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 fourth installment; the first is here.
The first course my father and I ever played in Ireland was a sublime links in County Sligo called Enniscrone. Fifteen years ago, Enniscrone was a hidden treat, a seaside 18 that we only stumbled upon one afternoon when we couldn’t stomach another afternoon of shopping for sweaters or searching graveyards. So we followed the arrows to a golf course, and Mom dropped us off in the parking lot. A couple of 12-year-olds who knew about as much about golf as they did about calculus threw our bags on their shoulders and followed us around the hills of Enniscrone.
After putting us to sleep with an opening four holes that were truly snoozy (three par fives, all straight away and flat as a runway), Enniscrone woke up and roared, winding us in and out and over its dunes. It was my first links golf experience, and perhaps the one I’ve been chasing around Ireland this past month, searching for that smile-on-my-face, driver-in-my-hand, mouth-wide-open moment. That giggly WOW experience you might find only once in your golfing life.
But when my dad made his way out to the edge of Ireland to meet me last week, we found it again in a place called Belmullet.
An island on the far western reaches of County Mayo, Belmullet is a good way off the regular Sligo-Westport-Galway-Killarney tourist route. I was certainly looking forward to seeing my family after four weeks of humping my clubs along the N59, but when I arrived in the Broadhaven hotel in Belmullet, I was somewhat suspicious about this reunion I had planned actually taking place. My parents making it all the way out to Belmullet, four hours from Shannon airport, in a rental car on the wrong side of the road? Let’s just say, if I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t call it a lock.
It wouldn’t help that all the signs in this part of Mayo were in Gaelic (Belmullet being in an Irish-speaking region known as the Gaeltacht), and that they would be driving around Ireland’s wrong-way round-abouts after an overnight flight, on which I know neither of them would have slept for more than three minutes. And so when I found them alive in the lobby after my walk from Bangor, I wasn’t really hoping for much more out of their visit.
Dad did christen the Hyundai on a bridge wall in Galway (Mom might have taken an ounce too much enjoyment in showing off their modified quarter-panel, evidence that she was in the right during her four hours’ protest that dad was going to hit a wall), but all was well in Bellmullet. Not only were they alive, but by all appearances they were still married, even speaking to each other. Whatever would happen the rest of the week, it really didn’t need to get much better. But after walking three miles out to the Carne links the next morning, oh, things sure as hell did.
I met an American in our hotel the next morning who was eager to get my opinion after having playing Carne. Per his experience, he found the front nine to be rather ordinary, explaining that the course didn’t really come to life until the back nine.
“I’ve played a lot of great places,” he told me, with a good deal of that American immodesty I’d been missing, “and I didn’t think the front was anything special.” And if it wasn’t 8 in the morning, and he wasn’t sitting with his wife and daughter, I would have asked him if he was drunk.
In any string of words I might pen over the rest of my life, I might never write a more true sentence than this: Carne is absolutely brilliant. Front nine, back nine — every hole, every hill, every inch of the place is simply special. Granted, we played in blazing sun and a light breeze, and I played my best 18 holes in Ireland yet (77, with another eagle putt on the last hole, which I two putted this time, thankfully). So I am certainly biased by the contexts of our round. (I don’t care how clinical a course evaluator you might consider yourself, if you play well somewhere, you love it. If I had the shanks at Augusta, I’d probably tell you the place was a bummer.)
I’ve played great links courses that just beat you up. But at Carne, despite many blind holes and meandering fairways, I never stepped up to a tee without some idea where to hit it, without some sense of the golf shot each hole was asking for. Playing without a caddie, it’s a great thing to say about a golf course, and not an experience I’ve had on every links in Ireland. And if I do play a better course in Ireland, or anywhere on this planet, I’ll consider myself too lucky.
I’ve also found that some of the erstwhile hidden gems of Ireland — such as Enniscrone, the course we would visit next — are quite well discovered at this point. I can’t be critical of Ennsicrone. After a redesign, there isn’t a boring hole on the course. It’s a must-play, with perhaps the most beautiful and tallest dunes you’ll find in Ireland. But I remember this sensation of literally finding Enniscrone, stumbling upon it, that sense of joy in not only golfing around this wild links, but in feeling like you were the only golfer on the planet who knew about it, who understood what made it great. When I finished at Enniscrone the first time, I worked my way out of the dunes and down to the clubhouse, looking at nothing but green hills and sheep in all directions. But today, from 18 tee, you’ll see the back of a hotel, and a very unglamorous housing development.
For my taste, an integral part of playing these links is to feel like you have been dropped into a green and windy paradise. No carts, no tennis courts, and please, no cookie-cutter tracks of starter homes. And Carne is still very much that way. Standing on any tee, just cattle and a few cottages in the distance, you have arrived in a distant and special part of the earth. And the fact that Carne really is out there, even by my standards, where everything feels a month away — I hope its remote locale ensures that it will remain as pure as the day my father and I found it.
I’d have to say this was my father’s favorite Ireland trip thus far, and this was certainly the least amount of golfing he’s done. Maybe that’s why. In the past, we’ve roamed the country like frenzied golfing vagabonds, a new hotel every night, a new 18 every morning. He got to settle down, get to know the people, get to know this part of County Mayo where his grandparents came from, and where my mother’s family hails from as well. (We even met some very confused Irish cousins. You’ll have to buy the book for that episode, but trust me, it will be worth it).
And so as he came to what we both knew was probably his last hole in Ireland — touch wood, he’s in good health and still has plenty of golf in him, but at 73 with a half-dozen golf trips to Ireland under his belt, I’d say this would be his last. If I wasn’t on this adventure, I doubt he would have set off for Shannon yet again.
But it was great that he did. Not just to see his son, or take a more peaceful tour about the place, but because on the final hole at Enniscrone, on the first course he played in Ireland, and with no regrets, perhaps his last, he split the fairway with a modest drive, then knocked a low screaming three-wood along the turf, nearly reaching the green (at 73, breaking 100 from the regular tees on two of Ireland’s more challenging links, fair play to dad indeed). He made a solid chip, six feet or so short of the hole. I was away, but I stood back and let him line up his putt. Neither of us said it, but we knew this putt was significant beyond its six feet. I haven’t wanted to make a putt in a good while as much I was pulling for dad to make his. And wouldn’t you know it, in one of those only in Ireland, only on a golf course moments, dad stepped up and parred his last hole in Ireland. Dead center the whole way.