All across Ireland, we rolled into parking lots
in a luxury Mercedes tour bus, like rock stars arriving for our next gig. But when the door opened, it wasn't
Sting or Springsteen or even Sinatra who stepped out. Rather, it was 14 middle-aged golfers
(some with paunches, gray hair or no hair) from Philadelphia, or mostly so,
stretching from the long ride, rubbing aching muscles and scratching in places
best described as inappropriate.
It was the golf trip of a lifetime: Nine days, 14 guys, eight rounds at some
of the finest links golf courses the Emerald Isle – indeed, the world
– has to offer: Ballybunion, Old Head, Lahinch,
Doonbeg, Waterville, Carne, Enniscrone
IRELAND TRIP PHOTO
GALLERY ON HOME PAGE UNDER "PHOTOS"
The magazine rankings alone spoke volumes. Golfweek lists five of the courses we were playing among the top modern
courses in Great Britain and Ireland (3. Waterville;
8. Old Head; 9. Carne; 10. Tralee; 11. Enniscrone). Ballybunion ranked 6th on the magazine's list of
GB&I classic courses. Golf magazine ranks Ballybunion 17th
in the world among all courses.
From my office bookcase, I also pulled down a
book I contributed to last year.
Published in Paris, it's called The
Rolex World's Top 1000 Golf Courses. Thirty-one courses from Ireland and
Northern Ireland made the cut, including every single one on our dance card.
Then there was the conversation I had a while
back with my friend James W. Finegan, the golf writer and historian. I asked Finegan, the author of a trilogy
of golf travel books about the UK and Ireland, which would be the better golf
vacation, Scotland or Ireland?
Finegan thought for a moment, then
replied, "Scotland has more good and very good courses. But if you put Scotland's Top 10 courses
up against Ireland's Top 10 courses, Ireland wins."
What more was there to say? We were playing a Who's Who of Top 10
We left out of Philadelphia on Thursday night,
Sept. 22. Although all but three of
us came from the same club, Talamore CC, we didn't
all know each other that well when we gathered at the airport, all excited
about the golfing adventure that lay before us; we returned home Saturday
afternoon, Oct. 1, weary but filled with memories.
"I went with some pretty high expectations of
the golf courses we would encounter and those expectations were blown away,"
one member of our group, Larry Weiss,
wrote in an email. "I felt like it
was a religious experience in many ways."
We were your typical odd-lot of golfers. The
three of us that weren't from Talamore CC were
friends and old college pals, from Dallas, Harrisburg and Malvern. In age, we ranged from early 40s to
early 60s. There was a dentist, a defense lawyer, a software consultant, a
scientist, a couple of guys who own or run small companies, a corporate
retiree, a couple of accountants, a pair of corporate consultants, several
sales executives and yours truly.
Our handicaps ranged from 7 to 23.
Among the group, about half had been on
previous golf trips to Scotland, England or Ireland; others were newbies who
were even more excited and uncertain about what to expect from the experience.
Is the golf as different as they say? What should I pack? Two rain suits? Is the food lousy?
We saw more of Ireland than we might have
expected. Although all of the
courses we were playing were on the west coast of Ireland, by some trick of
fate or ill-planning, we flew into and out of Dublin, on the east coast, rather
than into Shannon, in the heart of our line-up of courses, making for a 4-hour
bus on rides on our arrival and departure.
While that made for much grumbling at the time, in hindsight it provided
us a driving tour of parts of the island we otherwise wouldn't have seen.
The drives, by the way, were made all the more
entertaining and informative by our bus driver for the trip, Pat Griffin, proud Irishman to the
core, who splits his time between driving tours like ours for Golf
Vacations Ireland and driving for regular
sight-seeing vacation tours of Ireland.
The result was that Pat was
an entertaining, never-ending font of information about Ireland's history,
geography, people, culture and quirks, which he couldn't resist regaling us
with over the bus PA system as we rolled across the countryside on shockingly
narrow blacktop roads. We did stop
from time to time at particularly notable spots, such as the Cliffs of Moher.
