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 sixth installment; the rest are here.
I’ll have to admit it — I was in a bit of a funk. Traveling Ireland solo this past week, the setting seemed to be losing some of its charms. The lovely chips, the morning sausages, the any-time cup of tea — I was afraid I was growing tired of it all. Even the pints — well, the pints were still sound, but not quite as smooth when sipping them alone. Golfing and trekking without company, I felt as if I was just trying to get through Ireland, rather than trying to get into it. But that all changed yesterday when that funk of mine was lifted fast in a place called Cruit Island.
Pronounced Crutch Island, I’d heard good things about the links on Cruit, been told it was the best nine-holer in Ireland. I had been intrigued by Ireland’s nine-hole layouts, which, percentage-wise, are a far more prevalent part of the golf landscape than in America. Spanish Point is a good enough course to become a fixture on your southwest swing. Mulranny was good fun, and I’d recommend Clew Bay if you have a free afternoon in Westport and a strong pair of legs. And if you want to see sheep, at Achill Island and Gweedore Golf Club, they hardly get out of your way.
Yet I had learned that a nine-hole track would never quite rise to the joy and challenge of playing eighteen distinct golf holes, that a nine-holer would never be able to compete with the grand and proper links of Ireland. But then again, that’s why I came on this trip. To learn something new.
My curious route to Cruit Island only made me more partial to this spot on the yonder edge of Donegal. After hiking eight miles up to Kinncasslagh and checking into my hotel (there was only one), I was disappointed when the gentleman behind the desk told me that the golf course was still a good three-plus miles away, another hour on the hoof.
As I slung my sack of Mizunos over my shoulder and started out for the road, he stopped me.
“You’re really walking?” the gentleman asked.
I nodded. I could no longer even muster a yeah, nary a humph for that question. I wish I had a hat that said, 1.Yes, I am walking. 2. Yes, I am mental.
“Well, there is another way to Cruit,” he explained. “Tide’s out. You want a short-cut?”
Tide’s out? Typically, I would steer clear of any mention of a short-cut that was contingent upon the gravitational interaction of the earth and moon. But in this case, I was lucky to be in an ornery enough mood to say screw it, I’ll risk death by rising water to get me off the road four minutes faster.
After following a path down to a beautiful old church, I came to a vast and long stretch of wet sand. A harbor drained of water, stretching outward for a mile. I called the hotel, just to make sure I wasn’t about to become the dumbest tourist in all of Europe.
“I’m looking at a huge beach here,” I complained into my mobile phone. “Don’t see any golf course.”
“Golf course is on the other side of the island. Just follow the road out to the green and white caravan.”
The road? Neither in my immediate vision, nor in my imagination did there exist any road, no green and white caravan. But in all fairness to my friend from the Viking House Hotel, upon closer inspection, I did find tire tracks in the sand heading out toward the water. And after fifteen minutes following those tracks, they did lead to a green and white caravan, that led to a road, that saved me fifteen minutes on my trip to Cruit Island.
To cross that expanse of sea-bottom sand on foot, out there in the farthest, rockiest, bluest reaches of Donegal, I felt like the only man on the planet, the only player on this particular course. And for the first time in a week, it didn’t bother me a bit. It actually made me quite happy. I passed three small islands of stone and wild grasses, islands that would be unreachable in a few hours. I even climbed up onto one of them, and found a stone cross atop the rocks, placed there in 1940, with an inscription that read, “May this cairn be a blessing to all who pass, and a beacon to guide them safely back to their homes and loved ones.”
A more welcome message at that time, in that spot, I could not have imagined. I felt blessed then, and felt blessed for the rest of that sun-splashed afternoon as I smiled my way around the nine holes of Cruit Island.
What can I say about Cruit? I can tell you that seven out of nine holes play blind, almost unfairly so, to the point where I had no idea where I was going most of the afternoon. I was hitting into locals, locals were hitting into me. Some of the greens seemed to be of a nearly unreasonable slope, the course was short by any standard, and the whole property was dissected by an ugly string of telephone wires.
And for all that, Cruit Island might just be the most lovely nine holes in Ireland.
As I’ve mentioned before, the advantage of the nine-holer is that you avoid that post-golf-pint remorse of, “If I only had one more crack at it.” And at Cruit, you need that second crack with so many blind shots to negotiate. Purists might balk at such a layout where everything winds its way out of your view. The eighth hole is a weakish par three, and sure, the phone lines are an eyesore. But if you can play Cruit Island on a clear day and not say that you had an absolute blast, then you’ve just got no golf heart — worse, no golf imagination.
On describing a find like Carne or Cruit, I understand that I might gush with hyperbole, heaping bests upon bests upon bestests. But I honestly believe, even with a few days to reflect on it, to sober myself up from that special day crossing the strand, that the sixth hole at Cruit Island is the best par three I’ve ever seen, let alone had the good fortune of playing (and parring, by the way). One-hundred-fifty yards that might play sand wedge, might play three wood, depending on the breeze, you hit out over rock and water, over an amazing ocean cavern at low-tide, with sea water splashing your face at high. You’d be pleased enough to find such scenery on a coastal sightseeing trip, let alone have the pleasure of trying to knock down a seven-iron over it.
It was a day to reaffirm my faith in this course, this place, this trip. The chips taste sweet again, the pints as smooth as ever. I might even give the Irish breakfast another shot. Maybe if Cruit Island had nine more. . .
Next, on to Rosapenna, Portsalon, and Ballyliffin. . .