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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.

On the second hole, he caught my attention and tweaked my imagination as I lined up a short pitch shot.

As I took a practice swing, Martin inquired, to my astonishment: "Do you see that bunker there right this moment?"

My rather stupefied answer was a question: "Martin, is it going to move?"

"Oh, no, no, no," said Martin. "I mean, are you ah seein' that bunker right in front of you?"

"Well, yes, I do see it now."

"Just play your shot over the left edge and let it hit on the far left side of the green. Don't hit it too hard or she'll pop over to the back. There's plenty of break to the right once she hits the green."

And so it went that day, with Martin having a club suggestion, a line suggestion, a swing suggestion on almost every shot while at the same time not being intrusive. Martin Lawless managed to climb into my head every bit as much as beautiful Baltray was climbing into my heart.

Particularly striking were the 12th through the 15th holes. At the 12th you are nearest the Irish Sea, though you still cannot see it. A large dune wall down the right side of the 12th and 13th blocks the view, though waves can be heard breaching on the beach if there is a freshening breeze. The 12th plays downhill from the tee, then uphill to the green through dunes pinching tightly on the left and right. Even from the middle of the fairway the green looks no larger than a slice of toast. It's an intimidating shot to say the least.

The 13th plays straight away down a narrowing fairway to a well-guarded green. The 14th is a short, 338-yard hole that is long on character, the lumpy fairway and its uphill shot to the green calling for something more than mediocre play. The 150-yard par-3 15th has a narrow, sloping green that is hard to hit and can be even harder to putt.

I wish the final two holes had a bit more character in them. They are much more heath-land than links-land, with very little movement to them. Still, the preceding holes have been so surprising in both their challenge and their variety that merely average golf holes at the finish are disappointing in their adequacy.

At the end of the round is the fine, friendly clubhouse, where a good steak, a good Guinness and a good conversation can be had. Upstairs there are spartan accommodations for those seeking to stay overnight, the rooms mindful in their design and furnishing to early YMCA. Still, the bar is just down the stairs, the course just out the door.

Now swing an hour south of Dublin, to County Wicklow, to the tiny hamlet of Brittas Bay. There you will find delightful beaches and very few people. You will also find Pat Ruddy's European Club, a new links course designed by Ruddy himself that embodies all that is good about the grand old game: sandy soil, dune mountains and rough, rolling fairways.

What Ruddy has created at the European Club is special. Although the course has been played for only four years, there are classic holes here tucked among giant dune hills and carpeted along the beach. The eighth is one of the best par 4s anywhere in the world, its green in a natural amphitheater among the dunes.

Given Ruddy's passion for the theater, he has also designed a curtain-raiser for the second act. Players take a bit of a stroll to get from the 11th green to the 12th tee. Coming around a dune mound, the player steps up on the tee and gets one of golf's best panoramas: a sweeping look at the Irish Sea, and northward, the long par 4 that awaits him, followed by a par 5, followed by a par 3 hidden in the dunes, followed by another par 4 that plays up to the Mizen Head. It's a dramatic, definitive stretch, one that won't be forgotten.

Nor is the 18th forgotten, because everybody gives Ruddy an argument about it. The 18th plays inland toward the tiny, modern clubhouse. There's a pond in front of the green, one of the most controversial bodies of water in the game of golf.

It would be quite easy to commute to either Baltray or the European Club while staying in Dublin. And near Baltray are several other delightful links courses, such as Bettystown, Greenore and Seapoint. Yet while in Dublin it would be almost impossible to resist the temptation of playing Portmarnock. It has been called the most natural links course in the world. There is nothing about it that seems at all artificial, and the charm and challenge of Portmarnock are not readily discerned from the very start. The links land here is subtle, much more like St. Andrews.

