From Dublin's bay around to the mouth of the Shannon, from sea to shining sea by the coastal route, this is Irish golf. Before you are six of the most glorious seaside golf courses that ever nature and man conspired to create. They rank alongside the best in the world, yet they are virtually unknown to golfers outside the British Isles. They were laid out at the end of the last century, with Scottish courses as their models, on the same terrain that first shaped the ancient game.
The roots of golf lie in Scottish linksland, sandy wastes beside the sea where only low-lying vegetation survives and where the wind carves wavelike shapes in the dunes. Over the last century the game has strayed far from its sandy origins, but a tribal memory persists in golfers and draws them back to their ancestral turf. Every year by the tens of thousands these pilgrims descend on Scotland to play the game the way it was meant to be played, in solitary communion with the wind and the sea.
Lately, however, the communion has turned into a revival meeting. In St. Andrews, where until only a few years ago the tourist season ended in September, tee times on the Old Course are booked through Christmas. By contrast, a golfer with a strong urge to push his electric cart into a nearby artificial lake and get back to basics will find Irish courses both empty and inviting.
Each of these courses—Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, County Sligo, Lahinch and Ballybunion in the west of the Irish Republic and Portmarnock in the east, on the edge of the Irish Sea near Dublin—is separately and distinctly memorable, and each is a test of skill and character when a spell of Irish weather sets in. In Ireland, foul weather gear is essential, but umbrellas are useless. The rain blows sideways. And wind, of course, is at the very heart of linksland golf.
June 3, 1984
The only way to travel among these six courses is by car; the distances are short, the sights along the way rare, and the traffic in most places four-legged. On a one-lane road that runs along the rim of the Irish world in the northeast corner of County Antrim, where the Atlantic Ocean is a thousand feet below, and where it seems that on a clear day you could skip a rock across to Scotland, the only things moving in the opposite direction are a flock of sheep and the man and dog herding them. You pause to let them pass, your car becomes a metallic island in a sea of wool, the man touches the brim of his cap, and you move on.
Ireland is made of memorable moments, not all of them on golf courses. Take an early morning stroll on the outskirts of Ennis, a lovely town on the River Fergus in County Clare, not far from Lahinch, and you'll be passed by schoolboys riding their clunky bikes toward town. As each of them passes, you hear a soft sound that seems to be "gluck." At first you're puzzled, but then it becomes clear. How can anyone resist a country where children wish a stranger "g'luck" when the day has barely begun?
The British Open has been held only once in Ireland, over the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush in 1951. Bent clad sand hills roll and heave across the Portrush landscape on the northern coast of County Antrim, but sand bunkers are few. Only two of the 18 holes are absolutely straight; the rest bend and curve. More often than not the greens, polished smooth by the wind, are guarded solely by natural mounds and hollows. The only vegetation higher than wild rose, heather and dune grass is a few scrubby trees clumped in depressions between sand hills. One such clump, between the 9th green and the 10th tee, hides a tin-roofed hut, the "Refreashment House." If a flag is flying above the hut, it means the kettle's on, heating water for hot whiskey.
"The Scots drink hot whiskey," says a Portrush player as the bartender combines Bushmills, the whiskey of the north, with boiling water, a slice of lemon and a couple of cloves. "But they call it a toddy and they drink it for medicinal purposes." At Portrush, hot whiskey is fortification against the rigors of the wide open landscape and the winds that blow in from Scotland and points north.
County Antrim is Finn MacCool country. MacCool is Ireland's Paul Bunyan, a giant who once picked up a clod of earth and hurled it into the sea, thus creating the Isle of Man with the clod and Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland, with the hole left behind.
MacCool seems to be tinkering with Portrush lately. Two recent storms combined to suck away 25 feet of the course, including a big grassy hillock just behind the 5th green. The 6th tee is vulnerable to future storms, as is the club's second course, The Valley. Currently, Portrush members are trying to raise ¬£250,000, the cost of a revetment project for the shoreline. "We've tried all the various government concerns, the M.P.s, the European Commission and so on," says RAF Squadron Leader Eric Wainwright, the club secretary. "They all express sympathy but they didn't put the hand in the pockets."
