May 7, 2006
Bars at golf clubs can really make you feel alone. It’s not that people are unfriendly; they’re just with their friends. Sitting by yourself at the bar or at a table almost makes you a suspicious character. I imagined that the bar at Ballybunion would be full of foreigners, people like me who had traveled here to play this legendary links in County Kerry. Tourists. But most of the accents were Irish.
The bar was busy on this Sunday evening, but the barman was friendly and pulled my Guinness in three separate parts. I ate some stuffed turkey and ham- pretty good and plenty of it. In the middle of my dinner, they brought out a microphone and I realized there had been a tournament this afternoon and I was in the middle of the awards ceremony. The prizes were from Elegant Interiors (a loyal supporter of Ballybunion) and so for the rest of the evening, women came and went carrying lamps, some not so elegant.
When I arrived in Ballybunion, I had no idea where to go, so I just followed the narrow road through the small seaside town, rightly figuring if the golf course wasn’t on one side of town, it must be on the other. There it was- sprawling dunes that blocked the view of the sea and a fairly modern clubhouse that was comfortable and unpretentious. There were lots of pictures of Tom Watson on the wall, who visited Ballybunion one year on his way to the British Open- they made him a member for life and gave him some Waterford crystal.
Nobody gave me anything, but when I stopped near the golf club at a place to ask directions to my hotel, a man came out to the car immediately and asked if he could be of help. His name is Gerard Burke and he just happens to be this year’s captain of Ballybunion. I’m not sure what that means, but his name was inscribed on a big plaque in the clubhouse. Amazingly he had just returned from a trip to Virginia where he played Congressional and Burning Tree Country Club. Apparently being Captain at Ballybunion has its perks. He runs a golf tour business and gave me his card- we talked for about 15 minutes and he sent me down to road to my first hotel- the 19th Lodge Guesthouse.
The hotel is terrific- my room is called St. Andrews and overlooks the second course at Ballybunion called the Cashen course- designed by Robert Trent Jones. The guesthouse is run by Mary Beaseley and her husband James. Mary is enormously helpful and is aided by another woman, also named Mary. The two Mary’s spent twenty minutes trying to figure out how I should drive to the Tralee Golf Club tomorrow. The main road goes through Tralee which is large and busy and they were afraid I would get lost. The straightforward way to get there is via a very narrow road- you have to stop and try to get off the road when oncoming cars approach driven by impatient locals who Mary says drive way too fast. I was also informed that this road is sinking into a bog and is scheduled to be closed next month for major repairs. Hmmm.
May 8, Tralee Golf Club
I woke up to a gray morning and a bad weather forecast from Mary. That and the thought of having to get back in my Opel Astra and find my way to the golf course on narrow roads in the rain didn’t put me in the best of moods. The wild smoked salmon in the scrambled eggs helped some, as did three cups of decent coffee and that great Irish butter on my toast.
Here’s the short of it. It hardly rained at all and I almost enjoyed my drives. I followed a coast road- a route I chose over the one recommended by Mary’s husband James. It just looked easier on the map, even though it was longer. I tried to take it on the way back, but made a wrong turn and ended up extending the trip by ½ hour by driving the “Kerry head” causeway. This was providential, however, as the road was almost deserted (punctuated by an occasional very exciting meeting with another car) and the elemental scenery was wonderful. I was back at the 19th Lodge a little after 8 pm.
OK, on to the first day of golf. Finding Tralee Golf Club, designed by Arnold Palmer (though Arnie gave God the credit for the back nine) and considered one of the best courses in Ireland, was an adventure. You travel to the little village of Ardfert, but don’t turn at the Texaco station as Mary’s brochure says at the 19th Lodge. I found that out when I stopped and asked a young woman walking her baby if I was headed to Barrow (the golf course’s other name) and she said I needed to backtrack to the town center and take a left. You learn to like left turns quickly here- right turns are terrifying because you never can remember which direction the traffic is supposed to be coming from. So I turned left in the middle of town on an unmarked road. There were a couple of signs to help me get to club about 20 minutes later- they were small and blue, sort of like the signs that might get you to Round Meadow in Christiansburg. The roads were so narrow I prayed I didn’t meet a golf tour bus coming the other way. Which leads me to an observation. I had hoped there might be a spiritual side to this golf trip to Eire. It didn’t take long to find it. I thank God every time I pass a car without clipping off its side mirror or a pedestrian without clipping off a body part. I thank God every time I realize I am still going in the right direction after realizing I have no idea where I am.
There was a lot of praise due to the Almighty for this golf course, too. Tralee will be a very difficult act to follow, and I say that knowing it will be followed by Ballybunion’s Old Course and the famous links at Waterville on the fabulously picturesque (or so I’m told) Ring of Kerry. Tralee was breathtaking. Hole #2 is a par 5 that doglegs right. The course guide said under no circumstances try to cut the corner. That should have been obvious as the corner was a sheer drop to the beach with the green perched on the edge of it all. The front nine had a number of great holes and expansive vistas. The back nine, however, had some of the most amazing golf holes I have ever seen. It was relentless. Hole # 10 was perhaps the most straightforward, but I pushed a drive a little and couldn’t find my ball in the high grass- cost me a double-bogey. But the next hole, a long uphill par 5 with a blind second shot between two sand hills, well that was another story. After missing two short birdie putts on the front nine, I was hoping for another chance after a good three wood put me within a half wedge of the green. My shot started right but when it hit the green it took the slope and moved left towards the hole that was hidden by a dip in the green. As John was congratulating me on a good shot, his friend Al who was up by the green calmly announced “It went in.” An eagle on Palmer’s Peak (all the holes are named here) on my first day of golf in Ireland. It helped keep my round at a respectable 83 even with a triple bogey on the front nine and three three putt greens and a penalty stroke on the back.
The 18th hole was a beautiful downwind reachable par five with, count ‘em, 14 bunkers. I hit a five iron in the greenside trap and had a respectable birdie putt but missed it. Al, however, did not, sinking his birdie putt to win his match with his friend John one up. I haven’t said anything about Al and John yet. Al owns about all the optical shops in the state of Arizona and John owns the company that makes a lot of the frames he sells. His plant used to be in Italy but moved recently to southern China. They had flown to a trade show in Milan. Afterwards they flew to Shannon via London and played at Lahinch before driving their rented BMW down to play Tralee and Ballybunion. They are staying in a castle- they invited me there for dinner. I probably should have gone, but the thought of driving back at almost midnight after having no doubt drunk a couple glasses of wine and facing an early tee time convinced me not to. But here is an amazing thing- I am not making it up. The starter at Tralee paired me with these guys because I had arrived early. In our “get to know each other” chat on the practice green, they mentioned they were playing Ballybunion tomorrow. I said I was too, but early. They asked how early and I told them 7:50 or something like that. They said their tee time was 7:56. Ballybunion had paired me up with them as well! Fortunately they were nice guys and easy to play with. I can only hope Ballybunion will treat me as well as Tralee.