The opening holes offer little challenge, unless the wind is blowing. Like St. Andrews, Portmarnock requires wind to bare its teeth. Since the land is fairly flat, when the wind does blow there is little to stop or deflect it. The difficulty of Portmarnock will suddenly become more overt. Its best holes, at least by consensus, are the par-4 14th and the par-3 15th. The 14th is Ireland's Eye, so named for a rock outcropping in the Irish Sea, the top of which is visible from the tee and provides an excellent line of play. The shot to the 14th green is a white knuckler. Miss it and deep pot bunkers gobble up golf balls like so many jelly beans.

The 15th is Ben Crenshaw's favorite par 3. Playing at somewhere around 190 yards, the hole sits hard against the beach line, and out-of-bounds is very close on the right. The green is convex and vexing. You can easily find yourself putting back and forth across it three times.

While it's in the Dublin suburbs, Portmarnock is still blessed with isolation, sticking out on a finger of land that keeps the urban sprawl at a civil distance. Civility, in fact, seems the order of the day at Portmarnock. The clubhouse, a homey white wood building with a red roof, can be quiet and staid.

Stories of Portmarnock caddies abound. It is told that an American once found himself in one of Portmarnock's deep pot bunkers. After three full swings the ball remained in the bunker. At that point, the caddie demanded the club and proposed to show the visitor a trick or two about playing from the sand. He took three swings and the ball remained in the bunker.

With nary a dent to his confidence, the caddie emerged from the bunker, handed the visitor the club and announced: "There, that's what you are doing wrong."

It would not be over the top to say that you can do no wrong playing Irish golf. Most would agree that you are oh so right when you play in the southwest. Here you find Ballybunion, an hour and a half south of Shannon Airport, a drive that can take you through Limerick or by ferry across the Shannon River. An hour south of Ballybunion is Tralee, and another hour to the south is Dooks, and perhaps another 45 minutes is Waterville, at the very bottom of the Ring of Kerry. Inland is Killarney and its two wonderful courses--Mahoney's Point and Killeen--as well as the Killeen House Hotel and its golf ball currency.

Ballybunion. It is a lyrical, magical name that conjures thoughts of Brigadoon with tee times. For the most part, the two golf courses at Ballybunion are lyrical and magical, even if the town itself is more Blackpool (the English Coney Island) than Brigadoon. And about that clubhouse, the new one? Was someone trying to build a catering hall? "The O'Reilly wedding is right this way, thank you." There is something too modern and slick about it for courses that are much more about the old, even if one of them is called the New.

Everyone comes to play the Old Course at Ballybunion, and why not. But lest you think you will be driving off into links heaven from the first tee, think again. The first hole plays around a graveyard, a small plot of tombstones that has buried the start of thousands of rounds of golf. Out of bounds, you see.

If the first hole doesn't bury you, the second might. It's a long, uphill par 4 into the dunes, with the green on the most natural of plateaus. It requires two terrific shots to get home, and getting on in three is hardly a sin and usually a relief. Ballybunion offers many dramatic holes, all naturally wandering through the dunes and many perched on cliffs high above the Atlantic. It's a tough, tough golf course, a downright ferocious one in the winds that come barreling off the Atlantic.

The New Course was designed by American architectural icon Robert Trent Jones and completed in 1984. There tend to be too many forced comparisons to the Old Course by golfers who have played both, too much nit-picking about too many holes that seemed contrived. Funny how holes on the Old Course, which appear contrived through they have never been violated by a bulldozer, never seem to come in for like criticism. The New Course, while not the Old, is just fine.

Ballybunion tends to be the most difficult of the public courses on which to obtain tee times. Those planning on going should phone a year in advance, at least for summer season times (011 353 0682 7146). Tour operators tend to gobble up a bunch of times in the summer. First-time visitors to Ireland might want to consider one of a legion of agents who specialize in Irish golf, though the thrill of exploration and serendipity is well worth the effort by the visiting golfer to find his own hacker's nirvana while getting lost a dozen times.

