CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Derek O'Neill kicks back in his chair in his north Myrtle Beach office with the easy smile of a contented man. And why not? He's been to the promised lands of golf, Scotland and Ireland. He's played the world's best courses. What's more, he gets to go back year after year.
O'Neill owns and operates a golf package and touring company that leads a group of giddy yanks over the pond each year on the golf trip of their dreams. O'Neill has a handful of repeat customers, lucky souls who have the financial wherewithal and tolerance for insufferably long plane rides necessary to soak up all the great golf the British Isles have to offer.
But the majority of his clients are John-Q golfers with (in the immortal words of Eminem) one shot at experiencing golf's version of nirvana. For years they've been beat over the head with tales of Scotland's tradition and Ireland's breathtaking scenery. Golf season after golf season, the mental debate rages on.
It's a conundrum, no two ways about it. So Travel Golf Guy plumbed the minds of some of Britain's leading tour operators to make the decision-making process a little easier. Let's break it down.
"Because anyone who considers himself to be a golfer must experience real links golf once in his or her life and Ireland offers the very best of that kind of golf," says an unbiased O'Neill (wink), a native of the Emerald Isle.
Take O'Neill's endorsement with a grain of salt, if you will, but tour operators agree - if it is cliffside, ocean spray-in-your-face links golf you seek, Ireland is the isle for you. The course list reads like a who's who of linksland gems: Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Old Head, and Waterville, just to name a few.
The kicker, according to O'Neill, is that golfers can experience these storied layouts with a favorable exchange rate. Unlike England and Scotland, Ireland (which is not part of the United Kingdom) uses the Euro, not the British Pound. The latest exchange rate, U.S. Dollar to Euro is 0.82, according to OANDA.com. For the U.S. Dollar to British Pound, it's 0.57. In other words, a $100 round of golf in Ireland would cost $120 U.S. and a $100 round in Scotland would cost $170.
"A comparable golf vacation to Scotland will run you about 40 percent more than Ireland," O'Neill says.
But Scottish tourism experts caution against such economic generalizations.
"The comparison is a meaningless and incorrect as the courses are not priced in the same currency so you have no base to compare these figures too," says Ronnie Pook of Scotland Golf Tours.
Despite Ireland's favorable exchange rates, Pook cautions golfers against making an apples to oranges comparison.
"The suggestion that Scotland is 40% more expensive than Ireland is ridiculous," Pook says. "Green fees of comparable courses are very similar, car hire charges are significantly less in Scotland, a pint of beer in Scotland is around £1.80 /$3 significantly less than a pint of Guinness in Dublin at Euros 3 / $3.60."
When to plan your trip - One of the biggest mistakes first-time pond jumpers make is not planning far enough ahead of time. Think about it - Ireland is about the size of Georgia and at any given time, thousands of red blooded American golfers are dreaming of playing there. Factor in local play and a limited weather window and tee times can be hard to come by. O'Neill recommends booking a summer trip (peak season) five to seven months ahead of time.
Best "value" region: The west coast from County Clare north to County Donegal - Some fabulous golf is found in this region, which boasts the likes of Lahinch GC, Connemara GC, Carne GC and Rosses Point. Lahinch recently underwent a renovation that has it being mentioned in the same breath as County Down and Ballybunion. Many of these courses can be had for about the same amount of cash it takes to play a mediocre course in Myrtle Beach.
Money's no object region: Northern Ireland and Southwest regions - The Southwest is home to some of Ireland's oldest courses, such as Ballybunion and Waterville. It's also home to two of its newest, Doonbeg and Old Head. The former is a links offering from Greg Norman that looks as if it's been there since the beginning of time. The later is collaboration among some of Ireland's finest course-smiths and golfing heroes. Old or new, the wallet will get a workout at any of these tracks.
Accommodation menu - From castles to cottages could be the Ireland accommodation mantra. Golfers can ensconce themselves in luxury of Adare Manor or Dromoland Castle or go low budget at a B & B or self-catering cottages.
Chip Shot - The Irish people maintain a reputation as some of the most hospitable in the world. O'Neill says it is perfectly normal to meet and get to know ten to 15 new people a day, whether on the course or at the pub. Pubs are typically open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and are ideal spots for lunch and dinner.
The Old Course at St. Andrews, for starters. A sojourn to the birthplace of golf is like a rock music fan tripping to Graceland. Everything in Scotland oozes tradition. Even The New Course at St. Andrews is over 100-years-old. Most Americans are aware of the household names like Carnoustie, Muirfield and Royal Troon from watching the British Open. But there are must as many, if not more, local jewels stashed away along forgotten coastlines as there are mainstream courses.
"We have hidden gems designed by some of the game's most famous designers," says Pook. "James Braid designed the famous Kings Course at Gleneagles and also the challenging Cardross Course just 15 miles west of Glasgow. Old Tom Morris designed the New Course in St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch and also Helensburgh."
Pook says despite the less than favorable exchange rate, there are plenty other reasons Scotland tops many golfers' wish lists.
"The Scottish culture is very easy for the American visitor to enjoy," Pook says. "We speak the same language and we eat similar style of food. You can buy USA Today newspapers and obtain CNN on some TV's, so the businessman can still keep in touch with economic affairs back home very easily."
When to plan your trip - Even further out than the Ireland trip if you want to play the big boys like The Old Course or Muirfield. Pook says he books trips one year to 18 months in advance for large groups and three to nine months out for smaller groups. The Old Course even encourages tee time "applicants" to write direct several years in advance.
Best "value" region: East Lothian, Fife (excluding St Andrews) and Highland - East Lothian sits just east of Edinburgh and includes value courses like Gullane, Kilspindie, North Berwick, and Dunbar. Fife is a hotbed of great links courses, including Leven, Scotscraig, Crail, Elie, and solid parkland offerings like Ladybank, Balbirnie and Dunfermline. Highland sits in north Scotland and includes Dornoch, Tain, Brora, Inverness, Boat of Garten, Nairn and Lossiemouth. St. Andrews Bay, across from St. Andrews, offers two outstanding new layouts from Bruce Devlin and Sam Torrance that won't set you back nearly as far as St. Andrews, proper.
Money's no object region: St. Andrews, Kingsbarn - St. Andrews, lad; The Old Course, The New Course, Jubliee, Balgrove, and Strathtyrum. If you can't spend all your pounds there, head for Kingsbarn - the most expensive course in Scotland.
Accommodation menu - Similar to Ireland, Scotland offers golfers a wide array of boarding options, from upscale resorts and hotels to low key cottages.
Chip Shot - Fifty-four holes in a day? It's possible in Scotland (and Ireland) in the summer. On the longest day of the year, the sun rises at 3:30 a.m. and sets at 11:00 p.m. If that's too much of a good thing, set up a sight-seeing or whiskey distillery tour during the day and golf in the evening.
December 5, 2003