LAHINCH (Co. Clare), Ireland - The sleepy, pub-strewn town of Lahinch in west County Clare would feel like many other surrounding burgs, if not for the hulking, shaggy dunes rising from the hoary sea mist. Any golfer knows that interspersed among those dune lies a collection of golf holes whose pedigree and history rival those of any links in the land, indeed, in the entire world.
First laid out in 1892 by Alexander W. Shaw and Richard J. Plummer of the Limerick Golf Club, the Old Course at Lahinch has undergone considerable change over the ensuing century.
In 1897, Old Tom Morris himself rerouted a number of holes, including the most famous, the Dell Hole. In 1904, Charles Gibson of Westward Ho! added three more seaside holes. Finally, in 1928, Alster MacKenzie applied his renowned artistry to redesigning several of the holes, bringing the entire Old Course 18 over to the sea side of the road, and, most notably, reshaping the already undulating greens.
Over the years, however, MacKenzie's craftsmanship was blurred and softened by the ravages of erosion and well-intentioned but ill-devised alterations. The greens, reminiscent of MacKenzie's handiwork at Augusta National, were gradually flattened and shrunken.
Martin Hawtree, who also revamped Royal Birkdale, returned the MacKenzie feel to the putting surfaces and approaches in the late 1990s, greatly enlivening a course which had begun to languish in the eyes of even its most ardent supporters. Today, the course that the legendary and recently deceased golf writer Herbert Warren Wind called, "The St. Andrews of Ireland" draws players from around the world to its fabled, formidable tees, counting in its membership the likes of Phil Mickelson and Brad Faxon
Lahinch is the home of two courses: the Old Course and the Castle Course. The 6,950-yard, par-72 Old Course is, naturally, the one you come to Ireland to play, the one American touring professionals like Mickelson, Faxon, and Davis Love III tune up for the British Open on. The natural interweaving of golf holes with sand hills, the impenetrable rough and the once again magnificent MacKenzie-esque greens are unparalleled on the Emerald Isle.
With the possible exception of the first hole, with its teeing ground wedged between the clubhouse and the caddy master shack and golf shop, every hole on the front nine is memorable. From the 534-yard, par-5 roller-coaster second to the 400-yard ninth with its deep, rolling, vexing original MacKenzie green, first-time visitors will savor every shot - even the bad ones.
Ironically, two of the most famous holes are, according to the scorecard, two of the easiest. The 446-yard, par-5 Klondyke features a ribbon of fairway threaded between high, matted dunes. The final approach shot is over a 20-foot sand hill that completely obscures the green from view. Make good use of the aiming rock and trust the yardage.
The 154-yard Dell Hole, a creation of Old Tom, has a wide, shallow, bowl of a green tucked almost completely behind another rough-carpeted sand hill. Another white aiming rock, the position of which varies daily according to pin placement, is your target. Club selection is critical here as well, as anything overly long or short will get caught up in the rough and not funnel to the putting surface.
Major changes instantiated by Hawtree include stunning new par 3s at the eighth and 11th, both of which require brave carries over dense fescue, and the majestic 577-yard 12th. Here, your tee shot must stay right of the river on the immediate left, and take a line toward the castle ruins in the distance. The 12th's new green now reflects MacKenzie's sensibilities, with plentiful contours and a tricky approach angle.
Recent revisions do not erase all of the charm and quirkiness of the older routings, however. The 18th hole crosses the fourth and the fifth on its way back toward the clubhouse, so here - as during your entire first round on the Old Course - you will be thankful if you hired a caddy (25-45 Euros, not including tip)
Alan Reardon, club secretary since 1988 and firm friends with seemingly every big name in the world of golf, said the following about the 5,556-yard, par-70 Castle Course: "People often say they don't want to play it, because it's too easy. But I always tell them this. If you go out there and play to your handicap, there's a free pint at the bar for you. I've never had to pay up yet."
To the locals and the caddies at the Old Course, the Castle Course is "a ladies' course" or a "juniors' course." It's flat, almost a parkland layout without the trees. Nevertheless, the rough-covered humps and bumps that dot the track, the occasional water hazard, and the looming castle ruins from whence the course's name comes, make for an enjoyable round. Especially if one has already battled the Old Course and wants to end the day with 18 holes that won't totally wear you out.
