Kevin Markham.


Confronting the wild Atlantic coast challenge

Friendships on the golf course make any challenge easy to overcome, writes Kevin Markham.

Confronting the wild Atlantic coast challenge

Three top Irish courses, two best mates, one glorious part of the world. If there is a better 3-2-1 in golf, I don’t know what it is.

The Atlantic Coast Challenge has become a pilgrimage for many — certainly for me — and the combination of Co Sligo, Enniscrone, and Carne golf clubs promises three links courses which I consider amongst the top 10 on the island.

Aristotle said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The Atlantic Coast Challenge (ACC) is a perfect example as it brings these three courses together but offers so much more than golf. I honestly believe it is the perfect microcosm to illustrate why this game of golf is so special. You’re not imposing yourself physically against an opponent, you get to chat to and enjoy the company of the people you’re with for the entire round, you have to use tremendous skill to get the ball from the tee into the hole and you’re outdoors enjoying a beautiful setting. And we get to call it sport. I know others are less complimentary about the game but it really does encapsulate everything I’m looking for when it comes to exercising the mind and body.

When you play in one of these events regularly you learn a few things… about the area, the pubs and restaurants, the hotels, and the people. You also know when there’s a thrilling hole coming up… and one to make you quake in your boots. Or both, in the case of Carne’s and Co. Sligo’s 17th holes. You get to enjoy some quality time with great friends, too, and in our own busy worlds that happens rarely enough these days.

Finbarr has flown in from the US every year for the past six years to play alongside Ronan and myself. Buddies since school, we see Finbarr once a year and that is one rationale for ensuring we make time for the ACC.

The tournament takes place over three days — in early July — and the format is simple: It’s a singles Stableford event, plus a three-person team event, so every score counts. To be honest, I’m not sure what percentage of teams come with the aim of winning something versus the teams who simply appreciate the value of what’s on offer and want to have fun. Put it this way, for €135 (early bird rate) you get to play three fabulous links courses… pretty much for the price of one! I’d love to say that because it is July you’ll get perfect weather, but this is Ireland, and you know better. Still, we finished at Enniscrone on day three in perfect sunshine and that’s not the first time it’s happened.

We play the Co Sligo, Carne, Enniscrone rotation (there are two others) and we stay at the Diamond Coast Hotel, in Enniscrone. The hotel is a central point and it has made life very easy over the years. Some people prefer to stay in two different places — Carne is an hour west of Enniscrone — but we prefer the one hotel.

It also helps that we get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the last day.

That’s the sort of four-star luxury you want when you’re about to play your third links course in three days.

The hotel is well-suited for golfers: Big rooms, dinner served till 9pm, drying facilities, a popular bar, and a fantastic location.

“We are lucky to be here, right next to the course,” says Tomas Lynn, general manager of the hotel. “We very much feel a part of the Atlantic Coast Challenge and we had 100 of the competitors staying with us this year. We’re delighted to look after them. There are a few tired bodies after three days of golf, so we try our best to offer them the comfort and relaxation they need.”

Hotels in Sligo town, Ballina and Belmullet also do good business, and with close to 400 golfers taking part, the region benefits handsomely. Restaurants and bars are full of bustle and a few physios and masseuses probably do pretty well out of it, too. Ronan and myself have both had cause to call on the services of someone who can straighten, realign, twist, and fix aching bodies.

As for the golf, I have the good fortune to play with two friends who have very different approaches to the game. Ronan attacks every ball as if it has done him a grave injustice.

Drives of 300 yards are

frequent — which may explain why a physio should be on standby at each clubhouse during the event. His low screaming shots are tailor-made for links golf. His handicap is 11 and he plays many times during the year. Finbarr has a slower, more deliberate action due, in part, to his playing maybe twice a year. He plays off 17 and lives in Connecticut.

Ronan and I annoy him constantly by telling him how much better he would be if he played more. He has a fine swing and his driving over the three days was exceptional. There’s a low handicapper in there somewhere, struggling to overcome a passionate work ethic and the cost of playing golf in America.

This year was an entertaining one, especially as we had a friend back from the land which elected Donald Trump as president. Boy, did that keep us going on day one at Co Sligo.

The golf was that never-ending mix of brilliance and chaos. Co Sligo’s holes offer tremendous variety in size, shape, and challenge and there are few better places to stand in Irish golf than on the towering third tee. Sea, mountains, lost horizons are all on show and even with rain racing in, tendrils hanging down like tentacles from the clouds, it is beautiful. Benbulben gets so much of the attention — and rightly so — but you won’t be disappointed whichever direction you face.

The course then drops in two large steps (over three holes) to the ‘floor’ where nine low-lying holes have a burn weaving through them. It comes into play with devastating effect on four holes.

Scoring wasn’t a problem, not for Ronan on the front nine. He played it in level par. If we could have taken his front nine and my back nine — as a better-ball score — we still wouldn’t have won as the winner posted 44 points, the highest score of any course across the three days.

There is always banter around the clubhouses during the competition — often about the scoring! — and, after the one-hour drive to the Diamond Coast, there was plenty more going on in the bar and restaurant that first night. Golfers come from everywhere for this tournament: Castlemartyr, Kilrush, Kanturk, Thurles and Nenagh golf clubs represent some of the southern constituency, but visitors also hail from the USA, Germany, the UK and even Australia.

Day two took us across the wilds of Mayo, passed the Nephin Beg Mountains to Belmullet, a village in the north west of the county.

It clings to the mainland by a narrow strip of land that looks like it might snap in the next storm.

The road to reach Belmullet and the mountainous links of Carne takes you through Ballina and then onto the N59, a wild road that weaves chaotically across captivating wilderness.

You are driving into the Gaeltacht and every hole at Carne bears an Irish name.

For me, Carne remains the essence of raw and natural links golf. Dunes rise 500 feet above sea level in such a jagged formation it looks as if they are tearing open the sky. And that torn sky let in the wind. We were well battered but, as my favourite golf course anywhere, I loved every second. We clambered up and down through the dunes, making our way out to the Atlantic and a couple of rocky islands which are the only things that stand between you and North America. The par three 14th sits here, alone. It is one of the most isolated holes in Ireland, playing above the dark rocks and ocean. Playing in front of us was Joe Stack, the RTÉ Sports presenter. He had never played Carne before and there were moments he looked overawed… standing on the 14th tee was one of them.

We drove back to the hotel for a late dinner and a couple of pints. We chatted to some fellow golfers, comparing notes and deliberated over favourite courses.

Everyone was in agreement that the ACC was a special event and it was apparent that we would all be back in 2018. I’d booked our 2018 tee time at Carne that very day and had been told that almost every tee time on our rotation was already booked.

Ronan’s favourite course was our final links. Enniscrone is beautiful, has heaving dunes almost as big as Carne, and is terrifying in places. I think it’s the toughest of the three and you need to be so smart around the greens. There are big slopes and sharp fall-offs, and going through the green is never a wise idea. There are blind shots and I imagine most first-time visitors feel like a punching bag by the end. The back nine is outstanding and holes 12 and 13 are two short par fours which qualify among the best holes in Ireland. The 13th is so blind it even has a traffic light system in place. I tip my hat to a fabulous course which is always in immaculate condition.

Our day finished in the clubhouse where we ate lunch, discussed our summer plans and how much better we could have played. We mumbled about trying one of Ireland’s many other golfing challenges but we decided — as we do every year — that we like the Atlantic Coast Challenge too much. If it ain’t broke… For value, for golf, for fun and for friendship, you simply can’t beat this event.

2018 dates: Monday to Wednesday, July 9-11 (Entry Fee, €140 (Early Bird Rate).

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