By Golf Monthly published
As you may know my main gripe about my fellow performers in Chicago is that none of them play golf. Well this week one of my fellow thesps has redeemed himself by introducing me to his golf obsessed father. John Dugdale, father of Mark, would become instrumental in my most enjoyable week?s golf so far on tour.
Being in Belfast, it was impractical to return home, as I would normally do on a Sunday, so John invited me to make up a four at Dunmurry Golf Club. Belfast is blessed with many beautiful courses within a few miles of the city centre and this was yet another. The cast list was as follows: Jim, playing off 6 and partnering the actor, off 4; John, also playing off 6 and his partner, Larry, playing off 15. At the same time John and Larry, although partners, were also playing their last 16 singles match in the club knockout. This produced some comic moments during the match. For instance, on the first, Jim and I gave John a two and half footer. Larry, his partner, wasn?t convinced and made him putt it. This led John to complain that everyone was against him, a fact that didn?t seem to deter him because he won both matches. Larry?s shots proved vital in the four-ball which they took 2 and 1. The singles match was even closer with John securing the 1 up win with a solid par on the 18th. (Larry might have been somewhat hampered by having to wipe the actor?s drool from his beautiful Miura irons before every shot).
Dunmurry was in beautiful condition. The greens were superb and the fairways like walking on a cushioned mattress. The course suffers slightly due to its lack of length and there are one or two tricked up holes, specifically the par-4 15th where, due to a large dogleg right, you play a short shot off the tee then a longer shot to the green. However, a small criticism.
On the way back to my digs, John asked if I was free to play on Tuesday. I replied that if the word ?day? was involved, then I would indeed be free.
On Monday I received the following message: ?9.20am tee time at Royal County Down. Pick you up at 7.45am.? To say that I was excited was an understatement. My joy and anticipation were tempered by one question. Were there really two 7.45?s in a day?
Bernard Darwin, probably the greatest ever golf writer (sorry Mr Elliot but it?s true) wrote of Royal County Down ?it is the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams? (if you include a naked Pamela Anderson as your caddy he?s probably right). Tom Watson remarked ?a tremendous test of golf and the outward nine is as fine a nine holes as I have ever played.? Ranked in the top-10 courses of the world, it?s where Tiger comes to practise before the Open. He and his entourage arrive by helicopter. John and I flew in by Toyota Avensis.
We met up with our playing partners for the day Bronagh and Annie, two erstwhile lady members of Royal County Down. With John playing with Bronagh, a 36-handicapper and the actor playing with Annie, off 18, the match began.
John and I were playing off the medal tees, the wind was blowing hard, the greens were rock hard and the fastest I?ve encountered. This was links golf at its most difficult. As you walk onto the tee you are awestruck by each hole's beauty. As you walk off the green, you are browbeaten by its difficulty. You have to drive the ball straight with narrow fairways and punishing rough, or even worse, gorse either side. Your shot to the green has to be judged to perfection or you?ll find yourself either in one of the run-off areas facing a 5ft hill to putt up, or if you go too far, hacking out of the gorse. And of course, like all great links, the bunkers are true hazards costing at least a shot should you find one.
On the 10th, a 190-yard par 3, I was introduced to course manager Alan Strachen. I was bizarrely star struck and, worse, he remained to see our tee shots. Every night I perform in front of one and a half to two thousand people but here, performing in front of just one, my heart was pounding, my knees trembling and my hands shaking like I?d downed a quintuple shot espresso. My 4-iron, into a hindering cross-wind, was a towering effort, coming to rest 15ft right of the pin. Thankfully when I duck hooked my tee shot on 11 in to the gorse, never to be seen again, he had gone.
My favourite hole was the 13th, a stunning 422-yard par 4. Into the wind, the drive to a tight fairway flanked by gorse on the left and rough, housing two pot bunkers, on the right, left a blind five iron to the green that forms the stage of its own amphitheatre. I couldn?t resist it?. ?Is this a putter I see before me? The handle towards my hand? Come let me clutch thee.? A well known quotation from Hamlet: Prince of Birkdale.
Putting out on the 18th green for a par and an 82, I looked back and surveyed what I had played. I had taken my revenge on John with Annie and me winning the match two and one. But we had all been vanquished by the course.
Comment of the day came from Bronagh: ?Sure, the only way I can carry this carry is if I carry my ball.? Unfortunately for Bronagh, she carried her ball rather a lot that day.
The Walker Cup is played at Royal County Down in September. What a spectacle that will be. And if the wind is up, God help them.
The golfing gods of Belfast have been good to me, first with Belvoir Park and then the incomparable Royal County Down. I?m going to miss this city, the people, the theatre and the golf. Bristol next, and if it?s half as fun as Belfast, I?ll be a very happy golfer.
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