IRELAND - Mullingar Golf Club is based just outside of the county town which gives it its name, about fifty miles from the capital Dublin, and just off the main N4 highway to the West. Long noted in golfing circles for the warmth of its welcome towards visitors, the top-rated parkland course is renowned in golfing circles as one of the countries very best parkland courses. Designed by the famous Scottish professional James Braid, (from my own home city of Edinburgh in Scotland) Mullingar first opened its fairways for play way back in 1937.
The story of how James Braid designed this marvellous course has gone down in Irish folklore. Brought over from Scotland by the old Dublin boat train from Glasgow, he arrived at Mullingar with the early morning dew, and after a little "liquid refreshment" to enliven his flagging energy, simply asked for "a hatchet and three dozen wooden tees". Then, before the astonished eyes of the founder members, he simply chopped and hacked his way into the middle of the then formidable gorse. With his trademark walrus moustache flapping in the wind, in four hours flat he had "pegged off" the now famous eighteen holes and greens, using the little wooden golf tees as markers. He then simply pointed to where the clubhouse should be built, handed the members his bill, and stepped back into his motorcar for the return journey to Dublin.
This story by itself would be incredible enough, given the totally incredible amounts of money and man-hours that are now spent on course design, but it doesn't end here. As the course was nearing completion, someone suddenly realised that no provision had been made for any sand traps. An urgent telegram was sent to the unflappable Braid, asking him to return forthwith and "finish" his design. By return, a telegram winged its way to the members. "Play your new course for a month, and where you see the most divot marks, that's where you put your bunkers!" As far as is known, that is exactly what was done, and a more sinister and wickedly placed set of sand traps you would be hard pushed to find anywhere!
The clubhouse is set on a rise as you approach from the main road, and has been thoroughly modernised in recent times to provide every facility a player could wish for. There are excellent and comfortable changing rooms and showers, a modern lounge and bar, and a good (if plain) restaurant which is very reasonably priced. There's a fine view from the bar windows and the outside veranda of the first tee and the ninth green, which are side by side. In fact, the clubhouse gives you a good view of no fewer than seven of the eighteen holes. A nice feature is the long, wide entrance hall, which is festooned with captioned photographs giving you a potted history of the club down throughout the years.
It has a fine professional's shop, run by a total gentleman and very fine golfer called John Burns. John is the epitome of everything a club professional should be. Not only does he keep an extremely well stocked shop, with all the latest equipment and fashions, he is also well known as a very good teacher of the sport. Many a fine young golfer has "cut his milk teeth" under John's expert eye.
Individuality is the key to the layout of the holes at Mullingar, so there is a wide variety from which you can pick a personal favourite. Every hole has its own little quirks and features, but one thing that is common to all of them is trees. There is an old saying in golf that a tree comprises 90% air, and only 10% wood. If that's true, then Mullingar must be one of the "airiest" courses in the country, because mature trees abound throughout the entire layout, thus making precision with nearly every shot a necessity. Get off line here, and you can almost be guaranteed that your next stroke will be a recovery shot of some kind. It is a fair course though, with very few blind shots, and if you keep the ball straight you will be rewarded with a good score.
After a relatively straightforward opening par-4 of only 338 yards, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in for a fairly easy round. That is, until you step onto the second tee! This is a formidable par-3 for even the finest of players. Measuring 198 yards, you're hitting a lot of club from a high teeing area to a highly perched elevated green. There are trees both right and left, and the green is fronted by a ditch, and surrounded on all sides by bunkers. You can't even take the option of hitting it long, as there is a bank of bushes and another ditch all along the back edge of the green.
My usual shot here is a soft fade with something from a five wood to a three or four iron, to try and get some height on the ball in order that it will land softly on the putting surface. There is no room for error if you are to have any chance of walking to the next tee with a par. There is one "safe" shot for the faint of heart, and that is to deliberately play short and to the right of the green, which leaves you with a relatively simple pitch to the elevated green. At least you'll walk off with a four! Problem is, can you stand the ribbing you'll take from your playing partners for "laying up" on a par-3? (A small tip. Tell lies; say you fluffed the shot!)
The next hole I will feature is the short par-4 eighth. Measuring just a paltry 338 yards, it is played from a slightly elevated tee to a generous fairway. The problem is that there is a small stream running right across that fairway, which is strategically placed just at the landing area of most average player's drive. You will need to carry the ball in the air for over 200 yards to get over this hazard safely, so you are once again left in a quandary. This is the mark of a good golf hole; one that rewards the brave, but still leaves an option for the average player. The key here is confidence. The longer you look and ponder, the more likely it is that you will go in the water.
