Autumn Golf Tour 2006 - Northern Ireland

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By D. Walsh

Five hours after my hernia operation,  I was lying on the hospital floor, hot with sweat after fainting and on hearing the cockroaches running through the voids, I thought, could things get much worse than this. Well, at 12.00 noon on 13 September 2006, on the first tee at Ardglass, with the wind and rain coming sideways, they did - come back cockroaches, all is forgiven.

The tour had started in traditional fashion, four grown men as excited as teenagers going to their first date, all meeting at James's house at some unearthly time in the morning, to travel to Liverpool airport for the early morning flight to Belfast. James is driving and the car journey is only 5 minutes old when we had one of those 'blue ribbon' moments - John has forgotten his mobile. The car journey was only 20 minutes old when we were all introduced to a Fergusson hand signal with an expletive that set the tone for any misdemeanor for the rest of the tour. And all she wanted to do James, was cut in front of you !!

We arrived safely in Belfast, hired the car ( Iain Cohankinhan now driving ) and set off with everyone suspiciously thinking that every road we went down was the Falls Road in the making, and arrived at the Slieve Donald Hotel in Newcastle, County Down ( east coast of Northern Ireland about 20 - 30 miles from the border ) - about an hour and a quarters drive.  The Royal County Down Golf Club and the Annesley Golf Club are attached to the Hotel and set in the most picturesque setting, with the mountains of Mourne as the backdrop. The starter set us on our way with a few tales of when he used to play for Chelsea in the 50's and convinced us that the rain was only really drops of sunshine and that you need a few drops of rain to make a good whiskey! He also said that the clouds were moving in the right direction and that the rain wasn't going to last long. We all took one look at the mountains (  you could only just see them through the cloud cover !  ) and thought 'on yer bike ( or Fergusson words to that effect !! ) you old fool', we're in for a good Irish soaking.

Let the battle begin - Iain 21 ( scandalous ), James 17 ( OUTRAGEOUS ), John 21 ( I don't believe it! ) and Damian 14 ( harsh ), the balls are thrown up and Iain and Damian team up against James and John. Iain drives the par 4 second green and is putting for a potential 5 pointer - I change my original view - Iain 21 ( scandalous and OUTRAGEOUS ). After the second, the rain stops,  wet gear off, sun's out and short sleeves the order of the day - who would of thought it. Just at that point the starter goes past us on his bike !! At the half way stage Iain has 17 points, James 19, John 5 ( yes 5! ) and Damian 9. Nine holes left and all to play for. James continues his good form and Iain falls away, leaving James to claim the spoils both in the individual and the team event with John. Final scores - Iain has 32 points,  James - a massive 37 ( Robbie take note!! ), John has 22 ( a significant improvement on the second nine! ) and Damian 26.

Into the second oldest club house ( I have now been in six of these!! ) in the world for a couple of pints of the black stuff, back to the hotel for a quick shower and out into Newcastle to watch the match - PSV versus Liverpool in the Champions League. Several more pints of the black stuff whilst watching a  0-0 draw, we stagger off to try and find something to eat. In a sleepy Irish town on a Tuesday night there isn't much choice and the phase 'any port in a storm' springs to mind as we are directed to 'Stars - The Mariners Restaurant' as the only place still open! Hey, ho not what we are used to on tour, but it was hot and we were made to feel very welcome - enough said. Back to the hotel, lights out zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wake up, showered and down for breakie. Iain very helpfully gets a printed brief history of the Hotel from reception for us to read over breakfast. 'Started off in late 1800's as a railway hotel for the rich and wealthy' - nice touch, yes very much our type of place; 'then Charlie Chaplin stayed there during the 1920's' Oh! yes, very us, the rich and famous ( well Iain felt an association! ) ;- 'then in the 1970's and during the troubles, the hotel was targeted a number of times - culminating when a bomb took out Reception and the main staircase' ............................. .............................Fergusson expletive, Fergusson expletive !!! - and as one famous shepherd once said ' gather up the sheep and lets get the flock out of here'. We finish our breakfast rather quickly, gather our things, load up the car and set off for Ardglass. Things don't look good on the weather front - flags are flapping at near right angles and the windscreen wipers stay on for the whole of the 50 minute journey to Ardglass. On the way we pass St. John's point ( an outpost on the east coast tip, marked by a lighthouse ), upon which it is remarked that this might be an omen for John for the day - John replies with a Fergusson expletive - there is much hilarity  - 'many a true word spoken in jest'.

