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 eighth installment; the rest are here.
It was somewhere on the road to Greencastle that my brother-in-law Brian's ankle died. I had a certain amount of sympathy for Brian, as I had struggled through Achilles anguish earlier in the trip. The back of your ankle feels as if it's being sliced with a steak knife, and you clomp around flat-footed like an elderly Frankenstein. It's no fun. But I did have a bit of fun, I must admit, seeing Brian implode two miles from Greencastle, when I could have kept going another 10. Thirty-two years old, never being a fitness freak, it did feel sort of good to best the college boy who tossed his backpack to the curb, while I didn't bother loosening mine.
As we left Greencastle the next morning, having played my last round in the Republic of Ireland for several weeks, leaving Donegal and boarding the ferry to Derry, I wondered if the treatment we'd been receiving in Rosapenna and Ballyliffin and Greencastle would continue. Like many Americans, I was somewhat unsure about traveling in Northern Ireland. When we think Northern Ireland, we often think Belfast, and when we think Belfast, rightly or wrongly, we think dangerous (ironic in my case, coming from a hometown, Philadelphia, where 400 people were murdered last year). As opposed to the cheery-faced welcome wagon that is the southwest of Ireland, some travelers maintain a stereotype about folks in the North, that they will be a more guarded, less welcoming bunch. It wasn't two hours after crossing into Northern Ireland that I had that unfortunate stereotype confirmed in stereo.
I was looking forward to playing Castlerock, a golf course that many in Donegal had told me was just as deserving a links as Portstewart and Portrush, but overshadowed by its neighbors. Brian and I arrived in town and met up with a college friend, Sean, who had been given a pass from his wife for five days in Ireland. I checked us in at the course reception, and after some lunch, we headed into the pro shop for some shopping. We were met in the shop by someone who I assume was an assistant pro, perhaps the ranger, who eyed us with immediate suspicion. Perhaps he was judging us by our four-day stubble, or our accents, but as I went to purchase a yardage book, he snapped a quick, "Who are you with?" with a lilt of suspicion I hadn't heard since the time I tried to sneak my way onto Merion.
"We're with, uh, ourselves."
He made a face that was dripping with a condescending sort of confusion, like we were speaking in a foreign and inferior tongue. We explained that we'd been told we could play any time before 2:30, when an outing would have the first tee, and I figured the conversation, or lack thereof, had ended there.
We walked out of the pro shop with our souvenir golf balls, slightly put off, but ready to rip it on what looked like a fun little dogleg in front of the clubhouse. But our friend was quick on our heels, following us out of the pro shop like we'd pocketed something. I wasn't two steps to the tee box before he stopped me with a, "Do you have golf shoes?"
"I play in these," I explained to him, referring to my brown leather walking shoes that have been my absolute lifeblood around Ireland. The golf shoes went home two months ago, tossed overboard to lighten my load, and this was the first in 20+ golf courses that I'd heard my pair of Keens questioned.
"You can't play in those shoes," he seemed somewhat pleased to inform me.
"I can't play?"
"I can't play?"
A shake of his head, long and slow.
"You can't even get into the clubhouse in those shoes."
He didn't know it, but this had now become personal. He was talking crap about the shoes that had just carried me 600 miles, the two best friends I had in the world. Nobody puts these shoes in a corner, mister.
"That seems strange to me," I politely protested. And he came quick with, "Why does that seem strange?" The question had a sort of let's-drop-the-gloves twang to it. The episode proceeded in a similarly unpleasant manner for a few minutes, where he walked me into the office to further embarrass me by checking if we had paid, as if we'd come all the way from America for the rush of sneaking onto Castlerock in our sneakers. Things were put back together by a club secretary who interceded, only approving of my shoes when he got wind of my being a writer (a card I try to not play, but this was an occasion if ever there was one), who defended our friend by explaining, "He was only doing his job."
And that's a fine explanation. I worked in a pro shop. I've seen power trips behind the counter turn duffers away from a golf course, tails between their legs. But there is a way to do your job like a pro, and there's a way to do your job like a ... well, you know what I mean.
I tell you this story here not as some sort of pen-mightier-than-the-sword comeuppance (though it doesn't feel terrible to get the last word on this), but because that little bit of unpleasantness exhibits something about the miracle of golfing and traveling in Ireland. I have walked 600 miles, played 20-something golf courses, many of them somewhat exclusive, stayed in 50 different hotels and B&B's, and I didn't meet a disagreeable person until day 60. Amazing. I'd have had a dozen tee time snafus or table service blow-ups in Florida by this point, I'm sure. The point here isn't that the folks in Ireland and Northern Ireland are unwelcoming it's that, incredibly, 99.9% of them aren't.
I played pissed off for the rest of my round at Castlerock, formulating this column in my head (the first five drafts were not so subdued), and that was a real shame, because Castlerock is a lovely golf course. If you're doing the Portrush and Portstewart swing, don't skip Castlerock; it's up there with the Enniscrones, the Murvaghs of the south. And the nine hole course they've built is a blast. Up and down the dunes, lots of irons off the tee, placing shots, playing bounces, it was real fun. I'd even say it gives Cruit Island a run for its money as the top nine-holer in Ireland.
We headed up to Portstewart, and played the best opening nine holes I've found yet. These links courses usually need to warm up, work their way out toward the ocean and the dunes, but Portstewart starts with a WOW. It doesn't finish quite as dramatically on the back stretch, but it's in my top five for sure. And our accommodations only helped that ranking. The Strand House is one of my real finds thus far. Think Four Seasons meets bed and breakfast, at a B&B price. Flat screens and a Jacuzzi tub, killer breakfast and tailored to golfers with club storage and a drying room. Three doors down from the club, any hangover from our Castlerock encounter was washed away by our hosts, Tom and Ernestine, who couldn't do enough for us. We all wanted to put them in our golf bags and take them with us.
Following the incident of the shoes of ill-repute, I grew quite anxious when I spotted a gray-haired starter in jacket and tie guarding the first tee in Portrush. We'd been warned in Castlerock that we wouldn't be allowed to play Portstewart or Portrush sans spikes, and I was sure this gentleman was going to pounce. (For the record, my shoes are not sneakers, which I would never wear on a golf course.) Convinced I was nonetheless busted, I walked to the tee, ready to be rebuffed. And instead, Sean and I were met with nothing but graciousness, a big handshake for both of us, and a hearty welcome to Portrush. The gentleman only offered encouragement, even as Sean proceeded to knuckleball his drive into the very nearby weeds.
"Have a good round, lads," he told us. And as we made our way around the only Irish course to ever host the British Open, enjoying Portrush on a sun-drenched afternoon, me and my two best friends of brown leather loved it, every step of the way.
Next up, Ballycastle, Ardglass, County Down ...