The Best 9-hole Courses Of Ireland
(Ivan Morris, ISBN 9780957562790, Bookhub Publishing, 2015)
I first met Ivan Morris, at the newly-opened Quinta de Cima, below, in 2003, when reviewing, playing and photographing the courses of Portugal for The Pocket Guide to Golf Courses. The fact that our budget required us to average 3 courses a day for 15 days justified him to call us ‘nuts’. All the more appropriate because we had met hiding under a carob tree for safety, his having invited a long-hitting nipper of a pro to play through.
Instead, Ivan commended our dedication, confessing that, when it came to the word ‘nut’, it was he who was the pro.
Three years later, over a rather longer period, we covered Ireland. An inevitable bi-product of that experience is that we are well qualified to review books on Irish courses.
The history of Irish golf includes a disproportionately large number of 9-hole courses, many of which subsequently grew to 18. Yet 85 (of a total of some 450) golf clubs have only 9 holes (†), some of which really hit the spot (indeed, we awarded a * rating to two of them in The Pocket Guide).
Some 10 years in our footsteps, Ireland’s Best 9-Hole Courses is the product of Morris’s recent journey around Ireland, in which, whilst extolling the future of golf taking up less time and expense, he continues to hone his already well-published skills as an essayist (as well as his golfing prowess) over 36 of them (to first-time-play Connemara Isles, below, one of those *-rated courses, in one under par is worthy of praise in its own right).
The 10th at Quinta de Cima, May 2003
Golf course evaluation is a notoriously subjective task: the right answer is indeed a Godot. It is very personal, and everyone has their own system (which results in Morris omitting what was, for us and admittedly a decade ago, the best 9 hole links course in Ireland). This is not in any way to decry this omission, which was completely justified, but to make the point that, when it comes to golf course ratings and rankings, it is essential for the reader to understand the motivation of, as well as the system adopted by, the writer(s).
Indeed, Morris wisely starts by quoting John Huggan (that refreshingly free spirit of golf writing): “Nowhere… has more disingenuous nonsense been written than in the area of golf course reviews”.
So, dear readers, it is now entirely your choice as to whether to continue, let alone to read the latest in Morris’s engaging series of books.
One thing is for sure, Ireland’s Best 9-Hole Courses is not nonsense. It is the latest volume of Morris’s huge and heart-felt personal compendium of anecdotes about anything that is golf and anything that is Ivan (for more about the latter, read the occasionally brutally self-effacing Life as a Way of Golf, his previous book). And yet, at the same time, it is also an often seductive and always well-researched account of its subject.
From the 2nd green, past the 3rd tee and across The Atlantic to the 3rd green, at Connemara Isles, June 2005
It is the way Morris spins out this compendium, yet addressing his subject whilst he does so, that makes his writing so endearing. In The Doonbeg Ghosts, he spirits us all the way to New Zealand whilst enjoying a round of indulgent fantasy with his heroes on the Clare coast. Here, in a seemingly rather more insular title, we reach Kiwiland even before we embark on our journey around the counties, learning much about parallels in the growth of NZ and Irish courses.
It is easy to see where Morris’s heart lies: by his own admission, the extent of his essay about each course is not dependent so much on its quality, as on the quality of the reception and information he receives when he visits it. Thus this is as much a book about people and their stories (which are not always about the 9 holes under review), as it is about the courses themselves. And the criteria for inclusion as the best is whether Morris feels that he wishes to return and, if so, how soon. Again, strictly a matter of personal feeling.
True, sometimes we receive a detailed account of the history of a course in the context of its designer – thus we are left mouth-watered to play Harry Colt’s Foxrock. Yet, on other occasions, Morris’s system-free approach yields much about the famous, e.g. the amateur JB Carr (and others), in the 10 pages allocated to Sutton. Meanwhile, Hazel Grove and Templemore (the previous and subsequent entries) barely receive three between them, albeit with a gem about the young Padraig Harrington. Elsewhere we learn of Samuel Beckett’s passion for the game: no waiting for him, an uncompromisingly quick, if not impatient player. But then we should clearly also be rushing… to Rush (Dublin), and indeed Helen's Bay (Belfast).
The par 4 5th at the Bann course, Castlerock, June 2006
All of this leaves us well entertained, which means that this is more than a simple guide-book, whether or not reading it enables us to take on the strength of Morris’s desire to go play any one particular course (or shot – see next paragraph).
With a nod to diplomacy, Morris refuses to name a number one, whilst revealing which it would be, were he to allow himself such an indulgence. The offending course is conveniently close to Dublin, in the form of Blessington Lakes, Co. Wicklow. The club has been quick to post its delight at this on its website, and few readers would not wish to pick up the gauntlet Morris puts down, challenging us for the “240 yards second shot over ‘no man’s land’ [to] a tiny target resembling an upturned saucer on a moonscape… by far the most dramatic and daunting shot … on [his] entire odyssey”.
And it is a gauntlet that The Pocket Guide must pick up. The Financial Times kindly said of our Irish volume: “Easily the best golf guide”. Well, maybe with such an omission this is no longer true. Have we have been brought to account by Morris? We have to admit that the word 'Blessington' does not appear in our book.
Nor is this a criticism we can throw back at him for omitting the word 'Bann' in his book, because he doesn’t. Morris mentions and immediately excludes it on the grounds of being part of a 27-hole complex. For us, the Bann course, above, at Castlerock was the best 9 hole links in Ireland, bringing our total of *-rated 9-holers to three.
Gauntlet in hand, I challenge Ivan to publish where in his football-league-division-style rankings he would put the Bann course. In return I undertake to visit Blessington Lakes in his company to conduct a Pocket Guide review, which we will publish at www.players-view.com. We will then ask the FT’s reviewer for his renewed blessing.
Back at Quinta de Cima, of course the nipper’s drive hit the carob tree: after that there were nuts everywhere.
William fforde email@example.com
Editor, Beckenham Publishing Limited
St Patrick's Day, 2015
(†) In fact, there are a few instances of 10 holes/greens and multiple tees.