It's a 25-minute bike ride from Shane Lowry's family home in Clara to the rolling fairways of Esker Hills. But it was the joy of discovering his golfing home from home that made the Offaly man a world star.
Esker Hills had only been open for few years when the future Irish Open, Portugal Masters and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational winner fell in love with the game at this spectacular Christy O'Connor Junior course.
Built on the ancient Esker Riada — a series of low-lying ridges composed of sand, gravel and boulders that were deposited by melting glaciers around 10,000 years ago — it was poor land for farming but ideal terrain for a golf course and the perfect training ground for a future world star.
Situated five miles from Tullamore, golfers in the area were becoming frustrated in the boom times of the early 1990s, when becoming a member of the local club was nigh impossible.
Waiting lists were long and with few new courses springing up in the Midlands — Glasson did not open its doors until 1994 — some local landowners decided to contact O'Connor Jnr with a view to creating their own course.
In 1994, Donal O'Brien and brothers Ray, Joseph and Donal Molloy decided that if they couldn't get to the golf club, they were going to make the golf club come to them and set about transforming 160 acres unpromising farmland into a golfing gem that's now regarded as one of the finest (and most welcoming) clubs in Ireland.
It's been a rollercoaster 21-year journey but while it took a glacier thousands of years to create the famous Esker Riada hills that give the course its name, the club's progress has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Like every other club in Ireland, Esker Hills went through challenging times during the recent economic downturn but with 200 loyal members and some 250 golf societies flocking to play Lowry's home course every year, it's a great golfing success stories.
"There's a great bond between the members and the visitors at Esker Hills," says Ray Molloy, one of the four directors. "The members realise that visitors are hugely important to our club and they come from all over Ireland, and even from all over the world, to see the course that produced Shane Lowry.
"We are all immensely proud of what Shane has achieved and Shane is proud of Esker Hills. It's like one big family here and that's the atmosphere we like to promote.
"There are no airs and graces here, just a respectful atmosphere, a love of the game and a desire to make everyone feel welcome."
Caroline Guinan, the front-of-house Golf Co-Ordinator, is the lynchpin of the club's success and the reason why it has become a mecca for society golfers and lovers of great golf in general.
"Caroline is the one who makes the whole place run like clockwork," Ray says. "Nobody comes through that front door without being greeted by Caroline."
It's not just that warm welcome that makes Esker Hills such a success but the magnificent O'Connor Jnr designed course, which navigates its way through the folds of the hills, its billowing fairways giving it a links feel that makes it a unique challenge.
Don’t be fooled by this par 71s modest yardage of 6,619 yards from the back stakes. This is one hell of a golfing test requiring a great all round game to score well.
Lowry is not one of the longest and straightest hitters in world golf by chance and his seemingly effortless short game is a result of long hours spent alone in quiet corners of the course, pitching and chipping to the challenging, contoured greens.
"I have a good short game and I learned all the difficult shots by playing off hilly lies and playing into tough greens around Esker Hills," Lowry has said. "Playing at Esker Hills taught me so much about the game. I just loved heading out there from school and taking a club or two out to chip around and teach myself those shots."
A tough but fair course, the success of Esker Hills is a testament to O’Connor Jnr’s design talent that it requires little physical effort to get around as the course bobs and weaves, wending its way through rising hills and plunging valleys.
Maybe it’s the stunning scenery — the abundant trees and the stunning wildflowers — that makes it such a pleasant walk. But with so many holes isolated from one another in narrow valleys, the only distraction is the occasional toot from the Dublin-Galway train as it hurtles past.
Downhill tee shots tee shots add to the pleasure of the round while a series of elevated greens require not just laser-like approach play but imaginative short game skills.
The par-four fourth, which plays uphill to a plateau fairway before turning right, requiring a mid-iron across a valley to a tantalisingly perched green, is one of the outstanding holes.
The fifth is a testing, 167-yard par three, played downhill to a green protected by one of the course's many lakes while the seventh is another testing par-four where water is again a threat from the tee.
O’Connor Jnr loved the run from the third to the par-five sixth, and it’s easy to see why. But he was also proud of the par threes, which run to every point of the compass and measure from 176 to 194 yards, meaning that depending on the wind direction you can be required to hit anything from a wedge to a wood.
If there's a hole that sums up Esker Hills, you could make a case of the lovely 14th — a 356-yard par-four played from an elevated tee to a narrow valley, before rising to a two-tiered green that requires nothing short of a perfect approach.
The two closing holes, both stout par-fours, give the big hitters a chance to open their shoulders and finish with a flourish and given the club's natural sandy terrain and the pristine greens, it's a treat to play all year round.
There’s arguably no more welcoming clubhouse in Ireland and don’t be surprised to find a visitor or two having their picture taken in front of Shane Lowry’s reserved car parking space as they head back for a relaxing post-round snack.
In fact, if you ask politely, they'll even show you the beam in the clubhouse ceiling (8ft off the ground) where an enthusiastic member got so excited jumping for joy when Lowry hit the 72nd green in the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron a few years ago, that he bumped his head.
Lowry might have put Esker Hills on the map, but he will argue that it was Esker Hills that made him what he is today.
If he's not there, you're likely to bump into his father Brendan, working with fellow volunteers Austin Handy, Ger Egan and Dominic Fleming to bring along the next generation of Esker Hills stars.
That the course is utterly unchanged since it opened in 1996, is a compliment to O'Connor Jnr. That Lowry has remained unchanged since he won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, is a great compliment to his roots and the course he made world famous.
Esker Hills Factfile
- Esker Hills Golf Club, Tullamore, Co Offaly
- Telephone: 057 93 55999
- E-mail: email@example.com
- Website: www.eskerhillsgolf.com
- Green Fees: Midweek €25 per person; weekend €35
- Societies: Midweek €20 per person; weekend €30
- Buggy Hire: €20
- Club Hire: €15
- Membership Rates: Full Membership €647 (includes GUI & Insurance); Husband & Wife €1088 (includes GUI, ILGU & Insurance); Mature Student €425; Student €220; Junior €110.
- Key Dates 2017: Open Singles Every Thursday, May – Sept. Intermediate & Junior Scratch Cups Sunday, June 11. Open Week, July 3-9.
4th 391 yards, Par 4 — A stunning par-four, played uphill to a plateau fairway that then veers right and funnels through a narrow valley to an elevated green that's protected by bunkers short and long.
This hole shows Christy O'Connor Jnr's genius as a golf designer at its best. You must hit a good drive to the left side of the raised plateau. If you can do that, you will have shot of around 160 yards over a valley to the elevated green. A par here bodes well for the rest of the day.
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