Ireland warms a golfer's soul, tests his game

The par-3 16th at Tralee Golf Club.

The par-3 16th at Tralee Golf Club.

BALLYBUNION, Ireland - Never has impossible appeared so desirable.

To the right, the Atlantic Ocean in its relentless glory. To the left, dunes and high rough. Unseen, but unmistakably present with an unyielding ferocity, a left-to-right wind that against the soon-to-be-delivered high fade would present a mismatch of massive proportions.

What to do?

Enjoy every drop of it, for how many times in your life are you embraced by a sense of awe?

That is what this moment presented, perched to play one of the world’s greatest par 4s, the 11th at Ballybunion Golf Club, a links marvel that remains unspoiled and unmatched. It mattered not a bit that at 40 mph, the wind was in control; it was a breathtaking sight . . . it was proper golf . . . it was Ireland.

The October visit was intended as a wind-down from a week in Wales covering the Ryder Cup, and while it was all of that, so, too, did it serve an even more rewarding purpose.

It was a reminder that Ireland still is where great golf and warm hospitality are blended to perfection.

••••••••••••••

There was a sloppy double bogey to start a round at Tralee Golf Club, but Jerry – and that’s “Jerry with a J,” said our caddie – was undaunted. “The Cuilin,” a par 5 of 588 yards that doglegs left-to-right and runs firmly along a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, was made for the fade, he encouraged.

So after negotiating a short, but serviceable, drive into the fairway, what landed in my hands was a fairway wood, accompanied by simple instructions with a smile.

“Now, keep smashing this ’til I tell ya to stop,” Jerry said.

Good flavor that was soon added to, because almost on cue the Irish Golf Gods rolled out the full complement. Steady rain came sideways, wind sparred with the senses, and dark clouds swirled; by the time Chough’s Corner, the 421-yard, par-4 sixth, arrived, the sun was out, the view of the Slieve Mish Mountains was emphatic and the “waterproofs” were back in the bag.

Held up against so many comfortable, sun-splashed – and mundanely antiseptic – golf locales in American ports, such a backdrop would appear insufferable. But anyone who has experienced the joy of links knows otherwise, that it comes with the territory and is very much part of a charm that is necessary to complete any true golfer’s resume.

To ease the charge into such a fury when it arrives, it is recommended you have an appreciation for the purity of links, that you prefer your golf courses without massive water holes complete with fountains and electric swans. Oh, and that you surround yourself with those who think similarly.

If your destination is the Emerald Isle, consider yourself as having scored on both counts. Appointments booked to play Ballybunion and Lahinch, Waterville and Old Head, Portmarnock and Enniscrone, Doonbeg and Tralee, The European Club and Ballyliffin, The Island Golf Club and Royal Dublin – just to name a dozen of the best links anywhere – indicate a discernible taste in golf as it should be. But what makes the trip to Ireland whole is the chance to share time with those proud Irish who cherish their country and see it as their mission in life to roll out the welcome mat, endlessly green and incredibly warm that it is.

On this excursion, the friendly embrace is provided by Conor Hennigan and his historic Malton Hotel (formerly the Great Southern Hotel); by the coziest of towns, Killarney; by a dinner visit with Jay Connolly, an American who fell for Ireland back in the early 1980s and is now an owner of Waterville Golf Links; by the staffs at Tralee and Ballybunion; an enthusiastic caddie at Ballybunion, Robert Wallace, who regaled us with his hurling exploits for Lixnaw in anticipation of the county playoff against Ballyduff; and a bus driver/tour guide, Martin Hayes, who demonstrates that he also can caddie and show you a thing or two with the driver, if the situation arises.

As for the golf . . . well, given the majestic vistas of Ballybunion and the mere aura of the place (and, really, was there any doubt, given the praise penned by the legendary Herbert Warren Wind some 40 years ago and the momentous stamp of approval from a links master such as Tom Watson back in the 1980s?), it’s no surprise that on this day’s walk the magic

of the links shined through. It came partly from being humbled by a former Irish Ladies Golf Union girls’ champion, Michelle McGreevy, and partly from hitting four relatively good shots into the teeth of a 40-mph wind – just to get it greenside at Kitty’s River, a 466-yard par 5. But mostly it came with sweeping panoramic views that served as Novocain to a string of bogeys.

Golf was difficult to manage on this day; what was easy to grasp was the genuine passion and uncanny respect golfers have for the game when played on such a stage. Let the weather

be what it may; the experience is paramount, and it is almost as if each and every golfer considers it a privilege to be here.

The experience continues off course, which includes visits to local pubs. When a stop delivers us to the Castle Bar in Tralee, you are reminded that you can never feel more at home than in Ireland. There having a pint and extending a warm smile is a man, Gat Carey, whose cousin, Kevin Carey, is a longtime friend from golf circles in Massachusetts.

Within minutes, it is as if we have been friends with Gat for years, the bond being our love of golf and the endless joy it provides. That joy is multiplied so many times over in Ireland, and it’s not as expensive of a delight as it has been. Conceding that in the thrill of hosting the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club, the price of golf in Ireland – as it did in many other places – got out of whack, sensible minds have stepped forward, especially with the 2011 Solheim Cup on deck for Killeen Castle.

“I would say that the industry as a whole has probably reduced their prices by a range of 20-40 percent,” said Keith McCormack, head of business tourism at Fáilte Ireland.

“There is a massive repositioning in terms of price. It is fair to say prices are down – and looking permanent.”

Brilliant news, but it gets even better: The quality of the golf and the warm hospitality haven’t been lowered. They remain as high as the peaks of the Slieve Mish.

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