The Castle Course was laid out in 1963 by Commander John Harris and has been touched little since. The golf club is planning changes to some parts of the course, but these are still several years down the line. For now, the track remains unpretentious, but nevertheless memorable for at least a small handful of holes.
The best of these play up to and away from the ruins of the Dough Castle, which dates back to 1450. The 211-yard sixth is a challenging par 3 to a pretty little green offering lovely views of both the castle and the town.
Although better players will think "pitch-n-putt" when reaching the 116-yard seventh, it's certain that more than one over-confident scratch player has blocked a sand wedge right over the fence into the castle ruins that abut this angled green.
Finally, the short, rather bizarre, horseshoe-shaped 275-yard, par-4 eighth dares longer hitters to try to drive over a bog to the green. Shorter hitters must choose the correct club to lay up somewhere onto the fairway off to the right.
Certainly there are holes here that leave much to be desired (the 16th with its unsightly trailer park views comes immediately to mind), but all in all, the Castle Course is worth a go, especially with a free pint on the line
Few venues in Ireland evoke the history and majesty of the game as does Lahinch. Where else can one tread the same springy linksland that was once trodden by golf legends Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie, along with the present-day likes of Mickelson and Love?
Although the ocean vistas encountered on certain other seaside links are lacking somewhat here, the sheer originality and imagination of these 18 holes will make any avid golfer wish he or she could play over and over again. There are courses where a bad round makes you swear you'll never go back and there are those far rarer courses where even a horrendous round makes you long to return as soon as possible. Lahinch is one of the latter.
Due to the blind shots and deceiving sight lines, a caddy is highly recommended. Although they are less good at reading putts, even a junior caddy will be invaluable in keeping an eye on the errant tee shot as it rockets into waist-high fescue.
Whether a caddy is hired or not, Reardon's best piece of playing advice is, "Believe the distances. Some shots may look longer or shorter, but it is what it says."
Reardon's best overall piece of advice is, "Contact the club to book early. Use the Web site for requests. Slots are usually full for the following year by midseason."
As everywhere in Ireland, B&Bs and inns abound in west County Clare. For groups of golfers, particularly men, a true diamond in the rough is Keane's Oyster Bar (keaneskilkee.com), about 30 miles from Lahinch. Keane's can sleep up to four foursomes in comfort between one three-bedroom cottage and several apartments.
All rooms have bathroom en suite and smoking is allowed. Accommodations may be a bit rustic for some tastes, but for a group of guys, they are absolutely ideal for kicking back, lighting a cigar and rehashing the day's round.
Rates vary depending on season, size of group and length of stay, but generally range around 25 Euros per night, including a full Irish breakfast. For larger groups, a rate can be arranged that will include one delightful three-course dinner during the stay.
The best part of all is that you can drink and play cards in Keane's own pub into the wee hours and then not have to worry about driving back to your room
While numerous dining venues exist in west Clare - including Lahinch's own clubhouse restaurant - according to the locals, very few establishments can compare with Keane's Oyster Bar. Proprietor, owner, chef, local historian, peat-cutter and oyster-farmer Michael Keane is a jack of all trades whose family have been on this very spot since 1641.
From the outside, the casual observer might think to stop in for a pint and a sandwich. Once inside, however, you find a fully-stocked bar and, more impressively, a gourmet menu featuring only the freshest seafood and local meats.
Keane farms his own oysters, so they are always fresh (7.50 Euros for half-dozen), and the locally caught crab claws (6.95 Euros) are succulent. Entrees range from 15 to 30 Euros and the brill, monkfish, stuffed duck, or fillet of pork will not disappoint.
Don't let the laundry flapping on the lines outside the dining room windows or the aroma of nearby cattle put you off: You will not soon forget your meal here
The goat on the club insignia represents the resident herd. If the goats are bunched around the clubhouse, expect rain; if they're nowhere to be seen, the weather should be dry (unless they are penned up somewhere else at the time).
February 10, 2006
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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