Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Monday, August 03, 2009

Ballybunion Golf Club
Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland

Before I even set foot on Ballybunion Golf Club, the historic links on the southwest coast of Ireland, I had played it in my mind with the aid of photographs and an old course guide lent to me by an English friend. So when Dick Spring, the deputy prime minister of Ireland, asked me to join him for a game during my official visit to Ireland in late 1995, I was elated.

I immediately accepted and scheduled the match, but fate intervened. On the day we were supposed to play, U.S. troops were scheduled to fly from Germany to Bosnia to do their part to enforce the peace accords. I had to go to Germany to see them off. Several folks from Ballybunion were very understanding, traveling to see me in Dublin with banners wishing me well in the upcoming election and a beautiful crystal memory of the game that wasn't. I vowed to make it up to them soon.

In September of 1998, I returned to Ireland to support and celebrate the Northern Ireland Peace Accords — and at last to play Ballybunion. It was an overcast and windy day as I joined Dick, Irish finance minister Charlie McCreevy, club captain Brian McCarthy, and the great Christy O'Connor on the links. My caddie asked me how many Irish courses I'd played.

"Only two," I said.

"Then the bet's good," he replied.

"What bet?" I asked.

"Twenty to one you can't break 100."

I stood on the first tee in front of more than 10,000 people, without having taken a single practice shot, looking at one of the most intimidating opening shots in golf. A cemetery borders the fairway for 200 yards down the right side, and on that day, a strong wind was blowing from left to right. I aimed the driver well left but the wind curved it over and beyond the cemetery anyway. I was so keyed up I missed the next two shots and made a triple-bogey 7.

A few holes later, on a short par-4, I couldn't stop the ball on the small green atop a fast, bald five-foot rise. I hit it back and forth until it finally stopped and I putted in — for a 12! On the back nine I made a quadruple-bogey 7 on a simple par-3. I was 15 over for three holes! Still, it was a great day. I played the other 15 holes in 10 over and managed to break 100, beating the caddie's odds.

I've played Ballybunion twice more, again not very well, but I love it. It's perfectly Irish: beautiful, rough, and a lot like life — you get breaks you don't deserve, both ways. You just have to keep swinging and know it will all even out.

After the first match, I went to Ballybunion's town center to see the statue of me in a driving stance that the townspeople had erected. They told me the hand had fallen off the night before and they had to repair it. Despite all it had been through, the statue was still standing, and after 9/11, Irish citizens put flowers at the base in solidarity with America.

I love golf, even on the bad days. I just wish more political opponents would play together. They'd learn that there are no final victories or defeats; playing the game with respect for your opponent is reward enough.

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