Interview: Golfing around Ireland - Kevin Markham
Ireland is unquestionably among the best-rounded golfing destinations on the planet. With a succession of truly spectacular championship-standard links courses, tranquil parkland layouts, and the world-renowned hospitality from the locals, the Emerald Isle is one of the great experiences to be had in the game.
However, while the internationally appreciated and glowingly praised courses such as Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and Ballybunion have grabbed the headlines and served as the main attraction for decades, the depth to golf in Ireland has often been under appreciated by many people, with the iconic powerhouses of Scotland and England being situated just across the water.
The reality, however, when scratching beneath the surface, is that Ireland possesses more than enough quality to match what can be found in Great Britain. But unfortunately, so many of the courses received little coverage.
Seeing an opportunity to delve deeper and document so many of those lesser-known layouts, avid-golfer Kevin Markham fulfilled a dream by travelling around the entirety of the island that he proudly calls home, playing each of them and recording his assessment of the broad experiences on offer.
The fruit of that exhausting labour was his comprehensive guide to Irish golf, Hooked, which was published six years ago, and has proven to be such a success that it has now available in a third version.
Providing equal representing to all of the island’s 350 courses, Kevin’s detailed guide has more than filled a void and helped to bring the strength, variety and quality of Ireland’s golfing menu to the forefront.
In more recent times, to finally share many of the numerous stories from his 14-month-long adventure in an uncooperative campervan, Kevin has released a second book, Driving the Green, which records many of those colourful and unforgettable tales that he lived through and experienced during his epic golfing crusade.
As he continues to passionately champion golf in Ireland via his popular blog and strongly followed Twitter account, Kevin kindly agreed to be interviewed by Golfshake to discuss his story, the two books, and to provide a useful introduction for any potential visitors to the island.
Kevin, firstly, what is your own golfing story? Where did it start and when was that love forged?
I started playing at the age of six, taught by my grandfather. My earliest memories are playing a cow-pat strewn nine-hole links at Barley Cove in Co. Cork. Our family stayed in a small holiday home overlooking the course and I’d head out at first light to play. My footwear of choice was orange wellington boots, both for practical reasons and because – even back then – I understood the need to be fashionable on the golf course.
When I published Driving the Green (2014), my mother found a photograph of me and my father on the course at Barley Cove. On the back it gave the date as 1973, so it turns out that I was five when I first swung a club. And I was wearing those orange wellies.
In terms of learning the game, my grandfather was a one handicapper and he and his Greystones Golf Club friends were the golfers who showed me how to love the game. They all had a key area of strength, from driving to pitching to putting, and they were more than willing to show me what to do. Amongst themselves they were competitive, but they enjoyed themselves and the game so much that it would have been impossible for me not to fall in love with golf.
Everyone would dream of travelling around and playing every course in their country. However, for most, that will forever be a fantasy. What pushed you towards making it a reality?
To cut a long story short, I went looking for information on a couple of small Irish golf clubs and I couldn’t find a single book that mentioned them. I thought that was odd, given the huge range of choice on this island, and it planted the seed of an idea. I was also in the fortunate position that I worked for myself and had a wife who encouraged me… she was the one who suggested that I travel by campervan.
Did you feel like a comprehensive guide to Irish golf was something that was lacking?
Yes, absolutely. The big courses always get plenty of coverage – whether in books, destination articles or advertising by the Irish tourism bodies. But the truth is that a lot of British golfers aren’t looking for that – they’re after choice and value… and there was nothing for them to turn to. The purpose of the book was to give every single 18-hole course equal coverage – so the quiet and unknown West Waterford Golf Club received a one page review and rating, as did the mighty Royal County Down. It just seemed the fairest and most honest thing to do.
What did your family and friends think of the whole idea? Was your sanity ever questioned?
It would never have happened without my wife’s encouragement. I was going to be away for over a year, leaving her with the house and two dogs, but she said, and I quote: “Who am I to stand in the way of your dream?”
Yes, some of my friends thought I was barking mad, but only the ones who didn’t play golf. Those who played were just envious.
How long did it take to get round the country, and what was your average week like?
In all, I took 14 months. This included a month off over Christmas and January, and the best part of three weeks’ downtime for constant repairs to the campervan.
