Greens and Gridirons: Notre Dame

No. 15 at Blackthorn Golf Club

No. 15 at Blackthorn Golf Club

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Patrick Michael Mulligan – retired cop, career civil servant, defender of the public – stood in the middle of the bar that bears his name, an unopened, 16-ounce can of Miller Lite protruding, magically, from his forehead at a 90-degree angle, like a unicorn’s horn.

Mulligan, a cannonball of a man, smiled, apparently delighting in the awe this trick inspired in first-time visitors.

Then Mulligan removed the beer from his forehead and raised his arms, like a priest welcoming the flock to Mass.

“Boys and girls, girls and boys,” Mulligan announced. “Welcome home!”

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Pat Mulligan found 'heaven on earth' when he brought his unicorn trick to South Bend last year.

Mulligan’s feels like home, even if the owners, Pat and Sue Mulligan, are themselves relatively new to South Bend. Pat used to come to South Bend for every home football game. Finally, last year, he and Sue cashed out early, moved here from St. Petersburg, Fla., and opened Mulligan’s Bar and Grill, a block from the Notre Dame campus, a month before the 2009 football season.

Their reason: “This place is heaven on earth,” Pat said.

That’s not a hackneyed line; Pat Mulligan’s love for Notre Dame is almost spiritual. Every night he visits Knute Rockne’s grave, he prays, pockets a clump of grass – and stops at the plot that he bought 10 yards away, ensuring him eternal closeness to the greatest coach in Notre Dame history.

At Mulligan’s, the atmosphere is less rowdy college hangout than family reunion. When customers arrive – many have worshipped at the Cathedral of Notre Dame Football for decades – they seek out Mulligan, exchanging handshakes and hugs.

“He has no clue how to run a restaurant,” said Sue, the brains of the operation. “But he knows everyone. He’s like a rock star.”

• • •

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Fighting Irish superfan Billy DePuy and his children, Felicia Montana (as in Joe) and Lukas Rockne (as in Knute).

My journey to Mulligan’s began with a fortuitous pairing at Blackthorn Golf Club with Billy DePuy, a New York-to-the-core member of the Notre Dame subway alumni. Billy was raised on Notre Dame football, and like any good father, he’s passing on those values to his two children: Felicia Montana (as in Joe), and Lukas Rockne (as in Knute). His right biceps is emblazoned with a “Rockne ND” tattoo in Irish green and blue. Nice touch.

On the golf course, Billy normally goes by the name Donnie Falkowitz, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear but that nevertheless amused his buddy Brian Webb, part of the New York posse.

“You don’t have a fake golf name?” Billy asked me. “You should look into that.”

His logic was oddly compelling. Many times I wished I could give my playing partners a cover name and ID, lest I face the inevitable questions: “So, do you know Tiger?” (I don’t.) “What’s Phil really like?” (Beats me.) “What’s your favorite course?” (Dessert.)

Blackthorn was designed by Michael Hurdzan, who quietly has put together an impressive portfolio. Some have referred to Blackthorn as a links, which is inapt. But it is one of those courses that feels as though it is in harmony with its rural surrounds, a point punctuated by the fact that one of the routes to the 13th tee runs directly through an old dairy barn.

Notre Dame men’s golf coach Jim Kubinski had recommended Blackthorn. The course, while hardly a roller-coaster ride, benefits from more movement in the land than is typical in northern Indiana. The par-3 16th, a short iron across a large chasm, seems to attract the most attention, though like most (alert: cliché approaching) “signature” holes, it stands out because its characteristics don’t fit the rest of the course.

I took a shine to Blackthorn’s par 5s, particularly the last two, the 15th, where a diagonal, split fairway enlivens the second-shot options, and the 18th, which tumbles downhill, offering a good birdie opportunity if you can navigate the pond that abuts the green.

• • •

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Warren GC hosts an 8 a.m. shotgun for football fans before home games.

Visitors arrive at Notre Dame with a mental checklist of sites to see, spiritual and otherwise: the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes; the Basilica of the Sacred Heart; the Main Building (with the Golden Dome); Hesburgh Library (with “Touchdown Jesus” at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium). And then there’s Legends of Notre Dame, the university-owned pub located in the stadium’s south parking lot.

There was a palpable pulse when we arrived at Legends two days before the game, and not just because the band was practicing nearby. New head coach Brian Kelly has energized the campus. Kelly gave us a jolt when he brushed by us on his way into Legends to do his first weekly radio show. He seems unburdened by humility or the lofty expectations that have accompanied his arrival in South Bend.

“In five years, hopefully we’ve already got a national championship or two,” he said, drawing the night’s biggest cheers.

Whoa, Nellie! Slow down, coach. First things first: Beat Purdue in the opener.

Game time Saturday was 3:30 p.m., allowing me to join the 8 a.m. shotgun at Warren Golf Course, home of the Fighting Irish golf teams.

Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who have developed an almost cult-like following, had

to work their distinctive magic on relatively flat land, but to good effect. This year alone, Warren hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, U.S. Open qualifying and an NCAA men’s regional. Some think it deserves a bigger stage.

“Probably the biggest compliment I’ve heard came from a guy who doesn’t give a lot of compliments, (former Oklahoma State coach) Mike Holder,” Kubinski said. “He said, ‘Jim, you should have (an NCAA) finals here.’ ”

Warren is a user-friendly layout. It’s a relatively easy walk, and it has two three-hole loops (Nos. 7-9 and 16-18) and two six-hole loops (1-6 and 10-15) that return to the clubhouse. Even the most scholarly golf fanatic on campus must have had this thought: Do I go to quantitative calculus or squeeze in six holes at Warren? Golf holes such as the delicate, par-3 fourth or the Redan 14th make the decision more difficult.

By necessity, the layout fosters some redundancy; the final three holes dogleg to the left as they wind home. But they’re also three of the best holes on the course, with Juday Creek providing definition, particularly on the closing hole. That hazard also creates some uncomfortable decisions on the par-5 10th.

Coore and Crenshaw always seem to have one hole on which the front portion of the green is as narrow as a bike path, with bunkers on either side. I’ve seen this before, on No. 9 at We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro Course in Arizona or, closer to home, on No. 11 at Sugarloaf Mountain near Orlando, Fla.

At Warren, it’s a par 4, No. 15. When the pin is tucked between those bunkers, the smart approach is to leave the ball below the hole for an easy chip or two-putt. But the words “smart” and “golf writer” being antithetical – our pay stubs will verify that fact – I invariably try, and fail, to shoehorn my approach between those bunkers, then volley sand shots back and forth across the sliver of green until I finally tire of raking.

• • •

On the short drive from Warren to the stadium, I briefly considered popping into Mulligan’s, assuming Billy and his crew would be there doing their pregame warm-ups. But the lure of the stadium proved too great. “It’s the pageantry,” Pat Mulligan had told us.

That’s the magic of college football, particularly at Notre Dame – the weekly rituals that never fail to raise goosebumps.

Inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Brian Kelly era began with a 23-12 victory over Purdue. Outside the stadium, thousands of fans without tickets tailgated during the game.

The disciples just wanted to be close to the chosen ones.

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