May 9, Ballybunion- Old Course
The night above the Dingle starry… I know Dylan Thomas was Welsh, not Irish. But he did drink a lot. It is a beautiful evening on the Dingle Peninsula in any case with a three quarters moon above the bay where somewhere Fungie the dolphin is waiting for the tour boats. I walked the town in the early evening- three or four main streets. One runs along the port, which remains a real fishing port as well as serving tour boats. I ate at the bar of the Dingle Bay Hotel. It was full of Germans and one very large person who I think was a woman who took of her shirt (she had on a tank tee shirt), finished her beer and then ordered another with some cake and ice cream. She was still nursing her second beer when I left, but the ice cream was long gone.
The trip down from Ballybunion took a couple of hours as predicted by Maggie who is the owner of Emlagh Lodge- not to be mistaken with Emlagh House which is right up the road and very uppity. But no one there can have my view out a large skylight on the second floor (Bayview Room) of a sweep of lawn with cows grazing in a field next door and the bay a stone’s throw from my room. There is even an old footpath that you can take to town that runs along a hedge of gorse bushes.
Maggie could not be more different than Mary at the 19th Lodge. Mary was a female version of Mr. Butterbur (of The Prancing Pony)- always hurrying and always looking tired and hassled but enormously helpful. Maggie looks more like Pat Benatar and was riding a lawn tractor when I arrived. She doesn’t look like someone who would put rose petal cachet in the bathroom with teddy bears on the shelf- but go figure. She has to spend all day Thursday getting to London to visit an uncle with lung cancer. So no breakfast here for me for the next two days. Tomorrow morning I leave very early to make the two hour drive to Waterville on the Ring of Kerry. It will be a tiring but a scenic day if the good weather holds.
It was too hot on the course at Ballybunion today- yes, the sun shone all round and there was little wind. I won’t, of course, tell the boys back home that when I let them know that I played the Old Course in 77 strokes. I even made a few putts today, including one birdie. Ballybunion is less interesting in many ways than Tralee, but more Irish. The first hole runs by a graveyard and there are a number of interesting holes through dunes and a few along the sea. With some weather, it would be very challenging. I lost one ball in the high grass. I’m averaging one lost ball a round so far which is better than I guessed. There were two caddies in the group- an old man named Tom who was very kind and a young one named Bob who was more the ironic type. There is a statue in the center of town of Bill Clinton who came and played Ballybunion while he was President. Tom claimed with a very straight face that someone had cut the testicles off the statue.
I played with John and Al again from yesterday. Al played much better, John much worse. We were joined by Mike Fitzgerald (I think) from Denver, a nice fellow that looked a lot like William Macy and was traveling with his wife and in-laws. Brave man.
May 10, Waterville
After a difficult night’s sleeping, I woke with a bad headache, but the morning was so nice that I still was looking forward to playing Waterville. I wasn’t looking forward, however, to the two hour drive there and back again. I made a few wrong turns, but nothing too bad. The best part of the drive wasn’t the famous Ring of Kerry road, but the small road connecting N86 to N70- R561 that goes through the aptly named town of Inch. Before arriving there, you climb high above the bay where the sheep and goats sit in the sun along and sometimes in the road. Thinking back, I ought to have driven into Waterville and eaten lunch so I could see the town. Instead, I ate a toasted sandwich with Tom Savage at the clubhouse. Tom is a retired real estate attorney who practiced in Bangor Maine. He has a house there, one in Key Largo, and one in Killorglin, Ireland. Killorglin is a small working class town (according to Tom) near the start of the Kerry Ring. His wife convinced him to get it because she loves Ireland so they bought and remodeled a small place a couple of years ago. Tom is a member at both Waterville and another less known course on the Ring called Dooks.
The Waterville Golf Links dates only from the 1970s, but it feels very old and looks very natural. Lots of high grass and gorse, no dramatic sandhills like Ballybunion or Tralee, but a difficult and satisfying course. Much too difficult for me today- I shot a 92, ruining my scoring average for the trip. I couldn’t keep my drives in the fairway and well placed drives were a key on this course as were decent middle irons as the par fours all seemed over 400 yards. It was a beautiful day today- the course would be brutal with wind and weather factored in. My favorite hole was the 17th, a challenging par 3 with nothing but dunes and high grass between tee and green- it was a good six iron today with a slightly favoring wind. It was also my only par on the back nine. By the way, Tom said I would really like Lahinch. I hope he’s right, since that will be the last course I play and it may be by myself at 7am.
May 11, Dingle
Most of the time, being anonymous is a good thing when you are traveling alone. I mean, why would you travel alone if you didn’t like being by yourself? Well, it’s hard to be anonymous in Dingle, Ireland. My innkeeper tried to get me a tour for this afternoon, but the person she called was all booked. That was a good thing as it turned out because Linda’s friend Cindy had recommended someone else and I was caught for a moment between two recommendations. So I called Dennis Ryan this morning and he took me for a private tour around Slea Head. His wife is a potter and he is a singer who brings together people who sing old traditional Irish songs- all non-commercial. He said he got burned out singing every night.
I happened to mention that I had been looking for a flute for my daughter and he brought me back to the Dingle music shop where I had bought some CDs earlier that day, showing a spectacular lack of knowledge of Irish music. A kind woman had helped me pick out a couple then, but a man name Michael was there in the afternoon. Michael sold me a D whistle (also called a low whistle) and both Michael and Dennis suggested I go to hear a man named Eoin Duignan who plays low whistle and Irish (Uilleann) pipes. Before I left the store he poured a shot of whiskey for me and Andy from Switzerland. Andy’s name wasn’t Andy but it was the closest we could get. Anyway, the whistle player was going to perform at the Small Bridge Pub. I got there during a break and stood around trying to figure out where to order a drink. In the meantime, a drunk Irish poet took the microphone and read two poems. They were very good, actually. One was about potato fields and the Irish famine- I can’t remember the other one. Michael found me at the pub and insisted on buying me a second pint of Guinness, which is about a pint too many for me. The woman from the store also found me and said hello. The drunken poet was shouting into a cell phone behind me and spilling beer, but otherwise the night was uneventful.
I came to the pub from a concert at St. James Anglican Church. I arrived at the church early and walked around it and through a graveyard that had been totally forgotten and was a very sad place, watched over by two evil looking cats that appeared to be related to one another. The concert was to launch a new album by a local boy named Tommy O’Sullivan. He had a nice voice and played guitar and his music was a very eclectic blend of jazz, Appalachian music (old timey music), blues, and Irish music. The fiddle player was really talented and there was a woman who played piano and harp that was good as well. Tommy talked about traveling I-81 when he played in the United States. His last song was a beauty by Tom Waites called Shiver Me Timbers. Small world indeed.