The water safely negotiated, the hole doesn't get any easier. You are now left with a pitch with a nine iron or a wedge to an elevated green, which is a good forty feet above you. Come up short, and the ball will roll all the way back to the bottom of the hill again, leaving you with the same shot over again. Go too far, and you end up on the eighteenth tee, and looking at a delicate small chip back, to a green that is running away from you. I've seen players putting from the back of this green, and rolling clear of the front again, to be left with an 80 or 90 yard pitch back up the hill once more. Short it may well be, but this hole has teeth, and has made a fool out of many a golfer.
The ninth is another par-4 that takes you back to the clubhouse, where you might even get the chance of a quick light refreshment if there is a queue of players on the tenth tee. And you might well need that liquid refreshment, for what faces you now is a par-4 of 434 yards, which I personally consider the toughest hole on the golf course. The tee shot is blind, in as much as you can't see the green, as it is on the far side of a large rising ridge that runs right across the fairway.
This is a hole where you must definitely produce your best drive, as anything less will leave you with no chance of making par, and a good chance of running up a six or worse. Again there's a stream, but this time not so intrusive, at a distance of around 150 yards from the tee. You'll only end up in here if you hit a really poor one. The problem is again the ever-present trees. There is a large copse just at the landing area on the right hand side of the fairway, and about another fifty yards on from here, on the opposite left hand side, is one of the largest oak trees you're ever likely to see.
So you have a choice with your tee shot. You can either start it left at the large oak and try to fade it back into the middle, or you can aim down the right and try to draw it back from the copse of trees. A straight drive probably sounds like a sound idea, but unless you can shape the ball here, the probability is high that you will end up blocked for your next shot, as the fairway is designed and slanted to feed the ball towards the trouble. If you can get the drive into a good position, then this hole becomes fairly straightforward, and you will be left with a long to medium iron to a large wide open green.
The last hole I will run you through is the much-discussed sixteenth. A par-5 of 500 yards in length, this hole is a dogleg right, to yet another of these elevated greens. The problem is again where the ball lands from your drive, as there is a large open ditch strategically placed right across the length of the fairway. You must carry your drive around 220 yards in the air to have any chance of clearing this hazard, but it is amazing how many players still end up in the ditch even when they are trying to leave the ball short. Listen to the words of the legendary Christy O'Connor Snr., the "grand old man" of Irish professional golf, and former Ryder Cup player, as he describes this tee shot. "It is peculiar how magnetic a hazard like this can be. The man who tries too hard to keep out of it is likely to find that this is the easiest way to get into it!"
The drive is the major problem at this hole. Get the tee shot right, and the green can easily be reached with another good wood or long iron, and as long as you don't go over the back, there's no more real trouble. If you do hit it over the green however, you are faced with a very similar situation as you faced at the eighth, as there is a sharp fall off down a steep bank, which leaves you with a nearly impossible pitch back to a putting surface that is sloping away from you.
The seventeenth and eighteenth are par-4 and par-5 respectively, the seventeenth in particular being yet another monster of a hole, with yet another sharp dogleg to contend with.
The club is a little off the beaten track. Drive into the centre of Mullingar town and at the second set of traffic lights (by the town hall) turn left, and drive straight out past the greyhound stadium for about five miles. You will see the club sign-posted from there. The green fee is very reasonable, at £25 per round. Wednesdays are to be avoided, (ladies day) and there are no weekend green fees unless you are the guest of a member.
Mullingar is a true championship course, which will test the mettle of any golfer, whatever his handicap. Over the years, it has played host to many prestigious tournaments, and during the August Holiday weekend each year, it stages the "Mullingar Scratch Cup". This is a major 72 hole amateur event that attracts golfers from as far afield as the USA and Britain, and which lists among its past winners such famous professionals as Darren Clarke, Peter Townsend, Ronan Rafferty, and Philip Walton. (all who went on to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup). I have personally played in this event on many occasions, and look forward to it greatly every year, as Mullingar is one of the very best of the old style parkland courses in the whole of Ireland.
Mullingar Golf Club
Belvedere, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath
Tel: (0353) 44 48366
Fax: (0353) 44 41499
Length: 5,913 metres, 6,468 yards
Secretary/Manager: Ann Scully
Golf Professional: John Burns
Tel: (0353) 44 40085
Green Fees: £25 (Irish Punts) per round
Caddies: By arrangement
Trolley and Club Hire: Both available
Cart Hire: Limited availability
Ken Johnstone is a freelance journalist and taxi-cab owner based in Dublin, Ireland. He came to journalism late in life, receiving his degree in August, 2000, although he has always been a prolific scribbler.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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