Fourteen years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the frightening publicity, have greatly curtailed tourism there, but a recovery of sorts has been under way in the last few years. If it keeps up, the costly fight to save Royal Portrush may be won. One hopes so. Portrush is a natural beauty, the kind of course that makes you wonder why anyone ever thought golf could be played anywhere except beside the sea.
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN
There is this saying in Newcastle, the resort town on the east coast of Ulster that is the home of Royal County Down: "If you can see the Mourne Mountains, it's going to rain. If you can't, it's raining."
The mountains of Mourne really do "sweep down to the sea," as Percy French wrote, and the beauty of them can make concentrating on the golf shot at hand difficult. Nevertheless, the temptation to lose yourself in the distant landscape should be resisted lest the landscape at hand—course ferns, spiny gorse, wiry, impenetrable heather, thick, pillowy dune grass—claim golfer and golf ball for its own.
While many golf purists prefer the Portrush course to Royal County Down—"No true championship test should have four blind driving holes," sniffs a Portrush player in reference to County Down—the layout at Newcastle is extraordinary, particularly the front nine. The first three holes, a par-5 followed by two 4s, are narrow valleys between ridges of sand hills that run along the edge of Dundrum Bay and its wide sand beach. No matter how many other golfers are on the course, one has a sense of glorious solitude on these valley holes.
At the far northern end of this stretch, the 3rd green is set in a natural amphitheater of mountainous sand hills, and at any one time or another an elderly man in a tweed cap walking his dog across the course from town to beach and back will appear from around the base of a sand hill and pause to watch a shot or two. These discerning gents with their noncommittal gazes can create odd kinks in an otherwise acceptable golf swing.
The climb up to the 4th tee is literally breathtaking, but so is the vista from the tee as the golfer turns back toward the clubhouse, the town and the mountains. Rain clouds cling to the bare, rounded peak of Slieve Donard, the 2,796-foot king of the Mournes, while the westering sun gilds the green of its lower slopes, and the creases between them plunge into purple.
The 9th is perhaps the most spectacular of all the holes at County Down: a long par-4 with a blind shot from a raised tee and a view of the brick Victorian tower of the Slieve Donard Hotel, all seen against the backdrop of the Mournes. The tee shot crosses a rough valley and soars up toward a directional stake at the brow of a hill. If long enough, it will descend to the flat floor of the valley. For the golfer, struggling around the course while buffeted by 30 or 40 knots of wind, the descent is like dropping from Wuthering Heights into Shangri-la.
In Ireland, Royal County Down is considered a stuffy club. Its members, aside from the occasional royal, are lawyers, judges, businessmen and the like from Belfast. Because golf in Ireland, as in Scotland, is an egalitarian game, Irish golfers delight in the legend of the feud between County Down and an English club. The story has it that a team from England arrived in Newcastle for an interclub match and was refused admittance to the clubhouse. Ever since, this sign has been posted in the locker room at the English club: "All visitors welcome except dogs and members of Royal County Down."
There are no secrets in Ireland. It's a small country, its people are gregarious, and things just naturally get around. In 1981 Tom Watson played in Ireland for the first time at Ballybunion in County Kerry, near where the River Shannon empties into the Atlantic. Watson's visit wasn't publicized, in the hope that he'd be able to play as a private citizen. However, on the ferry crossing the Shannon on the way to Ballybunion, it became clear that the cat was out of the bag. Every car was filled with golf fans, all on their way to watch Watson tackle Ballybunion. Several hundred spectators saw him tee off, and eventually the crowd swelled to a thousand or so.