May 12, Dingle
My last day in Dingle began to look a little more Irish. It was cooler and overcast all day with clouds over Connor Pass, but very little rain came out of it. There were several options to keep busy today. A drive through the Connor Pass was one, but the weather ruled it out. A ferry to Great Blasket Island was tempting. Dennis had showed me where the locals took the ferry from out of Slea Head. You park at the top of some cliffs and follow a long winding ramp down to the docking area. It’s the same ramp they bring sheep from the island up to take them to slaughter. Blasket Island lamb is supposed to be especially good because there were never any pesticides or fertilizer used on the island. I guess that means organic lambchops. All of the people were taken off the island in the 1940s(?) because they could no longer make a living. The government paid to resettle them, giving some land to work somewhere else. Apparently ethnographers are scrambling to find these people before they all die so they can take oral histories from them. I asked if anyone had gone back and he said no. He said occasionally “some wacko” will decide to rent one of the abandoned houses in the village and try to stay there for a year, but all except one small family didn’t make it to Christmas.
Another choice I had was to play golf at Cean Cibeal, the westernmost golf course in Europe. Tempting, but instead I chose a quiet morning of walking and a little reading followed by another concert. I’m glad I chose music over golf in Dingle. The concert was of new songs composed by Shaun Davey to the poems of a man named Caoimhín Cinnéide, who died about 8 years ago. The music was wonderful and the poems were about local people and events. In fact, the families of some of the people talked about in the poems were present and acknowledged. There were 8 or 9 people playing and singing and they played guitar, banjo, pipes, whistles, flutes, accordion, and some keyboard instrument. There were two women with lovely voices and the men sang very well too. The music was very beautiful and moving, even though the songs were all in Irish- but they were usually introduced with stories, sometimes in Gaelic and sometimes in English. It was a much larger audience than last night and many more local people were there. It is so evident that music is just a natural part of peoples’ lives here. Everyone knows each other and there is no distance between audience and performer- probably because most of these people are pub musicians.
Before leaving Dingle, I should mention two things. There was some sort of a music festival while I was here. Not an insignificant one, as it concludes Sunday evening with a concert by the Chieftans here in Dingle. I wish I was going to be here. The second thing that needs mentioning is that the Dingle peninsula is one of the places where the Irish language has always been spoken. Schoolchildren from all over Ireland come here in the summer and stay with families that are required to speak only Irish in their presence. Apparently the requirement of protecting the language is written into the Irish Constitution. You hear the language everywhere.
I started back to the B&B fairly early tonight because the music hadn’t started yet at the pub and it had started to rain. But I heard a fife and drum band on my way back so I went back to hear them for a second and then went back to the Small Bridge and heard three songs before I left. The fellow Michael from the Dingle Music Shop was playing accordion and I was happy to hear him as he had taken time to be friendly to me.
Ireland makes you lonely for the people you care about. I’ll be sad to leave Dingle even though it is mostly a tourist town. There are a lot of nice people here and deep roots in county Kerry. I think these are the peacemakers of the country. But it never pays to overstay when you’re traveling because ultimately you don’t belong to any of these places- you are just an interloper. It’s wrong to try and be anything else. Maybe that is one of the good things about travel. It makes you conscious of the human condition- we are all interlopers in this life, aren’t we? Our home is somewhere else. I know what you’re thinking- it’s just the Guiness talking..
May 13, Clonmacnoise/Clonalis House
This was a driving day. I left Dingle about 9 and arrived at Clonalis House where I am staying tonight a little after 5pm. The day was all driving except for a couple of hours at Clonmacnoise, an early Christian ruin in central Ireland, near the town of Athlone, from which British soldiers came to loot and burn this holy site. They were good at that, you know. It wasn’t too crowded and it was an evocative place, a nice place to sit and think. It is located on a very old trading route that connected Dublin with Western Ireland and is also on the river Shannon. Clonmacnoise was founded as a monastery in 548 by St. Ciaran and was “one of Europe’s leading centers of learning for nearly 1000 years.” Rory O’Conor, Ireland’s last high king, is buried there.
Coincidentally, I happen to be staying tonight in the O’Conor house- Clonalis house which gives tours in the summer but also takes guests part of the year. It is located outside of the village of Castlerea in County Roscommon. You drive through unmarked, but impressive gates (yes I passed them once and drove 5 miles before turning around) and drive back a mile to the main house. You are greeted by the lady of the house- Marguerite O’Connor-Nash. She shows you the library where you will have a pre-dinner drink in front of the fire and after-dinner tea. The main dining room is hung with portraits of all the O’Connors. I felt like I was in one of those bad vampire movies where you stumble into an old house in the country late at night because your carriage lost a wheel. It really is a wonderful and unique experience. I walked the grounds after dinner looking for faeries, because they surely must be around somewhere on these 800 acres.
May 14, Clonalis to Rathmullen House
It was a quiet and a rainy Sunday in County Donegal. I said goodbye to the French Canadian couples- from New Brunswick and Quebec City- who were the only other guests at Clonalis House. My host showed me the pictures that he had taken at Waterville when the pros came and practiced for the British open- he had photos with his daughter posing with Mark O’Meara, Payne Stewart, and Tiger Woods. There was hardly anyone there. He said he was a banker by trade, but he and his wife complained about what a nuisance deer were and they sounded like real farmers.
The drive was pleasant- after Sligo it became more wild and mountainous. I think I will like Donegal if the rain ever stops. The Rathmullen House sits on a Lough Swilley. It is a very old house that has been added onto to make a hotel. The grounds are lovely but there isn’t enough land with it and it has been surrounded by holiday homes. But they are mostly hidden from view unless you look for them. Unlike Clonalis House where you are left to yourself, this is a hotel that takes care of you- nice enough, but different. The kitchen is excellent- they pride themselves on local products, organic if possible. I ordered a “bio-dynamic” wine. I asked what it meant and the answer sounded pretty much like organic. The “wild Irish sea trout” with capers was really delicious- pink like Salmon but better. I sent emails home from the hotel office and chatted with the lady who worked there for a minute. She is from a couple of miles north of here and is happy to stay in the area where it’s quiet. I asked her what the pictures of the young men along the road were- she said they were the participants in the “hunger strike” the anniversary of which was being commemorated. I need to look that up. The Polish waiter came in and traded jibes about Irish weather with the office worker. Apparently Poles are the primary immigrants into Ireland now to fill service jobs in the newly prosperous Irish economy.
Linda told me that my Auntie Beryl had died. She has not been good for a while and fell twice in the last year and the second time was too much for her I guess. It’s very sad to hear. The last connections with my mother are fast disappearing. Beryl was a neat person- she met my Uncle during the war when he was stationed in the south of England looking for the German planes as they came across the channel. She never knew he had been married before- I wonder what it was like to have to keep that secret for so long. I wonder why he felt like he had to.
