Ireland Trip Links History, Golf
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I suggest such a remedy for anyone melting down while golfing in this current heat wave that is smothering the nation as well as our North Carolina Sandhills.
All you have to do is what my wife, Jane, and I have been doing for the last 30 years or so. Fly away to Ireland for a respite from our oppressive summers. There we have gained a working acquaintance with some of the best links courses devised by man and the hand of Mother Nature. Better still, we have made lifelong friends with wonderfully warm and generous-hearted Irish men and women.
By the way, that temperature in the teens is centigrade which translates to the mid-60s Fahrenheit.
The links courses always win. But we never enjoy golf and the local amity more than when we play the likes of Lahinch Golf Club on Ireland's West Coast along the Atlantic Ocean or the European Club on the island's East Coast along the Irish Sea or any of the other dunes-dominated links ringing the Emerald Isle.
During our trips to Ireland that were annual ventures when I covered the British Open and are now biennial journeys, we took time to travel throughout this land hoping to learn something of its centuries of extremely conflicted and troubled history. We wanted to know about these Irish who have played such a big part in American history.
After all, don't we all have just a touch of Irish in us? My wife has a big touch since her paternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Longford, a city in the very center of Ireland. So I am obviously Irish, if only by marriage to a beautiful, green-eyed colleen whose maiden name is Sharkey. We simply consider our periodic visits to Ireland as looking in on the Old Family Sod.
Incorporate golf with a drive around this rather small, two-nation island and you come across any number of interesting places and people. You stumble across fellow Americans and even folks from home you know, who are sharing your enthusiasm for this gorgeous land of green landscape and high-dunes links golf courses.
For instance, while at our base camp in Lahinch just a couple of weeks ago, we caught up with Dan Marino, former record-setting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, and Mario Lemieux, retired star of the Pittsburgh Penguins. We watched them putt out on the fourth green that abuts a wall separating the golf course from the road to the Cliffs of Moher. Marino stopped to talk before teeing off on the blind-shot, par-3 fifth hole known as The Dell.
I covered about 80 percent of Marino's games when he played for the University of Pittsburgh, 1979-1982, including his exciting game-winning pass that beat Georgia, 24-20, in the 1982 Sugar Bowl.
Marino is a fine golfer who parred the first four holes at Lahinch in a light rain and strong northwest wind. That is golfing your ball well.
Later that same rainy day we rode down to the 5-year-old Doonbeg Golf Club, Greg Norman's design about 15 miles south of Lahinch. Brian Shaw, the head pro and manager of Doonbeg, said, "A few days ago some other Pinehurst people came through here. They were the lady who ran the U.S. Open and your mayor along with their spouses."
Turns out Beth and Brad Kocher and Becky and Steve Smith were in Ireland for 12 days and, like us, they played some links golf and traveled over to Dublin for a few days. While in Western Ireland, the Kochers and Smiths stayed in the home of friends in Doolin, a little seaside town, just north of the awesome Cliffs of Moher and a ferry ride from the three Aran Islands -- Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore.
Doolin is just over a large hill from Lahinch where Jane and I were staying with long-time Irish friends, Jim and Valerie Hassett. The Hassetts have a home facing the Atlantic Ocean and the high dunes of the 11th and 12th holes of the Lahinch Old Course. Jim was Captain of Lahinch Golf Club in 1985 and Valerie, who finished second in both the Canadian and United States women's senior golf championships in 1998, was Lahinch women's captain in 1992.
Doolin is a few minutes ride from one of the world's most amazing natural creations caused by unimaginable force and power -- the Burren. An area of more than a hundred square miles just south of the city of Galway, the Burren consists of a rolling and rocky landscape where every mountain looks like the shaved head of an old man.
This came about when the last ice age ended. When the glaciers that covered the northern half of Ireland receded, the powerful, moving sheets of ice sheered off the tops of the mountains, leaving no vegetation and only rounded, shining, rock as the top halves of those hills and mountains through the Burren.
The Emerald Island, that includes Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is just about the same size in square miles as the state of Maine. Point A is not far from point B although it is not always easy to get from point A to point B along the narrow, country roads driving on the left side of the road with a hedge row encroaching into your left passenger window. Ireland is truly a large, small town where you can obviously run into anyone at any time and where it is hard to hide from anyone.
Traveling Through Time
In our travels this time we took the big roadways across to Dublin (N6) and back (N7). There in the Irish capital we celebrated our wedding anniversary, July 3. On July 4, when we did not see a single person celebrating the USA's Independence Day over there, we celebrated by going 40 miles south of Dublin along the east coast to play the European Club at Brittas Bay. Then, the next day, we traveled 25 miles north of Dublin to Drogheda and the County Louth Golf Club, one of those little known links gems along the Irish Sea. There we watched a local qualifying round for the British Open on an unusually hot day (30 degrees C).
Drogheda is an interesting city at the mouth of the Boyne River. Cromwell ravaged this port in 1649, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of Catholic residents and tearing apart the forts and castles. His English troops left a piece of a fort that remains as a huge stone arch straddling a road through the heart of Drogheda. You can drive, as we did, right through that arch.
