It’s got stun­ning scenery, fine food and su­perb cour­ses... so why have so few golfers dis­cov­ered this part of Ire­land’s joys, won­ders MARK THOMAS?

Uxbridge Gazette - - Getaway -

IRE­LAND has long been a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for golf breaks – but it is to the south and west of the Repub­lic that most of us flock to. Head north out of Dublin for a cou­ple of hours, how­ever, and you quickly es­cape the tourist hordes and dis­cover golf cour­ses whose names may be un­fa­mil­iar to your ears, but which of­fer a fan­tas­tic chal­lenge to all lev­els of player, in the pret­ti­est coun­try­side you could wish for.

The base of op­er­a­tions for our mis­sion to ex­plore this rel­a­tively un­charted golf­ing ter­ri­tory in March this year was the Slieve Rus­sell Ho­tel, Golf and Coun­try Club, in Bal­ly­con­nell, County Ca­van.

The ho­tel it­self is a grand and im­pos­ing build­ing, a very agree­able blend of el­e­gant clas­sic decor and so­phis­ti­cated, up to date fa­cil­i­ties.

Our ex­ec­u­tive suite, com­plete with sit­ting room, jacuzzi bath and 7ft four-poster bed, re­ally was the last word in com­fort.

The ho­tel is set in 300 acres of beau­ti­ful coun­try­side, 50 acres of it lakes, and the care­fully man­i­cured 7,000 yard Cham­pi­onship golf course weaves its way through these pic­ture-post­card water­ways, pre­sent­ing you with shots that will test your nerve even as you ad­mire the view.

On the sec­ond hole, Aghover Leap, even a good drive over the edge of a lake will leave you with an up­hill, 200-yard shot to the green. I had left my­self well short of that, and man­aged to hit my sec­ond shot into what, from a dis­tance, looked like a ditch, but turned out to be a 30ft-wide brook.

I took a drop and redeemed my­self a bit with a de­cent ap­proach shot, but was re­lieved to limp away with a dou­ble bo­gey six and one ball lost.

It is a park­land course, and the sculpted top­i­ary work is a de­light to be­hold, im­mac­u­lately trimmed and main­tained.

I was los­ing my per­sonal bat­tle with the wa­ter hands down, and the 16th is one hole where there re­ally is no op­tion but to take it on. The Mourn­ing Pond is a 170-yard par three, with a stretch of wa­ter that ex­tends from tee to green’s edge.

When I flushed a four iron that was out of all con­text with my golf­ing form to land within 10 feet of the flag, I felt as if I could have walked across the lake to take my putt.

Re­al­ity re­turned as I left the ball a cou­ple of inches short, but a tap in par three still put a spring in my step.

If Slieve Rus­sell was park­land per­fec­tion, an al­to­gether more rugged beauty awaited us at Con­cra Wood, an hour or so’s jour­ney away out­side Castle­blaney, County Mon­aghan. We ar­rived on a stormy day, but the mists cleared to give us a panoramic view of the course and the hills be­yond from the hill­top club­house that was noth­ing short of awe­some.

De­signed by Ir­ish golf­ing leg­ends, nephew and un­cle Christy O’Connor Ju­nior and Se­nior, the course weaves its way across 240 acres of slop­ing wooded hill­side lead­ing down to the 425 hectares of is­land-dot­ted wa­ter that is Lough Muc­kno.

Sev­eral of the holes fol­low the banks of the lough, and there is not a fair­way that does not boast a heart-stop­pingly beau­ti­ful view of the hills, the wa­ter and the is­lands.

The weather made this day’s golf par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing, with a strong and bit­ing wind and fair­ways squelch­ing from weeks of win­ter rain and snow, but even on the most be­nign of days this is a course that will test you as much as the set­ting will in­spire you.

Many of the tees are el­e­vated, and for me the third hole was a trip high­light. The 385-yard par four, Hope Cas­tle, runs sharply down the hill, with the green guarded on the right by a pond, and the lough lurk­ing in the back­ground.

