sufficient to pay two years' membership subscription at this delightful old club that's just a couple of miles from Dungannon town center and about 50 minutes from Belfast International Airport.
The connection with the Clarke family is a strong one that goes back a long way. Clarke's father, Godfrey, was the greenkeeper and, like his famous son and two grandsons, is now a lifetime honorary member. The elder of Clarke's two boys is called Tyrone, after the county in which the course is situated.
"When Darren's second son was born, we were hoping he might be christened Dungannon, but he and Heather settled for Conor," recalled Sean Hughes, the secretary of the club.
Not unsurprisingly, Clarke holds the course record. His 62 was recorded in 1989 when he played off a plus-3 handicap. Even after he turned pro, he still played the course regularly. Then, when he won his first pro tournament -- the Alfred Dunhill Open in Belgium in 1993 -- he rang the club that evening and offered to buy every member a drink. "The bill came to £657 ($1050)," remembers Hughes.
Since then Clarke has given a lot of mementos to the club, some of which have helped raise money to enable the club to buy some land that facilitated the lengthening and strengthening of the course. Six holes were redesigned a couple of years ago which, together with four holes that Clarke redesigned about 20 years ago (for free), mean that the course is now a considerably stiffer test than it was in 1890 when it became a founding member of the Golfing Union of Ireland.
A gentle parkland course with some imposing specimen trees and rather shallow bunkers, it is first and foremost a fun course that won't beat you up. At an incredibly modest $30 a round on weekdays and only another $8 at weekends, it's an absolute bargain. The best of deal of all is on Thursday morning's when, if you tee off before noon, it's just $16.
"It does get a bit crowded on Thursday mornings," Hughes said.
"It's a welcome relief to see your ball fly more or less straight and not get pulled sideways as it is by the strong winds on the links courses," said 15-handicapper Chris Comac from Birmingham, England. "I'm over here visiting family nearby and dropped in because I'm a huge fan of Darren Clarke's. I enjoyed the course. It's not too intimidating."
For the modest green fee, visitors can also wander around the new clubhouse that was opened in 2000 by (you guessed it) Darren Clarke.
As well as all the usual facilities, there's a "Darren Clarke Room" that has a number of his souvenirs, including Ryder Cup sweaters.
Dungannon Golf Club is pretty enough and the green fee is almost embarrassingly reasonable, but the appeal of Dungannon is the opportunity to pay homage to Northern Ireland's latest golfing hero. If you're a fan, then there's plenty here to interest you. The remarkably friendly members are more than happy to chat to visitors over a pint of the black stuff and will happily tell you their favorite Clarke anecdote.
November 9, 2011
Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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