This is golf on the fairway to heaven

Slieve Russell
Slieve Russell

Slieve Russell might just be the least Irish-like golf course in the entire country. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Variety is indeed the spice of life and it’s all very well taking on the challenging links layouts we’re famous for, but sometimes it’s more interesting to play a different kind of game.

This one is: stay out of the sand at all costs.

The bunkering at the Co Cavan course is it’s defining feature and you go into the sand at your peril. It’s not that’s it’s that tough to get it back into play out of the traps - the sand is lovely to play from - but the cost in distance is always going to hurt.

But it’s water that dominates and which will ultimately have the greater effect on the scorecard.

There’s not much sign of it from the first tee and, indeed, it doesn’t play that much of a role in proceedings until the turn is reached. But from that point on, danger lurks everywhere.

Both the 11th and the 16th par three holes, are played almost entirely over lakes. The difference, they say, between the amateur and the professional is that the latter sees only the green, the former, the danger. And it’s true: Over-clubbing is almost the default setting as it’s better safe than wet.

The water lurks again all down the left side of the par four 12th leading to the amazing par five 13th, the aptly named Watergate.

On the card it says 494 yards, but that must be as the crow flies from tee to pin. To actually navigate and stay dry, surely there’s an extra hundred yards around the 90 degree dogleg.

And just to make sure it’s even more difficult that it has any reason to be, staying away from the water will lead straight into the sand around 250 yards off the tee. Fall into that trap -and many do -, it’s an extremely long haul to the putting surface.

Slieve Russell has famously produced the Maguire twins Lisa and Leona who have made such an impact on the Irish amateur golf scene.

And it must have been a pleasure for them to grow up with such a fantastic course on their doorstep.

Putting in all those hours of practice won’t have been all that much of a chore on such a beautiful setting.

They’ve put together quite an all-round package. In addition to the 18-hole championship course, there’s a nine-hole par three layout which certainly can’t be dismissed as a glorified pitch and putt.

And they have a well-managed driving range and practice area, all set within the ground of the grand Country House hotel. Walkways have been carved throughout the course to allow non-playing guests to wander around the course - although occasionally they do so at inopportune moments.

Slieve Russell lulls the visitor into a false sense of security with a couple of gentle opening holes, although there’s a glimpse of the trouble lying ahead on the second with the approach shot played over Aghavoher Lake.

The third is a beautiful downhill par four presenting a genuine birdie opportunity.

Wishing Well, the fourth, is perhaps the least impressive of the par threes on the course but still requires careful negotiation.

A par five which is just reachable in two comes next, but the wickedly contoured green doesn’t yield much in the way of birdies.

It’s the seventh, the next of the par threes which starts to reveal the true nature of the course. It’s 200 yards but played from a hugely elevated tee which makes club selection extremely tricky.

The eighth might be the shortest of the par fours, but requires a good drive over water and the front nine finishes with a punishing uphill par four littered with six bunkers.

Make the most of the downhill tenth as water dominates from that point on.

The two par threes on the back nine are great fun to take on and anyone who comes through both still playing the same ball can give themselves a big pat on the back.

Doglegs dominate the course and the 17th is perhaps the finest example with a big move from right to left required from the tee to have any chance of making the green in two.

And to finish, usually, a par five. Named The Gap for good reason, the fairway looks a good deal narrower from the tee than it actually is. And it plays uphill to a green fiercely guarded by no less than five hungry bunkers.

It’s a really great finish to one of the best parkland courses anywhere to be found in Ireland.