The best golf resort in the world is Bandon Dunes in Oregon, but the best region in the world for a golfing holiday is the west of Ireland. Bandon has borrowed some of the Irish spirit to make the resort a welcoming place, just as the designers of its courses drew inspiration from the great links of the British Isles. The constellation of courses arrayed along Ireland’s Atlantic coast distills the essence of seaside golf, and the residents of the towns are as proud of their courses as they are generous with their hospitality.
In 1991, my friend, Edmund, invited me to join him for a week of golf on some of those legendary courses arrayed between Kerry and Donegal. Edmund was living in Derry, his Scottish wife working as a physician across the border in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She’d done a post-doc at OHSU in Portland, where I live, and Edmund and I played a lot of golf together on the abundant cluster of daily fee courses near Portland while he and Pat were living in the US. Trained as a chemical engineer, Edmund had worked in a pharmaceutical factory in Cork before getting married. Not finding work in his profession upon his return to Ireland, he formed a partnership with one of his brothers to build the first bowling alley in Northern Ireland, tapping into cheap government loans. They called it the Super Bowl, and it was a big success.
Edmund grew up near the northern tip of Donegal, in Inishowen, speaking Irish as his first language, one of nine children of a widowed mother. His father drowned in the sea when Edmund’s youngest brother was a babe in arms. “Mamaí started serving whiskey from the parlor,” Edmund said. With earnings from her enterprise she would build a grand pub where famous bands came to perform. Its proceeds launched the whole brood.
Edmund drove a grey Range Rover, the perfect conveyance for our clubs and gear as we headed south to Kerry, sharing the tight country lanes with sheep and dodging the occasional motorcycle. We made our first stop in Tralee, at the neck of the Dingle Peninsula, before setting out on a leisurely pace back north toward Donegal. Ireland was a poor country then, its average per capita income among the lowest in Europe. (And like a wastrel who wins the lottery, Ireland may, after a decade of affluence and the detonation of a property bubble the size of the Goodyear blimp, be heading back toward indigence as a kind of cultural set point—but that’s another story.)
A good bed and breakfast cost us about 22 Irish pounds each—thirty dollars or so. We’d get a cheerful greeting followed by a warm shower and a cozy bed upon our arrival, and the next morning a full cooked breakfast, eggs and bacon and blood pudding all gleaming with grease. We hadn’t made reservations. We asked in a pub for a good place to stay on the first night in Kerry, and listened to directions as we chewed our pints. From that point on we were conveyed northward by a kind of underground B & B railroad. Mrs. O’Brien would ask, “where would you be heading next?” and we’d say, “Lahinch,” and she’d say, “then we’ll ring up Edna Kelly.” And on we’d go, station by station, planning to play our final round at Edmund’s home course, Ballyliffin.
The foyers of the B & Bs bore pictures of the Pope (either John Paul II, then recently installed, or the still admired John XXIII), next to or facing a portrait of JFK. (In the wake of recent scandals involving cover-ups of child abuse in Ireland, doubtless today there would be fewer papal portraits gracing the walls.)
We almost always played as a twosome, and as often were the only players on the course—and this in the early summer, in good weather for the most part, on some of the greatest golf courses anywhere. Tralee was the first as well as the youngest of the courses we would play. Stone fences reminiscent of the cross hazards that had so bamboozled Charles Blair McDonald at the Newport Country Club during the first US Amateur in 1894 dotted Tralee, giving it an antique feel.
Tralee was Arnold Palmer’s first design in Ireland, Edmund told me, an early example of what would become a torrent of new courses over the next two decades, guided by a government strategy determined to attract tourists with golf. (This policy reached its apogee with the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club near Dublin, another Palmer design, where the Europeans dominated the American team.) The Tralee Golf Club itself was almost a hundred years old when the Palmer course opened in 1986. A great success from the start, Tralee quickly took its place among the world’s best seaside courses.
The Dingle Peninsula was rich with historical attractions long before golf—one of the few welcome imports of the English conquerors—was introduced. Human settlement stretches back at least 6,000 years, of which roughly 5,800 were endured without the blessings of golf to sooth the spirit. The Slieve Mish Mountains guard the eastern boundary of the Dingle, low sere hills cast in bronze against the setting sun.
David Lean had filmed Ryan’s Daughter here, and Edmund pointed out the beach, visible along the 17th hole at Tralee, where in the movie a cache of German arms had washed ashore, and where Ryan’s daughter, played by the luscious Sarah Miles, embraced her lover. The romance of the setting matched the magnificence of the golf—the course, that is. About the playing, little will be said here. No round below a score of say, 68, should ever be memorialized, unless it’s a celebrated collapse by a great player who on a good day can easily breach par. Neither Edmund nor I were a threat to achieve a round worthy of recollection on this journey.