Along the way, we stayed in some good to very
good hotels, with Jacuzzis and wi-fi in the room; one
even had an actual shower door, which is not to be taken for granted if you've
ever traveled in Europe, where baths, not showers, are the norm. We stuffed ourselves with Irish
food and Guinness, an ale so dark, rich and thick it has the consistency of motor
oil. We also conducted an
exhaustive culinary investigation into the various interpretations of seafood
chowder, a staple on the menu of virtually every place we ate, from the
lowliest local pub to the fanciest of restaurants in Killarney.
For the record, the seafood chowder ranged from
thin gruel with barely a trace of actual seafood, to the winner (at a small-town,
roadside pub, no less) so thick,
creamy and chunky you could stick your spoon in it and it would remain there,
upright, like the Excalibur sword stuck in the stone.
"Ahhh, this is the
best," Brad Dimming moaned in
ecstasy as he sampled the first bite of what we declared the No. 1 chowder.
We also had a consensus favorite golf course: Old Head. Imagine an entire golf course where the
holes and views are as spectacular as the stretch of 7-8-9-10 at Pebble Beach.
"No words or pictures do it justice," emailed Chuck Kraatz,
another member of the group, whose personal fashion statement is to dress in
all black all the time. And for no
good reason, so far as anybody can tell.
(I was tempted to knock on Chuck's
hotel room door at 2 a.m. to see if he would come to the door in black
We left for Ireland that Thursday at 9:30 p.m.
on an overnight flight, arriving in Dublin in time for morning rush-hour
traffic. Because of a scheduling
conflict, Pat, our bus driver and
tour guide for the week, couldn't meet us.
We were met instead by a driver of substantially less personality, in a
woefully lesser bus. Pat would join us first thing in the
Every day, we gambled. Everybody tossed $20 into the pot and we
played "skins" and blind-draw partners.
Somehow, inexplicably, one guy, Jack
McMahon, a 17 handicap, won money every day. It was scandalous, not to
mention wildly irritating. Several
of us are thinking of calling for an special investigation, if not into how he
managed to win, at least into how he managed to win with that golf swing.
Anyway, time for day-by-day travelogue.
Friday, Sept. 23. Tralee GC, Barrow, County Kerry
I can't sleep on planes, never could. So I was among the least-rested in our
party when we squeezed our mountain of bags and golf clubs into the bus for the
cross-country trek to our first course of the adventure, Tralee
Golf Club, in Ireland's southwest corner.
I didn't know a thing about Tralee and therefore had no
expectations. To be honest, my bigger concern on that first day was fighting
off exhaustion from lack of sleep, hoping to get through the day.
A golf course of some kind has occupied the
property that is Tralee for more
than 100 years, but in 1984, Arnold Palmer
wiped the slate clean and designed his first course in Europe. To honor him, near the first tee, stands
a statue of Arnie that looks almost nothing
His oft-repeated quote about Tralee is, "I designed the first nine
but surely God designed the back nine."
Palmer also said he had never
come across a piece of property more ideally suited for a golf course.
What I remember most around the round at Tralee is that (1) we were all glad to
be off the plane, off the bus and
finally on the golf course and (2) the views of the coastline were breathtaking
and (3) the wind was blowing like crazy.
For the first-timers on the trip Tralee served as a stark introduction
of the different kind of golf that lay ahead in the coming week: 4-club winds,
relentless rain and bump-and-run shots (and putting) from halfway down the
We soon discovered that Palmer was not kidding about the back nine. After an understated, wide open front
nine, Tralee suddenly heads into the
dunes along the coastline. The holes got even more picturesque and vastly more
complicated and difficult.
Also, the wind was replaced by rain. Not just drizzle but a cold, hard
penetrating downpour that started at No. 11 and was coming down harder when we
putted out on the 18th.
Drenched to the bone, we retreated to the
clubhouse for well-earned refreshments and dinner. It was there, in the grillroom of Tralee, that one person, then six,
eight, 10 of us ordered the seafood chowder, beginning our quest.
