I returned recently from an eight day, eight and a half course golf trip to Ireland. Cathie and I have three wonderful sons and this was a chance to explore and play golf with the two who are golfers. Here are some random observations from that trip.
Links golf as land use: We only played links courses, not so much as a matter of intent, but rather as a result of geography and reputation. We wanted to play the big name courses in the North, and the rankings of other courses in the vicinity drove us toward the coast. Links golf is a fortuitous use of land that has no clear alternative function. I suppose it could still be used as grazing land, but we didn’t get the impression that the island was suffering from a lack of space on which to let sheep roam.
Links land is that transition between land that can be farmed and the expanse of sand that leads to the ocean–hence the name; it is a link between those two zones. It is a rumpled landscape, sand and dune grass laid like a carpet over the jumble of rocks and debris left behind by the glaciers. The transformation of this type of land into a place for recreation is–in my completely biased opinion– an ingenious improvisation. Unfortunately, golf as an export from its birthplace suffers–somewhat justly–from the accusation that it appropriates land that has other uses or is forcibly implanted into lava flows and desert expanses that should have been left alone to be nothing more than what they are. But that’s not the case here on the links land of Ireland and the U.K.
As a footnote to this, I do have a question for my Irish readers. How is it that no matter how special the location or how splendid the view and setting, there is almost always what we in the States would call a mobile home park plunked right down next to a course? In one respect this has an admirable equalitarian feel to it. Although there is public ownership of beaches in California, the habitable real estate immediately nearby is generally owned exclusively by the rich. These compounds of small manufactured homes abutting some of the most renowned golf courses in the world are a welcome alternative to that exclusivity, but it still feels odd to an American.
Links golf as a form of the sport: I find it really really hard. Nothing can unsettle my tempo like a stiff breeze in the face. Combine that with the anticipation that I have no idea where the bounces and ricochets are going to take the latest sacrificial victim from a dwindling supply of balls, and my already fragile golf synapses get fried. But having said that, it’s still a great ride. And I want to get better at it.
Reputations are deserved: Our itinerary ranged from the grand Royals (Portrush and County Down) to the more obscure (Narin & Portnoo and Cruit Island). When I walked off Royal Portrush I felt I had just played the greatest golf course I’d ever played, and my list of courses, while not all that extensive, includes Lahinch, Ballybunion and Pebble. Then we played County Down and I felt I might have to recalibrate, although how I would rank the two is unavoidably colored by the next point.
Performance affects perception: Quite simply–all things being equal–it is hard not to prefer a course one has played well over another where one didn’t fare as well. That’s simply human nature. And the vocabulary of course critique provides an arsenal of explanations that give either the positive or negative review a veneer of objectivity. Did you play that tricky par-4 poorly? Well, then it’s gimmicky. Oh, you birdied it? Well then, it’s an awesome little hole that gives you a lot of options.
Perhaps the distinction that applies here is the difference between liking and respecting. I liked Portrush and I respect Royal County Down.
The pleasures of being off the beaten track: As great as it was to play the Royals and have them live up to the advance billing–something that we all know does not always happen in life–it was equally fantastic to play other respected but not as renowned courses and feel at times that my son and I had them to ourselves. In particular I love the memory of our last day of golf. We had an 11:00 tee time at Portsalon but the weather looked threatening in the afternoon so we left Letterkenny early, hoping that we could get out and in before it hit. There was something pretty cool about driving into the parking lot at Portsalon around 9am and finding only three cars there. The guy in the proshop waved us out and there we were, hitting tee shots overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, headed out to a course where we would see just a handful of groups.
More to follow. This will do for now.