Edmund enjoyed being back in the vicinity of Cork, just 80 miles or so to the southeast of Tralee. “The Japanese put an electronic assembly plant in near Cork while I was there,” Edmund said. It was the first wave in a gathering tide of foreign investment. The Celtic Tiger would ride that wave to prosperity, but that thrill was still some to come. In the 80s, Japan was on the crest of its own economic boom, and the single greatest symbol of its ascendency was its passion for golf and an attendant flurry of golf course construction. It was a giddy time for American golf course architects, earning millions and getting treated like rock stars. Hundreds of courses were built, many at enormous cost on difficult sites, and memberships traded for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Playing golf in Japan was expensive, too, because the courses cost so much to build. There were more driving range players in Japan than golfers who belonged to clubs. Memberships traded as equities, and with property values skyrocketing, thousands of Japanese golfers borrowed on their houses to buy golf club memberships. When the property bubble burst, the memberships were worthless, but the debt remained. The weight of those losses burdened the economy, contributing to years of low or negative growth in the Japanese econony.
But those events were still inconceivable when, as Edmund told it, a cluster of Japanese managers of the new assembly plant arrived one Saturday morning at a local club in Cork and asked if they could play—and if so, how much would it cost?
“That will be 75 pounds,” they were told, and each member of the foursome laid out the cash.
“Four hours later,” Edmund said, “they walked past the shop, smiled and waved good-bye. The next Saturday, the same bunch walked in, their wallets in their hands, and each fellow put 75 pounds on the counter. Now your man has a terrible dilemma…” Edmund paused to see if I was getting the drift. “Does he tell them that last Saturday they joined for a year, or does he keep taking the money?”
We played our second round at Ballybunion’s Old Course, routed first at the end of the 19th century, according to the history on the club’s website, “by the professional who had laid out the links at Lahinch and Dollymount.” Despite an inauspicious beginning—a writer in the Irish Times, again according to the club history, “dismissed Ballybunion Course with some contempt as ‘a rabbit warren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls’”—after it was expanded from 9 to 18 holes in the 1920s, Ballybunion grew in stature, and by the 1950s was regarded as one of Ireland’s best links. In 1970, the American golf architect Robert Trent Jones designed a second course, called Cashen, but it never acquired the cachet or devotion of the Old.
We arrived at Ballybunion during a driving rain, and after waiting for a couple of hours to see if it would relent, decided to play. We pulled on our anoraks, paid the pittance then required (it’s now 180 euros, or about 250 bucks—comparable to our budget for the week in ’91), and headed for the first tee. A small man pulling a trolley sidled out from the lee of the clubhouse and asked if he might join us.
He had a tidy swing, and got his club back in the bag during his follow through, pretty much in one continuous motion from teeing the ball up to heading down the fairway, where even without looking he knew where he would find his ball. It was a useful approach to golf in the midst of a deluge. He introduced himself as we walked up the first, at which point I noticed his clerical collar.
On the third tee Father pulled out a flask and took a manly pull in supplication to the golf gods, and then held it out to us—what a kind old priest he was! And why hadn’t we thought of whiskey? It was not a mistake we would repeat.
Of all the golf I have played, that round at Ballybunion was, in purely golfing terms, the least memorable. Not because the course wasn’t great—by all accounts, it’s marvelous—but because it was raining too hard to see. Ballybunion is a great grey mass in my memory, billowing rain blowing sideways against the dunes, three helpless men trudging toward oblivion. We managed to change into dry clothes before heading on.
In Lahinch the next day the sun came out to greet us and I wore the new sweater I bought, cheap, at a woolen mill in town. Lahinch, like Ballybunion, hugs the sea, but has less drama in its setting than in the course, which is a wonderful test of golf. Its celebrated blind par 3, the fifth, marks the line to the hole each day with a white stone placed on the hill between the tee and the green. Old Tom Morris laid out Lahinch, as well as the penultimate stop on our itinerary, Rosapenna.
As at Bandon, links golf is best played with caddies, especially the first time out. We forsook professional assistance, however, Edmund preferring a trolley while my choice was to carry. I don’t remember that there were even any caddies available, play was so light. Given the quality of our games, I don’t think our scores suffered at all from our ignorance.
Lahinch was the course I liked best, despite the severity of the rough. It was as easy to lose a ball at Lahinch as on a waterlogged Florida course, especially when the wind got up. I did once find the result of an errant tee shot, perched on a large lump of marram grass on the top of a dune. I managed to make my way to the ball, took a three wood, swung it like a baseball bat and much to my astonishment watched the ball bend in a great sweeping hook down the fairway. On the 12th, a long par five along the river, the ideal line is toward the ruins of a castle across the road, where Lahinch’s second course sits.
After our round in Lahinch, we headed toward Sligo and Rosses Point, perhaps the least appreciated of Ireland’s great links courses outside of Ireland. On the way, we took a slight detour north to Drumcliffe Churchyard, to visit the grave of William Butler Yeats, the words of W. H. Auden guiding our pilgrimage. Recalling my favorite eulogy in all of English poetry, I hear Auden intoning his praise of Yeats.
“Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.”
The churchyard was deserted, the silhouette of Benbulben looming in the north, drawing the visitor’s eye as it drew Yeats’ affection. Yeats died in January, 1939, eight months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the official beginning of the Second World War. But the arc of history had already twisted toward sorrow, as Auden well knew, and Yeats’ death was a portent.
“In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark”
In the aftermath of Hitler’s attack on the U.K., golf courses contributed to the war effort. Saunton Golf Club in southwest England, for example, was converted to a “battle training ground.” Royal St George lost two holes to an anti-aircraft battery, and many other coastal courses were requisitioned for military use. One of Scotland’s Rota courses was drafted into duty by the RAF. This is from Turnberry’s website:
“War was declared against Germany in 1939, and soon it was again difficult to imagine that Turnberry had ever been anything but an airfield. The hotel was commissioned as a hospital afresh, and the courses were converted into a Royal Air Force flying school. It is thought that as many as 200 died at Turnberry, and the heavier aircraft and machinery of the Second World War damaged the grounds even more severely than those of the First.”
The B & B in Sligo featured several shelves groaning with trophies and a wall cloaked with ribbons, along with framed photos of Irish dancers (and this long before the Riverdance craze). Edmund admired the display and then turned to the lady who had met us at the door.
“Are you a dancer then?”
“Oh, no,” she said, blushing. “That would be my daughters.” Edmund took a closer look at the plaques on the wall, and turned back to her with a smile. “Well,” he said, “I see you’ve bred the National Champion!”
We were surprised the next morning when we pulled into Rosses Point, the popular name for the Sligo County Courses, to see the car park full. We walked into the pro shop, and Edmund asked, “what’s the occasion?”
“It’s an All Irish Four Ball,” he was told.
“Ah,” Edmund said, “my friend from America’s here and we were hoping to play today.”
“No worries,” he said. “We can find a spot for you.”
An thus it was we were paired with two solicitors who had driven over from Dublin, a scratch and a two, who dashed around the course in about three hours, waiting often for Edmund and me, who’d grown used to a more leisurely pace, playing alone every day as we had been. If one of the two got in trouble at all his ball went into his pocket and the other recorded the score for that hole, while Edmund and I, who were not in the competition and playing more like markers, kept a medal score in the American style. Still, having arrived around 9:00 we were enjoying lunch with our new friends, who had already showered and dressed for work, by noon.
The view from Rosses Point to Benbulben was a dramatic counterpoint to the low tranquility of Sligo Bay. Rosses Point gathers golfers in, and has a brooding quality along the streams—the “drains”— running through it that contrasts with the panoramas of Tralee, Lahinch and, I suspect, Ballybunion. Rosses Point was routed (in its current incarnation) by Harry S Colt, though the bunkering was done later by Hugh Allison, Colt’s assistant. This seems an odd approach to design, but the results proved enduring.
Colt detested blind shots, which partly accounts for the difference in effect between Rosses Point and the other links we’d played. Blind shots are the product of the kind of terrain that creates separation between holes, moving players in and out of view corridors, creating a sense of surprise and delight when you crest a hill and suddenly see the ocean. Rosses Point is smoother than most of the other Irish links, with some of the crests and waves compressed into a lower profile. The golf course is great, but some of the thrill is gone.
Rosapenna, our next stop, was an unexpected delight, the least known to me of the courses we played. Prestwickian in length, Rosapenna on its one hundredth birthday probably looked then more like the sight Old Tom had laid his eyes on in 1891 than any other course he put his hand to in Ireland still did. I like to imagine Old Tom, using little more than his reliable stride and an intuitive sense of what made a great green site to guide him, wandering about in 1891 with a bundle of stakes, feeling his creation take shape beneath his feet. I think we paid our green fees on the honor system, tucking a few pounds into a collection plate envelop and dropping it down the slot of a box hanging on the clubhouse door.
The sun was bright that day, a benediction on our journey. We walked slowly, savoring the views and the smells. I have no recollection whatsoever of how we played, but I remember the long shadows at the end of the day, exclamation points along the sod as we turned toward home.
That night we drove back to Derry, then played the final round of our trip at Edmund’s home course, Ballyliffin, the next day. Now, with its second course, Ballyliffin is among Ireland’s celebrated clubs, but in 1991 the original course was little known outside of Donegal. On classic windswept linksland, the original course at Ballyliffin was struggling with a large rabbit colony whose burrows swallowed balls and sprained ankles. The course was unpretentious, with thinner rough than we had experienced further south. We played again as twosome, along with a handful of other golfers enjoying a lovely day, high clouds blooming above us.
Great expanses of linksland stretched to the sea at Ballyliffin. If there is a golfing heaven, Ballyliffin foreshadows what we might expect. And on this day twenty years ago, in the company of a good friend, it provided all a person needed to enjoy life in this world.
All of the great links courses of western Ireland have websites.