It’s back to golf tomorrow- 36 holes (if I can stand it) at Rosapenna. I just have to find out how to get there.
May 15, Rosapenna
It was back to the links today- my first 36 holes for more years than I can count. I played at the two courses that belong to a hotel in northern Donegal called Rosapenna. The original course here was designed by none other than old Tom Morris himself. I played that course first by myself. I drove up early, rightly hoping that they would get me on sooner than my 11:40 tee time. I enjoyed the course- it was old fashioned, but challenging, well-bunkered, and pleasant to play. I shot an 84, but salvaged the round with a birdie on the last hole.
Unfortunately my good fortune did not carry through to the second nine. The Sandy Hills course is relatively new and designed by Pat Ruddy who did the European Club and a number of other newer Irish courses. It is terrific and difficult. To me, the course was brilliantly designed. The sandhills separate the holes, but still leave beautiful views. I think I was the only one on the course this afternoon and you felt like you were playing golf at the end of the world. The rough was very penalizing and I found it too often. The greens weren’t the greatest, but they putted true and were cut quite short. My wedge game was OK, but I must have missed 7 putts on the low lip of the hole. It got to be funny after a while. I could predict where they would go. You would think one would learn after a while.
This was the first day that I spent in rain gear. It rained lightly about half the time, but wasn’t too cold. I just had a hard time keeping things dry. I stopped for lunch at the hotel between 18s. Good soup- bad sandwich. Ten euros. The drive there and back through Mitford and Carrigart was uneventful- I listened to an Irish music CD. I must be getting more comfortable driving. It was nice to get back to the hotel in time for dinner- brill. Not sure what that is, but it tasted really good. I talked to a new office worker about the area while I used their computer again to send emails. She said everyone was ready for the trouble in Northern Ireland to be over and that young people really don’t think about it much. That sounds hopeful. I thought maybe being so close to Northern Ireland would make a difference, but it doesn’t seem to.
May 16, Portsalon
Today marked the halfway point of the trip. That came as a surprise. It doesn’t seem like I have been here that long.
The drive along the coast road this morning was beautiful. This part of Donegal is hard and spare along the coast, but green inland and full of sheep. The mountains add drama. I came down some switchbacks into Portsalon- Mr. Dolan at the pro shop said they held road rallies in June along the coast road. I can’t imagine driving them fast.
Like Rosapenna, the Portsalon course was covered with snails. They are everywhere. I keep meaning to ask about them and whether people eat them here, but I keep forgetting. Portsalon is the kind of course I could play at for the rest of my life. It is challenging but fair, has nice greens, and its remoteness and spectacular setting gives it an ethereal quality that has to be good for the soul. On the other hand, there was no place in town open for lunch on a Tuesday in May. Bring your own sandwich.
I didn’t think I was going to play 36 holes today, but I knew after the first round that I could do better on the second and the weather was holding up very well. There was some wind and a little rain on the second 18, but I shot a 78 with three birdies and was glad I stayed. The rain started on the last hole, and by the time I realized I had made a wrong turn going back to the hotel, it was pouring. This is a small place, though, so I just waited until I saw a sign for Rathmullen. It came eventually and I got to see some new scenery.
The primary animals I see here are cows, sheep (lots of lambs this time of year), and birds. Unfortunately, the place is inundated with crows- they are everywhere and very loud. I did see a fox along the side of the road a couple of days ago. I don’t know if they hunt foxes in Ireland or not.
I’m sort of sorry to leave Rathmullen House- it’s a very friendly, comfortable place with excellent food. After dinner tonight, the skies had cleared and there was a rainbow. I only wish it was a harbinger of good weather tomorrow.
May 17, Ballyliffen
Welcome to Ballyliffen- way up north on the Inishowen Peninsula. I thought this would be the most remote part of Ireland I was in, and maybe it is, but both the hotel bar and the golf course dining room were playing American rock music. It just seems so out of place here. But the people are still Irish and the signs are still weird- “no overtaking”; “traffic calming” and when a local talks to you usually you only understand about half of what they are saying. And people wave as you go by and wave to you when you slow to let them pass on a narrow road. So I guess if they want to listen to Bruce Springsteen, that’s OK. I followed a herd of dairy cows out of Rathmullen this morning and if you roll down your window on a country road you can hear birds and lambs mewing. And the free standing stone walls are everywhere and beautiful.
Into each life a little rain must fall. After staying at a variety of really nice places, I find myself at the Strand Hotel. It doesn’t look much like the picture on the web site. It is under renovation with workmen in the halls and cement floors where carpets haven’t been laid yet, people in wheelchairs with a nun waiting in the foyer, and a clerk who couldn’t find my reservation. Not to worry, they aren’t full. Payback time. On the brighter side, the power shower is excellent with plenty of hot water and the bar seems to be a meeting place for locals and was very lively. I had pot roast with the requisite 12 kinds of potatoes and a pint of harp. And I can see the water from my 3rd floor window.
I played my 3rd day of 36 holes today. Wow. The last nine holes were in a driving rain that soaked my pants (I was too tired to dig out the rain pants and put them on.) After playing on empty courses for two days, I was back in the land of golf buses and Americans smoking cigars. Not as many as down south, but a very different atmosphere. Take me back to Portsalon. That will be changing, however, because I heard it from two different locals that Jack Nicklaus has purchase property near Portsalon and will build a golf course.
I shot 83s on both courses today. The Glasheedy course was one of my least favorites- wide fairways and mediocre greens. The Old Course was better- wildflowers in the rough, and fairways like crumpled paper- moguls everywhere. The greens were slower but better- more like those at Portsalon. The turf on these links courses is nice. The lies are tight, but it’s easy to get down to the ball and the divots come out without any effort. I drove the ball well today and hit some good iron shots. I had a couple of bad experiences with pot bunkers and missed quite a few short putts. My putting has been very erratic, but that may just be moving from one course to another.
I can sleep in a little tomorrow ( I was up before 6 today) and eat a more leisurely breakfast before heading back down to Sligo where I’ll be for 3 days at a farmhouse that I hope is nice.
