Golf and food as God intended
An Irish version of the best of the good life
There are about 160 genuine links courses in the world and almost a third of them are in Ireland. How’s that for the luck of the Irish?
The main reason golf addicts cross the Atlantic is the lure of those links, but for pampered North American swingers, the first encounter with a true links course may come as a bit of a shock. No wall-to-wall fairways, yardage markers or cart girls. “Buggies,” as carts are called in Ireland are few and far between.
Links courses are meant to be walked, either shouldering your bag or pushing a “trolley.” Better still, hire a caddie, not just for judicious advice on quirky bounces, but also for local colour. Expect to lose plenty of balls in the rough and to taste the salt in the invigorating air. Links courses were created in the main by Mother Nature, carved through dunes linking land and sea. This is golf as it was meant to be played.
On my first trip to Ireland, I tossed my clubs in the “boot” of a rental car, opened the left front door and realized the steering wheel was on the right. Jet lag may have had something to do with it.
Driving on the “wrong” side of the road can be stressful. On my most recent trip, I put the driving and planning into the capable hands of Carr Golf (carrgolf.com). Joe Carr, the company’s late founder, was one of Ireland’s greatest golf heroes with over 40 championships including three British Amateur titles. Today, Joe’s son, Marty, operates the business, named winner of Golf Digest’s Editors’ Choice Award as 2016’s “Best Tour Operator.”
Our foursome, having played in Ireland before, decided to hit a combination of top ranked links and some lesser-known gems. Carr booked tee times, caddies, hotels, sightseeing and provided a coach to ferry us around.
Portmarnock and Royal County Down
Nothing cures jetlag like a round of golf in a stiff wind. That’s just what we encountered at Portmarnock’s Old Course, 15 minutes out of Dublin Airport. From the back tees Portmarnock measures 7365 yards, but its length and difficulty are determined by the constantly changing force and direction of the wind. Pot bunkers abound and the rough is long and fierce.
Portmarnock proved to be a worthy warm-up to Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, ranked number one on Golf Digest’s 2016/17 “World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.” “It’s one of those rare courses where you could feel a perfect handshake between the hand that created the land and the hand that shaped it into a golf course,” wrote Tom Coyne, author of A Course Called Ireland. Narrow ribbons of fairways wind their way through daunting sand dunes surrounded by beautiful, yet penal gorse and shaggy bunkers.
The crown jewel was originally laid out in 1898 by the legendary Old Tom Morris from St. Andrews. The parsimonious Country Down Committee commissioned Old Tom to travel from Scotland “for a sum not to exceed £4 to advise on a second nine holes.” If this is a once in a lifetime round for you, I suggest you shell out £50 for a senior caddie. Most are crafty characters who can help you navigate the slick greens, blind tee shots and other idiosyncrasies.
I knew my caddie, Brender, and I would get along when he suggested I play the “jubilee tees” on several of the fairways requiring long carries over expanses of gorse. “Where are they?” I asked. “Wherever we want them to be,” he replied with a wink. Royal County Down is tough for the pros; for a high handicapper, such as myself, it’s downright humbling.
For many, hole number nine is golf ecstasy. You launch your ball over a high hill covered in gorse down to the fairway 80 yards below! Royal County Down can be exhilarating or excruciating, but you’ll never forget it.
What an Irishman calls a “bit of a breeze and a mist,” I would call a gale-force wind and a torrential downpour. The morning we arrived at Royal Portrush on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast I wondered if we should start building an ark.
“Should we wait until it clears a bit,” I suggested to the starter. “It’s looking pretty good now,” he responded as my umbrella blew inside out. OK, we decided, we’ll play this gem designed by Harry Colt come hell and high water. When my ball blew off the tee Rory, my shivering caddie, remarked, “I’m glad it’s you playing in this wind and not me.”
Portrush has made renovations on its championship Dunluce Links in preparation for hosting the 2019 Open. The notorious Calamity Corner (now the 16th instead of the 14th) requires a precise drive over an enormous chasm on the right. Purgatory follows. Aim your blind drive for a striped pole and pray.
Portstewart and Rosapenna
Minutes west of Portrush, the Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club, founded 1894, is a sight for sore eyes. From the elevated first tee you have splendid views of the jagged Antrim coast, and if the sun shines, as it did for us, you will be blessed. Game of Thrones was filmed on the beach below.
Rosapenna overlooking Sheephaven Bay has been challenging golfers since 1893 when Old Tom Morris created nine holes among the dunes. About a century later, a newer Strand nine replaced the old front nine resulting in a wonderfully schizophrenic blend of ancient and modern links. Number 17 is a long par-three with a punchbowl green set against the dunes. Just beyond the 18th green stands a life-size statue of Old Tom himself. Bring your camera for a selfie.
The Dunes at Enniscrone
For our grand finale, we tackled The Dunes at Enniscrone, established in 1918. At 7033 yards, it’s a rollicking romp over towering dunes and serene valleys with grand views of Killala Bay. Scoring well here requires precise aim on the tumultuous fairways. The yardage book describes the 17th as “just like the 17th at Sawgrass except more natural — 150 yards of terror, especially when the wind blows! So take good aim, take good care and good luck. If it all fails, enjoy the view!”
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