Golfers can get a peace of the action
GOLF: You can never tire of a golf trip to Ireland.But for years it has been the Republic that most people have headed to because of the political situation north of the border.
YOU can never tire of a golf trip to Ireland.
But for years it has been the Republic that most people have headed to because of the political situation north of the border.
But one benefit of the peace process in Northern Ireland is that you can now plan to enjoy the best of both.
Tourism Ireland – set up as a cross-border body to promote the whole island of Ireland – is certainly keen to help get that message across.
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And when those tourist chiefs got together, it would not have taken too long for the game of golf to find its way onto the agenda.
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South of the border, the Republic has built up a booming golf tourism industry, investing £200million over the last ten years upgrading existing courses and clubhouses and opening new ones that can match the finest in Europe.
North of the border, Northern Ireland has a golf heritage that is second to none and famous links courses that offer a challenge equal to the Open Championship venues of Scotland.
It is potentially an irresistible combination, but the obvious problem has been the political divisions and the reluctance of visitors to head north to a part of the world they associate with trouble.
So while Ireland has seen visitors flocking in to experience a heady mixture of golf, Guinness and good company, Ulster has been missing out.
Tourism Ireland would like visitors to consider crossing that border so that one trip across the Irish Sea can mean enjoying your golf in both North and South.
The answer is an emphatic yes, and of all the years I have been going to this delightful part of the world, it was the first time that I had crossed into Northern Ireland.
One great irony, however, is that while the peace process means crossing the border is now a non-event, Ireland's adoption of the Euro as its currency has had the opposite effect.
Instead of the free-and-easy tradition of more-or-less swapping English pounds for Irish punts if need be, you switch from sterling to euro, which is quite a big deal for the visitor juggling with both conversion rates and change. (One euro is worth around 62p).
After flying to Dublin from Stansted, the party of usual reprobates – most of whom came across with Irish Ferries – stayed in the heart of this very lively city on the first night at the perfect venue, the Arlington Hotel.
It is bang in the centre of Dublin, literally a stone's throw from the world famous O'Connell Street. Live Irish music and dancing seven nights a week means that the Arlington is packed, and there is no charge either.
Back to Northern Ireland and golf at the seaside course of Ardglass over the border that rounded off another memorable stay across the Irish Sea.
Imagine a blue sky, calm sea, lovely little fishing village and a links golf course perched on the cliffs above the harbour. Now imagine a car park full of new Jaguars, as the local dealer was hosting a golf day, and an atmosphere that put a smile on your face as soon you walked through the door.
For years there has been this myth that it is not safe to go to Northern Ireland, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have always been told that if you avoid a couple of streets in the centre of Belfast, the rest is as safe as anywhere in England – and probably safer in some cases.
We could not have played Ardglass on a better day. A light breeze, clear views across the sea to the Isle of Man in the distance and the mountains of Mourne as a backdrop.
The immediate view was a little more daunting however. From the first tee you are faced with a tee shot over a cliff face toward what appeared a tiny and tight green.
The second hole was another tight cliff-top par three, but then the course was to open out and offer great golf and stunning views. It's not long at 5,498 yards, but it is special.
The easiest hole on the course is the 120yard 17th, and to pass on the advice of club professional Philip Farrell: "Don't miss it left, don't miss it right, don't be short and don't be long!"
The club dates back to 1896 and the clubhouse is a fortified castle that looks a little forbidding at first sight, but offers great food and a warm welcome.
If Ardglass is typical of golf in Northern Ireland, I want to go back for more!
Not to be outdone, the Republic offered its unique blend of enjoyment and idiosyncrasy. It's a successful formula that brought over 219,000 overseas golfers to the country last year, contributing over £100m to the Irish economy.
We stayed at the pleasant Neptune Beach hotel in Bettystown, a seaside town famous for its special racetrack.
What is so special about it? Well it only appears once a year, when it is mapped out on the beach at low tide.
And this is no donkey derby. The meeting attracts a full cast list of quality horses and jockeys and it attracts a crowd of around 15,000.
We enjoyed two golf courses from our Bettystown base. Headfort near Kells in County Meath was certainly worth the trip. Two fantastic golf courses of the very highest quality sharing one lavish clubhouse. The club was established in 1928, but the second course, designed by Christy O'Connor Jnr, only opened in 2000. Members claim it was worth the 72-year wait and it is not hard to see why.
We played it in a downpour, but even in those conditions it was a treat. With the Blackwater river threading through the Headfort estate, there's plenty of water to carry, including the now almost obligatory 'island style' par three 17th, but every hole gives you a fair chance as well as a challenge.
At 6,524 metres, Headford's 'new course' is a real tester, but not one to leave you feeling this is a course only the low handicappers can enjoy. I'd love to go back in the sunshine, but the weather served as a reminder – if you are planning a golfing holiday in Ireland, pack your waterproofs just in case!
Our next day's trip was to the gloriously named Termonfeckin and the Seapoint Golf Club, a 7,000-yard links course that proved a gentler challenge than Headford, perhaps because the weather was kinder.
But there is water to negotiate on five of the first nine holes, so Seapoint still offers plenty to think about, in between admiring the coastal views.
There's a great restaurant in the clubhouse too and the Guinness slips down a treat with the food.
Come to think of it, Guinness and golf are just two of the things that you can expect to enjoy in the very best condition and in the very best of company almost anywhere in Ireland, north or south.
Or get further information on golf in Ireland from Tourism Ireland on 0800 039 7000