By David Davies
It is probable that there is no country in the world with a higher proportion of great golf courses to available acreage than Ireland. It is certain that there is no country in the world that offers the golfer a greater welcome. "Cead Mile Failte" -- a hundred thousand welcomes -- is Ireland's motto, and for once it is born of fact, of experience, of ancient tradition, not of a public-relations man's pen.
It is not an accident that the path beaten to Ballybunion in the late '80s by Tom Watson has been followed to that wonderful golf course and many others by Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and that honorary Irishman, the late Payne Stewart. They went not just to prepare themselves on links for the British Open, but to experience great, natural golf and, afterward, the craic, a term for which there exists no single word in English. It means the telling of terrible truths, of great lies, of having a good time, of reminiscences -- all done with friends you may have known for years, or hours or even minutes, preferably while sharing a drink or two or three. Peter Dobereiner, late of these pages, used to say the craic was responsible for more late arrivals than the whole of Europe's air-traffic controllers put together.
Stewart, a great enthusiast of the craic, used to dive into the Butler Arms Hotel at Waterville and emerge many harmonious hours later, blinking and saying, "The great thing about Ireland is, it's always daylight." (Well, it was when he went in, and it was as he came out.) Ireland isn't just a place of great golf courses, it is full of great places to play golf, and the two aren't necessarily synonymous. In fact, when it comes to Irish golf there are too many "musts," and only a proportion of them possibly could be played in one visit. Therefore, it's necessary to impose limitations, and the most obvious is to stick to what the country does best, namely links golf, the finest form of the game.
It's best not to try to "do" Ireland. Aside from the fact that having played some of these courses once, you will want to play them again -- immediately and to the detriment of your schedule -- there is the small matter of the Tractor Factor. Anyone who has driven an Irish road will know immediately what this is, and anyone who has not, and is proposing a holiday involving car travel, needs urgently to know.
No country in the civilized world has the variety and vintages and variations thereon of tractor than does Ireland. And you can depend on three things: (1) they will be going very slowly; (2) they will be in front of you; and (3) the driver will see nothing at all wrong with either of these propositions. It is one of the great unsolved contradictions in life that a people so universally helpful, friendly and cheerful should turn into churls when at the wheel of a tractor.
Knowing this, though, you can calculate the driving time to the next course. First, while remembering that there are no freeways, highways, turnpikes or interstates, estimate the time you think it should take, keeping in mind getting-lost time. Then, double it. Maybe the best way of playing as many Irish courses as you should is to have three, four or more holidays there, and take the country by areas. This has the twin benefit of allowing you to appreciate the courses you play all the more, while eliminating some of the more desperate cross-country drives. Here are some suggestions, some of them acknowledged "greats," others just great places -- the little-known gems that are such a joy.
Dublin: Lively Links
To begin your tour, best to start in the city that remains the heart of Ireland, the city that today is at the lead of the economically resurgent Ireland, the so-called "Celtic Tiger." Dublin is still the sweetly literary city of Jonathan Swift, William Yeats, James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, and while it has been jolted now and again by political and social turmoil, its artistic soul remains solid and thriving. Whether you come for its history, literature, music or art, Dublin is undeniably one of the world's great cities.
Appropriately, it is also home to some of the world's great courses, starting with Portmarnock. Given that the 2006 Ryder Cup is going to Ireland, this is the venue at which it should be played. Politics and pound notes dictate otherwise (hence the nouveau K Club will be the host course), which is a shame, because Portmarnock has some mouthwatering match-play holes. Phil Mickelson led the United States to a Walker Cup victory there in 1991, and the Irish Open was first played there in 1927 with future champions such as Bobby Locke, Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal. Don't miss it.
Next door is Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links, the natural place for a golfer to stay in Dublin. The course, designed by Langer, is superb, a modern course acquiring ancient values. Most cities possessing two such courses would be content, but we are not half done. On the way from the city center to Portmarnock there lies Bull Island, site of Royal Dublin. Ballesteros and Langer have claimed Irish Open crowns there. It was during Seve's victory in 1985 that an enterprising local opened a hole in the fence, not just to get in himself but to set up his own "gate" and charge admission to those strolling the sands.
A little farther out is The Island Golf Club, so called not because it is on an island. It's on a peninsula, but in the olden days the best way to get there was by rowing a boat over the short stretch of water between it and the seaside village of Malahide. Nowadays, it's a 30-minute drive, but the reward is another wonderful stretch of golf country. The course takes you to the edge of the Broadmeadow estuary on the back side, with the long short hole, the 13th, presenting great views and the need for even a driver off the tee if the wind is against. The infamous 14th features what must be the narrowest fairway in Europe, 20 yards of grass separating the estuary on the right and dunes on the left. The entrance to the green, 346 yards away, is five yards wide. This may be the least finished hole in golf.
South of Dublin, you'll find The European, open only since 1992 but already fit to be ranked with anything in Ireland -- which means the world. It is owned by Pat Ruddy, a proper man of golf who, consumed with the ambition to build a links, hired a helicopter and flew the coasts of his country until he found the fantastic dunes system on which the course now lies.
