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The Emerald Greens: Golfing in Ireland

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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.
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