Friday 23 August 2019

Home & away, places to play: Safe haven a guarantee at welcoming Spanish Point

A near perfect nine holes in beautiful Clare

Accessible and affordable: Spanish Point prides itself on its welcome
Accessible and affordable: Spanish Point prides itself on its welcome

Brian Keogh

West Clare golf will be on the world map this summer with President Donald Trump expected to touch down in Doonbeg next week and some of the world's best golfers set to tee it up at Lahinch in July's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

But there's another little club sitting halfway between Doonbeg and Lahinch that's quietly going about its business in such an effective way that it's become as much a social as a sporting success story.

Spanish Point Golf Club was founded in 1896, just four years after Lahinch and while this little nine-hole links can never hope to stage a major event, it has become such a well-loved spot for golfers and non-golfers alike that it is likely to survive for another 123 years and more.

"We have a lot going on and things are really good," said club captain Mervin Hehir, who guarantees all comers a far different welcome than the one meted out to the 300 survivors from the shipwrecks of the San Esteban and San Marcos from the Spanish Armada, who were hanged at Cnoc na Crocaire, not far from the current clubhouse in 1588.

"We now have 400 members and we hope to get many more," he said. "Given the talk about falling membership numbers around the country, we actively set about boosting our membership four years ago with Seamus McMahon one of the prime movers.

"We started with an enterprise night hosted locally by Bank of Ireland, set out our stall to get 20 new members through a membership offer and ended up getting close to 70, so that gave us the impetus to drive forward, and we put a three-year membership package in place with the help of advice from the CGI."

The result of the membership drive has been so successful that the club was voted Munster's best nine-hole course in last year's Golfers' Guide to Ireland Awards.

"Our ambition, plain and simple, is to be the best nine-hole club in Ireland," added Mervin, who is one of the locals employed at Trump International Doonbeg, where he is head of IT.

"Our most valuable asset is our membership and we do everything we can to make Spanish Point accessible to everyone.

"We try to encourage members not to stick to their usual fourball but be inclusive and split up so we can welcome new members who might be retiring from football and other sports.

"We have a lot of new members from as far afield as Woodstock, Ennis and the Clare and Limerick region who feel they have been taken care of and welcomed."

Several low handicap golfers took advantage of a €120 winter membership package this year, leaving the driver out of the bag on Spanish Point's testing little par-34 links to give their long-iron play a winter workout in those stiff Atlantic winds.

But perhaps the biggest success story was the club's role as the hub for Operation Transformation, which made non-golfers aware of Spanish Point as a place where they would be made welcome.

"People might think golf is stuffy, but we are accessible and affordable to everyone from the person on social welfare to the retired multi- millionaire," added Mervin.

The winner of Operation Transformation was not the person who lost most weight but the participant who experienced the most significant transformation.

As it turned out, the winner had recently lost a nephew to suicide but found the club so welcoming, he emerged from what Mervin describes as "a dark place".

Not only did he find light at the end of the tunnel, he was inspired to put something back into the community by using some of his prize money to organise a walk to Mount Callan and a charity darts tournament in memory of his nephew.

North American tour operators are now using Spanish Point as the perfect place for new arrivals to blow the cobwebs away after their transatlantic travels and experience the warmth of an Irish welcome.

"They can't get over how affordable it is," Mervin said of the €25 green fee, which falls to just €15 if you play with a member. "We had six guys from Connecticut out the other night for the scramble, and they were delighted to play a relaxed nine and have a few pints of Guinness afterwards."

Spanish Point is inextricably linked with its two most famous members - former President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery and his close friend Paddy Leyden, whose exploits in the South of Ireland Championship and for Ireland on the international stage put this charming nine-hole links firmly on the golfing map.

Winner of the South four times between 1953 and 1957, Leyden was runner-up in 1950 and leading qualifier as late as 1968.

Indeed, his defeat by 12 and 10 to his arch-rival Mick Power in the 1950 final gave birth to some irresistible local lore.

Legend has it that his peers in Spanish Point decided that he should not drink too much the night before the 36-hole decider and packed him off to bed, but Paddy was to have the last laugh when, three years later, he did his own thing on the eve of the final and preceded to beat Power by 10 and 8.

He is remembered on a plaque in the clubhouse, where you will enjoy, not only some welcome respite from the Atlantic winds that caused "La Armada Invencíble" such grief but the chance to make new friends in lovely Co Clare.

FACTFILE

Green fees: June, July & August €25; Sept - May €20; Accompanying Member €15.

Society rates: €15

Buggy hire: Yes €30

Trolley hire: Yes €4

Club hire: Yes €30

Signature hole: Hole 8 (17) Par 3, 117 yards.

Known as 'The Terror' this hole features a beautiful two-tiered green with a bunker on the front left to catch the golfer that comes up short.

Expert tip: 'The Terror' has ruined many a good card over the years. Avoid going left, right and long at all costs.

Membership: Ages 24 or over €280 in year one (2019), €350 in year two (2020) and €390 in year three (2021), excluding GUI Levy and ILGU fee. Full membership fee (€390 in 2019) payable thereafter.

Nearby clubs: Lahinch, Trump International Golf Links, Kilrush, Kilkee. Woodstock, Ennis, Dromoland Castle, Shannon

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