2005: Destination - The Friendly Isle

Ballyliffin, Ireland

It doesn’t seem like 11 years since I sat in the Royal Portrush clubhouse and shared a pot of tea and a long conversation with Darren Clarke, a member of this fantastic course on the tip of the Emerald Isle. Now one of Europe’s biggest and, sadly, less approachable stars, Clarke in those days was affable, friendly and talkative. In other words, he was typically Irish.

Nowadays Clarke plays behind closed doors at Queenwood in the posh surroundings of Surrey, England. He is disdainful of journalists and fairly consumed with self-importance. Maybe he needs to spend more time back in Ireland because here, on the northern tip of the land known as Erin, friendly natives are as plentiful as wonderful golf.

Many of my most pleasant golf experiences have come on the Emerald Isle – my chat with Clarke among them. Never have I been made more welcome in another country than in Ireland, which is why it’s the nation I have visited more than any other. And if forced to choose a favorite region, it would be the North – to the provinces of Ulster and Donegal.

I’m almost ashamed to say this, but I would recommend a trip to Ireland over one to Scotland. And I’m Scottish!

I’ve often wondered why I feel more at home in Ireland than I do playing golf in my home country. My recent excursion to Ireland has helped me figure it out. Scottish golf courses want your business as much as Irish ones. The difference is that Scottish clubs, in general, put up with you as a necessary inconvenience. Irish clubs make you feel welcome, and in my experience the ones in the North go the extra mile.

If forced to choose a favorite region, it would be the North – to the provinces of Ulster and Donegal. Maybe I favor the North because it is the home of Royal Portrush, where I first experienced Irish hospitality. Or maybe it’s the beauty of the rugged Causeway Coast, although plenty other parts of the country are equally as rugged. Perhaps the northern tip’s selection of outstanding links is the draw. Ballybunion, Waterville, Portmarnock and Royal County Down are in other regions and are more famous, but for me the perfect trip is a jaunt across the North, starting in Royal Portrush and ending at Rosses Point.

My first visit to Portrush in 1989 confirmed what people had been telling me for years: The Irish, more than any other people with whom I’ve interacted, readily accept strangers. I arrived at the course the evening before my first round intent on a reconnaissance mission. I walked onto the the championship Dunluce Course and was enjoying the dying rays of the evening sun when I came upon a man putting on the 10th green.

We exchanged brief nods, then the man motioned me over. He didn’t introduce himself but launched into a spiel about the experiment he was conducting; he was testing balata and Surlyn covered golf balls. He asked me to watch as he put the same putting stroke on each ball, pointing out how the balata ball consistently came up shorter than the surlyn model. Then he retrieved the balls, handed them to me along with the putter and told me to try.

I had been in the country little more than two hours and I was helping a man I had never met conduct his own golf research. After I had confirmed that surlyn balls do travel farther than balatas, he asked me to join him for a glass at a local pub, where he introduced me to his friends. No sooner had I settled over my first pint of Guinness than a four ball was arranged for the next day.

As David Feherty once quipped: “That’s the thing about people in Northern Ireland – they seem friendlier to foreigners than they are to each other.”

Within hours of arriving in Ireland, a complete stranger had been accepted by the local golf community. I spent an enjoyable round the next day with people who treated me as if I were one of their own. There were stories of the members and the club, pointers on the proper lines to take off the tees and skeins of local knowledge.

When considering majestic links courses, the string along the top of Ireland , especially Royal Portrush, must take a leading role. Portrush is a championship links in every sense of the word. You need to be playing to your handicap to take on this former British Open layout.

The hole at Royal Portrush you probably will remember most is the fifth, a dogleg par 4 that tumbles down to a green with the sea providing a splendid backdrop. The most fearsome hole, however, is the par-3 14th, aptly called “Calamity Corner.” Fade the ball too much here, and your next shot will be from 80 feet below the green, which sits on the edge of a ravine.

But somehow the terrors of “Calamity Corner” didn’t seem quite so frightening in the company of three members.

Northern Irish hospitality was extended further the next morning at Portstewart, just along the coastline. The course wasn’t busy so I paid my green fee and was all set to venture out on my own when two members in their early 20s invited me to join them. The experience of the day before told me this was the wise thing to do. I’m not sure what was better, the first hole – for me, the best opening hole in British golf – or the “craic” with the two lads who insisted on buying me lunch afterwards. Craic is the Irish word for fun, most often associated with alcohol.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there will be a little music involved.

Portstewart isn’t quite in the class of Portrush, but it’s close. The first hole is a par 4 played from a high tee to a fairway set below in the dunes, with the green tucked around the corner of the left-to-right dogleg. New holes constructed in the early ’90s have made this layout tougher and more of a joy to play, taking in more of the wild dune land beyond the first hole.