He designed and built it practically single-handedly, creating along the way the seventh, a hole that looms in your mind's eye like dinner with the in-laws. A par 4, it is 470 yards long and is known by regulars as "Death Row." There is a river running all down the right side, there is a daunting carry of some 180 yards off the tee, and then there is a marsh to carry before reaching the green. It tests every aspect of your game, especially those you're not particularly keen on having tested.
Ruddy, being the incredible enthusiast that he is, couldn't stop. In creating the first 18 he forced himself to turn away from two would-be great holes -- and then decided to hell with it, and built them anyway. So now he has a 20-hole course for which, rumor has it, he recently rejected an offer of $25 million.
And why would he accept, for here is a man living his dream. "The policy at this club," he says, "is to have the clubhouse warm and bright and the kettle on when the first players arrive at 8 a.m. and to keep the welcoming glow going until dusk each day." He achieves it, and there is nowhere a better day's golf than at The European.
Baltray, more properly, County Louth, north of Dublin, has never been as celebrated outside Ireland as it should be. Here is another genuine links, hugely demanding, utterly fair and truly thrilling in prospect. Baltray possesses the biggest little bunker in the east, at its first short hole. Though the area of sand is minuscule, the collection area is vast, making precision off the tee of premium importance. However, the whole course is of a quality that any event, up to and including the Open, could be played on it, if only the necessary infrastructure were in place. This is an assessment that applies to many of the links throughout Ireland, and certainly to the next five to be mentioned.
The North: Missing Links
Nearly everyone knows of Royal County Down, which is reached from Baltray by driving in a counterclockwise direction along the Irish coast. Its backdrop, the Mountains of Mourne, "sweep down to the sea" (as the song goes), and has been featured on more posters than Marilyn Monroe. And maybe, to a golfer, is more beautiful.
The course has some stunning panoramas, and in 2001, Jack Nicklaus filled a gap in his golf education by playing in the 2001 British Senior Open there. County Down has a few more blind shots than modernists think well of, but the Irish, with their own brand of logic, point out that any shot is blind only once. County Down is the favorite course of a great many people, but in polls around Ireland it is rated, in terms of overall quality, behind Royal Portrush, on the north coast of Northern Ireland.
This despite the fact that Portrush is often criticized as being the best 16-hole course in creation. It finishes with two nondescript par 5s after 16 of the most intriguing holes anywhere in golf -- holes that make you want to play and play again. The most famous is the short 14th, called Calamity, because that is what awaits even a slightly pushed tee shot. It's a 60-foot slither down to the bottom of a pit, through heather and gorse, to find your ball -- and then you've got to play it! There is challenge and excitement in equal measure at Portrush, and a clubhouse that is welcoming even by Irish standards.
Portstewart, only a few miles west, is famous for having the finest first tee in the world. Nowhere do you begin with a greater sense of anticipation. The fairway lies inviting, 40 to 50 feet below you; the eye takes in the sweep of the dunes as they reach down to the River Bann; the beach to the right of the dunes stretches to the sea, and the air is filled with scent of salt spray.
Portstewart now has 18 holes in one of Europe's great dunes systems, instead of having nine holes in the dunes and nine more in a field. So majestic is it that golf itself can seem puny in these surroundings. Take the seventh, for instance, a gently curving left-to-right hole, a short par 5 that still requires an accurate drive to leave any chance of going for the green. The second shot then has to be long and supremely straight to avoid the chasm on the right or the strangulating grass on the hill to the left. Miss the green right and your ball will end up in an enormous grassy depression, so steep and deep that the club has built a staircase of wooden railway ties to help you down. (There are 27 steps, about twice the number of the average house.)
Next up is Ballyliffin, which is at the end of the Inishowen Peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. There are 36 special links holes here, set in enormous dunes. Ballybunion, for instance, has 36 holes in the dunes, but 18 of them are great and 18 are such that you couldn't persuade me to play them even with a shillelagh. But Ballyliffin has the Old and the Glashedy, and both are wonderful -- so much so that Nick Faldo took one look at the place and tried to buy it. They still sniff at the amount he offered, though.
The Glashedy was designed by Ruddy, and to walk up the gradual incline of the long 13th, with the prevailing wind at your back, and then turn and take in the vista, is one of golf 's great pleasures. The fairway stretches back toward the whole sweep of the bay and there, in the middle, the Glashedy Rock, is Ballyliffin's Ailsa Craig. There are times when you can see nothing, though. Ballyliffin sometimes has showers -- howling in from somewhere like Labrador. It's not just rain, it can be obliterating rain. But wait awhile and it will pass, and then the colors everywhere will be brighter and bolder, the grass greener on every side.
Ballyliffin not so long ago was an undiscovered gem. Cruit Island (pronounced "critch") thankfully still is. Of course, one of the reasons it is undiscovered is that it is wellnigh undiscoverable. In fact, you need one of the aptly named Discovery maps to navigate your way to Cruit, which appears on road signs only on the last road to lead you there.
