Into Thin Eire

Golfing in Ireland really takes off when traveling by helicopter. John Steinbreder tours three great links courses by air, bringing him to the tee in record time.

Frankly, it was hard to imagine that things could get much better. I had just checked into Dromoland Castle, a magnificent 16th-century structure that operates as a sumptuous 100-room retreat near Shannon Airport. And jet lag notwithstanding, I was getting ready to play a round at the Lahinch Golf Club, a stunning links on the Atlantic Ocean 25 miles away.

But then I heard the loud whir of an engine, and suddenly a blue EC-130 helicopter hovered outside the massive bay window of my suite. It turned in a tight circle over a landing pad at the edge of the nearby lake, casting ripples across the water as the pilot worked the nose into the wind and settled it onto the ground. Moments later there was a knock on my door.

"Your helicopter is here, sir," a member of the Dromoland staff called out as I picked up my clubs and followed him down the hall. Now this is the way to go to the golf course.

I was even more convinced after strapping myself into the French-made seven-seater as the pilot, John McDermott, a former Search and Rescue flyer for the Irish Coast Guard, lifted us off the ground. At 300 feet he banked sharply to the northwest, over a grassy field where cattle and sheep grazed, and began following a line set by the chopper's GPS device. We passed over vast peat bogs where farmers had cut long swaths of that natural fuel and laid them out to dry, and lush pastures marked off by mossy stone walls and thick patches of yellow gorse. Then we leveled off at 600 feet, and I felt as if I were on a carnival ride, motoring at 140 miles per hour over land so verdant it looked like a sumptuous sod blanket and turning what would have been a one-hour drive into about ten minutes.

It was a fast ten minutes, too, and soon the pilot was pointing to the Lahinch layout in the distance. "Let's take a better look," he said, dropping to 200 feet and cruising over the golf course, so close at times I swear I could read how the grain ran on the greens. "I just want to give you a little preview," McDermott explained, and then he landed on the driving range. I suddenly thought of Robert Louis Stevenson and his line about it being better to travel than to arrive. After the flight, I was almost ready to agree.

But I like to play golf more than I like to fly, and the Old Course at Lahinch is something special. For starters, it has what the Irish call a "brilliant" pedigree. Built over a century ago, it was designed by Old Tom Morris, the famed Scottish player, clubmaker, and architect. Some 30 years later, the layout was revamped by Alister Mackenzie, who would go on to create two of the best tracks in America, Cypress Point and Augusta National.

Then there is its feel. Lahinch is magnificently austere, and also quaint and modest, like the small village (pop. 600) in which it is built. It is also a classic Irish links, simple and complex at the same time. That is especially apparent as you play No. four, a short par five renowned for its massive "Klondyke" dune that must be carried with the second shot. Next up is the par-three "Dell," 154 yards from the back tees to a green nestled in the surrounding dunes. It looks easy enough on the card—and from the helicopter—but the shot is entirely blind and exceedingly difficult. And then you are into the best stretch of the track, to the ocean behind the sixth green, along the water on the par-four seventh and back into the dunes on the par-three eighth, the tee set in bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.

The Old Course at Lahinch has just undergone another renovation, this time at the capable hands of the Englishman Martin Hawtree, who modernized the track while reviving those characteristic touches by Morris and Mackenzie that had been dulled by time. But it still plays very well, and the afternoon round was, in the words of McDermott, a bit of "craic" (pronounced "crack" and Gaelic for a very good time). As we lifted off in the chopper I began to understand just how easy it was to golf in Ireland this way.

McDermott's company is Links Helicopters. Based at Shannon Airport, the operation consists of him and his bride-to-be, Carmel Kirby, another former Search and Rescue pilot, and their engineer, Pat Joyce. The majority shareholder is Wayne Huizenga, American business mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins football team, with the prominent Irish tour operator Carr Golf a partial owner. While two or three other Irish outfits lease helicopter time, Links is the only one focused on golf—and the only one with such up-to-date aircraft.

Golfers wishing to use Links can put together their own itineraries or get Carr Golf to do it for them (Carr makes hotel reservations, books tee times, and arranges for the best places to play). Traditionally, groups have worked their way around the Emerald Isle by car or motor coach, and those have their advantages. They allow flexibility as to when and where golfers go and offer close-up views of the Irish countryside and culture. But there are drawbacks: narrow roads, for example, and incessant traffic, with tractors and horse-drawn carts clogging lanes outside cities. Ireland is still a very rural country and tough to navigate quickly by road. That means that most golf tours are confined to specific regions to satisfy generally tight playing and travel schedules.

Helicoptering provides easy access to all the great golf Ireland has to offer. The choppers have a range of 300 miles, which works perfectly in a nation that is only 190 miles wide and 300 miles at its farthest points top to bottom. Plus, it is a fabulous way to see the countryside, and at roughly $1,850 per hour of flight time, not a budget breaker, especially considering you can divvy up that fee among, say, four golfers. "Some groups want to use the chopper the entire time, and others for just a leg or two of their trip, to get the thrill of traveling that way and to access a course that normally might have been too much of a drive away," says Marc Dunbar, a managing director at Carr Golf. The company was founded by three-time British Amateur champion Joe Carr, who also served for a time as captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

Yes, weather can be an issue in a country once described "as the greatest on earth if only God had put a roof over it." And the safety-conscious pilots will cancel flights if conditions are the least bit dicey, the biggest issue being visibility. "But we always have a backup plan with motor coaches," says McDermott. "And we are able to make last-minute adjustments if need be."

Fortunately, we did not need to make any adjustments going back to Dromoland. We landed at dusk, and a small crowd of guests gathered to watch us set down. I felt more movie star than golfer when I stepped out of the cockpit.