Now the clubhouse wall at Ballybunion is replete with photographs of Watson taken on that atypically balmy summer day, and every clubhouse regular can detail his round, shot by shot, all 72. As one struggles up the last of many, many hills toward the 18th green, dizzy from the relentless battering of the wind off the Atlantic, eyes watering, nose running, feet wet, hands frozen, someone is sure to mention that the Ballybunion Watson played on that tame day wasn't the "real Ballybunion."
The 1st fairway skirts a small stone-fenced graveyard that's thick with Celtic crosses. One can view this as an omen, however morbid, but, in fact, as graveyards go, it has a certain charm. It's also out of bounds. But the real Ballybunion, in all its ferocious beauty, begins at the 448-yard, par-4 7th, on a tee perched high above the Atlantic, a gale blowing from right to left. From there to 18, you hit it—and pray. At Ballybunion, one often drives, as the late Henry Longhurst once wrote, with the certainty "that if your slice carries far enough, there is nothing to stop it pitching on Long Island, U.S.A."
Steel baskets of stones, called gabions, now barricade the bottom of the cliffs below the 7th, 11th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes, but they weren't in place that brutal winter night in 1976 when abnormally high tides destroyed a 600-yard section of the cliffs. "I remember I went down there and I was absolutely certain our course was gone," says Sean Walsh, the secretary. "If you walked off the 15th green you would certainly have walked into four or five feet of water. Off the ladies tee at 16 you'd have drowned. It washed the carcass of a dead pig—this is quite true—right up into the gap of the 16th."
A successful campaign to raise money to save Ballybunion resulted in worldwide publicity and contributions from as far away as Australia, and the cliffs were reinforced.
Traditional seaside courses, based on the Old Course at St. Andrews, tend to be nine holes out and nine back. Many days a round of golf on such a course can be one long trudge into the teeth of a gale followed by a long nudge home. Portmarnock, laid out in 1894 by two Scottish professionals, could easily have been the same. But these Scots were inspired. On a long narrow peninsula on the northeast edge of Dublin, washed by the Irish Sea and the Baldoyle tidal estuary, Portmarnock unfolds in two vaguely circular loops, something of a figure eight, so that the hole you're playing rarely lies in the same direction as the last.
Portmarnock is a city course. Its members are prosperous Dub-liners, many of whom belong to inland clubs as well. In the early days members took a train from Dublin to Baldoyle Junction, then crossed the estuary at low tide by horse cart.
Harry Bradshaw, an Irish institution, retired as Portmarnock's head professional last year, but visits the premises most days. Now 70, Bradshaw is a big man with a tweed cap and jacket, and in his day he won everything that countryman Christy O'Connor did not. Bradshaw is best remembered, however, for the way he did not win the British Open in 1949. In the final round his ball rolled into a beer bottle. Instead of waiting for a ruling, which would have given him relief, Bradshaw played the ball as it lay, bottle and all, and wasted what turned out to be a crucial stroke. He tied Bobby Locke, then lost to him the next day in a playoff.
The 390-yard par-4 14th is the best hole on the course, although Arnold Palmer once said that the 187-yard 15th was the best par-3 in the world. His three-iron across the wind wound up three feet beyond the hole. He missed the putt, but apparently bore the hole no grudge.
On a Sunday morning at Portmarnock, the faint peal of church bells drifts across from the mainland, and a fleet of small sailboats races around an island called Ireland's Eye. It's heaven.
Over the door of a shop that looks like an Irish cottage that has had its thatch blown off is the sign: W.J. McGONIGLE, PROFESSIONAL AND CLUB MAKER. "Any pro in this part of the world must be able to fix and repair and make clubs," says McGonigle, 57, "although the art is dying out here as well as elsewhere." A custom-made McGonigle driver costs about the same as a good Wilson or Ram.
Better known as Rosses Point, Sligo is 360 acres of true linksland on a spit between Sligo and Drumcliffe Bays. The first four holes wend their soothing way uphill along the inland side of the course, away from the guesthouses and caravan park of the village of Rosses Point. At 5, a 482-yard par-5, the ground drops to a fairway some 100 feet down. Spread below and ahead are the next 11 holes, surrounded by beach and bay and, across the water, Ben Bulben, a flat-topped mountain whose extraordinary profile is visible everywhere. Yeats, who's buried in the Drumcliffe churchyard, wrote his own epitaph in Under Ben Bulben.
