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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

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

(continued from page 4)

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

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