By 9 p.m., we were on the bus, headed for our
hotel in Killarney, which would be our base of operations from the next three
days. With everyone totally spent
from the traveling and the golf and the brutal elements, there are nary a peep
on the hour-long bus ride.
Saturday, Sept. 24. Old Head
GL, Kinsale, County Cork
Old Head is a singular golfing experience, plain and simple. I don't know how else to put it. If you ever get an opportunity to play a
round there, run, don't walk.
Despite its name, Old Head is not old – at least the golf course isn't, opening
in 1997. The slab of land it
occupies juts out into the ocean.
It is former grazing land for sheep, and had been for thousands of years,
before two brothers got the idea to develop a golf course. Six miles off shore is the spot where a
German sub torpedoed the Lusitania, in 1915. The golf
course, however, has only been around since 1997, designed by a committee of
six unheralded architects.
High on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, you
progress from one jaw-dropping hole (and view) to another. Eventually, it becomes sensory overload;
you can't take it all in. The most amazing hole is No. 12, a gargantuan par 5
that plays up hill, then wraps around craggy cliffs hundreds of feel above the
To top it off, we caught Old Head on a rare bright, sunny, windless, rain-free day.
"This is the single best day of golf I've ever
had in my life," said Tim Black, a
well-traveled member of our group.
The other three of us in the foursome nodded in agreement.
Old Head is not cheap. A round goes for $266, plus caddie. The clubhouse is modern and sleek, a
sharp contrast to the ancient property.
A couple of guys didn't think the clubhouse quite fit the overall
feel. Didn't bother me a bit.
Bottom line: If you go on a golf vacation to
Ireland and don't play Old Head,
you'll regret it.
Sunday, Sept 25th. Waterville GL, Waterville, Ring of Kerry
What a fitting name. For the entire bus ride to Waterville, the skies were dark and the rain came down in
sheets. For a bunch of fair-weather
Americans, the question was, Who the heck
plays golf in this kind of weather?
Still, when Pat pulled the bus into the parking
lot, we filed off the bus, quickly got into our rain gear and huddled under
cover outside the pro shop, waiting, hoping, it might clear up. I and several others popped into the pro
shop and dropped $40 on state-of-the-art rain hats.
outside, under the cover of the pro shop overhang, several of the guys were floating
the idea of blowing off the round, climbing back into the bus and heading to
the hotel. A larger contingent,
however, was hell bent on playing.
We'd prepaid for the round, we were there, so, hey, let's suck it up and
As our tee
time approached and the rain continued to come down in buckets, a bunch of us
headed to the range to get loose.
It's hard to believe it was possible, but I am pretty sure it rained
harder while we were on the range.
As I headed to the first tee, I stopped by the starter's hut to grab a
"So, how many
locals will come out on a day like this?" I asked the starter. He gave me a look but didn't say
anything. But his eyes were saying, How
many do you think, you dumbass American?
handing me the card, he said, "Not many."
my foursome was walking up the first fairway, the rain turned to a mere
drizzle. It came and went all
through the round, but it wasn't too bad.
And Waterville turned out to
be a treat, a true links course, with a very special 18th that plays
along the beach. Not as hilly as
some of the other courses we played.
Not as penal.
Sept. 26th. Ballybunion GC, Ballybunion, County Kerry
Of the courses we
played, Ballybunion (Old) is the oldest (1893), the most celebrated
in the world of golf, and, well, the most self-satisfied.
If Old Head is the modern
is a classic must-play. Carved out
of tall dunes along the seaside, it is hilly, rife with blind shots, and is
home to some of the most menacing, maddening gorse you've see anywhere.
The late, great golf
writer Herbert Warren Wind called Ballybunion
"nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen." Even so, it had slipped from the
limelight until the 1989s, when Tom
Watson fell in love with Ballybunion and told the world.
Before we arrived, we were forewarned that the folks who run Ballybunion
consider the course, the club, and, by extension, themselves, to be quite
special, if not in a league of their own.
We got a taste of that soon after we arrived, when a member of our group
popped his head into the caddie master's office near the first tee to inquire
about lining up a caddie. He
returned moments later fuming. He said the caddie master told that there were other
golfers ahead of him who had requested caddies and that, if there were enough,
they would try to accommodate him - but no guarantees.