May 18, Ardtarmon House
The drive down from Ballyliffen to Ardtarmon House was an easy one, though it rained a fair amount. Here is some advice about driving in Ireland. Get a small car- the smaller, the better. Don’t be tempted by something more like what you are used to. You will regret it. If you can afford it, get a car with an automatic transmission. It’s true that everyone here drives sticks, but for the first few days on the road, it is one less thing to worry about and that might save an accident. Beware of the left side of the car. It takes a while for your depth perception to adjust to the fact that you are on the right side of the car. While that adjustment is taking place, there is a tendency to not leave enough room on the left, especially when you are driving the congested, narrow streets of the villages that you will continually pass through, even on major roads. Stop and let other cars come through if you are comfortable with your clearances. In some cases, you have to do that regardless and the Irish do it routinely. Slow down on country roads as wider vehicles approach and move over as far as you can. It is a courtesy to them (which often is given an appreciative wave) and it makes it much less dangerous if you happen to move over too much. There are stories of drivers having the entire left side of their car ripped off by a stone wall. These may of course be stories made up to scare the tourists. On the other hand… You can purchase at any garage self-adhesive “L” symbols for the front and rear windshield of your car. They signify that you are a “learner” and believe me, all American tourists are definitely learners. Drivers treat you with more caution and may cut you a break if you are going too slow or stopping to read a road sign. Many national roads have a hard shoulder- if someone is fairly close behind you, slow down a little and move onto the shoulder. It invites them to pass you and they usually appreciate it. There are many little places on narrow roads where you can slow and pull off the road. This allows any impatient drivers behind to pass you. (Did I say pass, I meant overtake.) I think it is when you finally start to feel comfortable driving that you have to be the most careful. Going on “autopilot” is a very bad idea here. That’s because your instinctual responses will most likely be incorrect. Last piece of advice- fly into Shannon, not Dublin, and stay someplace within a short drive of the airport. Order a pint of Guinness when you arrive where you are staying, maybe two pints and forget about driving until the next day. You’ll feel better then.
Ardtarmon House is located about 7 miles west of Drumcliff which is located about 6 miles north of Sligo Town. You turn left at Dunlevy’s store and go about a mile and a half and look for the small sign at the gate to the house. The house sits a ways off the road which makes it seem like a real country house. It looks older than it is- it was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is the family home of Charles Henry and his German wife Krista. They have two daughters, 12 and 8. The 12 year old was walking around outside the house after school today playing her Irish flute- it mostly sounded Irish, except when she broke into a version of Beethoven’s Ninth.
Krista showed me the house briefly when I arrived and made some coffee which I drank in the parlor while we made small talk. Then she showed me where the path to the beach starts and left me to my own devices. That appears to be the way these country houses work. Both owners and guests try to be pleasant, but unobtrusive. Suits me.
I had decided that I was going to stay at the house all afternoon and evening and not go to dinner. I ate a large lunch at the Yeats tavern in Drumcliff (where W. B. Yeats is buried) and still had a couple of packages of crackers and a quarter candy bar that would constitute dinner. I brought in all my luggage because I had to do some serious repacking and inventorying of what I had left that was still wearable. I also brought in a bunch of wet clothes from the back nine at Ballyliffen and have them hanging all over the room to dry.
Then the weather turned round. I looked out and saw sun and patches of blue sky. This seemed like a good time to try that walk down to Drumcliff Bay. First, I took my golf clubs out of the car and dried them off and stood them up against the car in the sun so the grips would dry. The path to the bay went through a small woods and an iron gate. Then you turn left along a grassy path, right through another gate and along a pasture with cattle grazing and Lissadell manor (I think) down and to your right standing majestically alone near the water. It is hard to imagine a more peaceful rural setting than this- a grassy path with wildflowers and remnants of stone walls leading one down to the sea as the whole expanse of this beautiful coastline opens up to your eyes. It was indescribably beautiful. And the weather was perfect- sun and large clouds and a cool, but not cold wind. The path ended with a wooden bench set next to three stairs that led down to the beach.
Between the sand and the land was a sea of large and small rocks of all kinds. I have never seen so many rocks in one place. Many were covered with bright green seaweed that looked like some sort of elegant material covering a simple chair. The beach was full of intricate patterns formed by water moving among the rocks and the wind blowing across the title pools made them seem alive, like small rivers. The larger rocks rose from the sand like miniature islands out of a calm sea. Yes, W.B., the “peace comes dripping slow” at Ardtarmon House.
May 19, County Sligo Golf Club
I needn’t have worried that I would be late for my tee time at Rosse’s Point (County Sligo Golf Club). When I arrived at 8:15 for my 8:30 tee time, the clubhouse was locked up. I decided to go ahead and start at 8:30 and I just kept my score on a piece of paper. There was already two foursomes arriving and I thought it would be best to get off ahead of them. So I had the whole course out ahead of me. Unfortunately, I also was playing in gale force winds. At least it wasn’t raining. I had heard they had stopped play at the Irish Open yesterday because of high winds.
My play was uninspired today, though I had a decent finish, with pars on four of the last six holes. That was after the wind had subsided some. I was inspired to see if I could eat lunch and try again, but “the accountants were arriving” and the course was full until late afternoon. So I had a “special toastie” in the clubhouse and watched people tee off. This is a very nice course, with wonderful views of Drumcliff Bay. It did not have a links feel to it, however- not many sandhills, and not much in the way of dune grasses. It was, however, in better condition than most of the courses I have played, with American style greens that putted well. All in all, I have to say I was a little disappointed, as Sligo is on most everyone’s must play list. Am I getting jaded? The highlight was the 17th hole, a 420 yard par 4 that doglegs sharply left and then sharply. If you drive left, the hole is shorter, but the second shot is blind and too far left puts you in a ravine. If you go to the right like I did, it is very hard to reach the green in two. I hit a decent three wood and rolled it up to the base of the hill the green sits on but I failed to get up and down.
I stopped on the way back to see W.B. Yeats’ grave at St. Columba’s Church which is right off the main highway in Drumcliff. Besides being a very good poet, Yeats seems to have been a searcher. He believed in faeries and was very interested in occultism and the supernatural. He collected and published many of the fairy and folk tales of Ireland. Yet his grandfather and great-grandfather were rectors and he was buried with a traditional Church of Ireland service. But his epitaph is enigmatic-
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, On Death
Horseman, pass by!
Does it suggest at the end of his life, he felt like he knew little of life or death? Don’t look here for answers, in other words? Beyond that, does a lack of understanding come from a Socratic humility in the face of the mysterious depth of a reality only glimpsed? Or does it hint of despair or a loss of faith in an ordering presence towards which the soul moves in life and finds rest in death?
On the other hand, one can move from Yeat’s graveside to the Yeats Tavern and Restaurant across the street and have a fudge brownie with ice cream while listening to Tequila Sunrise. Yeats was intensely nationalist- I wonder what he would think of the Ireland of the euro? There are still stonemasons here at least. I saw one fixing a wall along a bridge today. This place is a stone lover’s paradise. The beach I walk on would provide enough smooth stones to build a thousand rock gardens. I kept taking pictures of them this afternoon because they were all so different. I ate some of the things I saw washed up on shore tonight for dinner- Drumcliff Bay mussels- a big bowl of them.
