We Play Three Irish Inland Gems... Including Shane Lowry's Home Club
Every so often, when Shane Lowry returns to his home club, Esker Hills in Tullamore, he’ll hold a lucky dip. Members might end up with one of his polo shirts. Nice. Or they could pick out a pair of his socks – not so nice. It’s all good fun, however, which pretty much sums up life at Esker Hills – most enjoyable on and off the golf course.
I’ve come to Ireland to play three rounds of golf – not one of them a famous links. I arrive in a drizzly Dublin (obviously), but instead of heading towards the coast, I’m going to be travelling directly west for about an hour-and-a-half into the heart of the country – and my first stop is the delightful Glasson Lakehouse.
There’s no drizzle by this point, which is a shame, because I’d happily have sat in Tom’s pub all afternoon and listened to Seamus, our coach driver, deliver another perfect punch line, but I soon discover the good news that he'll be joining our group for the duration of the trip, albeit not for the golf. So, and quite reluctantly after a flawless pint of Guinness, it’s off to the first tee we go.
Glasson is located on the banks of Lough Ree, the second of the great lakes on the River Shannon. The course was designed by Christy O’Connor Jnr – and it’s quite the place. On the front nine, you’re treated to some wonderful views of Lough Ree, and on the back nine stunning vistas of Killenure Bay.
A few years ago, work was carried out to renovate the final five holes to accommodate for a number of new lodges. I can’t comment on what the routing was like beforehand, but the current set-up is pretty spectacular. It’s got everything – a driveable par-4, a couple of long holes and a par-3 over water and reeds that has a hint of Hilton Head about it.
Portumna Golf Club is next on the itinerary, but not before we enjoy more fine hospitality at Glasson Lakehouse, specifically Bonnie’s Restaurant and then, rather predictably, at Tom’s pub. Yes, there’s a pub in the hotel. It's a real pub, too, one with a proper atmosphere, not just a hotel bar.
With Argentinian grill dishes, succulent steaks, fresh fish and Irish flavours, Bonnie’s is a wonderful place to dine and spend an evening or two. You can also enjoy cocktails on the outdoor terrace, the perfect spot to unwind after golf or a day exploring the local area. With wonderful views of Killenure Bay, it’s no wonder Glasson Lakehouse is such a popular wedding destination.
Sadly, I’m not staying long enough to work my way through the delicious breakfast menu, although I’m pretty sure I could have eaten the Glasson Breakfast (fully cooked, the absolute works) with minimum fuss all week if that’s all that was available.
Golf and some light exercise, therefore, are very much required in the afternoon, so it was back into the coach for an afternoon tee time at Portumna, which is located about an hour’s drive to the south west of Glasson.
We make a stop en route at Birr Castle Demesne to walk off breakfast. A place that is rich in amazing feats of science and engineering, as well as rare trees and flowers, it has a calming effect on everyone. My only regret was failing to pop a antihistamine tablet in the morning, because the gardens are stunningly beautiful.
And the mind boggles when we come face to face with the Great Telescope, built by the Third Earl of Rosse in the early 1845. With this incredible piece of equipment, he attracted thousands of people from around the world to come and observe the stars. With over 400 years of history, this is well worth setting aside half a day for. Sadly, we have golf to play.
So it's off to Portumna Golf Club we go, which is located where the River Shannon enters Lough Derg. The course, which features in our list of 100 hidden gems, flows naturally through Portumna Forest Park in County Galway, and there are a number of strong and varied holes, but two in particular stand out, both super par 5s. The 12th is a dogleg right that tempts big hitters into cutting the corner. Overdo it and you’ll lose your ball in the forest, but a big, high fade can set up a great chance of birdie or better.
Up ahead at 17, water is in play from midway down the fairway, right up to the front of the green. You have to have a crack at it in two – and I’d like to thank my playing partner for lending me his 1-iron and helping me to do so. That I ended up wet doesn’t matter – I just had to take it on.
The evening’s dinner would be taken in the clubhouse, Portumna’s Fairways Restaurant. A golf society from Wales has completely taken it over making it difficult for me to tot up the 20-odd points that I’ve accumulated, even more so when they belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, although we can’t help but clap. Emotional stuff.
Dinner isn’t bad, either. The menu offers some of your standard golf club bites, but a lot more, too. Before long, my table is tucking into bowls of seafood chowder and lamb cutlets. I’m less adventurous – a burger and a pint of the black stuff.
And the Guinness keeps on flowing, for before we get our heads down for the night, we make a quick stop (strictly one pint only) at Ireland’s oldest pub: Sean’s Bar. This, apparently, has been a popular watering hole for over ten centuries. It’s a decent boozer, for sure, and although plenty of locals nip in for one, we tourist folk stay a while longer to enjoy the live music and take it all in. It would have been rude not to.
By now, we’re past the watershed of 9pm, and Seamus’ puns become a little edgier. Meanwhile, my eyes are drawn to the selection of whiskies behind the bar. I’m no connoisseur, but I still find myself purchasing a bottle of Sean's single Malt Clonmacnoise. It’s for Christmas.
There’s to be no nightcap back at Glasson – we’re all too old and tired. Besides, there’s one round still to be played, at Esker Hills, and this is a very hilly course that requires an above average level of golf fitness.
Esker Hills, also the work of Christy O’Connor Jnr, benefits from a stunning landscape of sweeping valleys and natural lakes. It’s a rollercoaster ride right from the off, a par 5 that shapes round to the right and up to an elevated green. Then it’s back downhill, before another climb on the excellent par-4 5th, and back down again for the first of the short holes.
And so it continues. Greens are either elevated, or they sit below you, such as the driveable par-4 10th, which is well protected by water. Risk and reward at its best.
You can’t visit this part of Ireland, home to the world famous Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, without a visit to The Old Warehouse, which is a joint venture between hospitality entrepreneur Alan Clancy and golfing hero Shane Lowry. If I manage to flag the former Open champion down at Hoylake this year, I’d dearly like to pass on my compliments to the chef for the best prawns (chilli and garlic) I have ever had.
I don't quite catch the full story of how Lowry’s venture into the business world came about when this is being explained by our very kind hosts, because Seamus and I are on the 3.30 at Perth and we’re watching it live on my phone. Pink Legend makes us a few quid, which I put towards another bottle of Irish whiskey at the airport. It’s for Christmas.
My next visit to Ireland will be for the Harvest Festival at Listowel in September. Seamus has promised to do the chauffeuring, and he assures me that he’ll have a few racing tips. I’ll also be bringing the golf clubs, and although Ballybunion will hopefully be on my itinerary, I’ll be more than happy to venture back inland to rediscover Ireland’s 'Hidden Heartlands'.
To plan your perfect Ireland golf trip and get more information on what to see and do, visit ireland.com/golf