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 first installment.
It's A Course Called Ireland in the States, but when this book comes out in Ireland, a better title might be, Yer Doin' What? It's the reaction I've gotten from every man, woman and child in Ireland who's gotten word of what I'm attempting this summer.
"How long you in Ireland for? You over on holiday?"
"Sort of. I'm here for four months, actually."
"Four months. Really? What for?"
"Well, I'm playing every links golf course in the country. On foot. I'm walking around the whole of Ireland. With my golf clubs on my back. For four months."
After a few confused moments, an open-jawed look of huh?, that's usually where the Irish title comes up.
And so the adventure began this past Monday as I arrived in Shannon and was met in the airport by one of my first-week companions, a friend from home named Denis. As Denis has explained to me on a number of occasions, he's addicted to golf, and addicted to Ireland, so there was no way he wasn't tagging along for a few legs of this trip.
He was there to bear witness to the first 18 holes of my adventure on a sleepy little seaside course called Kilkee. Standing on the first tee, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, where the water was torn white against the jagged, charcoal-colored coast, Denis stood tall and breathed it all in.
Pepper-haired and old enough to be my Dad, that day he was a young boy staring into the sea, looking over this land he loved. He placed his three wood behind his ball with reverence, took one long contemplative pause, and brought his club back, ready to make his golfing mark in Ireland ... just as a guy driving buy in a blue pick-up leaned out his window and yelled "FORE!" with perfect, mid-backswing timing. Denis just about pirouetted as he went down after the ball, knuckling a heel shot into the very nearby weeds.
I had come a very long way, and this felt very far from home, from my wife and our tiny street in Philadelphia, where it was now just getting warm enough for the stoop sitters to come out, where they'd all say hello on your way home at the end of the day. But as I watched Denis curse himself in Kilkee, the rest of our foursome sharing a good laugh at his heckled misfortune, I felt a warm familiarity coming over me. The drive-by-back-swing-golf-scream is a well-known joke, a street-side tee box classic. And Kilkee or Philadelphia or wherever I might find myself tomorrow, it still plays funny everywhere.
(Track Coyne's progress as he makes his way through Ireland) Having begun my walk around this course called Ireland on that first tee in Kilkee, my best man Joe Byrne and I headed out on the road from Kilkee to Doonbeg, 10 miles or so, on a lovely high-70's morning. (Joe had generously volunteered to fly over from Chicago and join me for the first leg of my festivities.) The weather has been outrageous thus far, close to 80 every day with a light breeze. Considering we packed for wet, wind and cold, we've basically been sweating our way around Ireland, knowing not to complain, that it would change soon enough.
And the walk to my next tee box in Doonbeg, it wasn't bad. Long. A bit boring. Plenty of cows and a few curious on-lookers, wondering who these yanks were out walking the narrow stone-walled roads with golf clubs strapped to their backpacks. When we arrived in Doonbeg after three or so hours, we were knackered, as they say, but invigorated by the possibility of a destination, and the possibility that this whole trip itself might actually be done, one leg at a time.
Standing in the center of town, breathing in Doonbeg, we dropped our bags and went into the petrol station. We were here, but we had yet to see a sign for any golf course. Curious, as this was one of the major golf destinations in all of Europe.
"Oh, the golf course," the shopkeeper with wispy red hair told us, a look on his face like we had asked him the quickest way to Shanghai. "The golf course is well outside of town. You've still got five miles or so to go, I'd say."
Five miles? FIVE more miles? We'd made it to Doonbeg, damnit. Doonbeg, we're here, the sign says so! It was like a 12-year-old finding out at the last minute that Christmas this year would be on the 30th.
"You've got two, three miles to go around to the entrance. And the drive into the course, once you're past the gates, well that's another two miles itself."
And we were broken. All was lost. First day, and Ireland had already won.
"But then again," our friend explained, "there is a shortcut."
So after a half hour walk down a cow path, Joe and I found ourselves walking directly toward the behemoth Doonbeg clubhouse, manor house meets modern luxury, a stone golfing castle calling us home. Five miles? Impossible. We'd barely gone a mile, and found ourselves staring at the clubhouse, just a few paces away. I could have tossed a Titleist through one of the windows.
And if either of us could have walked on water, it would have been one of the greatest short cuts of all time.
I can say with confidence that of all the people who played Doonbeg that day an absolutely impressive golf compound, perhaps the most luxurious, most pristine setting I'll find in Ireland Joe and I were the only ones who arrived by taking off our shoes and socks, rolling up our pants, wading across a chilly stream, scrambling up the face of a sand dune like we were storming the clubhouse, and slipping through the rear service gate as a food truck reversed its way up to the clubhouse.
And yet, it felt the perfect way for us to arrive. The golf was brilliant, some of the most interesting links holes I've ever seen, immaculate greens cradled within 50-foot dunes. And it was one of the richest-feeling resorts I've ever visited, a surprising find outside a modest town on the coast of Ireland. But for a couple of guys sweating their way along the N67, strapped for not having found a cash machine for two days, cow shit in our shoes and a solid three-day stubble, sneaking into this Shangri-La, it just felt sort of right.
Next, onward to Spanish Point, Lahinch, Connemara ...