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Kilkenny doesn’t disappoint as annual Irish trip returns

After being unable to travel for the previous two years due to the pandemic, Golfers Local editor PAUL CHAPPLE made his normally annual trip to Ireland last month courtesy of Club Choice Ireland. In this edition he’ll tell you all about his experiences in Kilkenny when he visited the Mount Juliet Estate, Hotel Kilkenny, Kilkenny Golf Club and Gowran Park.

MY PREVIOUS Club Choice Ireland trips had always revolved around the many fabulous courses in the Dublin area. This year however, I was really excited to be getting my first taste of the South East of Ireland with visits to various courses in the Kilkenny and Wexford areas.

My day started early as I had the 9am Stena Line Holyhead to Dublin ferry to catch, which meant leaving my home on the Cheshire/Wales border by 6.30am. Fortunately it was a beautiful Spring morning with hardly a breath of wind and my 90-minute coastal drive and subsequent three-hour crossing could not have been smoother.

Arriving to equally nice weather in Dublin was ideal and, having enjoyed a full English breakfast on board, I was ready to head straight down to my first port of call, the wonderful Mount Juliet, which was about 90 miles south.

I was particularly excited to be playing here as it will host, for the second successive year, the 2022 Horizon Irish Open, which I had enjoyed watching on TV last year.

It was also a course where Tiger Woods and Ernie Els have both won in the early 2000s when Mount Juliet hosted the American Express Championships.

The estate’s website says “Both water and sand play a part in the types of challenges that have come to define Jack Nicklaus’ outstanding golf courses, and our 18 holes embody his ambitious, mischievous approach to course design. Five lakes have been constructed, which enhance six of the holes, while over 80 bunkers have been strategically placed throughout.”

With this in mind, I decided to play from the amber tees which totalled 6,554 yards rather than the tougher blue or black tees… and with my game still very fragile, this was a wise choice.

You don’t need nor want a blow for blow account of my round, but the standout holes for me were the stunning par three third hole where from the championship tee, for example, you will have to contend with 180 yards of carry over a shimmering lake. From my amber tees it was a much friendlier, but still very scary shot of 140 yards.

The par four fourth hole is also a special hole with a narrow fairway and more water up short and then right of the putting surface.

The 11th, 13th and 14th holes, are particularly pleasing on the eye, but all three greens are heavily guarded by bunkers and water.

You arrive at perhaps the course’s most unusual feature on the 16th, where you will find a walled green almost entirely surrounded by a bunker!

With two long closing holes to finish, and the sun still very hot, I was delighted to retreat to the stunning clubhouse where I was able to enjoy my first pint of Guinness ahead of a quick chat with golf operations manager Paul O’Neill.

He explained: “We get lots of UK business. They can either fly or ferry into Dublin or get the ferry into nearby Rosslare from Fishguard. They know they can get value for money down in this part of Ireland. They love the golf and the hospitality in this part of the world.

“The standard of golf courses over here is very good.

“We deal closely with Club Choice Ireland as a tour operator and try and make those extra special touches for groups that use them in terms of putting on tea and coffee before they play or finding them a little private area within the members’ bar.”

The Manor House has a Michelin star restaurant that has been on site for the last five years. All 32 bedrooms are unique and are named after a famous figures connected to the area.

It’s only about 200 yards away from the first tee. Club Choice’s 2022 brochure states: “The Manor House is the beating heart of the estate and has been ever since the first Earl of Carrick and his wife Juliet first made it their home in 1750. Step through its pillared entrance way and you enter a place out of time: lovingly preserved for the present-day; intimately updated in the most faithful manner.”

The second hotel on the estate, situated alongside the clubhouse, is the Hunter’s Yard, which has 93 bedrooms and a Hound Restaurant offering all-day dining.

Whether you choose the Manor House or Hunter’s Yard, Mount Juliet is a golfers getaway of the highest standard.

A capacity crowd of 15,000 spectators each day will enjoy this summer’s Irish Open here, and with an estimated TV audience of 350 million, the estate’s profile is set to rise.

After saying my farewells to Paul, it was time to jump back in the car for a 30-minute drive north to the medieval city of Kilkenny where my final stop of day one was Hotel Kilkenny.

The four star hotel is located just a 10-minute walk from the city centre and includes a leisure centre with a gym, 20m swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna.

It has a lovely Taste Restaurant, but I was keen to sample the delights of its Pure Bar, which offers fantastic bar food in a more informal setting.