May 20, Donegal Golf Club
It was a beautiful day for golf. A little too windy, especially at first, but there were terrific clouds and quite a bit of sun and only a little rain. This is one of my favorite courses so far. To get to it you leave the main highway from Sligo to Donegal a few miles before Donegal Town. You wind back a very narrow country road for about 4 miles through a pine forest. As James Finnegan put it,
“There is an alluring naturalness to the links at Murvagh, a truly elemental quality, together with a haunting remoteness..”
Perhaps I liked today’s golf so much because I had my best 9 holes of the trip- a 37 on the back nine. More likely, it was because I finally got to play with some Irishmen- three friends from Northern Ireland, two from Belfast and one from Enniskillen, who were on holiday with their wives. Their names were Ernie, Gordon, and Tommy- who looked like an older and smaller version of Doug Woolley. Ernie was a retired solicitor from Belfast. Like everyone I have met here who talked politics, Ernie did not like George Bush at all and wish the U.S. would “lead” rather than “dominate.” We played a match- they put me with their worst golfer because I had the lowest handicap. I lost 5 euros, but I got a pint of Guinness in return and a very enjoyable round. And I also got a dram of very smooth Irish plum-flavored moonshine dispensed on the third tee from a flask that Gordon pulled out of his bag. Donegal was a difficult, but friendly course. The greens were too slow, but were deep green and nice to putt on and fairly easy to read. The rough was penal, but the fairways were pretty wide. The scenery was less dramatic than some courses, but consistently soul-lifting.
Maybe it’s time to start ranking the courses before I forget them entirely. The toughest so far have been Waterville and the Sandy Hills course at Rosapenna. But toughness depends an awful lot on wind and weather. The best round I played was at Ballybunion, with my second round at Portsalon close behind. My round today at Donegal ranks as my third best, and would have been in the 70s if I could have turned one triple into a bogey. The worst I played was at Waterville and Rosapenna-Sandy Hills. I would love to play those again. Third place would be County Sligo, another course where I think a second round would bring a much better score. The most scenic courses were probably Tralee, Ballybunion, and Donegal. My least favorite days were at Ballyliffen and at County Sligo- but that depends as much on attitude as anything. Donegal was the happiest place to play- a very good course in a very peaceful setting. Portsalon was “spiritual” but partly because it was so empty the day I played it. Waterville felt very old as did the Old Tom Morris course at Rosapenna and the rumpled links of the Old Course at Ballyliffen. Ballybunion was probably the friendliest place, but they are also the best set up for hordes of tourist golfers like myself, and those two facts may be connected. My overall favorites are Tralee, Donegal, Ballybunion, Portsalon. Following those would be Rosapenna-Sandy Hills, Waterville, Rosapenna-Old Tom Morris, and Ballyliffen Old. At the bottom would be Ballyliffen-Glasheedy and County Sligo. I have four left to play- Inniscrone, Carne, Ballyconeely (Connemara), and Lahinch.
Postscript- I took my last walk down to the bay at 9:30 this evening. The sun still had not gone below the horizon, but the landscape was luminous. The temperature was dropping like a stone and so my pilgrimage to the sea was a brief one. Supposedly the water around here is about as warm as anywhere in the British Isles. I’m not sure that is saying much, but I did dip my hand in it and it wasn’t bad. On a warm, sunny day swimming would be a real possibility. After all, there are palm trees in Ireland, you know.
May 21, Inishcrone (Enniscrone)
Charlie, the club pro at Enniscrone put me with an older couple from near Lugano Switzerland. They played with me until the 17th tee when the wind, cold, and rain finally made them call it quits. I played the last two holes with three hardy Irishwomen, Beatrice and Mary and someone else. Beatrice had a cousin in Vienna, Virginia.
Enniscrone, a Eddie Hackett design, was a wonderfully difficult course, made more so by the fact that it was the worst weather I have ever played in- cold, wind, and constant rain. I considered my 90 with no triples to be a major accomplishment. I ask Charlie if he had any advice for me before I started the round. He basically said don’t hit the ball where you can’t see it. That’s probably good advice on most links courses. The contours are so unpredictable that shots that you thought were hit right where you wanted can end up anywhere. The ranger stopped on one of the tees along the sea and commiserated with us about the bad weather. He pointed out a spot about twenty miles down the coastline and said Nick Faldo was building a new course there. It’s the more the merrier for Irish golf these days. When I told him I was headed to play Belmullet, he said “Oh, God help you!”
There were a bunch of houses going up across the street from the entrance to the club- they looked pretty cookie-cutter and I was told they were asking 500,000 euro for them. Wow.
May 22, Belmullet
Belmullet is a one street town at the end of the road, but it looks prosperous enough, with lots of houses going up in town and around the town. A brand new hotel has also been built to supplement what used to be the only game in town- the Western Strands. My B&B (Drom Caoin) was hard to find, but the locals were polite when they found me going the wrong way up a one way street in the wrong lane. The Drom Caoin had the feel of a hostel- very plain, but the owner Maureen (Mairin) was nice and very helpful.
This was another day of 36 holes- I had a voucher that let me play as much as I wanted. The weather changes in Belmullet faster than anyplace I have ever been. There was sun, rain, lots of wind, and two holes of hail that came down like small bullets. By the end of round one I was soaked through my rain suit, so I grabbed some new clothes from the suitcase conveniently still in the trunk of the Opel and changed in the locker room. I had some soup and a sandwich upstairs and a pint of something other than Guinness and set out to try again. I wasn’t sure if I could do a second 18 at Carne, as the course demands a lot of climbing and scrambling among the dunes. My last nine holes showed fatigue, I think, with some bad judgments and a bad score. But the weather held through the second round, with lots of sun and nice clouds and plenty of wind of the Atlantic which was very blue.
The course itself is my favorite of the trip. I think part of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy as I knew I would like Carne from the first time I read about it. It is the last course designed by Eddie Hackett and there are many stories that suggest he thought it was his best. Hackett is known for not moving a lot of earth to build his courses and the town of Belmullet provided unemployed workers to build the course, which was a community project aimed at bringing tourism in to support a depressed economy. The course is built around a number of large dunes with lots of blind shots, greens perched in odd places, and wildly undulating fairways. It requires straight drives (though the first rough is not very penal) and good shot-making skills, despite having very few bunkers for a links course. There are no boring holes, though I think my favorite is #13, a long lonely par 5 with a pasture along the right side and the ocean in sight in the distance the entire hole. Because wind plays such a factor, the course plays differently each time the wind blows from a different direction. And the wind howled both days I was there and all night in-between. The rain would come in hard and fast and then leave just as suddenly with blue sky and white clouds following behind. I played all 36 holes by myself the first day, but enjoyed almost very minute of it. Bless you, Eddie Hackett.
