Having recently graduated from Loyola College in Baltimore, my brother-in-law Brian scratched together his graduation cash and hopped on a plane, joining me in Letterkenny, County Donegal, last week. He arrived with a sack of provisions from home: contact lens solution, sun block, energy eats, and, most importantly, a dozen fresh Titleists. As any of you know who have ever played in Ireland, the golf balls here are a lousy bunch of runaways. They leave you fast.
If there’s anything I’ve found maddening about links golf in Ireland — which otherwise I consider to be golf in its greatest, truest expression — is that good golf shots can quickly become gone golf shots. Considering a shot with sound judgment and executing that shot with absolute precision, that’s pretty much as good as you can do in this game. Such a feat should always be rewarded. But as I’ve made my way around Ireland, I’ve had to bite my tongue from time to time, grin and bear it when a perfect sweet-spot effort runs through the green and into the hungry weeds. Gone. It happens all the time. It wouldn’t hurt so much if Titleist ProV1’s here didn’t run a debit card-destroying 18 Euro for a sleeve of three. That’s eight dollars per ball! So you can see why I was eager to dig into young Brian’s goodie bag and replenish my supply.
Along with a dozen ProV1’s for me, Brian had brought a box of 30 Dunlops for himself. He held up his booty of golf balls, laughing, a little cocky, “Think I brought enough for two weeks?”
And as all such proud proclamations turn out, they didn’t quite last him two days. By the time he reached the 13th hole at Sandy Hills in Rosapenna, Brian was already playing the souvenir logo ball I’d bought in the pro shop — the last ball between us. I knew this stretch of the trip was going to be expensive in an unexpected way.
Aside from the expensive golf balls, I found Rosapenna to be one of the best values on this trip. Granted, the Rosapenna Hotel was a bit of a splurge for me, but compared to its luxury resort peers, it’s quite a good deal, particularly with the reduced greens fees for guests. And the Sandy Hills links is not to be missed — tough as nails, and a total joy. I’ve played Irish courses where I’ve felt enveloped by the countryside, but at Sandy Hills, I literally felt lost in it, just rolling landscape and the sea, each hole entirely to itself. The hotel is unassuming from outside, but real class within. Attracting a slightly older crowd, it would be the first place I’d recommend for my parents. And the manager, Terry, was the warmest host I’ve had thus far in Ireland. And having just crossed the 500-mile mark, I really needed one!
After battling the Tom Morris and Sandy Hills links, Brian was down 22 golf balls (that’s 22 gross — he’d found five, so he took some pride in his net lost tally of 17). Now Brian is a fair enough golfer — with the self-taught swing of an accomplished hockey player, he’d broken 90 in his golfing life and expected to do the same at some point during his half-dozen Irish rounds. But he got a serious case of the rights somewhere on his way to Donegal, and on nearly every tee box another wild lash sent his ball soaring in an almost impossibly sideways direction, like a wounded bird in a wind storm, careening out of sight and crashing down into waist-high weeds not previously considered part of the golf course.
“Gone,” Brian would announce, defiance in his voice, like he was warning his golf ball. Go on and tell your friends — I’m gonna lose every last one of you.
Yet I don’t suppose Brian really minded losing his 33rd golf ball of the trip during his third round in Portsalon, one of my favorite little spots in Ireland. The golf course is top quality links, but the beach you play alongside is as lovely as any I’ve seen, a perfect half crescent strand surrounded by rock and hills. And thanks to a photographer friend I met in Rosapenna (cheers, Paul!), we were able to make contact with a pub owner in Portsalon — rather, the pub owner in Portalon — a lovely woman named Sara who was willing to put us up for the night in the apartment beside her bar. Portsalon didn’t have any hotels or B&B’s, but suddenly we were staying right beside the pub. I expected it to be crap, but didn’t care a bit. And what a great surprise. Not only was the Stores pub one of my top two pubs in Ireland (you’ll have to buy the book to get my number one), perched on the pier and overlooking the sea-crashed coast, but the apartment was lovely and modern and clean, with a balcony that hung out over the ocean and a little private bit of beach. Ball hemorrhages aside, Brian thought the spot was brilliant, and he was right.
Things turned around for Brian a little bit in Ballyliffin, the northernmost course in Ireland, high on the Inishowen Peninsula. We found a driving range where Brian replenished his ball supply (for the record, I believed him when he said he bought a dozen balls with black stripes in the pro shop). After the front nine on the amazing Old Course, it was once again doubtful whether Brian would have enough balls for the back nine. But he started to straighten it out, started to see his tee shots actually bounce in the distance, leaping up from the turf as if to say, I’m here, I’m still alive!
Instead of silently moping through the weeds, he pepped up and started offering more on-course criticism than Johnny Miller — D’you mean to hit it there? Hey Coyne, did I tie you on that hole? Bogey? Yeah, me too. And as we walked our way out of Ballyliffin, not too bothered about the two miles back to the hotel, I congratulated Brian on his play and told him that the next day’s round would be his chance to get back at Ireland.
“Even got a ball left,” he explained. “Just need to hit the driving range tomorrow, I’ll be all set.” We both knew he wasn’t going to the range to work on his swing, but after two months and five hundred miles, whatever it takes you to get around this course called Ireland, it works for me.