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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

Within the confines of the pub in Michael Rosney's Killeen House Hotel are 6,500 golf balls from all over the world. On any given night there are 20, 30 or more golfers, the majority from beyond Ireland's shores, talking about their Irish golf experiences in a fog of smoke and a sea of ale. If you should have a ball with a logo on it and it's one the pub doesn't have, Rosney will gladly exchange it for your favorite pint.

As much as a ball for a pint is an act of barter, it is more an act of friendship. And beyond the act of friendship, a ball for a pint is an act that imbues the spirit of Irish golf. Golf in Ireland, be it on one of its seminal seaside links or its gorgeous inland courses, is a game that welcomes all with genuine warmth and a decided lack of pretense. "The Irish still view golf as a game of the people," says Irish golf entrepreneur Pat Ruddy, owner of the magnificent European Club in County Wicklow. "We don't view it as a business opportunity or a game of the elite. We view it as a game that can be played by all, the rich alongside the poor."

With the tourist engorgement of the Scottish courses over the past 10 years, Ireland has increasingly received the spillover. Americans mostly, though with continental Europeans and Asians coming in greater numbers, this annual migration of duffers and dandies seeks out the greats of Irish golf. Is there still anyone who hasn't heard about Ballybunion? Could there be anybody not fa-miliar with Royal County Down? Has any soul not yet been made aware of Portmarnock? Heard about the Lindbergh kidnapping?

These Irish courses are truly classic and deserve the Mecca status accorded St. Andrews or Muirfield or Royal Dornoch in Scotland. But like Scotland, there are many courses in Ireland of great challenge and beauty beyond the Holy Trio. Some, like Waterville, Tralee and Royal Portrush, are coming to be known as special destinations unto themselves. Still others, such as Lahinch, Portstewart and Dooks, are swiftly building their own reputations. And courses such as County Louth and the European Club are still off the path beaten by most of the world's golfers, though they are steadily finding their own admirers.

Golf journeys to Ireland begin and end at either Dublin, on the east coast, or Shannon, on the west. At either airport of call, the visiting golfer is at the midpoint of the country and within short driving distance (depending on the number of cattle and sheep encountered) of most of the well-known Irish courses.

This journey will begin at a not-so-well-known course an hour's drive up the N1 from Dublin, with a tortuous right toward the Irish Sea at Drogheda, following the signs (as long as they last) to the tiny village of Baltray. There, virtually at the end of the road if not the end of the earth, is County Louth Golf Club at Baltray. You can call it Baltray, because everyone who belongs to it or knows about it calls it Baltray.

What you will say about Baltray after playing it the first time will probably fall somewhere between "superb" and "fantastic." It is a remarkable find for the first-time player even though it has been there in one form or another since 1892. Masterfully and passionately rebuilt by the architect Tom Simpson in the late 1930s, it contains some wonderful holes, a friendly clubhouse and one of the best caddies that 20 Irish punts can buy for three hours and a bit.

As the lore has it, Simpson walked up the opening hole in 1937, which is now the fourth, and exclaimed: "If all the holes are like this, I'll have very little to do." Simpson left the fourth hole alone--and changed everything else. What he created is a course known to the Irish as one of the finest everyday courses in the land, and known to outsiders not at all.

On a very fine day, the wind straightening the clubhouse flags and tickling the tall grasses along the fairways, I ventured forth as a onesome, sent off in front of a junior tournament. That I was the sole golfer in a group of two did not mean that I was alone. Carrying my bag, analyzing my swing, reading my putts and fortifying my soul was Martin Lawless. A man in his 40s, Lawless told me that he had spent most of his life in the army and now did caddying and odd jobs for a living. The caddying paid well, by Irish standards, £20 a bag plus tip for a senior caddie like himself.

Martin looked somewhat older than his stated age, a fact attributable no doubt to the somewhat excessive use of spirits and tobacco. This did not, however, dull his enthusiasm as a caddie nor did it interfere with his profuse knowledge of the course and his ability to read his man after two swings and two putts. Martin Lawless was a real caddie, you see, not a mere dragger of the bag or reciter of the distances.


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