...On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
The best hole on the course, and surely the strangest, is the 14th, a par-4 with a double dogleg—first left, then right. Into the wind, said an Irish golf writer, "I wouldn't know how to play the hole except badly."
Sligo's most celebrated amateur was Cecil Ewing, who won the West of Ireland at Rosses Point 10 times. Ewing was a huge man with a large head and a profile to match Ben Bulben's. He's generally credited with having invented the half-to-three-quarter swing. Suffering from an infected big toe, Ewing discovered that he could avoid the pain by placing his feet close together, thus reducing the arc of his swing, and using his powerful arms and shoulders to take up the slack.
A large number of Ewing's countrymen seem to have copied his style. Their backswings are short, they play quickly (an Irish foursome rarely takes longer than three hours to play a round), and they keep the ball in play. Only foreigners lose golf balls on Irish courses. Lots of them.
Mention Lahinch and people will smile. The course is Ireland's sentimental favorite. Furthermore, in a land where a good story is truly appreciated, Lahinch is a national treasure.
First of all, there are the Lahinch goats. The current Lahinch goats, a herd of five, are descendants of goats that belonged to Tommy Walsh, a Lahinch caddy. The goats are reputed to be reliable weather forecasters. If a storm is approaching they quit their grazing out on the course and retire to the protection of the clubhouse walls. Years ago, when the clubhouse barometer broke, someone taped a hand-lettered sign to its face that read, and still reads, SEE GOATS.
Not long ago, George Eberl, managing editor of the USGA's Golf Journal, was playing a round at Lahinch on a somewhat dubious-looking day. Keeping an eye on the scattered dark clouds that were blowing in from the west, Eberl had reached the 12th, as far away from the clubhouse as it's possible to be, when he espied the goats, grazing contentedly beside the fairway. Reassured, Eberl played on. At the 15th tee, a gale hit with the force that can make Irish seaside golf a matter of mere survival.
Later, drying out in the clubhouse bar, Eberl groused to the bartender about the unreliable goats who were "lollygagging" on the 12th fairway when they should have been cowering near the clubhouse.
"New goats," said the bartender offhandedly.
Since 1895, Lahinch has been the site of the South of Ireland Amateur, affectionately known as The South. All of the great Irish amateurs have played in The South, including local favorite Mick O'Loughlin, a butcher from the nearby town of Ennistymon who won twice, in 1937 and 1938. O'Loughlin was a burly man with a great jutting jaw who wore an old hat distinctively pulled well down on his big head and baggy tweed plus fours. "Rugged but warmhearted," O'Loughlin was said to be. Once, in the 1938 final, when he was addressing his putt on the 17th, O'Loughlin overheard Austin (Brud) Slattery, who was then a local schoolteacher and who recently retired as club secretary, talking to a friend near the 18th tee. O'Loughlin straightened up and called out, "Will the schoolmaster stop talking?" Later, after O'Loughlin had won the match, Slattery came up to him to apologize for the disturbance. O'Loughlin said," 'Tis all right, but I am so tense at times like that, I can hear the bees farting."
The original Lahinch was laid out in 1893 by Old Tom Morris, but only one of Morris' holes remains: the famous, if quirky, 6th. Known as The Dell, it's a 156-yard par-3 with a completely blind tee shot. The green is in a little valley entirely surrounded by four large sand hills. A rock, painted white, faces the tee from the brow of the sand hill, and indicates the route to the pin. When the pin is moved, so is the rock.
Novelties such as The Dell were all the rage before the turn of the century, but as golf's sophistication grew, they fell from favor. Today, The Dell is an anachronism, but it's one of the reasons golfers return to Lahinch. Besides, not many golf holes make you giggle.
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN