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  • The Up and Downs of a Life in the Sky: Where Els But Ireland

The Up and Downs of a Life in the Sky: Where Els But Ireland

22 May, 2023
Alex Frolish

Alex Frolish has been a pilot for approaching 20 years and now travels to all corners of the globe in his role as a commercial airline pilot. His passion for flight is only equalled by his passion for golf and golf travel. Having picked up a golf club over 35 years ago when aged just 3 years old, Alex has played over 550 courses across every continent on planet earth furnished with a fairway. Over the next few months you’ll be able to follow Alex’s golfing travels as he brings you anecdotes of his life both in the air and on the course.

As an airline pilot, you tend to become mildly obsessed with your sleep (or lack there of) and of ways to maximise it. I often get asked how I deal with jet lag. The answer is really quite personal to the individual rather than there being one solution for all. One thing I have found is that flying to the east from the U.K. is particularly difficult on my body clock. So when I saw flights to Hong Kong and Singapore on my April roster, I envisaged many hours staring at my bedroom ceiling in the small hours.

Having spent one such night in my Hong Kong hotel room, I arrived for my morning tee time at Clearwater Bay Golf Club with my fuel tank on empty, just about surviving on caffeine power and a blurred sense of anticipation. I had read that Clearwater Bay made a good argument for being one of the most dramatic golf courses in Asia, occupying an improbable piece of craggy and vegetation covered coastal land looking out over the South China Sea. I’d even read one article that compared some of the course to Pebble Beach of all places! On arriving at the club and taking in the vista from the clubhouse balcony, I have to say, the reports were wholly accurate. The two nines are very distinct from each other in character, with the front nine named ‘Ocean’ and the back nine named ‘Highland’. The Pebble Beach comparisons come early in the front nine, as the course traverses a clifftop out on to the very tip of a peninsula, akin to the 7th at Pebble. What a remarkable stretch of golf it is.

My turnaround back in the U.K. after Hong Kong was minimal, but this time I was off as a passenger rather than a pilot. Ireland has a magnetic quality that leaves me plotting many a golfing trip (normally late at night when I’m meant to be sleeping) and one such trip came into being in mid-April. Four days on the East coast was going to encompass six rounds of golf on some of the best links land the Emerald Isle has to offer. A little more than an hour after landing at Dublin airport, we were standing on the 1st tee at The Island Golf Club, staring down its dune lined first fairway. The land here is spectacular and this was a more than fitting course to begin our trip (and special spot to sink our first Guinness).

Photo credit: Patrick Koenig

We based ourselves at the Portmarnock Hotel for two nights and awoke the next morning to a beautiful view of the links. It was a historic course a few miles down the coast that was our destination on day 2 however. Royal Dublin, like The Island, is routed across a piece of land not fully attached to the mainland. It contrasts markedly to the towering dunes of The Island however, with Royal Dublin wandering out and back across mildly undulating links ground. The course has undergone a bunker renovation and transformation with the aim of re-injecting some of Colt’s original strategic questioning that had become muddied after years of conflicting course works. I love the subtlety of Colt architecture and truly believe the work at Royal Dublin has been hugely successful in returning some Colt character to this links layout.

The afternoon round was played across one of the best links golf courses in the world, Portmarnock. There aren’t enough compliments I can pay to describe my thoughts on this course and it has entered my personal list in the highest of echelons. A disappointing trend re-emerged here though on the 15th tee. I seem to be making a habit of playing the signature holes of world famous golf courses like an absolute beginner. As a single figure handicap golfer, and standing on the iconic par 3 15th tee here with a good round going, I managed to explicably shank my tee shot on to the beach. You had to laugh, and we did over many pints of the black stuff that night.

Photo credit: Gary Lisbon

Those of you who have read Tom Coyne’s ‘A Course Called Ireland’ will be aware of Ardglass and his passion for the town and the golf club. Day 3 took us north to play Royal County Down and then on to Ardglass and to a stay in Margaret’s Cottage B&B, the very spot Tom stayed in the book. What can I say about Royal County Down? It is ranked as the best links course in the world for a reason and it is one of the more stringent links examinations I have experienced.

Carried on a cloud of golfing contentment, we made our way up the coast to Ardglass that afternoon, our bodies weary but our minds very much excited for what lay ahead. With the Irish Sea crashing against the rocks to the left, the shadow of the 15th century castle clubhouse peering across the 1st tee and the town surrounding the course beyond the boundary wall, the opening spectacle here is as dramatic as any I have witnessed in world golf. The opening scene is not in isolation. Ardglass is a drama filled rollercoaster packed with many highlight moments and picture postcard views. I understand why Tom Coyne fell in love with this place.

Our departure day round was arranged at County Louth (Baltray to the locals). Of all the courses we played on this trip, this might be the one that I’d like to play once a week for the rest of my days. Not as bold as most of the other layouts, it however boasts a playability and enjoyment factor that is tough to rival. The land is attractively undulating and the beautifully crafted green sites are a feast for the eyes. I’d implore anybody visiting this area of Ireland to include County Louth on their itinerary.

Photo credit: Gary Lisbon

My arrival back from Ireland placed me all too quickly in the flight deck once again, headed this time for the bright lights of Dubai. It may have been a quick turnaround, but Dubai is a destination I am always happy to see on my roster as you can normally guarantee some quality golf and sunshine. For this visit, I had arranged a first time visit to The Els Club, a course with a repute of being one of the hardest in the Middle East. It didn’t disappoint. The greens are like glass, the bunkers like bomb craters and the fairways seemingly wide but often improbably narrow in terms of where you need to be playing from. My four putt from 6 feet on the 2nd as well as my birdie on the 9th (probably the hardest hole on the course) suitably illustrates the highs and lows of my round here.

Pilots are always looking ahead to the next flight, the next layover and the next publication of their work roster. For me there is always the added anticipation of potential future golf to plan. The publication of my May roster was a pleasing one, and had been particularly kind to me in a golfing sense. Buenos Aires, New York, Pittsburgh and Portland all offered plenty of golfing food for thought. In the U.K., I had a number of games already arranged at some of the best courses in England that I’d yet to play. But that’s all for next time. In the mean time, wherever you are and whatever you have planned, I wish you the straightest of drives, well negotiated four- footers and happy rounds.


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