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 tenth installment; the rest are here.
Before setting off for my journey around Ireland, my wife, Allyson, asked me which traveling companion I was most looking forward to meeting up with, aside from herself, of course. I explained that it was my English mate Julian’s visit that I was most anticipating. Not only because Julian is a big-personality extrovert, the kind of guy who could make a best friend at an IRS audit, but because he has a great can-do, no-worries, it’ll-get-sorted attitude. Translation: Julian was going to do next to nothing to prepare for this trip. It was a vacation, how tough could it be? And thus he brought with him the sort of potential travel disaster that was the stuff of bestsellers.
When Julian met me in Belfast, my hopeful suspicions were confirmed. I’d whittled my pack down to the absolute bare essentials — one sweater, two shirts, two nylon pants, wicking and waterproof everything, no cotton. Julian, on the other hand, seemed to be showing up for every meal in a new ensemble. He forgot to pack his toiletries, left the waterproof hat I gave him at home, and while he wouldn’t give me a final tally, I counted at least a half-dozen t-shirts. Three pairs of shoes, two dozen golf balls (I tried to limit my load to six), Julian would eventually admit that he had packed for his two weeks on the road in slightly less than five minutes. It took me five months to carefully allot every square inch of my backpack, and I still felt unprepared. This was going to be a horrible. I couldn’t wait.
It was a short walk to Crossgar, where Julian learned the emotional dangers of taking too much hope from the roadside mileages (“Six more miles! The last sign said six more miles!”). But he made it to town in his sneakers, through the orange blisters and the all-over shin pain that have become welcoming gifts to everyone who has joined me on the road thus far.
We met up with Allyson in Downpatrick, her second of three visits we’ve planned, and we all made our way down to Ardglass. We settled down for two nights in Margaret’s Cottage, the most supremely located B&B of the trip. If you stumble coming out of the lovely little cottage, you just about fall into the Ardglass Golf Club clubhouse, a fifteenth century castle set on the edge of the sea, waves crashing against the first tee, the most jaw-dropping parking lot view I’ve ever seen. Turn left out of Margaret’s, just past Aldo’s, a restaurant well above Irish standards, and you’re a dozen paces to the Old Commercial Bar, one of those great old pubs that it is much harder to get out of than into.
Ardglass was not only very playable, but the sea was in view on almost every hole, a trait I’ve found uncommon, even for a links (on most links courses, playing down in the dunes, you hear and feel the ocean, but don’t always see it). The clubhouse was as elegant inside as it was ancient outside. Good food, great golf, perfect pub, within about 10 square feet. After counting the days to the end of my Irish adventure, Allyson found herself poking around town, looking for houses for sale. That’s what we thought of Ardglass.
So it was with full bellies and floating hearts that we set out on the road to Newcastle, to take on one of THE courses on this trip, a links that many consider second to none on the planet, Royal County Down. Shaving miles was a priority on this leg of the walk, considering Julian’s bursting backpack, and Allyson’s spousal nudging, so I planned a route that would turn our 19-mile day into a more manageable 15. By walking along the beach and skipping the A2 coastal road, we would not only save steps, but a day strolling the beach is always better than an afternoon truck-dodging on the asphalt. That is, unless that beach is covered with jagged, slimy, ankle-breaking rocks, and unless it rains like Ireland had cast a plague upon American golfers.
I don’t want to sound like the soft Yankee traveler and whine about getting wet in Ireland, but it feels as if it has rained for a month. Oh wait, it actually has. Soaked to the bone, no road or shelter in sight from the beach, wading through ankle-deep streams dividing the beach — we were big dumb sponges making our way to County Down, those warm feelings from Ardglass all extinguished fast.
I implored my travel mates to keep faith, told them that Irish rain was almost always followed by Irish sun. No chance of a rainbow if there wasn’t a little water along the way. And after the downpour, we did find some bright sky, shook off our rain hats, and begged for a sunburn. We walked along a stretch of flat sand, the town of Newcastle now in sight in the distance. Our hell had turned into a bit of heaven with the changing wind, the way it can in Ireland. Wait, are those smiles I see on my walking partners? And then, wait — are those gunshots I hear?
The beach we’d found was lovely and unspoiled, not a footprint or hoof print in sight, perfectly untouched, aside from curious red signs along the dunes, warnings, I presumed, of some rough surf or protected sea grass. But as we came across a strange brick tower on the beach, I began to feel like I had walked into an episode of “Lost.” And when that tower began screeching a metallic alarm, barking out a crackly cold war recording, YOU ARE IN A DANGER ZONE, YOU ARE IN A DANGER ZONE, we all went white as the sand. Actually, we all went white as the firing range targets now just visible on the other side of the beach.
I’ve had shortcuts take me through backyards and over fences, past guard dogs and through service entrances, even into electric-fenced cow pastures. But this was the first time, and I pray the last, that my efforts to outwit Ireland found me on the very wrong end of a British Army base.
Rain-whipped and spirit-crushed, we considered pushing along down the beach. We’d come so many miles, we couldn’t bear to turn back — and what can they do to us for walking on the beach? We’re allies, right? But when the ocean breeze cracked with the pop, pop, pop of high-powered machine gun fire, we each did a quick about-face in the sand, and followed that disembodied beach voice’s advice to return from whence we came.
We did make it to Newcastle, free of bullet holes, and we were pleased to find that we were actually staying a few miles outside town in Dundrum, in a first-class B&B called the Carriage House. Aside from the pricey luxury of the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, the town is mostly arcades and bumper cars, whereas Dundrum was a much more peaceful spot, with two of our favorite restaurants in Ireland (the Seafood Bar and the Buck’s Head).
And what of Royal County Down, a tee time for which we had battled the British Army? I wouldn’t say it was worth a head shot, but I’d probably take a flesh wound for the chance to play there again. I was secretly hoping that I wouldn’t like County Down, that I would be able to reveal to you that it was over-hyped, not worth the price, that its famously snooty attitude was well-earned, that you should stick to the hidden gems of Carne, Ardglass and the like. And all I can really tell you is that, yeah, it is that good. Tough as hell, but frankly, it might be as good as golf gets. I’ve played Pine Valley, and County Down has it by a length.
I can’t say I haven’t had more actual fun playing other courses, and if I wasn’t at least a solid bogey golfer, I don’t know if County Down would be enjoyable enough to justify the trip. Julian, who didn’t hit a ball in preparation for this trip, explained about County Down, “All the holes look the same when you’re looking down at the weeds.” But as Allyson remarked as we walked to the first tee, “I feel like we’re about to play in the Masters or something.” The place gives you that feeling that you are doing something entirely special. Every blade of grass perfectly manicured, but a layout that feels perfectly unmanipulated in a way that only such ancient courses can. I’d stick to the A2 coast road to get there, but I’d say that you haven’t really played Ireland until you’ve made your way up to Down.