May 23, Belmullet to Connemara
When I woke up early to pack my bags, it didn’t look good for a third round of golf at Carne. It was raining hard and very windy and I had decided I didn’t want to play in the rain again. So I waited and had breakfast at the normal time- 8:30 instead of making my 7:45 tee time. My companions were a husband and wife from Vermont who were bird watching and Yeats traveling. The man had written his dissertation on Yeats. I asked about whether he had taught and he suggested he mostly wrote, but had taught English literature at a number of universities. That’s about all I could get out of him. He was a very happy fellow with a very theatrical manner. His wife was a middle school teacher, also retired I think.
The weather looked better after breakfast, so I decided to at least start a round if they would have me. There was a foursome of members off before me, but they let me through on the second hole. I played well until the 9th hole where I three-putted for a double-bogey. Going to the tenth I said good morning to a man on the small practice green and he asked if I wanted company. He turned out to be a member and an American. His name was Jack Kilroy. He has been an investment banker/venture capitalist, finance office etc. and retired one day at the height of his career when he played Carne for the first time. He and his wife (the best cook in Ireland) had bought a house down the road from Belmullet overlooking the water for a pittance. He calls it heaven and tries to play everyday. But he almost got to see the real thing. Soon after moving to Ireland, he was involved in a serious automobile accident. He hit a cow coming home from a social engagement at night. The cow didn’t make it and Jack was in a coma for a week and then had to go through reconstructive surgery on his face. He almost lost his eyesight and lost most of his sense of taste and smell. I enjoyed having company for the back nine and played fairly well, but had multiple three putts and so scored badly. I hope I get to come back here to play someday. Jack and I had seafood chowder and brown bread after the round and he introduced me to the man who had started what led to the building of the golf course, Eamon Mangan, a soft-spoken, modest man.
The drive to my next destination in Connemara was the driving highlight of the trip. Past Westport, I took a wrong turn and ended up on a beautiful regional road that ran through brooding, stony mountains and lakes in a land that was practically uninhabited. The roads were lined with gorse and beautiful rhododendrons that are seen as a nuisance here because they are growing wild everywhere. This is a place where sheep are kings. They were everywhere along the roads with many small lambs just lying by the side of the already too narrow road. The scenery, though desolate, was very beautiful. There was some sort of spa in the middle of nowhere and I wondered as I drove by who came here. I don’t think I would like to live in the midst of all that brown landscape; I think it would weigh on your soul like a heavy burden after a time. As I came closer to the sea, the landscape looked a little less ominous. I passed through a little fishing/tourist town called Roundstone and 13 km later I made the turn to Emlaghmore Lodge where I am staying for two nights. It is near Ballyconnely where the Connemara Golf Links sits.
Emlaghmore is part of the hidden Ireland Group of properties which includes Clonalis where I stayed earlier. This was originally a hunting/fishing lodge so it is much more rustic than Clonalis or Ardtarmon House but I like it a lot. My room is small with a single bed and very old fashioned. There is no central heating but there are electric space heaters “if you need them.” There was a fire burning in the sitting room when I arrived where you can mix your own whiskey or gin and tonics on the honor system. Dinner is served at 8:30 and I was the only guest tonight so I ate Irish lamb with string beans and potatoes with my hosts Nick and Janet Tinne. She hunts foxes (yes- John Huston was once one of their “masters?”) He hunts migratory birds, including snipes which I didn’t even know existed. I thought it might be uncomfortable but they were very talkative and easy to be around. I asked them if it was hard having to make small talk with strangers all the time. They said only if they didn’t speak English.
This will be another very quiet place to sleep. Nick called the course and they said I probably could play after noon, so I am sleeping in and eating a late breakfast for a change. This is the first place I have stayed with a bathroom down the hall, but since I am the only guest, it’s like having the whole floor to myself.
May 24, Connemara Championship Golf Links
After breakfast, I asked my host if there was a walk I could take from the house. He sent me out into Roundstone Bog, an interesting walk that started on an old lane that ran by his house, then over a bridge and through a gate onto a track that ran back into the bog. There were sheep everywhere. The lambs would run to their mothers as soon as they saw you and they would stare at you for a while and then start to move away. At the end of the track was a large rut that had been cut into the bog and I realized that they were cutting turf to burn. Nick said this is being discouraged because Ireland has the last major peat bogs in Europe, but he says they can’t really stop the locals cutting it for their own use. I went on for a while after the track ended, picking my way carefully to keep my feet dry and free of sheep manure. There are lots of small lakes in the bog and I sat on some rocks near one and soaked in the quiet beauty of Connemara. The mountains were in the distance and if you looked in the right direction there was no sign of human beings anywhere.
But there were many signs of human beings at Connemara Golf Club. There was a members tournament in the morning and so the rest of us had to wait until noon to start teeing off. The pro shop manager put me with two Germans who worked for a pharmaceutical company in Cologne. They liked to high five each other whenever one of them sank a putt. The course was challenging and carpeted with yellow and white wildflowers that gave it a sort of dreamy look. The fairways were generous, but there were some tough, elevated greens to hit to and hole # 13 was a monster par 3 where you hit from high on a hill over a ravine to a green perched on another hill. I hooked a three wood, but got lucky and was able to make a bogey. Going in to the last 4 holes, I knew I could break 80 with four pars. Since the holes consisted of two par 4s and two par 5s, I thought I had a good change. The 15th demanded a 5 iron hit to an elevated green. My shot caught up the high grass of a mound which guarded the green. I proceeded to shank my next two shots, then three putted for a triple bogey 7. As if that weren’t enough, I managed to do the same thing on the next par 4. Discouraged, I pulled my drive on 17 and again was in high grass on a severe up-slope of a little hill. I bogeyed that hole and managed to par the 18th, but the damage had been done. How quickly a good round can turn into a bad one in golf.
Dinner with Nick and Janet again. I really did like them. They acted just like real people, talking about local events to each other as if I wasn’t there, bickering in that way people do who have been with each other for a long time. We had cod with a nice tomato sauce. Appetizer was pears with proscuitto. There was as much wine as you wanted and Nick poured me a glass of port. He talked about his family who had been in the sugar business in British Guyana and a great whatever grandmother Tinne (a Dutch name) who tried to find the source of the Nile and was murdered by Touareg tribesman on a trip across the Sahara because they thought she had gold in her water containers.
May 25, The Road to Lahinch
The drive from Ballyconeely to Lahinch takes you through the Burren and by the Cliffs of Moher, two of the main tourist attractions in Western Ireland. I sort of missed the Burren- I could see the rocky hills all around me, but the main spot to stop and take it all in was full of cars and there was no room, so I drove on. Soon after all sorts of motorcycles started passing by with the drivers gesticulating to slow down or pull over. Three of us found a spot and waited. It was a bicycle race- they eventually came in two large bunches and a whole lot of stragglers. I took the detour to the Cliffs and once again found myself in tourist Ireland. I have to admit that it is comfortable every once in a while just being one of the gawking crowds. And this is quite a place to gawk at- the cliffs are awe-inspiring. It would really be neat to take one of the boats that let you see them from the sea. You can walk to the edge, something that would never be allowed at a tourist site in the U.S. When I first arrived in Ireland, I heard a report from another tourist that a little girl had been blown off the cliff a couple of weeks ago. I can see that happening, but there was almost no wind today and one felt safe to venture almost to the very edge.
