I like a little action once in a while. The odd game of pool, a trip to the blackjack tables in Atlantic City, maybe even a few bob on the Fighting Irish, a bet placed with a friend of a friend I've never met. So there was something of a kid in a candy store effect when I arrived in Ireland to find a bookmaker on every corner, ready to take a wager on everything from Gaelic football to the ending of the last Harry Potter book. (I think I'd have a hard time getting a line on Harry v. Voldemort back in South Philly.)
At first I was captivated by the convenience of so much gambling vice, with horse races running every five minutes on every TV in every pub. But after not placing a single winning wager in six weeks a feat worthy of some long odds in itself a trip to the Irish bookkeeper started to lose its appeal. I passed the Ladbrokes and the Paddy Powers with indifference.
That is, until British Open time, where, unlike the Cork vs. Tipperary hurling match, I had a clue about what the hell I was betting on.
I headed into Ladbrokes in Bray and took three players to win. An inside tip from a golf journalist friend had me putting a fiver on Niclas Fasth. Retief Goosen seemed a sound value at 50-1, and in a moment of near treasonous stupidity, I actually scribbled down "Colin Montgomerie to win." It was surely the most absurd bit of fiction I've ever written.
My new friend Chip was wise to bring his trolley with him to transport his gear around Ireland, but he was a genius to put 10 Euro on Padraig Harrington at 20-1.
Disgusted by Sergio Garcia's insurmountable lead, Chip handed me his worthless ticket on Saturday and headed for the airport. He was in the air when Paddy lifted the Claret Jug. I kidded myself that he might not hear about it a major long shot for a golf nerd like Chip but after he'd been back in the states for a few days I got his message, "How about that Harrington!" So your euros are on the way, Chip. Most of them at least, after I deduct my fee.
Leading up to the Open, one of the big stories here was whether Padraig was ever going to break through that confidence barrier, if he could go from being a top 10 player to being among the top 4. I'm glad he waited until last week to finally arrive at the pinnacle of the golf pyramid so I could enjoy it with my friend Tim in a packed pub in Arklow. Just arrived from Philadelphia to replace Chip on the road, Tim objected to someone double-bogeying the final hole of a major and still winning. But as one of the many golf cliches my father taught me goes, "They don't ask how. They ask how many."
We cheered and roared and toasted with the locals. They even turned off the horse racing during the playoff, something akin to shutting off the Guinness over here. Spending a Sunday watching golf instead of walking was going to muddy our itinerary during a week in which I was already trying to squeeze in a detour down to the farthest corner of Ireland, an unplanned visit to the links at Rosslare but it was the Open and an Irishman was leading! Hell, even God kicked up his feet on Sunday.
So we stayed glued to the action, and with four million of his countrymen, sent up the loudest collective F-bomb in Irish history as Padraig butchered the last at Carnoustie. The playoff put us well off schedule, and though it's only been for emergencies or scheduling snafus that I've taken a lift, I informed Tim that we would be taking a taxi today, that I don't walk in the dark. Go ahead, call me a cheater I'm going to cross the 1,000-mile mark this week and I think my feet would disagree.
Tim is the anti-Chip. Whereas Chip had never been to Europe and was as go-with-the-flow as could be, Tim is something of a seasoned traveler, and a man who likes to steer the ship. Among our friends, Tim is the planner, the organizer of our golf and travel. Turning over the reigns to me was going to be tough for him, this much I knew. But I was surprised that on his first night in Ireland, I was already issuing the disclaimer: "You're on your own, Tim. If you die, it's not my fault."
Allow me to also say that Tim is not cheap. Quick to pick up a tab or throw around Phillies tickets, he doesn't covet money as much as he adores a good deal. Something of an eBay tycoon, he's sold everything from cars to Pope coins (I'll save that story for the book) on the Web at significant profit. I wasn't surprised to get his text from the airport: "Should I invest in duty free smokes as currency?"
Neither of us smoked, but with cigarettes going for $10 a pack over here, it was a business opportunity Tim couldn't pass up. What he was adamant to pass up, however, was the taxi I had arranged to take us to our next town.
"I'm hitching," Tim insisted. Considering this was Tim's first day in Ireland, that he had no phone and no idea where we were headed, if it was north, south, or sideways, I told him hitching alone at dusk was basically the worst idea ever. Predictably, my protests only strengthened his resolve, and soon I was watching Tim head off down the road, waving duty-free cigarettes at passing cars as I waited for my cab.
It wasn't the cost of a cab that bothered Tim, it was paying for a service that you could get for free, just by sticking out your thumb. Sort of that sick feeling I get from paying for parking, or wireless internet (little old ladies are still charging me fivers for the broadband signal in their B&B!). I arrived safely in Courtown, 30 Euros lighter, and Tim was nowhere to be found. I waited in the hotel, then headed out to scour the town for his neon green wind breaker. As I contemplated an unpleasant phone call to his wife ("Yeah, hi, I lost your husband") and yearned for the erstwhile days of Chip and Brian travelmates who stuck to the itinerary I did what one does in such moments in Ireland. I went to a pub, a place called The 19th Hole, and toasted my friend turned roadkill with a lonely pint of lager.
On some subconscious level, I must have known that if there was any place on this planet where I was going to be reunited with Tim, it was in a pub called The 19th Hole. Drawn to it like a moth to flame, I wasn't three sips into my pint when a miraculous green jacket walked through the door, a familiar voice calling out, "You think any of these people smoke Marlboro lights?"
An aside for the tax man: Tim had almost no success in funding his travels with duty-free tobacco. I lectured him a bit about it being a real downer to my book if one of my friends gets abducted along the way, and he almost agreed, and the next day we did enough road walking to break his will. After 20 miles on the N25, the next time I suggested a taxi, Tim would be only too happy to wait.
After a lovely side trip down to Rosslare for golf at St. Helen's Bay, a family friendly golf resort with three killer closing holes, and the Rosslare Links, as true and natural a links as I've found in Ireland, I put Tim on the bus to the airport, alive and well, legs good and sore. He was planning on spending the night in Limerick before his morning flight. I explained to him that Limerick wasn't the safest spot in Ireland (they call it Stab City), that he should really make some arrangements for a place to stay. But Tim was back at the steering wheel now. He was going to do it his way.
"I don't know where I'm going to stay," he explained, climbing onto his bus. "I'll figure it out when I get there."
Did Tim spend a free night in the Shannon airport, carton of Marlboro Lights for a pillow? Too bad I couldn't find a Ladbrokes. It would have been a lock.
Next, on to Old Head.