The Battle of the Boyne was fought in 1690 just outside Drogheda in the Valley of the Boyne River. That was a major fight in the unfortunate conflict that led to the Orange and the Green struggles lasting to this day in Northern Ireland.
Along the banks of the Boyne River long, long before William of Orange won the Battle of the Boyne and long before the Pyramids were built in Egypt, a series of burial mounds and chambers was constructed by ancient men of the island. Newgrange is the largest and most impressive of these tombs that are said to be the oldest man-made structures in the world. We have walked down the entry tunnel to the small, central chamber way beneath ground at Newgrange.
The megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange was built about 3,200 BC. The mound covers more than an acre and is surrounded by 97 giant stones such as those at Stonehenge. The 19-meter long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. It is estimated that the construction took a work force of 300 at least 20 years.
The passage and chamber of Newgrange are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. This event lasts for only 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December.
Such are the establishments you may run across while on a golfing vacation in Ireland.
Golf Is Booming
Well after the Battle of the Boyne and the building of Newgrange, golf became a big part of Irish life. Some of Ireland's world famous links such as Lahinch, Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Portmarnock were opened in the 1890s. But it was not until just over a quarter century ago that golf tourism became a major attraction for those visiting Ireland. People from the United States, Canada, England and main land European countries now crowd many of the Irish courses, spending millions and millions of Euros as a big part of Ireland's tourism income. Ireland is now on a par with Scotland as a links golf nation drawing golfers from all over the world to its wonderful courses.
In order to keep up with more modern resort golf attractions around the world, Irish golf has undergone numerous major revisions and upgrading over the past 15 years that have strengthened an already fine golfing corner of the world. This includes construction of a number of new courses such as Doonbeg on the Atlantic Ocean and the European Club on the Irish Sea.
According to Irish sports officials, more than 120 million Euros (approximately 180 million dollars) have been spent on improving and constructing golf courses in Ireland over just the past five years.
Lahinch Golf Club completed a three-year redo in 2003 that made this course, from the tips, the strongest links in Ireland. The revisions were done by Martin Hawtree and his London-based golf architect company. Hawtree has done much of the revision work around Ireland including recent work on Royal County Down in Northern Ireland and Royal Dublin.
Pat Ruddy, one of our Irish friends who was first a golf journalist and then became a notable Irish golf course architect, added to Ireland's magnificent golf improvements during the last few years as he designed the European Club, which I consider the finest links built since World War II in Ireland or Scotland. Ruddy, who still owns the European Club, also built a fine links through huge dunes at the Rosapenna Golf Club way up on the northern tip of the island. Just east of Rosapenna, Ruddy and Tom Craddock did a strong, second links at the Ballyliffin Golf Club, which, like Rosapenna, is on the north coast of County Donegal.
Ruddy and Craddock created Druids Glen in the early 1990s. Although an inland or park land course just 23 miles south of Dublin in County Wicklow, Druids Glen is very near the Irish Sea and is subject to the same winds that play havoc with links golfers. The Irish Open was held at Druids Glen for four years in the late 1990s.
The Killarney Golf and Fishing Club, with three courses overlooking Lough Leane in southwest Ireland, is possibly the most heavily played park land golf club in the nation. Jane and I were guests of the club secretary, Tom Prendergast, June 29 and 30, for the grand opening ceremonies of the newly revised Killeen Course at the Killarney Club.
It was on the Killeen Course in 1991 that Payne Stewart, fresh from his first U.S. Open victory, gave it a good run in the Irish Open that was eventually won by Nick Faldo. Stewart, who beat Scott Simpson in a Monday, 18-hole playoff at Hazeltine National in Minnesota for the U.S. Open title, teed it up in the Irish Open that Thursday at Killarney. It was less than 72 hours after his grueling Open victory. He was in contention after three rounds of the Irish Open but then ran out of gas, Sunday, as Faldo won. Jane and I had the pleasure of attending that Irish Open.
Many a golfer follows the path we took from Killarney to Ballybunion last month and then drives north to Lahinch by way of the River Shannon Ferry at Tarbert.
Making this trip you can drive through Tralee and then Listowel. The late J.B. Keane, one of Ireland's most celebrated authors and playwrights in the second half of the 20th Century, lived in Listowel where he owned J.B. Keane's Pub. The pub is still thriving.
You are never far from the arts and literature of Ireland even on golf courses. Playing one of the finest west coast links at Rosses Point, County Sligo Golf Club, you look across Sligo Bay to what is known as "William Butler Yeats Country," the home grounds of that famed Irish author and poet.
Going west from Sligo you run across two of the finest links in northwest Ireland. First is Enniscrone, which is one of the courses that underwent major readjustments over the last few years. Then way out at the most western tip of County Mayo is Belmullet Golf Club links, the last course designed and built by the late Eddie Hackett, who was long the leading Irish golf architect. Belmullet, opened in the mid 1990s, may also be Hackett's best. Not easy to get to, it is a course worth the effort.
