Golfing in God's country
Connemara's divine course is now one of the great sporting attractions of the west
When you've got a starkly beautiful links golf course, designed at a charitable price by a golfing 'saint', at the behest of a group of locals led by an enthusiastic curate, the term God's own country is not in the least out of place.
Connemara Championship Golf Links did not exist 40 years ago, but thanks to all of the above - the natural beauty of Connemara, the design genius of the great Eddie Hackett and the vision and foresight of Fr Peter Waldron and his parishioners at Clifden - it is now one of the great sporting attractions of the wonderful west.
A land of eternal skies and stone-walled fields of purples and golds, all of it framed by mountains and lakes and the shimmering Atlantic Ocean, it's a sight to behold at any time of year. Visitors to Galway city, just 60 miles away, would be well-served to head west towards Ballyconneely, where a trip along the winding boreens will bring you to this 27-hole golfing paradise - where the Slyne Head lighthouse is the last building you will find on your way to the US.
The original 18 comprises the A and B nines with the newer C nine, also designed by Hackett and aptly situated (given its name) down by the white sands of an Trá Mhor.
They say there were coastal settlements here 5,000 years ago, where shore-dwelling communities used dog whelk shells to produce that purple dye much sought after by the Romans.
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Whatever about the quality of the shellfish and the local smoked fished products - excellent, they say - Ballyconneely's fame as the sight of the first non-stop transatlantic flight by John Alcock and Arthur Brown, which landed two miles from the course on Derrygimla Bog in 1919, is now matched by the sheer beauty of the golf course.
Indeed, the two are inextricably linked because in 2005, the adventurer Steve Fossett, together with co-pilot Mark Rebholz, flew a replica Vickers Vimy Atlantic biplane from Newfoundland to Clifden along the same flight path, landing on the eighth fairway at Connemara, where a commemorative plaque now marks the spot where they touched down. The club even took care to level out some of the fairway's humps and hollows for the aviators.
It's a fitting setting for such historic feats, for the golf course nestles between the scenic splendour of the Twelve Bens mountain range and the rugged Atlantic.
From the highest point on the links there are such splendid views that as you stand on the tee at the par-five 14th, it is possible to sweep the horizon from south to west and see the Aran Islands off Galway and Clare Island at the mouth of Clew Bay in Mayo, some 80 miles away.
It's little wonder then that Hackett, the father of Irish golf architecture with more than 100 designs to his credit, simply could not resist the chance to work with such remarkable raw material.
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Connemara is a typical Hackett course in that he has employed no design tricks to enhance what was already there. Prolific at a time when clubs simply could not afford an English architect of more renown, his philosophy was that "nature is the best architect" and as if to prove his point, he would follow the lie of the land, placing holes wherever "the Good Lord provided".
"'Oh, Eddie Hackett was a saint, you know," Fr Peter Waldron, secretary of the Connemara GC Ltd, told colleague Dermot Gilleece in his golfing memoir, Touching Greatness: Memorable Encounters with Golfing Legends.
The great man never had the heart to charge big fees for his work.
The story of how Connemara Championship Golf Links came to be is recounted brilliantly by Richard Phinney, in Links of Heaven: A Complete Guide to Golf Journeys in Ireland, in association with Scott Whitely.
He gives a brilliant account of how Fr Waldron hatched the idea that golf could be the salvation of a poor community at a time when sources of income were minimal and immigration was rife.
"The idea got stuck in the young cleric's mind, and either he couldn't or wouldn't dislodge it. It was hard to look at a vacant piece of land without imagining a flagstick on it, and on more than one occasion he found himself lamenting that the most promising holes always seemed to be on bogs."
One day, when exploring his new territory, he happened to find himself on the twisting Ballyconneely road when it "suddenly opened up into a wide stretch of grassland".
"Father Waldron stopped the car in amazement and found himself walking ankle-deep through this unexpected 'prairie'."
To his left it extended to the edge of the headland, some 50 feet above the crashing surf. To his right it rose gradually into a wild tumble of Connemara rock. In the distance the Twelve Bens provided a stunning backdrop. However, it was the sudden expanse of grass and sea and sky that overwhelmed him.
Although he was very much alone, Father Waldron let out an audible sigh, followed by a self-mocking chuckle. "Here then, Peter, is your golf course!"
The rest, as they say, is history. The course opened for play in 1973 and has received many illustrious visitors over the years, including five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who called it "a true Championship links course" and raved about the elevated greens on the back nine - "spectacular".
"If there were a course like this on the west coast of England it would surely host the British Open," said another illustrious visitor, the former Ryder Cup star and doyen of golf commentary Peter Alliss.
The club is now so popular, especially in the summer months, that there are more than 1,000 members, though just 300 of them hail from the surrounding area, guaranteeing peace and quiet in all but high season.
"It can be packed in the summer time, but in the winter in November, you can be playing that golf course on your own," says Declan Mannion, a son of founding member Francie Mannion.
"Those crisp mornings are just a delight because the course has a wonderful, rugged beauty and the scenery is just spectacular."
The golf is wonderful, too, and while the course can be a beast if you choose the championship tees and catch it on a day when the wind is howling, Hackett designed it in such a way that it is eminently playable for all levels of golfer.
"We are not so fussy that we get too anxious about a 66," says Declan.
"There are plenty of places where you can lose your ball, but we don't want to beat you up. We didn't deliberately go down the route of making it too tough.
"Most golfers are 18 handicappers and many of our members are holiday golfers, so we wanted to make it enjoyable. It is a challenge anyway and when the wind blows it is as tough as any links course.
"However, we want people to find their ball and advance it. The former Taoiseach Brian Cowen is a member - he opened our new clubhouse - and would admit that he is not the greatest golfer in the world. But he loves it because he can find his ball and he can hit it towards the green. That's the philosophy here. We play and try to keep moving.
"There are other courses around the country that have been toughened up and, really, that is to the detriment of the members.
"We can make the course as tough as you like, but we want people to come back to our course again and we do that by making it enjoyable."
Measuring more than 7,000 yards from the Championship tees, the par-72 test begins with one of the great opening holes in Irish golf, a dogleg left requiring utmost precision, not just off the tee, but also with the approach to a well-guarded green.
After that the thrills never end, with many of the wonderful highlights coming on the back nine - including the signature, par-three 13th and the spectacular views from the 14th tee.
Set on lands provided by Mother Nature and moulded into a course by the determination of a curate, a golf design saint and the hard work of the local people, this Connemara course is truly a links made in heaven.
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