The next day we headed to Doonbeg Golf Club, another ten-minute jaunt—via EC-130, that is—to a quiet coastal burg that has, in typically Irish proportion, one church and five pubs. It also happens to be the site of one of the country's newest and most talked-about layouts. Designed by Greg Norman, it opened only a year ago and is a terrific (if a tad young) links with a deft routing through grassy dunes that rise to three or four stories in places. And there is the ever-present wind, blowing so hard that my carry bag blew over if I didn't face the club heads into the breeze each time I put it down. Measuring more than 6,800 yards from the tips, the track has a number of memorable holes, including the par-four fifth, where players must hit their drives onto a saddle set between a pair of dunes and then their approaches to a testy green backed only by Doughmore Bay. The hardest play there, however, may be the shortest, No. 14, a par three of only 111 yards to a narrow hourglass green; it took two tries for anyone in my foursome to put a ball on it that day, and bogey won the hole.

It wasn't until I left Dromoland the following morning for the tiny town of Waterville that I really understood the wonders—and comforts—of helicopter travel. Normally the drive to that isolated spot in the far southwest section of the country is a three-and-a-half hour white-knuckler, scenic to be sure but full of near-death experiences on roads replete with roundabouts and packed with lorries, tractors, and revved-up sports cars. But this way it was only 45 minutes.

And it was worth the trip, because Waterville may be the best links in all of Ireland. It had originally opened as a nine-hole course in the late 1880s, constructed mostly for workers who had come there to build and man one of the first transatlantic cable stations. But it shut down in the 1950s. A decade later, however, an Irish-American named John Mulcahy bought the property and built a championship 18-hole layout there. The new course opened in 1973 and was soon earning rave reviews. Gary Player called the 11th hole "the most satisfying par five of them all," and Raymond Floyd selected Waterville as one of his five favorite courses on earth. Tiger Woods, a member, often warms up here for the British Open. Payne Stewart was made honorary captain weeks before he died, four years ago.

It's not hard to understand why those touring pros are so enamored of the course, especially as you head into the dunes on the back nine and delight in a nearly perfect mix of holes and shots as well as some remarkable vistas of not only the Atlantic but also the surrounding mountains known as the Macgillycuddy's Reeks. And the course should play even better once the current owners, a group of Americans who bought the course from Mulcahy shortly before his death, complete a restoration of their own by renowned architect Tom Fazio (to be completed in spring 2004).

I stayed in Waterville for a long weekend, playing 36 holes a day and reveling in its quiet solitude and natural beauty. This was where Charlie Chaplin used to hide out, fishing in its bountiful salmon and sea-trout pools, and where three of his daughters still have houses in town. I could well imagine the melancholy he and other regular visitors felt when it was time to go as I was getting ready to leave myself. But my departure was made easier by the fact that McDermott planned to fly me back to Shannon Airport. "I have to bring a client down to Waterville," he said. "And he doesn't mind if you use the chopper while he plays." The client was movie star Hugh Grant, who was in the midst of his own golf tour of Ireland. We met at the putting green and talked about our games for a spell. Then it was time to move on.

"Thanks for the use of the helicopter," I said with a smile as I shook Grant's hand.

"No problem," he replied. "There's not a better way to go."

Address Book

One of the great joys for golfers traveling to Ireland is that the accommodations are every bit as good as the courses themselves. And in many cases just as varied.

Dromoland Castle Hotel & Country Estate
Dromoland once served as the royal seat of the O'Brien family, descendants of Brian Boru, the former High King of Ireland. Just eight miles from Shannon Airport and close to some of the best links in the country, its grand Gothic feel is enhanced by high ceilings, damask window drapes, and antique suits of armor. The castle sits on a 375-acre estate where deer and pheasant wander through bountiful woods and meadows and trout rise to the hatches in the River Fergus. It has its own golf course, the Dromoland Golf & Country Club, a parkland track recently redesigned by architect Ron Kirby (a former associate of Jack Nicklaus'), as well as three restaurants, regular afternoon tea, and a modern business center. Rooms, $425-$1,350. Par 72 course measuring 6,750 yards; greens fees, $70. Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare; 800-346-7007 and 353-61-368-144;
A modest 18th-century manor situated on 40 acres, the Atlantic-facing Waterville House (which is near the famed Butler's Pool, one of the best salmon fisheries in Ireland) was once a favorite haunt of Charlie Chaplin's. Privacy and quiet are at a premium at this inn, which has only 10 rooms. And unlike Dromoland, there are no five-course dinners, well-stocked wine cellars, or archery lessons. But there may not be a more pleasant place to stay in Ireland, and guests quickly fall into the soothing rhythm of life here. Plus, the Waterville Golf Links, one of Ireland's best, is a five-minute drive away. Tiger Woods stayed here during each of his three visits to Ireland, and many others have done the same. Rooms, $220; $1900 for the entire house. Par 72 course measuring 7,225 yards; greens fees, $145. Waterville, County Kerry; 353-66-947-4102;

LAHINCH GOLF CLUB Par 72 course measuring 6,882 yards; greens fees, $125. Lahinch, County Clare; 353-65-708-1003;

DOONBEG GOLF CLUB Par 72 course measuring 6,885 yards; greens fees, $210. Doonbeg, County Clare; 353-65-905-5246;

LINKS HELICOPTERS Rates are $1,850 per hour. Day rates start at $3,700, for a two-hour minimum. Shannon Airport, County Clare; 353-61-472-146;

CARR GOLF & CORPORATE TRAVEL Dublin; 800-882-2656, 353-1-822-6662;;

John Steinbreder last wrote about Ping custom clubs for Departures.

Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.

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