My goal was to play ten courses a week. Two courses on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and then one each on Saturday and Sunday, before the members hit the course. Wednesday was my day off… when I washed clothes, visited local sites (e.g. Cliffs of Moher, Loop Head), caught up on writing reviews and organising photographs. Of course, it didn’t always work out that way.
Essentially being on an extended tour, I imagine that things could have become quite lonely at times. Were there any dark moments?
Sure there were. I was stranded in a camper van when my gas cylinder ran out… on a night when it was -5C. I sat on my laptop’s adaptor as it was the only source of heat I had, but I still thought I’d get frostbite. During the late autumn and winter months clubhouses closed early, which meant there was no one around after 7 o’clock for weeks at a time. That was lonely alright.
Then of course there was the golf itself. Some of my rounds were horrendous and there was one stage fairly early on when I simply forgot how to play the game. After half a dozen rounds of that, when you’re playing off a single figure handicap, you start to lose the will.
Playing courses that are so diverse in terms of stature, price and variety, what was your method to evaluate them most fairly and effectively?
I’m no designer or expert on course layout. I’m an amateur who loves the game so, for me, it was all about the golf experience. It still is. Step up onto a tee box, what’s the immediate reaction? There’s a course called Scrabo, in Northern Ireland. No one has heard of it, but step onto that 1st tee, and the 2nd and the 3rd and the golf club in your hand feels like a wand, ready to do magic. The quality is not top-notch, the design is straightforward and the hillside makes it hard work, but it remains one of the greatest experiences I played.
‘Experience’ was the starting point and this is what I try to express in the main review copy. I also rate each course out of 100, based on eight criteria: value for money, location, greens/fairways, water/bunkers, facilities, course design (my opinion of it, anyway) and the golf experience.
When you personally visit and play a course, what quality do you most look for and value the most?
The ‘wow’ factor… and my desire to return. I always tried to look at it from the point of a visiting golfer… is this somewhere I’d recommend people go and play.
Were all clubs and courses supportive of your efforts, or were there any obstacles?
To be honest, clubs couldn’t have been more helpful. A handful of bigger/older clubs wanted emails detailing who I was and what I was doing, but that was about it. My publisher wrote a formal letter introducing me and outlining the purpose of Hooked, but I never had to produce it.
I imagine that there would have been a few but was there a particular course in Ireland that completely surpassed all expectations on your journey?
It’s impossible not to be blown away by the drama of Old Head, but it was always going to be the completely unknown courses where my expectations were next to nil when I arrived. Parklands include Rathcore, Portumna, Portarlington, Royal Curragh and Macreddin, and links include Strandhill, Portsalon and Narin & Portnoo. But to pick two that left me reeling, it has to be Scrabo and Carne, where the dunes rise to 500 feet above sea level.
Hooked is obviously written and catered to the perspective of an amateur golfer. In your opinion, what do you think the average 15-handicaper most covets from a golfing experience?
That’s a tough question. I suppose any golfer wants to feel that they’ve had a great day out. Of course, everyone has their own version of what makes golf a great day out, from strong scoring, to not losing a golf ball, to enjoying themselves with friends. Ultimately, they want to walk away with positive memories and a desire to return.
Given the sheer number of courses that you visited, it would be fair to assume that not all experiences were positive. Which courses were underwhelming and would avoid in future?
I was once asked: “if you were given a JCB are there any courses you’d dig up?” And the answer is yes. The second course at the K Club (the Smurfit) is terrible… in my opinion! And far too expensive. One of the other frustrating things was reading ‘championship’ course on the sign as you drive through a gateway and then find a course that has nothing ‘championship’ about it.
There are several courses I didn’t like and wouldn’t return to but I can see their worth. Dublin Mountain Golf Club is barely more than fields with mown patches for greens, but it serves a purpose for those who want to try the game and/or want to pay minimal green fees. And I have no problem with that.
I know that a fair number of British courses come with old, stuffy and superior attitudes when they don’t have the golf course to warrant it… the same is true in Ireland, although there are only three or four.
Perhaps the course that’s caused me the most headaches is Portmarnock. Old, revered and one of the best in the world, it is simply brilliant and a links strategist’s utopia… but it’s not one of my favourites because I like big dunes that frame and shape holes. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing it, but I’d rather slip across the estuary and play the big-duned The Island.
This is perhaps the most pertinent question. At the end of the year playing golf near continuously, did your game improve substantially?