Ballybunion Golf Club, the course made world famous when Tom Watson praised it so highly more than 25 years ago, has not done anything major in revising its course during recent years. There was no need. But this major tourist attraction course just south of the River Shannon on the Atlantic Coast, did rebuild its clubhouse into a modern, big structure. It is quite a change from the little, stone shack that stood behind the old first tee that is now the sixth tee.
Ballybunion switched to its current configuration in the 1960s, giving the course a very strong finish off the ocean instead of the original finish of two long, straight, par 5 holes along the road to town. Also, the first hole is now the one where golfers must stay left of a cemetery with their drives in order to be on the fairway. That was originally the 14th hole.
Playing the Best
There is so much fine golf in Ireland that it has taken many trips there for Jane and me to play all of its excellent links. But we feel we have played all of the best. Although neither of us has conquered a single course, we have each enjoyed every second of stroking into and around big dunes, driving over long and wispy fescue grasses and leaning into those cooling winds off either the Atlantic Ocean or Irish Sea.
And I got my first hole-in-one at the original par-3 11th hole on the Lahinch Old Course, Aug. 28, 1995, during a member's competition. I am an honorary lifetime member of both Lahinch and the European Club.
That 11th hole was replaced by another par-3 adjacent to the old one during Hawtree's rebuilding of the Lahinch course.
Other links courses that have been redone during this drive to update Irish golf include Waterville, a wonderful links at the point of the Iveragh Peninsula or the Ring of Kerry; Dooks, a delightful little course at the head of the Ring of Kerry just outside of Killorgin, and Fota Island, just east of Cork on the River Lee.
While you watch the final round of the British Open today, note how burned out the Hoylake or Royal Liverpool course appears. That region along the west coast of England has not had rain for weeks and weeks. And Hoylake is one of those flat, links courses such as St. Andrews or Carnoustie in Scotland that are devoid of the big dunes that mark Lahinch or Ballybunion.
The west coast of Ireland has had sufficient rain lately to give its links courses green fairways and lush rough although that area went through some dry weeks in June as the fairways burned slightly.
Links courses in the UK and Ireland do not have watering systems for most of their fairways although there are irrigation systems for the greens by and large. Thus you get fairways that can be green and rough that can be high and lush when the rain is in abundance. But when a dry spell hits, you get what you see at Hoylake with rough that the Open pros can easily handle and fairways that will allow a ball to roll for ever and ever.
One of the most attractive parts of playing golf on links courses is that the weather is a much more vital element of the game than it is here on an average United States course.
When the wind blows (most of the time) a links course is as difficult down wind as up wind because you have no idea how far a given shot will go or run on the hard fairways.
When there is no rain you may be hitting off dirt or sand fairways and not grass.
That is what they are doing at Hoylake. When there is rain you may never get out of the dense and high rough that results from lots of water. They do not send lawnmowers into the rough over there.
American courses are uniform, by comparison, because they have irrigation systems that keep fairways grassy green even in times of drought.
The inland or park land courses in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales usually have these watering systems on fairways. Links clubs just count on Mother Nature for her own watering system to keep their courses in good shape.
It usually works and is certainly a lot less expensive to maintain.
Even though it will not be on a links course, everyone in the Republic of Ireland is looking forward to the Ryder Cup matches that will be held at The K Club in Straffan, County Kildare, Sept. 22, 23 and 24. This is about the biggest international sports event ever to be staged in Ireland.
The British Open was held at Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush in 1951 when Max Faulkner won and hardly anyone noticed. The Walker Cup matches were staged at Portmarnock just north of Dublin when Phil Mickelson was a member of the winning American team. Few paid attention to anything other than Mickelson's ill-advised, foolish remarks about Irish women.
The two K Club park land courses were designed by Arnold Palmer's architects and are situated about 12 miles west of Dublin. During this Ryder Cup, Ireland will be in the sports world spotlight as never before.
The only drawback is that when you go to Ireland, Scotland or England for golf, you should be going to play links courses. And so should major tournament competitions be held on links courses when in those nations. That is where links golf is at its very best and where the game originated on those seaside courses.
Unfortunately, both the PGA of Europe and the PGA of America are always up for sale to the highest bidders and Michael Smurfit, owner of the K Club, entered the highest bid for the Ryder Cup.
Actually, few links courses in Ireland have the kind of money to compete with Smurfit. Clubs such as Lahinch, Portmarnock, Royal Dublin, Sligo, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down etc. are member owned with no such financial resources. Smurfit is one of the wealthiest men in Ireland whose K Club is one of those recently constructed golf playgrounds in Ireland. Palmer's course opened in 1992, just a couple of days after the Jack Nicklaus designed course, Mount Juliet, opened in Thomastown a few miles south of Straffan.
Years ago, Arnold Palmer designed a links course at the Tralee Golf Club. This is a fine course just outside the city that is famous for one particular rose.
You will be seeing a lot of Ireland on TV when the Ryder Cup matches are played in September. But if ever you take my advice and cool off with a few days of links golf in the land of St. Patrick, stick with those seaside courses so unique to that beautiful corner of the world.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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