After tackling Portstewart, I told my playing partners during lunch that I intended to play Castlerock that afternoon. One of my new golf pals disappeared. When he came back he told me he had fixed up my round. I was to meet John in the Castlerock clubhouse at 3 p.m., and he would guide me about the course. So John took me around a fine links that does not get the credit it deserves because of its proximity to Royal Portrush.

I’ve had similar experiences across the border in Donegal. One windy October evening, I received a most bizarre lesson at the Rosapenna Hotel. I’d played the old links, but not very well. Every shot seemed to be a pull. In the bar afterward, Don Patterson, the head professional at Warrenpoint Golf Club who once helped Ronan Rafferty win the 1989 PGA European Tour Order of Merit, was enjoying a little leisure time.

Patterson was in Rosapenna for a three-day golf school he was conducting. After two or three pints of Guinness he asked how my golf was. When I explained my problem to him, he invited me into a large area off the dining room where he had been conducting the indoor portion of the clinic. Within minutes he produced a medicine ball and, taking a leaf out of Ben Hogan’s book, “The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” told me to start throwing it at him.

So there I was at 11 p.m., throwing medicine balls at a man I’d met an hour before. My arms were a bit tired the next day, but I didn’t pull too many shots around the Rosapenna links. Not that it really mattered. Play Rosapenna and you feel as if you are standing on the edge of the world. All that stands between you and the shores of North America is the wild Atlantic Ocean. All around you lie 350 acres of the best dune land in all of Ireland, land that was thrown into the deal when Frank Casey bought the Rosapenna Hotel. Casey knew nothing about golf when he bought the place, but he has since built another 18-hole Pat Ruddy links to complement the Old Tom Morris Links.

Another Northern gem is Ballyliffin, and it is the least publicized of the lot. After seeing the old, beat-up clubhouse, expectations were not high. Thankfully, however, the clubhouse was not an indication of what was in store on the golf course.

How the travel guides missed this quintessential links is a mystery. Nick Faldo called Ballyliffin “the most natural golf links I have ever played. I am amazed by the quality, ruggedness and vastness of the terrain.”

The late Fred Daly, winner of the 1947 British Open, made his first visit to Ballyliffin in 1988 and said, “How on earth did I miss out on coming to this heavenly part of the world in my playing days? It is less than two hours from Belfast and the course is terrific.”

Ballyliffin offers you a choice of the quirky and the majestic. The Old Course is as old fashioned a links as you will find anywhere in the country, with rippling fairways, pot bunkers and hidden greens. The isolated village has maintained its charm, and another golf course, The Glashedy, has been added. This is a stern, man-sized links designed by Ruddy that is a fine complement to the Old. A new clubhouse with modern amenities has been built, but none of the friendliness has been lost.

Hospitality was the key word on my first visit to Donegal Golf Club, or Murvagh, as it is known by the locals. County Sligo (or Rosses Point, as it is also known) was the course I was supposed to play, but Christy O’Connor Jr. told me not to miss Murvagh.

Murvagh was designed by Eddie Hackett in 1960, but it’s hard to believe it’s that new. It is a wonderful place, but Hackett modestly didn’t accept much credit for creating the demanding layout.

“I only dress up what the Good Lord provides,” was Hackett’s modest description on his handiwork.

Said Christy O’Connor Jr.: “Anyone who visits Murvagh will be surprised that the course is less than 50 years old. The course is so natural it looks as if it has been there forever.”

Donegal is a course waiting to test your talents. This course has five par 5s, and for my money, the sixth hole is the best of the lot. The tee shot is played from a high tee across a valley with a great view of the beach and the sea to a green with enough slopes to make you jittery. The par 3s are also fearsome, especially the fifth. Hit the green on this 190-yard hole or face the toughest up-and-down in Ireland, for there is no margin for error.

Donegal, where Murvagh is located, isn’t exactly Manhattan, but there aren’t too many pubs in the Big Apple with peat fires as warm or Guinness as smooth. So I had a glass and a bit of the “craic” with the locals. “The thing I like about the people in Donegal is that they welcome you as a friend,” said London Barrister Nick Edmond, a frequent visitor. “You don’t feel as if you are English and they are Irish. Nationalities go out the window because the common love of golf takes over. I could happily retire to a small cottage near in Donegal and live out my life a happy man.”

Rosses Point, the final stop on this heavenly itinerary, is not exactly a breather, but it is less stern than the previous tests on the trip. At least Rosses Point offers a little breath, at least at the start.

The first five holes ease you into the round. Take advantage, because the back nine is an all together different experience. Here you get into truer links golf, with the tilting fairways and contoured greens calling for more attention, more precision. Survive Nos. 14, 15, and 16 – the first two demanding par 4s, the latter a testing par 3 – and you may play to your handicap. However, the operative word is “may." Either way, Rosses Point is a wonderful conclusion to a fairly perfect golf trip.

Don’t worry if you don’t play to your handicap on this trip. The scenery and the warm welcome you receive more than compensate for a less-than-perfect standard of play.

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