Since so many Irish links courses have a maturity beyond their modest years it should probably come as little surprise that the same is true of an inland beauty, Druids Glen. This parkland layout only opened in 1995 yet within a year had hosted the Irish Open, the first of four successive and highly successful visits from the European Tour. Its champions included Colin Montgomerie (twice) and Sergio Garcia, the Spaniard’s first title as a professional. Since then the Seve Trophy has visited this gorgeous corner of Co. Wicklow, which is located around an hour’s drive due south from Dublin.
In many ways, Druids Glen was a trailblazer in terms of Irish golf. Nowadays, with the likes of the K Club, Carton House and Palmerstown House on the scene, there is no shortage of top-class modern, inland golf to be found across the Irish Sea, but in the early 1990s it was the likes of Druids Glen, Fota Island, Adare Manor and Mount Juliet that introduced a new concept.
Suddenly, the Irish had venues to match any in Europe and the culmination of this golfing boom brought the Ryder Cup to the country in 2006 – something that would have been simply unthinkable little more than a decade earlier.
What Druids Glen and a few fortunate others had in their favour was the advantage of a fine natural setting. While it is now possible, thanks to modern agronomy techniques, to create a top-class tournament course on almost any site, the reason this is such a special course is undoubtedly its mature surroundings.
While certain sections of the course are evidently of recent vintage, other parts could have been there for scores of years. It helps that the handsome and august Woodstock House, which dates back to 1770, provides a most distinctive clubhouse, not to mention one that ensures an exceptional experience to the golfer without even stepping on a fairway.
From its first-floor bar you can see the final green, flanked by water, and gain a flavour of a course designed to represent the ultimate in inland golf. It was created by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, who also worked together at Ballyliffin and can be considered the ‘dream team’ of Irish golf architecture.
Within half an hour of here is The European, Ruddy’s modern links masterpiece that he continues to shape to this day, and Druids Glen exemplifies the contrast between two styles of course.
While the former is concerned with gigantic dunes, deep bunkers and imposing carries, Druids Glen is an altogether gentler and softer experience. That is not to say it is easy – far from it – but the pristine and verdant fairways that are often flanked by colourful flora and fauna make a round here a particularly pleasant experience. As you might expect, water is also prominent, especially around the course’s very own Amen Corner of the 12th and 13th.
In benign conditions, good scoring up to this point is by no means impossible but Ruddy’s trademark disregard for the overly ambitious or thoughtless golfer is clearly apparent. In this Druids Glen does have much in common with the European.
Put simply, if you play within your limitations and think about your modus operandi on each hole then you will find generous targets from both tee and fairway alike. But the moment you abandon such caution and try to attack then you should be prepared for the consequences. Much like wild animals, Ruddy’s courses only rarely attack without provocation.
Druids Glen is a gentle and soft experience. That is not to say it is easy – far from it – but the pristine and verdant fairways that are often flanked by colourful flora and fauna make a round here a particularly pleasant experience.
Take the stretch of holes that begins at the 3rd, following an opening hole played enticingly downhill and a subtle par three into a walled garden where clubbing is awkward to judge as a clear view from the tee is not forthcoming.
At only 339 yards, the uphill tee shot is merely a positional one and if you are prepared to play the dogleg then a fairway wood or hybrid will leave an approach of no more than 150 yards. The temptation is to be more aggressive and cut the corner yet the most likely result is trouble and an approach that simply becomes more awkward.
Similarly at the downhill 4th, the design tempts you to fire over the bushes and bunker on the right of the fairway in search of a shorter approach. This is all very well but even the best tee shot will now be coming down across the angle of the hole and therefore could easily catch the rough on either side. Again, the better policy is likely to be a more cautious drive down the left and accept a longer approach.
The 5th is a par five and the sage advice from former Ryder Cup player Eamonn Darcy is as follows: “Although it may be reachable in two for the big hitters, the reward is seldom worth the risk,” he says. “Lay up and trust your wedge”.
With the fairway narrowing to a saddle at the top of the hill, driver from the tee is extremely risky and the green is designed to receive a short iron rather than a fairway wood. The next stand-out hole is the short 8th, played in seclusion over a lake to a sloping green. Suddenly, you can begin to see why Druids Glen has been described as the ‘Augusta of Europe’.
After a return to more open, stately-home-style parkland holes around the turn, what is undoubtedly the highlight of the round comes at the 12th and 13th. Both will be familiar to many, the former being a par three from an elevated tee to a green fronted by water. With a floral tribute to the stone altar that was discovered in the creation of this hole, and which gave the course its name, it is an unforgettable sight from all angles.
Yet in purely golfing terms, the next is even more dramatic and certainly more demanding. It measures over 470 yards and is played from an elevated tee. There is water right and the fairway angles towards it. The difficulty, especially on first viewing, is in choosing the right line from the tee. Too straight and your ball will disappear into the rhododendron bushes; too aggressive and it will find the stream.
Even after the perfect tee shot, the approach is inevitably a long one and it is played across more water towards an uninvitingly narrow green. If it sounds hard, it really is! Completing this hole with the same ball you started it with is an achievement in itself for most club players.
There is more water at the 15th, but as long as you realize how generous the fairway is it should not be too much of a problem, and the same is true to an extent at the 17th. Into the wind, this is a fearsome par three and at over 200 yards will challenge the nerve of all but the best. Played to an island green, the landing area is larger than it appears – so long as you make the carry.
It sets up an extremely demanding finish because the uphill 18th measures 450 yards. Again, discretion is the better part of valour. Treat it as a short par five and lay up with your second. This way a five should not be beyond your means, whereas six – and worse-comes very much into the equation by attacking a green fronted by water from 200 yards or so.
It really is a breathtaking finale and such is the exceptional conditioning and presentation of the course it is easy to see why the likes of Montgomerie and Garcia were so delighted to play tournament golf here.