For a club of such status, it was also a little surprising Ballybunion's first couple of fairways run alongside
a trailer park. Also, as even our
caddie noted, many people feel the best of Ballybunion doesn't really begin
until the 5th hole.
Once we got deeper
into the round, Ballybunion
lived up to its reputation.
Sept. 27. Doonbeg
GG, Doonbeg, County Clare
Next to Old Head, Doonbeg, a Greg Norman
design that opened in 2002, was the course that blew away everyone in our
group. Virtually everybody on the
bus ranked Doonbeg
above the more historic and revered Ballybunion.
I also soon discovered another barometer of how much the guys liked a
course: watch how much cash we collectively plunked down in the pro shop on
merchandise. Suffice it to say guys were sporting Doonbeg logos on hats and
sweaters for the rest of the trip.
Build along a 1½ stretch of exquisite crescent-shaped beach, Doonbeg is the
quintessential big, flashy development out in the middle of nowhere. The clubhouse is part of a compound with
pricey apartments that was built to resemble the R&A headquarters in St.
Andrews; it looms in the distance
from the farthest reaches of the course.
When he first laid eyes on the remote property, Norman is reported to have described himself as the luckiest
designer in the world. He made the
most of what the land gave him. As
our round progressed, guys were shouting to each other from two fairways over
fairways, "Can you believe this place?"
The property was acquired from a local farmer for £4 million, back when
the British pound was close to double the value of a U.S. dollar. According to our caddie, however, that
wasn't enough for the farmer and his daughter, who demanded another £1 million
for an addition adjacent parcel, which Norman
and the club envisioned as the second half a strong par 4.
Peeved by what they regarded as excessive greed, the developers declined
to buy the land and turned the hole into a par 3. To make a point, they also built two
giant sand dunes surrounding the green of the par 3, obscuring the view of the
beach from the homes of the farmer and his daughter. Our caddie loved that story and, I'm
sure, tells it to everyone he lops for.
Doonbeg is also home to one
of the most amazing golf holes you'll see anywhere: the par 3 14th,
a short (111 yards from the back tees) little devil with a green that literally
sits on a ledge, more dramatic than the 7th at Pebble Beach. Also, it
is hard to forget the 12th, where Norman evidently felt compelled to place a pot bunker in the center
of the green.
is not as penal as Ballybunion,
it, too, boasts some of the deepest, cruelest gorse anywhere. When I hit a tee shot halfway up
the side of tall dune covered with the stuff, my caddie shook his head and
lamented, "Lassie couldn't find that
ball if you wrapped it in bacon."
It should be noted that Doonbeg is not without its skeptics. In his book A Course Called Ireland, Philadelphia writer Tom Coyne sniffs that it is essentially an over-the-top golf
development built by Americans for American tourists "who didn't need the
receipt, who traveled a great distance for the purpose of being blown
away. And Doonbeg did a hell of a job of
Wednesday, Sept. 28th. Lahinch GC, Lahinch, County Clare
Lahinch is regarded as one of the crown jewels
of Irish links golf. Situated on
the edge of the small town of Lahinch, midway up the Irish coast, it looks more like an it
would be the town muny when you pull into the parking
lot. While it is private, Lahinch is indeed
considerably less pretentious than Ballybunion.
That is not to say it is cheap.
was one of the few courses we played that offered riding carts – for $92.50!. It should be
noted, however, that the price included a caddie, who actually drove the cart.
It was hard not to feel for the guy in our group who weeks ago had reserved a
cart for our round at Lahinch,
figuring he would need a break from the walking up and down hills on Day Six of
our trip. Turned out he felt fine
that morning, but there was no getting out of that reservation; so he got
chauffeured around Lahinch
all day by a kindly old chap with white hair.
Lahinch is so old (1893) Alister MacKenzie and Old Tom Morris himself was involved in the design, with Morris later describing it as "as fine
a natural course as it has ever been my good fortune to play over."
