It was a very warm welcome to Northern Ireland by our hosts, Hugh & Grace Taggart, with whom we‚??d be spending the next two nights with on the outskirts of Belfast.
Hugh had contacted us a couple of months back inviting us to stay and arranging our golf at the Royal Belfast Golf Club and it has been very comforting knowing we‚??ve had the first game of golf in Northern Ireland arranged well in advance.¬† The connection? Hugh is good mates with Norman Patton, Jamie‚??s fathers cousin, who we met up with for dinner in Ponte Vedra when we were staying with Mark and Nancy and playing at Sawgrass, visiting The First Tee HQ and the World Golf Village.¬† That was a whirlwind time.
My initial thoughts of Belfast are that it feels like home.¬† It is lush and the roads, cars and general feel is similar to back in New Zealand. ¬†¬†First impressions are of course far from a determinative opinion on a place but you could definitely sense we had landed in a different country.¬† Hugh and Grace did not disappoint in living up to the adage that folk here in Ireland are the friendliest in the world.¬† They were fantastic hosts.¬†
Hugh reminded me at times of my grandfather back in NZ who, along with my late grandmother, both had roots in Northern Ireland.¬† Some mannerisms were the same and Hugh was particular to make sure everything was perfect whilst I kept saying, as laid back kiwis do, ‚??it‚??s sweet as thanks‚??.¬† Traveling this much you have simple wants and needs ‚?? a good bed, good company and a golf course somewhere in close proximity!¬† Perhaps the bed was a bit too good as I managed to sleep in until around 1030 leaving a perfectly laid out breakfast (and first meal in Ireland) to wait downstairs.
Early afternoon we made the short drive down the road and the stately entrance way to the Royal Belflast Golf Club.¬† We‚??d met a few chaps from here way back at Royal Aberdeen when Zyg and Graeme (aka S.P.) led us astray for the day (and night) and we ended up in the Aberdeen township in the early hours of the morning with a number of the traveling Royal Belfast golf team.¬†¬† A couple of guys walked past saying a cheery g‚??day but I must admit it was difficult to remember all 20 guys names from that night!
Hugh had arranged the local Bangor paper to come down and so we had a couple of photographs and then it was off to the first tee along with our playing partner John.¬† Hugh and I teamed up and after some serious handicapping calculations we were away.
The golf course has recently hosted the British Girls Open Amateur Championships, which Grace ‚?? as Ladies captain ‚?? had a huge involvement with.¬† Sounded like she did a fine job and the course was still in pristine condition.
The first couple of holes are very strong par fours.¬† And the first green has a tilt from back to front that gave us a real shock to the system.¬† We‚??ve been playing on the generally flat links greens in Scotland and on these courses the green staff can‚??t make the greens rapid because the wind will blow that ball off the greens.¬† But the greens at the parkland style Royal Belfast course had no such restrictions and they were absolutely rapid.¬† A good couple of feet quicker than anything we‚??d played on in Scotland ‚?? even Loch Lomond.¬† So the first few holes we were trying to adjust our short game.¬† On the second I hit a chip that looked OK, only to see it roll through the green and into the deep greenside bunker on the other side! Jamie gave himself 6 foot return putts almost every hole on the front nine.¬† Neither of us learnt in a hurry that we needed to hit the ball below the hole.¬† A seemingly short course, designed by Harry Colt, Royal Belfast had plenty of defense in the form of its green complexes and surrounding bunkers ‚?? particularly with the course running at this speed (and a significant wind blowing).¬†¬† Don‚??t get me wrong, you could score here and the greens were receptive to the odd well struck iron shot, but you have to keep the ball below the hole.¬† The story goes that Mr Colt kindly dotted 365 bunkers around the course but now this number has now shrunk to somewhere just below 100.¬†
Hugh and I were taking on John and JP and I‚??d got Hugh on a good day.¬† He played his lights out for much of the round until the match ended on the 16th hole courtesy of some dovetailing all the way around!¬† I particularly enjoyed a quip from JP after Hugh had missed the green (by a fair way) on the par three 7th hole.¬† ‚??I‚??d like to see you get up and down from there‚?Ě was followed by a remarkable pitch across the sharply sloping green to a couple of feet from where Hugh calmly tapped in for par and the win on the hole (no shots).¬† His second remarkable par three on the front nine.¬†¬†
The stretch from 9 thru to 11 is particularly fun and known amongst the locals as amen corner. 9 plays along the waterfront, 10 is a devilish short par four where stories of Rory McIlroy ‚?? the local lad from the neighboring course started to flow (he hit 3 wood onto the green of course!), and then the famous uphill par three 11th over all kinds of scrub to a blind, two tiered green.¬† Here John and I were faced with a real dilemma. A putt from the top tier to the pin cut right at the bottom of a sharp slope. ¬†John was a fine putter, and when he hit his putt first JP was quick to acknowledge his partners good roll. I held my tongue as I watched it gather pace and end up a couple of feet off the green.¬† Using the experience of John‚??s putt I was faced with two options ‚?? lay up out to the left, or try and sink it knowing that at best I‚??d be left with a 10 footer uphill, if not further away off the green.¬† Not one to lay-up full shots, let alone putts I knocked it down there barely moving as it went over the crest but still faced with a 10 footer coming back.¬† Perhaps a green that was a little bit O.T.T ‚?? like the old Olympic 18th, but good fun nonetheless.
[On the 11th tee]
[JP on the 12th. A hole on a step between the higher holes and the holes alongside the water]
The course finishes with a couple of ‚??half pars‚?? the shortish par fives 16 and 18 and the very difficult 210 yard par three 17th. It‚??d be a great course to watch a tournament finish on, or to play in a match.¬†
The folk here, arranged by Hugh, really put on a special aftermatch do in the grand Victorian clubhouse.¬† Showered up and into the dining area we were treated to our first Guinness in Ireland.¬† And I can report that all the stories they say are true ‚?? it was even that bit better. Smooth.¬† Black stuff in hand we sat down and met John‚??s wife Janet, the current Captain, Arnie Wright (who we could definitely remember from our time at Aberdeen ‚?? champion) and his wife Connie, and two former Captains, Phyllis and Michael Park.¬† Hugh nicked home to pick up Grace and the two of them were in particularly fine form after hearing just before the meal of their sons engagement¬† - congratulations!!
Banter (or should I say Craic) followed for most of the night as we soaked in the atmosphere of Royal Belfast ‚?? one of only four Royal clubs in Ireland.¬† The Irish people have a lovely way about them and I found myself thinking that this is going to be some 4 weeks in our year of golf.¬† After a Top Meal we said a few words to thank our hosts and made the trip back to Bangor for another good nights sleep.
Huge thanks to Hugh and Grace for having us, and Arnie and the club of Royal Belfast for the day.¬† As I said, it was a real pleasure to spend the day with y‚??all and I hope to one day share a reciprocal visit with you (Royal Belfast had just hosted Royal Melbourne folk ‚?? including one chap we‚??d met earlier in the year, and Arnie told me he has 5 matches with other Royal clubs coming up over the next month!!).¬†
Postscript ‚?? well done to the ladies interclub team who have beaten all in their path this season and good luck Grace and co with the all Ireland final in the coming weeks!
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