I opted for grilled fillets of sea bass on a crisp citrus salad, with warm baby potatoes and a tomato and tarragon salsa. It was superb, as was the couple of pints of Guinness that preceded it.

Suitably replete, I decided to have a short walk before the daylight went. It turned into a particularly short walk as I found a great little pub, The Sceilp Inn, opposite the hotel’s entrance and stayed there for the remainder of the evening.

It was an early start on day two as I was meeting Kilkenny Golf Club’s general manager Mark Ruddy, a former PGA professional, for a look around at 8.30am.

The club, based in the heart of Kilkenny, celebrated its 125th year last year and, like Mount Juliet, it has a major champion as a former winner there as Padraig Harrington was the 1992 Scratch Cup champion.

Mark took me out on a buggy and explained how the par 71 parkland course is renowned for the quality of its greens, which are small and undulating. They were 10.5 on the stimp on the morning of my visit.

We drove down the opening hole in a buggy so Mark could show me the impressive first hole that has a blind tee shot and then drops down steeply to the green.

Mark then showed me a couple of the club’s iconic par threes. He talked about how, despite having 1,100 members, the club try and go above and beyond when it comes to looking after its UK visitors.

He said: “We try to be more than just a golf club. We work closely with the hotels in terms of getting golfers in and out of the course by booking them taxis.

“We have a group from North Wales that have been coming here for 40 years. We keep some tee times free for them at a weekends, even if it’s a competition day.

“Visitors tend to use Kilkenny as their base. They then travel out to the likes of Mount Juliet and Gowran Park.

“The advantage of coming to this part of Ireland is how much cheaper the golf is. A game here at Kilkenny on a Saturday is just 35 euros. You can play midweek and enjoy a main course meal for just 40 euros.”

The Kilkenny course is based on quarry land and so it drains well and is playable 12 months of the year, but August, September and October are often popular with UK visitors.

Despite there being a little bit of rain in the air, and more forecast for the rest of the day, I was gutted I didn’t have time in my busy itinerary to actually play. I did get chance to have a look around at the refurbished clubhouse, which looked great, before it was time to head off for another, sadly all too brief, look at Gowran Park where I met up with course manager Joe Scriven.

Already renowned for its racecourse, in 2001, Gowran Park developed a unique 18-hole golf course too. The course meanders in and around 130 acres with five holes within the racecourse boundary and the remainder in the mature woodland and lake settings of the Annaly Estate.

With the magnificent backdrop of the Blackstairs Mountains, this course par 71 course has some great holes, Gowran Park is a wonderful parkland golf course with tree-lined fairways and superb greens complimented by various water hazards, lakes and streams.

The first three holes are positioned inside the race track with the first tee beside the winning post. There are no trees on the these holes, however, strategically placed bunkers, lake and a tricky third green make these holes challenging to navigate. The fourth hole is the signature hole on the course – a fantastic hole based on the 13th at Augusta. Playing to 100ft tall trees in the distance, you have to avoid the trees to the right and the creek to the left, expect to play your second over the creek which surrounds the green. This hole was voted as being one of the Top 100 Holes in Ireland recently.

Water comes into play on the final three holes of the first half where the climax is the par three ninth hole under the watchful eye of guests in the clubhouse.

Stroke index one is lurking on the par five 12th hole which is a dogleg right with water coming into play off the tee if one cuts it too fine. The par three 13th hole is the last with water until your approach to the 18th green. However before that the 15th hole awaits, it is arguably the most picturesque hole on the course with no bunkers, no water, just a corridor of fairway caught between two rows of more 100ft tall trees.

The clubhouse at Gowran Park is a memorable one. It is situated on the top floor of the grandstand overlooking the golf course and winning post and has more panoramic views of those Blackstairs Mountains and Mount Leinster.

So if a golf trip to this part of Ireland is something that might be of interest, you would be best advised to contact Club Choice Ireland via email info@clubchoiceireland.com, Freephone 0800 285 1490 or visit their website www.clubchoiceireland.com.

They truly are the experts in golf in Irelands Ancient East and given the glowing recommendations from the courses and hotels I visited; you will be in good hands.

For me, I was now heading south to Wexford, but more of that in tomorrow’s article.

Sample Package – Ferry 3 Nights B&B in 4* Hotel 2 Rounds of Golf & Return Ferry From £255pp Sample Package – Fly 4 Nights B&B in 4* Hotel 3 Rounds of Golf & Car Hire From £335pp* * excludes flights