Slipping the car into fifth as the M50 hit the M1 out of Dublin, I stole a quick glance at the GPS on my phone — Time to destination, 90 minutes.
Really? Just 90 minutes from Dublin airport to Kilkeel Golf Club in beautiful Co Down?
How perspectives change when you swap the working writer’s laptop case for a golf bag, a change of clothes and a desire to hit the open road.
Heading for the Irish Open, or previous editions of the British Senior Open held just up the road from Kilkeel at Royal County Down, I’d always turned left in Newry and headed over the mountains through Bryansford and Hilltown when I was making my way from Dublin to Newcastle.
It’s a beautiful route and quicker that the coast road through Warrenpoint and Rostrevor that I’d always avoided for fear of getting traffic.
As it turned out, the twisty run along the shores of Carlingford Lough to Kilkeel, where a saintly pro and a deliciously testing championship course were wait patiently for my arrival, was one of the best parts of the morning.
“Turn up when you like,” they said. “It’s quiet on Wednesdays.”
They say it’s a sign of a great course that you can recall all the holes without much effort and having struggled to do the same at major venues on may occasions, I found I could recall the holes at Kilkeel without trouble, even weeks later.
Lord Justice Babington designed the original nine hole course back in the 1920s but it was not until 1993 that Eddie Hackett’s extension to 18 holes opened for play on this spectacularly wooded, 120-acre site at the foot of Knockchree Mountain, just three miles from Kilkeel town centre on the main Newry Road.
List the great courses of Ireland and Kilkeel is unlikely to get as much as mention in the same breath at the great links or the modern parkland resorts that attract all the visitors.
And that’s a shame because Kilkeel has teeth and was chosen by the R&A to host qualifying for the Senior Open Championships held up the road at Newcastle from 2000 to 2002.
But it’s also a good thing because you are quite likely to have a most pleasant and peaceful round with nothing but the cooing of pigeons and the rustling of leaves in those sea breezes to put you off your game.
I know because I had a great nine holes with the club professional Jerry Scullion (no doubt inspiring him to is subsequent victory in the PGA Ulster Championship).
The Senior assistant at Royal County Down before moving to Kilkeel, Jerry completed an honours degree in accountancy before turning professional and that might have served him well had we been keeping track of my score.
A little local knowledge goes a long way anywhere and it’s especially useful here as there are few trickier opening tee shots in golf that the first hole at Kilkeel — a par-five with a sharp dogleg to the left, from an elevated tee.
I had hit a what I like to kid myself was a towering draw over the corner on my first visit to the club back in May.
It was my usual snap hook, of course, but when expecting to find when I felt was a corker of a drive sitting up in the middle of the fairway, it actually ended up right behind a large tree in the right rough.
I vowed to aim even further left this time— deep into the forest — but my trusty snap hook appeared right on cue and a reload with a five wood trickled through the fairway into the rough. Easy seven.
There are many tricky holes at Kilkeel, such as the seventh, which doglegs sharply from right to left and requires a very brave draw over the trees on the left with a three wood or a sensible long iron into position.
In short, it’s a course that requires nothing less than excellent ball-striking over its 6,579 yards.
Holes like the 12th and 13th (ominously names Casualty Corner) might only measure 342 and 378 yards from the back but you can get into all sorts of trouble off the tee if you are wild or miss on the wrong side.
The 14th is arguably the toughest hole on the course — a long 400-yard plus par four that curves gently to the left between tall stands of trees to a water-protected green
Even if the golf does not reward you, the surroundings are stunning — a sylvan paradise of trees, crisp mountain air and those testing sea breezes. A course fit for a lord.