If Lahinch, which
has hosted many top amateur competitions in Ireland, wasn't difficult enough
already, we played it in a 4-club wind.
When the wind was blowing sideways across the fairway, you had to start
a shot out over the dunes and gorse and hope it blew back to the fairway or
green. If the wind was in your
face, it was not unusual to hear your caddie say, "Actual yardage is 130, but
hit your 175 club."
Lahinch is home to two of the most unusual holes
in Irish golf: the par 4 4th and the par 3 5th. The 4th is a twisty hole,
through canyons of dunes, and the second shot is up and over a dune to a blind
green 75 or so yards on the other side.
The wrinkle is that on the other side of the dune, the 18th
fairway traverses the 4th fairway.
Lahinch's solution to that potentially dangerous
and litigious situation is to station a man on top of the dune, who spends all
day directing traffic, waving red and green flags at the passing foursomes like
a crossing guard.
doesn't leave you scratching your head, perhaps the 5th hole will, a
more or less blind par 3.
Thursday, Sept. 29th. Carne GL, Belmullet,
Of the eight courses on our trip, Carne was the only one I
wouldn't return to. Maybe it was
the overpowering wind that day.
Maybe it was the out-of-the-way, small club feel of the place. Maybe I would have liked it more if we
had played it on Day One instead of Day Seven. Carne just struck me as a plain Jane that didn't measure up to the
other choice courses on our list.
That said, it had a couple of very strong finishing holes, especially
the monster uphill, downhill, uphill par 5 18th. Also, in Carne's favor was the fact that
it was the least pretentious and most reasonably-priced of the private clubs we
played. I split a riding car with
another member of the group for $20 each, a far cry from the price at Lahinch. (Carne
was the only round I didn't walk, either with a caddie or trolley, as they call
I should also note that Tom Coyne,
in A Course Called Ireland, couldn't
have disagreed with me more. He
loved Carne, picking it as the
course he'd return to first if he had a chance.
"Carne was brilliant," writes Coyne. "Simply brilliant. Front, back, first hole, last –
every mound, every swale, every inch of the place was special."
I later heard from an official at another club that no course in Ireland
had benefited more from A Course Called
Ireland than Carne. "Tom
Coyne's book put Carne back on
the tourist map," he said.
Sept. 30th. Enniscrone GC, Enniscrone, County Sligo
golf course, worse club logo in the history of logos. We left with no merchandise from Enniscrone pro
was our final round. We were dog
tired. (Bus driver Pat told me that other groups never
play eight straight days of golf, like we did; they always take a break in the
middle of the week to rest, shop and sight-see). True to form for Ireland, as we warmed
up for our tee times, the rains came - and came.
my threesome teed off we were being pelted by rain so hard, it reminded me of
that morning on the range at Waterville. Nobody
plays golf in weather like this.
But we did, and I'm glad we did. The skies eventually cleared, the rain
suits came off, and Enniscrone
turned out to be another seaside treat of a course.
Enniscrone was the only course
where we were met by the club secretary, in this case Pat Sweeney, who welcomed us and told us in no uncertain terms how
difficult the course was. If we
were single-digit hanidcappers, figure on doubling
your handicap that day. If you were
a higher handicapper, expect to add 10 shots to your usual round.
it turned out, I found Enniscrone
to be one of the fairer and least penal courses we played all week. And there was no shortage of
would have liked Enniscrone
even more had not the rain returned late in the round, and had I not finished
double-bogey, double-bogey to spoil an otherwise stellar round.
the round was over, 14 bone-weary middle-aged guys managed to peel out of their
drenched rain suits and to drag themselves onto the bus for the 3½ drive
from the east coast of Ireland to Dublin on the west coast.
night, we hit Temple Bar, a sort of
cross between South Street in Philadelphia and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
usual, Pat had made reservations for
us in a restaurant popular with the locals, Gallagher's Boxty House. There, we made it eight straight days of
seafood chowder and wolfed down a specialty of the restaurant, Gaelic Boxty, which is prime filet medallions cooked in whiskey,
mushrooms and a cracked black pepper cream sauce, and wrapped in a potato
pancake. It was a superb finishing
The next morning, we headed for the airport.
home, I asked everyone in the group to email me their personal ranking of the
courses we played, with any comments wanted to include. Here are the responses:
1. Old Head
- WOW. What views.