So many people think I must have improved dramatically, but the answer is no. My short game did improve, but off the tee I got worse and worse… and I had no way of knowing what I was doing wrong. I started at 7 handicap and finished in the same place.
Looking at your second book now, Driving the Green, what can readers expect from it?
Hooked is a straight review book of every golf course; Driving the Green is the story of my travels around Ireland. Expect Born Again Christians, entertaining encounters – on and off the golf course, some staggering gambling and very dodgy cooking. And then there’s my belligerent camper van.
After the success of Hooked, which has just been re-released in its third edition, was a follow up work reflecting on your experiences during the adventure itself something that you intended to produce?
I guess the idea was always there because so many people said: ‘you must have some great stories’, and I was keeping notes (and a blog) while I was travelling.
You must have encountered some incredible characters. Which meeting stands out the most to you?
The two Born Again Christians, because it happened on my very first trip. I gave them a lift and the wife tried to convince me that if I didn’t convert she’d be sitting at God’s side when Judgement Day came. Not that she had a high opinion of herself, or anything. The husband never said a word. It was terrifying but also hilarious.
Trundling around in a campervan, there must have been a few mishaps along the way. Which of them springs instantly to mind?
THE LEAKING ROOF. It’s Ireland, so it rains a lot, but despite numerous efforts by some camper van aficionados the leak was never fixed. One time I broke down in a rainstorm in a midlands town called Birr, and I remember sitting at the camper’s table, typing on my laptop, with half a dozen pots and pans spread out around me to catch the water.
You asked about ‘dark moments’… there you go.
Do you view Driving the Green as being a companion piece to Hooked, or a completely standalone piece of work?
I guess they go hand in hand, but it’s not like you need one to enjoy the other.
If someone was making a once in a lifetime trip to Ireland, money being no object, which ten courses would you send them to?
Bucket List: Royal County Down, Ballybunion, The European, The Island, Waterville, Carne, Enniscrone, County Sligo, Narin & Portnoo and Old Head. Of those, only the Old Head isn’t a links.
And because not everyone wants to play links. Parkland: Druid’s Glen, Adare, Cork, Headfort (New), Carlow, Malone, Concra Wood, Macreddin, Scrabo, Portumna. The last four are dirt cheap and utterly brilliant.
Conversely, if someone with a budget came to Ireland and wanted to experience five courses that gave them the fullest impression of golf on the island, where would you recommend?
Royal Curragh (oldest course on the island), Birr, Portarlington, Strandhill (links) and Moyola Park… but I could produce a list of ten for each of the four provinces and still leave out some of my favourites.
Looking back on your experiences. When it was completed and your existence in the campervan came to an end, had you discovered or learned anything about golf, the people of Ireland, or even yourself, that you weren’t aware of before?
It certainly reinforced the belief that you won’t get a warmer welcome than in Ireland. I know that it is a cliché and we bang on about it, but it’s true. And golf clubs are no different. That -5C temperature I mentioned – the head greenkeeper went on a one hour round trip to get me a new gas cylinder… while I was on the golf course.
The only thing I learned about myself is that I should never again be allowed to reverse a camper van. I backed into walls, banks and buildings half a dozen times.
Taking a shift away from the books, being so well travelled, you will have an excellent perspective of golf in each region of Ireland. What state is the game in there and where do you see it going?
The timing of my book was… interesting. In 2007 and 2008, when I drove around the country, golf and Ireland were booming. The Celtic Tiger (period of huge economic growth in Ireland) hadn’t yet seen the writing on the wall… and, to be honest, green fees were verging on the ridiculous.
By the time the book was published in 2009, everything had changed. Golf memberships suffered dramatically, golf tourism dwindled almost overnight and over the following five years the numbers playing the game fell by 20%. Between 2008 and 2015, 16 golf courses closed.
Now, in 2015, things are looking better again. Golf tourism is back to the levels of 2008, the numbers playing the game have stabilised and green fees have fallen to levels that are both sensible and attractive. I doubt it will get back to the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger years – but there is a growing sense of optimism in many areas of the golf industry.
Looking ahead to the future, with these books now behind you, are there any more potential projects in your head? A comprehensive guide to the courses of Scotland or England, perhaps?
Yes, Scotland certainly came to mind but, try as I might, I couldn’t justify taking off for another massive trip… at least not yet. I have some other ideas which I’m currently pursuing – I’ll let you know if they happen.
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