Down from Ballybunion is Tralee, where Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay built the new course for the town in 1984. The setting is dramatic, the cliffs high and mighty (the land was used for backdrops in the movie Ryan's Daughter). But the course isn't so much dramatic as difficult. The 12th hole is a backbreaking 440 yards with a green surrounded by rough high enough to lose your caddie. On a calm day a bogey five is acceptable. On a windy day a triple bogey seven is merciful, a quadruple bogey eight no embarrassment.

Farther to the south is Dooks, a course that Englishmen like to play. It is memorable for an 18th green that is virtually impossible to find and a 13th green that can be impossible to putt. The green of the 13th is in two parts, a high ridge and a low ridge, with fierce slope and several breaks of the horseshoe variety. It would be quite easy to be on the green in one, off in two, on in three, off in four.

Waterville is at the bottom of southwest Ireland, set near Ballinskelligs Bay. It is a long way from anywhere to Waterville, though those who make the journey are rewarded with a splendid course that was developed by American Jack Mulcahy in 1970 and designed by the old links master, Eddie Hackett. You must play the par-3 17th from the back tee, which is known as Mulcahy's Peak. It provides a view of virtually the entire course, a view that Mulcahy used often as the course was being shaped. The peak is also the highest point on the course, a dune top planed down to provide a small launching pad for the green. (Mulcahy's Peak also serves as a final resting place; his ashes were buried here following his death in October 1995.)

Inland, at the top of County Kerry, is Killarney. Around the shores of the achingly beautiful Lough Leane are two of the best non-links golf courses you could ever hope to find: Mahoney's Point and Killeen. The lake glistens and beckons and gathers in its fair number of balls on the holes that play around it. The long par-4 17th at Mahoney's Point plays along the lake for its entirety. The par-3 18th is the stuff of postcards, played over an inlet.

Many consider Lahinch to be part of the southwest, though it is at the midpoint of the west coast, just an hour northwest of Shannon. The course, first laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1892, redone by Charles Gibson and fashioned in its present configuration by Alister Mackenzie, the Scotsman who did Augusta National and Cypress Point, is beloved by most, though reviled by some who think it too quirky even for links golf. A par 3 known as the Dell includes a blind tee shot over a dune. Many other blind shots await the golfer at Lahinch, and a seeing-eye caddie for the first-time player is essential.

For those looking to be pampered after being hammered by the cruel game of golf for a week, the mightily impressive Dromoland Castle Hotel, near Shannon Airport, is an excellent place to end an Irish golf vacation. For those seeking the higher end of Irish hospitality, it comes no higher than this, and there is easy access to Lahinch and Ballybunion. The hotel has its own golf course, of no particular merit, but a good place to warm up before taking to the real links. The rooms are huge and well-appointed, the dining room superb, the bar and gallery area especially nice places for chitchat, Cognac and cigars. There is a pond out front, rowboats and fishing poles for the lending. Catch a trout or a pike and have the chef prepare it for dinner.

Then there's the North. Northern Ireland contains two of the world's finest courses, Royal County Down and the Dunluce Course of Royal Portrush. County Down makes just about everyone's "top 10 in the world" list, and Portrush, the site of the past two British Senior Opens, has revealed itself as an absolute gem. Portrush holds the distinction of being the only Irish course to play host to the regular British Open; an Englishman, Max Faulkner, won the 1951 championship.

County Down is about two and a half hours north of Dublin, just over the border to the north and to the east of Newcastle. For a course that used the old waiting room of a railroad platform as its first clubhouse, County Down has come a long way in both challenge and clubhouse facilities. It has some of the most lovely and terrifying holes in all of golf. And it is probably Ireland's snootiest club, with visitors rather disdained from coming into the main part of the clubhouse.

Still, County Down just has to be played. And blind shots have to be part of the repertoire. The ninth, a par 4, and the fourth, a par 3, are absolute beasts, although the whole course is an absolute beauty. Its ninth hole, returning to the white-and-red clubhouse with a steeple in the deep background, is the most photographed hole in Ireland.