I am staying at the Greenbrier Inn in Lahinch. It is within walking distance of the golf course and is in town so very convenient. Otherwise it is undistinguished, but comfortable. And Margaret, one of the owners, was willing to serve me breakfast at 6:15 because of my 7am tee time. So I have to award points for that. Lahinch is a seaside resort town, so there is any number of places to stay and all have vacancies this time of the year. Dinner was at “The Sea Farer.” Expensive, but good food and they had half bottles of wine which is always welcome when you are by yourself. If you turn right off the main street in Lahinch you come to a walkway above the ocean where you can watch people surfing or walk down steps to the beach. The sea was angry that day, my friend..
May 26, Lahinch
The last real day of the trip… Lahinch is a great course to save for last. Probably the best of the “pure” links courses I played. Play along the sea, sandhills, greens perched on hills, blind shots, horrible rough, beautiful views; Lahinch has them all. It is extremely challenging- I drove the best of the trip, hit good long irons and a few good three woods; I shot a 91. I only had one three putt green, but could not get up and down for the life of me. The greens were very nice, but the only putt I sunk over three feet was for a par on the 18th hole.
I did have the first tee time of the morning, but was paired with a young investment adviser from Bend, Oregon named Travis. His wife Kelly was with him and pulled his bag. They were very nice kids and it was easy to play with them. Travis hit some good shots, but was erratic and spent a lot of time looking for balls, but he remained cheerful throughout. The weather was not promising this morning- heavy cloud cover and lots of wind. Considering, the round went well. It never rained, though the near 100% humidity made you feel wet all the time, almost like the moisture was just condensing on you as you walked. It was cold, too. After about five holes, the humidity turned into fog and the golfers looked like ghosts wandering in some ancient graveyard. It was beautiful, but I missed the views and picture-taking opportunities one would have here in good weather.
After golf, there was the usual “get ready to leave” stuff that I don’t like. At the end of a trip like this, you just want to wake up and be back home. I had to go to the next town to get air in one tire and ate lunch at a downtown pub- fish and chips. I packed and slept a little in the afternoon and went back to the Sea Farer for dinner- this time monkfish in a Thai curry sauce. I plotted out a golf trip with the guys over dinner- I think I would take them to Tralee and Ballybunion in the south and then Lahinch, Connemara (maybe), Carne, Enniscrone, Sligo, and Donegal in the West. That would be a great trip. But there is a lot of sightseeing to do here and a more romantic trip would include that and staying at some more of the hidden Ireland group’s country houses and estates. This is a wonderful country. I hope success doesn’t spoil it.
Postscript: Chicago to Roanoke
Some thoughts on links golf:
I don’t think success in links golf comes from anything that much different from other courses. It is more important to keep the ball in the fairway on those courses that have very tall rough. Some courses have very undulating fairways, so you have to be able to hit the ball off of all sorts of lies. Pot bunkers simply demand that you get out of them. If they are in the fairway instead of greenside, they are like a penalty stroke. Getting up and down is both harder and more important on links courses, at least for me. Hitting greens can be difficult and on new courses (especially moving back and forth from yards to meters) because it is hard to choose the right club. When it’s windy, which it almost always is, that problem is compounded. Greens can be hard to hold as well. For all these reasons, your short game has to be good. I don’t like to putt from very far off the green, so I had to hit sand or gap wedges off of very tight lies. Had I putted better or hit chip shots closer to the hole, I would have scored much better.
Wind has never been a real problem for me, but when it gets above 25mph it is a problem for everyone, I think. Iron shots can be carried way off course very easily. My most effective shots were low drawing 4 or 5 irons which tended to run a long way, if they had fairway in front of them. In our group, the shorter, straighter hitters like Al or John Semones would do pretty well on these courses as long as they were playing under 6300 yards. Many members play from green tees in Ireland which are often called member tees and are sort of like senior tees at home. I did that a couple of times, mostly playing from the whites and never from the tips. The locals laugh at Americans who want to play from the longest tees, because they know what these courses will do to them and they are usually correct. Length doesn’t get you much like it does on many courses in the U.S.
Steve and Joe would have some trouble with the wind, while Glenn’s game would be reasonably well-suited to links golf if he was hitting it well. The higher handicappers who hit it straighter and shorter might actually prefer these courses, but around the green they would have to be careful, much like the new River Course. Higher handicappers who spray the ball would find links golf extremely frustrating, losing a lot of balls and a lot of shots.
People generally play faster in Ireland- I claim that’s because of the weather. You have to take advantage of windows of decent weather when you get them, and when the weather is bad, you want to play fast anyway and get it done. Umbrellas are often useless because of the high wind, though one American I played with who lived in Belmullet and was a member at Carne, would wait out the little rain squalls by kneeling down under his umbrella. That made sense. I used my rain suit, but often got soaked anyway. A lot of rain only lasted a short time, however, and was not a reason not to play or to quit. I never quit a round, though I was sorely tempted a couple of times and the rounds at Enniscrone and Ballyliffen were pretty miserable.
There is a significant variety in links courses, so I didn’t really get tired of them. The hardest combine wind, sand, narrow fairways, blind shots, high rough, and uneven ground. Most have some combination of some of these, few have all of them. Links courses feel old and natural, and that is one of their attractions. They take less maintenance and when the wildflowers are blooming you are glad that they haven’t been killed with herbicides. Overall, I did not find them like “cow pastures” as some Americans believe. Most fairways were cut as short as the river course and most greens were in as good or better shape. Some of the courses had spectacular greens. I think the influx of tourist dollars has caused significant changes to these courses for the better and everyone benefits. Most of these courses have really low costs for local members, thanks to us, and they know that and treat visitors well. The Irish are enormously friendly people and have a lot of fun playing golf with one another, just like we do.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scenery one more time. The views from many of these courses are simply spectacular and almost worth the price of admission just to walk around for four hours. It makes the scores seem less important than the experience, which I suppose is what we should all strive for. I missed competitive matches, though, and really enjoyed the one I had with the three guys from Northern Ireland, even though my team lost.
A final note on traveling alone. I don’t regret the trip for having made it alone. But after about a week and a half, I really started to feel self-indulgent being by myself. You want to share this stuff with the people you care about and who you know would enjoy the experience. I hope to be able to do that when I return to Ireland, something which I would really like.