But do not despair and do not give up. Only nine holes, and perhaps not in the pristine condition of some of the bigger clubs, Cruit has stirring scenery and a short hole that demolishes the seventh at Pebble Beach both as a test and as a delight. In the pantheon of great par 3s, only the 16th at Cypress Point offers any competition. The magical sixth hole runs along a rocky coastline, and between tee and green there's an arch, through which the ocean surges, and two inlets, into which it swells, causing foamy mayhem below you. It is only 150 yards long and yet into the prevailing wind it can be a full-fledged 5-wood, or, if a breeze is behind you, a carefully played 9-iron.
It is a hole of huge drama, and it would be worth making the journey to Cruit just to play it. The danger in saying that is that you could downplay the other holes, particularly the 322- yard seventh. Here, beneath an elevated tee overlooking a faraway uninhabited island and the ocean, a distant headland and vast expanses of sky stretching away to Newfoundland, lies a winding fairway and a challenging second. It's a hole that on any other course would be celebrated in song and verse. Alas, at Cruit, it's merely the hole after the sixth.
West Coast: A Gift to Golf
The west coast of Ireland is a haven of all that is great in golf. There is a thoroughgoing embarrassment of riches, with so many wonderful courses that we are going to have to pass lightly over the likes of Enniscrone, Rosses Point, Connemara and Donegal, and bend the knee only briefly in some of the cathedrals of the game: Ballybunion, Lahinch, Tralee and Waterville. The world knows of the last four, and no self-respecting golfer should go to the grave without having played them or, for that matter, the previous four.
But there are others, just as worthy, that do not yet dance to the tune of the tourist. Carne, for instance, is protected by its isolation, for to get to it you have to drive for hours through desolation, through land that is either bog or mountain. Then, when, just like Columbus' men, you think you are going to fall off the edge of the world, Belmullet Peninsula hoves into view.
On this strip of land between the often ferocious Atlantic and the calm waters of Blacksod Bay lies Carne Golf Club, built specifically to bring golf business to this remote spot. It features tall dunes, broad dunes, steep dunes -- all of them deadly dunes -- and it is a very good idea to stay in the fairways that meander between them. The back nine is wondrous, and the short 14th possesses one of those tees made for a movie set: Away in the distance is the Nephin Beg mountain range, behind you, Atlantic rollers that are pure white on deep blue. There's a golden sand beach, crazily paved by shoreline rocks and sky that seamlessly meets the sea. Breathe in and take a good look, for there is stern work at hand.
Over its finishing stretch Carne has a series of what Alister Mackenzie used to call "heroic carries," and it will help to hit the ball more than 220 yards on the fly three times in the last four holes. It is, in addition to being a beautiful place, a great test. The player who gets close to his or her handicap will be proud -- and probably richer, too.
Carne is in a Gaeltacht, an area of Ireland where the first language is likely to be Gaelic, and the signs around the course reflect that. Upon arrival, for instance, the men go to the "Seornra Nabh Fear" (the Gents' Locker Room), while on the course there are posted exhortations to "Deisign an scraithin," erratically translated as "Replace divots."
Ceann Sibeal is also in a Gaeltacht, at the end of the Dingle Peninsula, and, like Carne, not easily reached. But how well it repays persistence. They've been gifted by the Almighty with some of the finest turf you'll find even in Ireland -- fine-bladed, sturdy fescue grass, typical of links golf, which always seems to bounce the ball forward whether you wish it to or not. It provides the bestpossible playing surface, especially at Ceann Sibeal. One president of the Golfing Union of Ireland once described it as "the best sod you'll ever tread."
Sibeal is only 6,696 yards long, but that is more than enough golf course when the wind is anything more than a whisper. This is because of a stream, wonderfully utilized, that comes into play on 12 holes and renders decisionmaking harder than, well, speaking Gaelic. The course is surrounded on three sides by soaring hills. The sea, when not in sight, is within earshot. Should you be on the course when the sun begins to set, be prepared to have your breath taken away, as colors you never knew existed fill up the sky.
Finally, mighty little Dooks. Little, because it's just more than 6,000 yards, mighty because few places in the world are surrounded by as much sensational scenery. On one side the backdrop is Macgillicuddy's Reeks and Carrantuohill, the highest point in the country; on the other is the estuary that eventually forms Dingle Bay. The light is fantastic, lending complete clarity to the panorama spread before you.
The golf is essentially as it always has been, and harder than it seems. The third, for instance, is a 300-yard par 4 down the prevailing wind, and a good drive will get close to the green. But it's unlikely to get on it, for the putting surface is elevated, the green like something on the top of a bowler hat, and even a well-struck pitch could return to your feet. A gimme par 4 it is not.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is how to maintain concentration in the face of so much beauty. One man, struggling to find the words for Dooks, finally came up with: "There's only one way to describe it -- and that is that it's indescribable in every direction." And in those few words, he spoke for all Irish golf.
David Davies has been the golf correspondent at The Guardian in London for 20 years and has been covering golf since 1966. His most recent story for Golf Digest, on Sergio Garcia, appeared in October 1999.