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 third installment; the entire journal is here.
I have played rounds of golf where it felt like the green was surrounded by some sort of impenetrable barrier, a protective force-field built of my own ball-striking shortcomings. Some days, the greens look the size of English muffins, surrounded by sticky moats of sorrow. But it wasn't until I teed it up on Mulranny Golf Links in County Mayo that I understood that some greens are truly harder to get to than others. Because some greens are surrounded by barbed wire.
I have some misgivings about kicking off a discussion of the Mulranny Links by bringing up the level-three security surrounding their nine fine putting surfaces, as Mulranny is a lovely and natural setting for a game of golf, set directly on the water, a plot of wind-lashing links fun. Built the way God intended, sans bulldozers and backhoes, Mulranny is a playable, compact nine-holer, with a fair amount of undulation and variety for a golf course of its size (a second set of tees rearranges the par and distances for your second nine).
Indeed, I've become quite charmed by Ireland's nine-hole courses. Links layouts typically possess so many unseen mounds and valleys, a first-timer usually finds himself wishing for another go. At the nine-hole courses I've been playing along Ireland's coast (Spanish Point, Mulranny, Clew Bay, and Achill Island to this point), I get that second chance straight away, and I typically play more tidy on the back nine, less the timid tourist I was on the front.
And as unexcited as the Mulranny members might be about their course possessing green-side hazards that could lead to a tetanus shot, I found everything about the place to be charming, challenging and just a lot of fun. To knock it along a stretch of seaside turf that you are sharing with donkeys, sheep, cows and horses is an absolute treat. A worth-the-trip throwback to the way golf was originally played, on pastures shared with one's herd, where that first ruling was made and the first relief taken from a steaming livestock left-behind. And there are a few such deposits to be negotiated around the Mulranny fairways, a small price to pay for grass kept at ideal fairway length by dozens of hungry greenskeepers in fuzzy white coats. The greens are thankfully devoid of any such obstructions, rolling fair and true, nary a hoof print to be found anywhere. See, that's where the fences come in.
I was interested to find that a number of courses in Ireland currently or formerly sit upon what is known as "commenage," which in my limited, overheard-it-in-the-pub understanding, is land that was not walled in when the land acts came into being, i.e., property that was utilized by many, with no one rightful owner. Such lands were shared between a number of shareholders (how they decided who the shareholders would be, and how many there would be, no one seemed able to explain). The Mulranny Links resides upon a stretch of land owned by 28 shareholders, the golf club itself holding only one of those shares. So the next time you find yourself complaining about the way things are done at your own club, imagine how it would be if 95 percent of your bondholders were farmers who couldn't give a sheep about golf. You'd be putting up the barbed wire, too.
The sheep and the donkeys seem to be tolerated, even enjoyed by the members. (Not so much the Titleist-stealing resident sheep dog I've heard that you can hit a fairway-splitting drive at Mulranny only to find that drive an hour later in the parking lot.) It's the horses that make the fences a necessity, as hooves on damp turf could turn this lovely links into a pocked and pitted disaster. So three rings of barbed wire are posted to protect each putting surface. Play to the green, open the gate, go on in and putt, and don't forget to close the gate on your way out. And if you hit the wires or the fence posts, local rule says you have the choice to replay your shot. Which I was surprised that I never actually did. Chipped cleanly through the wires a number of times. Seems at least with barbed wire, the 90-percent-air rule holds true.
The course was a fit test, a beautiful piece of links property. Provided a little more space, or a few more shares of the commenage, I suppose, they could really stretch their links into a world-class 18. The 9th/18th hole is particularly wonderful, uphill and sidehill to a severely elevated green. I wasn't crazy about the interior out of bounds (never a big fan, sprayer that I am) which felt awkwardly man-made on an otherwise au natural golf setting. But the course is a great little surprise set in the charming three-pub town of Mulranny. It's not a regular stop on the tourist route, but considering the quality of the Park Inn Hotel (best I've visited yet) and the curiosity of the links, consider Mulranny if you're interested in the less obvious Ireland.
And as I continue my trek around the less obvious Ireland north of 170 miles at last count I am learning plenty about myself, this country, and these people. I've learned that sidewalks are called pavements here, and there aren't nearly enough of them. I've learned that the Irish are even less trustful of politicians than Americans (big election coming up next week, and with six or more parties vying for votes, the papers and the television are awash with outrage and accusation). And I've learned that I must no longer refer to any sort of weather as "the worst yet," neither in my journal, or in these stories. Each time I allude to the worst conditions I've ever had, or ever would experience, Ireland seems quick to challenge me on that point.
Regarding the weather on my first nine holes at Mulranny, let's just say that it left something to be desired. Or perhaps, that the rain blowing off the sea felt like flaming needles being blow-darted into my face at point-blank range. My rain gloves turned to soggy leather sponges, my grips as tacky as a greased kielbasa, my resolve to play on through Ireland was once again challenged. But as we finished our fifth hole, and I spotted a rain shelter made of aluminum siding, I again felt Ireland giving me a break, a second chance, a tacit, cosmic bit of reassurance, that there would be shelter in the storm, that the road around Ireland would indeed rise up to meet me.
Until we came around the front of the shelter and saw that our safe haven from the wind and rain was currently occupied. Not by golfers we were the only players crazy enough to test the course in this weather but by four unbothered horses. They gave us a sort of equine, "Yeah, what are you going to do about it?" look. They weren't going anywhere. Hell, I wouldn't have moved for them, either.
So we continued on, glad that we did. The weather softened (spirit-crushing shit storm downgraded to mild misery), and the course showed itself to be enjoyable enough to stand up to the conditions. And as I sipped a Guinness in Nevin's pub with a new friend named Derek who had braved the winds with me to show me his wonderful little track, I dried my feet by the peat fire and once again felt the potential of this adventure. And I became once again convinced that when you're playing a course called Ireland, it's not the gold at the end of the rainbow. It's the Guinness at the end of the rain.
Next up, on to Carne, Enniscrone, Rosses Point...