Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, is making his way across Ireland on foot this summer, playing every links golf course in the country. In Fall 2008, he'll publish a book about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland. In the meantime, he'll be writing a travel journal for GOLF.com. This is the second installment; the first is here.
I had never cared much for Lahinch. My unusual aversion to one of the undisputed kings of links golf stemmed from a first tee whiffing incident many years ago. I won't recount the painful details here, but know that for many seasons since, the very syllables - La-hinch - have rung with shame in the depths of my golfing soul. I have never felt quite comfortable on a first tee since, and certainly wouldn't feel cozy revisiting that first tee in western Ireland, where I once sent a breeze past my Titleist in front of what felt like every storytelling Irishman in county Clare.
It had been a long time since I visited the scene of that crime, and with a dozen years passed, I felt ready to put that swing behind me. And so with nary a spectator in sight aside from my travel mate Joe, and with our recently arrived college roommate, Steve, on camera duty, I pulled driver, and laced one long and deep down the first fairway at Lahinch, a yawning par-4 rolling upward to the green. And from that first sound shot onward, the course became less terrifying, and I began to see Lahinch for the miracle it was. The hit-it-over-the-rock par-5 that had stretched to 8,000 yards in my nightmares, it was really a lovely little hit-it-in-two gem of a hole. The blind par-3 (again, aim for the rock at the top of the hill) that I had maligned in many an anti-Lahinch rant? It was now perhaps the coolest short hole I'd ever played. And I even doubled the damn thing.
After a week of 80-degree temps and calm breezes, the sun went away, and the rains came. And came. Neither the cold nor my wet socks nor my frozen fingers could wipe the smile off my face. Not the lost balls (two, a respectable donation), and not the foursome of ugly Americans in front of us, holding up the entire course and heaping embarrassment upon my homeland. (When you get a case of beer delivered on the tenth green of Lahinch while a twosome that has been pushing you all day stands waiting in the rain in the fairway, you just don't have a clue. It was like they were bummed the place didn't have a cart girl. Sacrilege! This is Lahinch!)
The course is a stunner all the way around, and though I'd been there before, it was a whole new place. And the town, packed to the doors on a bank holiday weekend, was quite a bit more built-up and raucous than I remembered from the trip when I was 18. Not to mention that Lahinch is a huge surfing destination now (seriously, surfing in Ireland is the new big thing). I would guess that there were two surfers in town for every golfer. But dreadlocks or collared shirts, we were all wind-burned sportsmen in the pub at the end of the day.
We walked out to Doolin, and made our way through Galway and out to Ballyconneely, en route to the Connemara Championship Links, a course I had yet to see but had been hearing great things about. The walk to Ballyconneely via the bog road was easily the most resolve-rattling day of the trip so far. (Travel tip - if you're ever going to opt for the "bog road" anywhere, make sure you have a car. And a flare gun.) Steve proved himself to be a capable, if not more vocal, travel partner than Joe ("Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"), but the bog road just about ripped both our hearts out. Eighteen miles to our B&B, and three hours of walking in the wind with no civilization in view in any direction. Our minds and our feet pretty much went to mush. We were talking to the sheep. And they were talking back.
But it was in Connemara itself that my commitment to this whole endeavor was shaken to its core. After a four-mile walk from the village out to the golf course, we were half-knackered before even teeing off. Yet we strode up to the first tee with some bounce in our now misshapen feet, eager to watch Steve hit his first shot on a golf course, ever. I warned him that links golf in Ireland isn't exactly the beginner slope, but he'd walked all this way, and damned if he wasn't going to whack that little ball.
His first swing was surprisingly satisfactory. There was contact, the ball moving from his three-iron in a mostly forward fashion. There it was, the big smile from Steve, Irish golfing machine. And about four steps later, that smile flipped over fast as the water came. Water, not rain. A soaking, sideways, rainsuit-saturating downpour. I've slapped it around in the slop all over the world, but these were easily the worst conditions I had ever played in. A storm like this at home, you'd grab your kids and get in the basement. And here we were, kicking around the weeds for golf balls.
"Having fun?" I asked young Steve as he labored his way down No. 4.
His glasses fogged and dripping, water running off his nose like a waterfall. "Worst experience ever," was all he could get out. And I didn't have the energy to reply or retort. Hell, I pretty much agreed with him.
It was a battle of the sprit to make it to No. 9. We sought shelter in the temporary clubhouse (a new clubhouse is just about finished, a giant slate and stone facility overlooking the beach), and re-evaluated our day, our trip, our whole interest in this ridiculous little game.
I had walked here. For four days, we trekked to see these 18 holes, and I was going to let rain push me off my path? I couldn't. Was I committed to this quest or not? Would I take the easy way out, take a lift on the road, run from the rain, let this course called Ireland win? I quaffed a Guinness, put the dripping wet suit back on, and headed back out to the 10th tee. From there I watched Steve give me the finger and climb into a cab. And I didn't blame him a bit.
As impossible as this game might seem at times, golf has a funny yin and yang to it. Make a triple-bogey, chip-in on the next hole, make an eight on the next. Every time I've wanted to quit a round of golf, there seems to be that remarkable shot, that unbelievable drive, that pin-rattling 5-iron that rewards us for our commitment, our golfing character. This whole trip has had its gives and its takes-for every hill we've trudged up, there's been a hill behind it to cruise down. For every spell of rain, there's been a warm bit of sun not too far away. And for every spirit-crushing seaside storm, there's been a glorious afternoon like the one I experienced on the back nine at Connemara.
With the entire course to myself, the sun came out shortly after hitting my driver off 10 tee. And the sun didn't go away. The course dried out, and I played the most enjoyable nine holes of the trip thus far. Not just for the sunshine, but the back nine at Connemara is spectacular, a wholly different feeling golf course in comparison to the front, which is an enjoyable, but relatively tame stretch of links holes.
I played the 17th and 18th two par-5s that play up into the dunes, and then back down in sunglasses with my jacket off. And as the ultimate reward for my commitment, golf threw me a great big bone on that final hole. A blast of wind hurled my drive deep down the fairway, leaving me with an 8-iron into the green. A divine bounce off a greenside mound, and I was looking eagle in the eyes, 15 feet away, on this, my 90th hole on a course called Ireland. Poetry, I thought. What a perfect finish to this trial of a day. And then I was reminded who's really writing this story that little white ball as I proceeded to accomplish one of the saddest feats in golf, the three-putt-par.
Ireland and I, back to even. The wind was at my back the whole walk home.
Next up, on to Westport, Mulranny, Carne, Enniscrone ...