2. Doonbeg - Great course. Fair to every skill level
- great design by Arnie. Back nine was simply amazing.
4. Ballybunion - I really enjoyed this course. The history, the
layout, the difficulty,
the penalties for bad shots. A true gem.
5. Lahinch - Great course, tough putting due to the conditions
of the greens.
- fairways were very thin.
1. Old Head
1. Old Head --
No. 1 course by the length of a par 3
2. Doonbeg –
great caddies and good track
– I started trip with a 350 yard drive and a 15 foot putt for birdie (at
one point and I were 1 under in
Ireland) - back 9 looked like it would have been great without the wind and
4. Ennsicrone – maybe best greens of trip –
good caddie, an 89 always helps impression of course
5. Lahinch - lots of wind but a 92 improves ranking!
– tough to evaluate after down pour, bloody toes and blisters. This
one is a bit of a blur to me.
– first half dozen not very good and last bunch came with heavy penalties
for any errant shot. Tough place for a high handicapper, think I hit 110 this
day. Maybe at bottom because I had worst round here.
8. Carne -- not very well maintained but
shot an 89 pleased with the round but other than that not very memorable.
1. Old Head - Miss Universe
2. Doonbeg - Runner-Up
3. Tralee - She has the total package, but not when standing next to Old
Head and Doonbeg
4. Lahinch - Winner of the talent
competition - A solid 4th place showing.
5. Ballybunion - Way too much
6. Waterville - Very attractive but unfortunately somewhat forgettable
7.Carne - Winner of the swimsuit competition - obviously because of her
8. Enniscrone - Miss Congeniality
1. Old Head
5. Lahinch (assuming the greens are normally much better)
1. Old Head. Was, to use a much overused
word, "awesome". The setting alone is worth visiting and then to play
golf on it is just unique. It's like putting a course on the edge of the Grand
Canyon ( not a bad idea come to think of it)
Combined beauty and playability. If I was joining a club to play all the time,
it would be this course
3. Tralee. Back nine is just spectacular.
View of course may be colored by lack of sleep and rain but I thought this was
an excellent and beautiful course
4 Ballybunion. Also gorgeous but very penal and the
caddie master was an arrogant a—hole, which started me with a bad
attitude (not that it takes much to give me a bad attitude)
5. Enniscrone. Was
very enjoyable. pretty and playable. I enjoyed the lack of blind shots and it
was also nice not playing in 30mph winds
6, 7, 8 Lahinch, Carne, Waterville. All were nice but not real memorable.
1. Old Head....an amazing property and a great golf course.
Spectacular. It should be ranked higher than it is by those that
"vote" on rankings.
2. Doonbeg. Fantastic course
and a great test of golf. Best caddies of the lot. Great staff.
They cleaned out some of the high rough and made it somewhat more playable from
the last time I was there. Doing that was a good idea.
3. Tralee. An amazing back nine. Wish we played it during
the week and not as the first course after a long flight.
4. Enniscrone. A very good
representation of Ireland golf. To me this is a great members
course. A fair test.
5. Lahinch. Great layout from
a very old course. Another strong test of golf.
6. Ballybunion. Tough, very
tough and penal when you leave the fairway, no mistakes can be made here.
First couple of holes are somewhat nondescript.
7. Carne. Great finishing holes that keep you climbing higher
8. Waterville. Another Irish traditional course. Strong
1. Old Head. A day of golf I will never forget.
A little snooty, couple of so-so holes,
but earns its rep with the final few holes.
2b. Doonbeg. Over the top development but a fabulous
collection of golf holes.
4. Tralee. As good a back nine as we saw in
5. Enniscrone. The golf course makes up for the hideous
logo and the watery seafood chowder.
6. Lahinch. Quirky,
but a historic club with a wonderful links golf course.
7. Waterville. I'd like to get back and play it under
8. Carne. I didn't get it, so sue me.