Golf tourism on rise in Ireland

The profile of visitors has changed dramatically, confirms Alan Reardon at Lahinch. At the start of the 90's Irish visitors made up about 48 percent of our business; that's now down to eight percent. The market spread is now 80 percent American.

The same shift is reflected nationally. Golfers from Britain make up about half of those who come to Ireland to play but the American share has grown to almost 35 percent, many of whom play premium courses. In tourism-speak they are valued as high-yield guests.' A high ratio of repeat business suggests the visitors get exactly what they come for.

It's a game where tradition runs deep. Golfers everywhere love to try the famous old courses and in Ireland they go for Royal Dublin (est. 1885), Lahinch, Royal Portrush, Portmarnock, Royal County Down, Old Head of Kinsale, Balmoral and Woodbrook.

Lahinch itself dates back to 1892 when Limerick businessman Alexander Shaw deemed the coastal sand hills an ideal site to set up a course. He then built with the assistance of Scottish officers from the Black Watch Regiment, and the first game was played on Good Friday, April 15 that same year. To commemorate the occasion the West Clare Railway put on a special train in order to give persons an opportunity to view the game and enjoy the sea air.

The course was originally divided by a road but in 1927 six extra holes were added on the beach side to bring the entire course by the sea. Some 36 years later the club developed land on the other side of the roadway to make up a second course, the Castle Course, for which green fees of 50 euro are less than half the fee to play the Old Course.

Of course the newly-built courses can't compete in terms of history and tradition. To win immediate profile and prestige the current trend is to hire an international golfing figure to design the course. Many of the new courses in Ireland have a famous stamp on them, such as Jack Nicklaus' design at Mount Juliet, Arnold Palmer's at the K-Club or Bernhardt Langer's design of the newer links course at Portmarnock.

In fact, links golf seaside courses is one of the biggest draws in the Irish game. You don't get true links courses in America, reasons Martin Shorter, himself a native of Raleigh, North Carolina. The difference is the wind, and the firmness of the turf is something American golfers are not accustomed to. Americans are used to hitting the ball in the air, landing it on the green where it stops. Here, you have to allow for the bounce. It's the shot you roll and the shot you have to chase. And it's about patience. If you come to Ireland to play matchplay golf you'll have a great time. If you come to medal play you'll be a beaten and broken man!

There are about 151 links courses in the world and one third of them are in Ireland. Not surprisingly, there was huge interest when Australian champion Greg Norman was invited to design the course on coastal farmland at Doonbeg, Co. Clare. The opportunities for building new links courses are obviously diminishing Doonbeg runs for a sprawling 385 acres but Norman was overwhelmed by the potential of the site.

When I first looked at this site I thought I was the luckiest designer in the world, enthused the man known as the Great White Shark. It's spectacular land made by God, one of the most beautiful places on earth. This is the course I want to be identified with.

Designers are known to complete their work after a few visits to a course but Norman's involvement at Doonbeg, saw him visit the site on an unprecedented 23 occasions. Under strict conservation guidelines to protect the 100-foot dunes in Doonbeg he sought to work around existing features on a minimum disturbance' philosophy. The Great White Shark also came up against a most unlikely foe. The site turned out to be a habitat of a rare species of snail, the Vertigo Angustior, so additional directives were issued to protect it.

After resolving various difficulties including access to the beach for locals the $25 million development is now in business. Plans include a 90-room hotel on site as well as holiday chalets in what Brendan Lynch of Shannon Development Tourism described as the most significant project to be developed in the West of Ireland over the last 25 years.

We knew going in there's always give-and-take, explains Shorter. If you don't plan with the environment in mind you won't be successful. We knew we had to work around the configuration of dunes but basically Greg routed the course around the 15th hole. When he saw the land there he thought it would be one of the greatest golfing holes in the world and wanted to work around that.

The 15th is indeed a magnificent par-four, running along an ocean ridge with the green nestling in the natural bowl of a dune amphitheater. Greg didn't want to Americanize' the course, continues Shorter. By that, he meant he didn't want to move earth. The site was so natural we just started mowing fairways. Twelve of the fairways are meadow grass and that's very unusual.

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