These days, Ireland is in the midst of a golf course building boom. High-end American-style courses such as the K Club and Mount Juliet are serene and a joy, except they are very much an American experience for wealthy Irishmen rather than an Irish experience for the foreign golfer. Pat Ruddy has been part and parcel of the boom with his European Club and the recent Druids Glen, site of the 1996 Irish Open. On the business side of the ledger, he welcomes this boom. On the golf side, he hopes that it doesn't bust the everyman feeling, the everyman privilege of golf in Ireland.

"I don't think we are entirely driven by the economics of the game just yet and I hope that we never will be," says Ruddy. "We need to preserve what's best about the game, the access to the game for the average player with the average income. The game is about the battle within oneself, and the competition and camaraderie with others."

When Nick Faldo won his third Irish Open, at Mount Juliet in 1993, he was asked why he played so well in Ireland. His reply was a master's display of understatement: "You'll never get an ulcer playing golf in Ireland."

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday. High Above the Old Head

On the south coast of Ireland, near the precious harbor town of Kinsale and not too distant from the city of Cork, a new golf course is taking shape on land from the distant ages. In the years to come, it may be spoken of as one of the world's great courses, and it no doubt sits on one of the world's greatest natural sites.

The site is the Old Head of Kinsale, the course is the Old Head Golf Links and the visionary behind it all is John O'Connor. O'Connor is an Irishman who has managed to take an exquisite and rare geological and historic site and turn it into a spectacular 18-hole golf course, one that from an aesthetic point of view challenges America's Pebble Beach.

The Old Head of Kinsale is a rock promontory that juts out into the Atlantic midway along Ireland's south coast. Because it has two-billion-year-old exposed rock that once was on the coast of Africa, the promontory draws geologists from around the world. The Old Head is also part of ancient Irish history. The Stone of Accord is here, a freestanding limestone rock where people used to seal deals by placing their fingers through a small opening at the top. Remnants of Dun Mac Padraig Castle are also here, as is a sixteenth century lighthouse.

Now, there is a golf course whose symbol is the Stone of Accord and whose merit will be tested by players this summer. And what merit there promises to be. Nine holes play atop the cliffs, which rise 200 feet in some spots--twice the height of the cliffs at Pebble Beach. Designed by and brought into final form by Ron Kirby, Jack Nicklaus' longtime assistant, the Old Head will be 6,650 rugged yards of golf completely exposed to the elements in a setting so humbling that a four-putt green may seem irrelevant.

The course has been six years in the making, with the backing of O'Connor and the advice of the great Irish amateur Joe Carr, a three-time British Amateur champion, and the Irish links designer Eddie Hackett. It is scheduled to open this June. O'Connor and his brother, Patrick, are international real estate developers and agents based in London, though they still call Ireland home. "This is such a special place for the Irish and such a special place to build a golf course," says John O'Connor. "I don't know if there will ever [again] be anything like it."

Kinsale is one of Ireland's prettiest towns, and it boasts the world's oldest yacht club. It also is a culinary center of the country. There are some hotel accommodations in Kinsale, as well as the ever-present bed-and-breakfast homes. Cork, 40 minutes away, has several hotels. Over an hour from Kinsale is Ballymaloe House, the largest country house in Ireland with one of Ireland's best kitchens.

O'Connor has planned an interesting clubhouse in the middle of the site. Built of stone, it will rise as rock from the ground in an attempt to be in complete harmony with the environment. The small parking lots will be dug into the ground to keep cars out of sight. A variety of wild grasses and plants grown by O'Connor at his estate in Ballinskelligs will grace the course with natural beauty.

But there will be no more beauty than the natural wonder of the Old Head of Kinsale. The drive across the tiny neck of stone that connects the Old Head to the mainland is breathtaking by itself and the sense of anticipation is acute. The Old Head is a place to behold, and with the crashing waters visible from every hole, more than one golfer is going to be caught gaping rather than playing.

This course, which has come from the ages, will be a course for the ages.

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