It in­vites a good drive down the hill­side, and a de­cent six iron sec­ond shot left me with a com­fort­able two putt par, and a rare chance to en­joy the view with­out griev­ing over my score.

Our third des­ti­na­tion on our whis­tle-stop tour was Farn­ham Es­tate golf club, a de­light­ful and de­mand­ing 7,700-yard course in a nat­u­ral set­ting on a sprawl­ing 300-acre coun­try es­tate out­side the town of Ca­van.

The de­vel­op­ment is a work in progress, with a new club house un­der con­struc­tion when we vis­ited, but if it is any­thing like the stylish con­tem­po­rary ho­tel where we en­joyed lunch af­ter our round, it should be splen­did.

The course it­self has two con­trast­ing nines. You go out through rolling meadows, and re­turn through dense wood­land, with some fair­ways dom­i­nated by tow­er­ing lines of tall trees. The over­all feel is of a more nat­u­ral, less man­i­cured course than the oth­ers we ex­plored, but one that de­mands, ac­cu­rate shots.

Here I should say a word about the greens. Our visit came when all three cour­ses had been bat­tered by some of the worst win­ter weather seen in years, yet on all three cour­ses the greens were true, quick and a de­light to putt on, a credit to the ex­per­tise of the green­keep­ers at all three venues.

Our visit fo­cused on the golf, but this part of Ire­land has much more to of­fer, as our non-golf­ing part­ners were pleased to dis­cover while we bat­tled the el­e­ments on the fair­ways.

A tour of the medieval town of Car­ling­ford on the Coo­ley Penin­sula will fas­ci­nate golf wid­ows thanks to its pretty har­bour views, an­cient build­ings and glut of quirky pubs.

De­spite an aver­sion to the lo­cal oys­ters, my other half feasted on Guin­ness pie at PJ O Hares be­fore ex­plor­ing King John’s 12th-cen­tury cas­tle.

Talk­ing of his­tor­i­cal ad­ven­tures, a trip to Strokestown House in County Roscom­mon is a must due to its grand gar­dens and mu­seum telling the story of the 1840s famine. Of course, if tootling around the Ir­ish coun­try­side isn’t an op­tion, they can al­ways re­lax in the spa at the Slieve Rus­sell Ho­tel.

And the din­ing to be had is mem­o­rable. We en­joyed a sump­tu­ous din­ner at the Slieve Rus­sell, and an­other at the Port­marnock Ho­tel and Golf Links, where we stayed overnight be­fore our early morn­ing flight home from nearby Dublin Air­port.

But the out­stand­ing meal for us had to be at The Olde Post Inn in Clover­hill, County Ca­van, close to the bor­ders of Coun­ties Mon­aghan and Fer­managh.

It has been awarded Best Restau­rant in Ul­ster by the Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land, and award­win­ning head chef Gearóid Lynch, who owns the Inn with wife Tara, wrote his own cook­book, My Gluten­free Kitchen, af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with coeliac d isease in 2013.

It is a de­light­ful, cosy restau­rant, and my smoked cod, sea bass, sal­mon and scal­lop starter, roast rump of Ca­van lamb with gar­lic mash and mint jus, and warm rice pud­ding with lo­cal vanilla honey and meringue were a lit­tle piece of heaven.

If you fancy a new chal­lenge next time you plan a golf trip to Ire­land, and par­tic­u­larly if you also want to dis­cover new and beau­ti­ful des­ti­na­tions for the whole fam­ily to ex­plore, eat well and un­wind, a trip to these beau­ti­ful bor­der coun­ties has much to com­mend it.

There is not a fair­way that does not boast a heart­stop­pingly beau­ti­ful view... On Con­cra Wood’s course

Man­i­cured beauty: Slieve Rus­sell’s course

Nat­u­ral feel: Fan­ham

Rugged joys: Con­cra Wood

Quirky: Car­ling­ford

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