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Golf in Ireland

Posted by: Ira Miller

Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 11:58 PM

Let me be really clear about the point of this exercise. If you love golf, really enjoy the game, you owe it to yourself to play links golf in the British Isles. Nothing compares with it.

Yes, there are courses in the U.S. that advertise themselves as “links-type” or even “inland” links, or some such. But for the most part, the only real links golf golf is played several thousand miles East of the U.S.

But the actual golf course is only part of the story. I recently returned from a golfing journey to Ireland with broadcaster Joe Starkey and, even though I have crossed the Atlantic with my clubs more than two dozen times, once more I was reminded that each new trip is a voyage of discovery.

The No. 1 discovery this time: I love, really love, the European Club in County Wicklow, less than an hour South of Dublin. And I really enjoyed Old Head, much more than I thought I would, even though it is not a true links course. The old courses -- by that I mean, a century old or so, or more -- always have been my favorites, so I was surprised to get so much pleasure from mere kids, courses both less than two decades old.

That’s why we go, of course. To learn about golf. And learn about ourselves, too.

First, The European Club.

The club was the brainchild of Pat Ruddy, a former golf writer and photographer who became a renowned golf course architect and still owns and runs the club with his family.

But this is not some little mom-and-pop operation.

This is links golf at its purest, with a touch of whimsy because Ruddy was so enchanted with the land he was developing that he produced 20 holes instead of 18; there are two extra par-3 holes, 7a and 12a.

First time I visited the course, in the ‘90s, the shop was in a little cabin, there was no clubhouse, and it poured rain. In fact, after nine holes, we put the clubs away and got into Pat Ruddy’s car (yes, automobile, not golf cart) to check out the back nine. Next time I was there, several years ago, there was a smallish clubhouse, the wind blew ferociously -- the windmills in the sea just off the back nine are reminiscent of Altamont Pass in the Bay Area -- and I struggled mightily to finish.

This time, however, they managed to arrange a perfect day -- sunshine, no wind to speak of -- and that gave us a chance to really examine the course. (And the clubhouse has been built out a little more, too.) One discovery is that it was not impossible for a 16-handicapper to play. Landing areas are generous, but you still have to hit the ball to the right spot. There is a lot of architecture on display -- shots meant to look like something they are not, and you have to figure it out. Distance is not onerous. Sure, you get those weird links bounces from time to time, but that’s part of the enchantment of playing that style of golf.

For a newish course, the European Club has gained some really positive attention and a ranking among the very best in the British Isles. It deserves the attention. One hole, the No. 1 index hole par-4 seventh, is listed among the world’s best 100 holes; two others make the top 500 list.

One facet I enjoyed even though I couldn’t take advantage of it, was a sign at the start which says, “We prefer traditional steel spikes for safety but soft spikes are allowed.” Most places these days demand soft spikes. Here, they encourage the real thing.

They also encourage smart play.

Pat Ruddy’s welcome in a course guide includes this: “The shot-maker and the thinking person will thrive on the challenges of a primeval piece of ground. The less adept should enjoy their own flashes of brilliance and the sheer beauty of nature in the raw. The unthinking golfer may suffer.”

Cliff’s Notes version: Play from a set of tees that fits your handicap.

The back nine includes a hilltop tee on the par-4 12th with a commanding view, which begins a nasty stretch of holes along the sea -- and a green on that 438-yard (white tees) 12th that is longer (127 yards) than many par-3 holes. (Shameless plug: I two-putted from 200 feet here for a par).

Americans should like the European Club, too. It’s one of the few courses in the British Isles that permit “buggies”  -- golf carts to those of us on this side of the pond -- without a doctor’s certificate certifying need. That’s not necessarily a plus for those who enjoy walking, plus the advice and companionship of a caddy, but it surely makes the course more accessible.

In fact, accessibility is what this style of golf is all about. I always have found it intriguing that the U.S. Open is played mostly on closed courses -- the type of courses most players only have heard about and can experience only under rare circumstances. In Britain and Ireland, there is hardly such a thing as a closed course. Even the most private of clubs, such as Muirfield and Royal County Down, are open to visitors with the foresight to book ahead. And the Old Course at St. Andrews, of course, is a public course.

But this is about golf in Ireland, and it brings back memory of a prior visit when we were driving through the countryside, trying to re-arrange our schedule because of travel concerns, and figured if we just stopped at a golf course they would have the phone numbers we needed.

The course we happened upon that day was Mullingar, an inland course. Now, stop and think for a moment what the reaction would be if you just drove into, say, the Olympic Club, and asked for some assistance. Yeah, right. Well, at Mullingar, they could not have been more accommodating. Here are the phone numbers you need. Have a beer. You simply must play the course while you are here. Barely let us leave.

I digress. (You can do that when you type in bytes on the internet instead of column inches in a newspaper, as I used to do.)

On to Old Head, the other newish course that deserves a visit.

As a life-long traditionalist, it was a real surprise to feel as I did about these newish courses. Discovery again.

Old Head’s keen feature is the vistas from virtually every part of the course, which is not a true links. It is built atop headlands, looking out to the sea where the Lusitania came to grief in World War I.

At Old Head, the key is keeping your head while enjoying the view, whether it is the sea, the lighthouse, or any of the other design features. The fairways are generous and the penalty for missing them, particularly on the cliffsides, usually is a lost ball.

On this trip, among others, we also played at Portmarnock’s Old links, considered by many the No. 1 test in Ireland (the Republic, that is, not including Northern Ireland), and this is really straightforward links golf, if there is such a thing. Portmarnock is just a few minutes from Dublin Airport, which makes it a really easy stop going or coming.

 Just North of Portmarnock is County Louth, a course sometimes referred to as Baltray for the village in which it is located. It’s tough -- and we got it on a really windy day -- and generally is acknowledged as having the best greens in Ireland.

Which brings us to two final tests out West, two of the most venerable courses in Ireland popular for different reasons.

One is Ballybunion, which vies with Portmarnock for a top spot in most Irish rankings. The other is Lahinch, a quirky layout with tight fairways, weird bounces and blind shots often spoken of in the same vein as Scotland’s Prestwick, the original British Open course. If you have time for just one of them, I’d recommend Ballybunion, because it is a better test of golf. Lahinch, however, is a course worth experiencing at least once.

Speaking of time, if you are in Ireland for golf, you owe it to yourself to drive to the North and play two of the greatest tests in the world -- Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. Royal County Down is No. 1 in the world on some lists, and deservedly so. It’s an exercise through the dunes with the mountains of Mourne always lurking in the distance.

Royal Portrush, the only course outside England and Scotland where the British Open ever was played (1951, won by Max Faulkner) is an absolute gem and rare among links courses for its lack of blind shots. It’s a course Americans can easily relate to -- and there is wonderful seafood to be had at Portrush’s harbour restaurant. Plus, if you want to drown your sorrows after a tough round, the Bushmills distillery is just a couple of miles away.

One other point to remember about all these courses: They are all available to the casual visitor. You don’t need to be a member of a private club at home, you don’t need to have your pro call to set up a time, all you need is an internet connection or a telephone. You can book any of these courses on the web or on the phone, and you will receive a hearty welcome at any of them.

Sláinte.

         Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who spent three decades with the San Francisco Chronicle. He comments occasionally on the 49ers for hookedontheniners.com, and on golf travel for hookedongolf.com. He welcomes your comments at imiller@sportsxchange.com

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