We arrive at Ardglass - described as 'the hidden gem of the North'. The flags aren't even bothering to flap any more  - they are starched in the permanent right angle position by the wind and rain. Two ladies coming off the 18th green comment, head down,  'your not going out there' pointing with their putters somewhere behind them. On confirming our booking, the professional comments with a smile and glint in his eye 'that we are in for a challenging round of golf' and 'that if we are not back within five hours he'll send out a priest'. Very funny - Fergusson expletive!

For some stranger than strange reason, James tees up on the whites and sets the tone for the rest of the round - who dares to own up to want to go to playing off the greens thereafter!!! ( yellow equivalents ). Playing on one of the hardest courses we have ever played and in the worst conditions and off the whites - excellent. World War 1 stuff - out of the trenches, over the top, ' we might be gone for quite some time' darrr .The first five holes are all along the coast - the second par 3, 167 yard hole is the feature hole - after the tee there is a 300/400 foot drop down to the lapping sea - a 150 yard carry and then the green. Not a shot for the faint hearted. We all take woods, aim out to sea for the wind to bring it back and swoooosh, hope for the best - we all get over and one ball is even on the green - modesty forbids.

On the 3rd tee, the theory about aiming out to sea goes out the window, not once but twice, as at least one of the authors balls catches the Isle of Man ferry - oh well didn't like that hole anyway. The par 3, 5th is deemed the nearest the pin hole which James wins with an admiral strike. The 7th, is a par 3, 219 yard hole directly into the wind. Two yards behind the green, is three foot high wall - over the wall and you are out of it ..... oh!  but the blackberries are something else. Beyond the wall claims two Ramblers ( Damian and John ) -  Iain's first ball is lost - at least James is putting to save the blushes! At the par 4, 8th John gets the days first and only four pointer - oh that makes me so happy!! Anyone who gets a four pointer should be docked an automatic shot off their handicap - taking the conditions into account, two shots !  At the half way stage things couldn't be more even - Iain, James and John all on 9 points and Damian on 12. The 16th, 17th and 18th are all with the wind - the first time we get a breather all round. The longest drive hole is deemed the par 4, 361 yard, 17th by John who is hoping for a double to go with his nearest the pin on the first day. We all take drivers ( no change there ! ) and thump them away - everyone hits a good drive. John's is a massive 250 yarder and on the fairway - what a drive. But wait, what's that about a  hundred yards further down the fairway - it's a ball - modesty forbids once again. The par 4, 345 yard, 18th gives John the chance to gain some revenge - whoosh! - away it goes, and lands 50 yards short of the green ..... but what's that on the green side fringe - oh!! this is getting boring. In the end after all the banter and when the points are totalled, Iain takes the spoils with a massive 22 points - and believe me it is well deserved. Just for the record, James finished with 19 points, John with 17 and Damian with 20. We are all soaked and wetter than a fishes wet parts, but we come off having had one of the most enjoyable and engaging rounds of golf to date.

Into the shower and on into what is described in the printed literature, as the oldest club house in the world ( here we go again!! ), for four extremely welcome fish chowders and a tradition Irish homemade dinner. We sit there simmering and taking in the atmosphere until 7.00 o'clock and then realise that we might be cutting it a tad close in terms of getting back to the airport. Over to you Mr. Cohankinhan. Right 3, left sharp 2, straight ahead 6, left, left 4. Every so often we receive advise from the back ' Errrrm Belfast is right ' as we go left - ( Iain ever so politely ) 'thank you John but we are going to the other Belfast airport , the one out of town and left of here'. Ten minutes later - 'It says Belfast that way' ( John pointing right again ) Iain, ( not so politely ) - 'Fergusson expletive'. We land safely at Belfast International Airport ( not the other one! ) and board the Easy Jet plane for Liverpool. Only 22 passengers on the plane and we are asked to spread out by the air stewardess - we sit at the back and ask the stewardess if the football ( Champions League - Man U v Celtic ) will be shown on the plane. She replies by saying that the drop down individual plasma screens will come down automatically once the plane has reached its cruising altitude and that she will come around with the free head sets and complementary drinks !! The tour had finished exactly how it had started ............................. by us being put in our place by a cocky, female scouser. 'James, the hand signal please' !!