Golfing in Ireland
April 28 – May 5, 2018
Here’s the executive summary from my recent golf trip to Ireland. It was great fun, I’d recommend it to any golfer. My traveling companions were delightful, the Irish people we encountered were friendly, the country is beautiful, and I lack sufficient superlatives to describe the varied golfing experiences.
If you’ve an interest in more detail, read on.
A member at our golf club, Indian Hills, organized a trip he dubbed, “Ricket’s Revenge’ in honor of our club pro, Mike. I was one of twelve to sign up. I knew Mike and two others by name. I would later learn that our number included lawyers, an optometrist, entrepreneurs, finance and corporate guys. More relevant; two played college basketball, one was a former professional kick boxer, one played baseball in the Olympics, one was a golf pro, and I’m sure there were additional, undiscovered athletic credentials. Out of modesty, I never let on that 53 years ago I won the intramural badminton tournament at Drury College.
We had a five-hour layover in Newark en route to Shannon, Ireland. I took advantage of the time to take a cab to join son, Ben, and daughter in law, Deb, in midtown Manhattan. We had a delightful dinner and visit. I wanted to take the train out of Penn Station to get back to EWR. They helped me navigate the transaction and guided me to the right track, instructing me to, “Get on that train.” I complied, got a seat, and later saw Ben frantically waving at me saying to disembark as I was currently heading to Boston. I later got on the correct train, and all was well. This was a reversal of roles of the time when Ben, age nine, hopped on a Boston subway prematurely with me shouting instructions to him as they train rolled down the tracks. Must be something about Boston.
The next day I received a text from Ben, “I hope Ireland is better than Boston would have been.”
We arrived in Shannon (County Claire) around 10 am on Sunday and were greeted by our bus driver, Sennan, aka Badger. He would prove to be a delightful companion as he guided our luxury coach over 500+ miles of Irish roads adding interesting and informative commentary along the way. Our coach was a 24-seat, well equipped bar, with ample room to spread out. He explained his nickname, “When I was 30, my hair turned white. Later patches of black reappeared, and the pattern resembled a badger, and that is my lot.”
Someone asked about a group of small trailers we passed. Badger explained, “Those are the gypsies. They’re not much of a problem. They mostly just engage in small time thuggery and theft and a bit of extortion.”
We drove about 40 miles to Lahinch, a smallish city on the west coast of Ireland, dropped our bags at the Atlantic Hotel, had a filling lunch, and headed for the Lahinch Castle course for a 1 pm tee time. Spring had not yet sprung, and it was quite chilly, high 40’s, and cloudy. We bundled up and played the easiest of the courses we would play, Lahinch Castle. We experienced periods of sunshine, light rain, heavy rain, and even hail. I sank a birdie putt, from about 30 feet on the 18th, and that warmed me up. We did some more warming up in the clubhouse, and I enjoyed the first of many Half and Half’s, a mixture of Guinness and Smithwick’s (silent W) stout.
We checked into the Atlantic Hotel on the main street of Lahinch, only a few blocks from the two eponymous golf courses. We agreed to meet for dinner and drinks at the nearby Cornerstone Pub for drinks and dinner at 8. The place was ancient, constructed of stone walls, charming, low ceilinged, filled to capacity, and featuring great pub food and drink. A group of musicians gathered and starting performing around 10. One of the singers was extraordinary. She had the voice of an angel.
We later migrated to Kenny’s, a bar down the road. I can’t be certain of all that follows in this narrative, but here’s the best I can recount. I walked by a table occupied by two ladies. One queried, “Hey old timer, what’s your story?” I sidled alongside them in their booth and embarked on the tale of the two nude ex-nun lesbian lovers in the hot tub. And we bonded.
I would subsequently learn that Carly was from Essex in England, the Joan was from Lahinch. One was married to the cousin of the other. Both had just turned 50, and were significantly more attractive than I, although the Irish lady had English teeth. We conversed a bit, when a scuffle broke out near the front door of the pub. It was an all-out fist fight, with broken glass; a regular donnybrook. The Englishwoman ran to the site of the brawl, got in the face of the scofflaws, and screamed, “Stop that. Stop that right now. We just won’t have this.” And they did. They left, and Carly returned to our table for another round. I inquired, “Are you in special forces or what? That was amazing! The only other person I know who would have done that is Judy, my wife.” She added, “Women can get away with stuff sometimes.”
Earlier in the day, the youngest in our group, a 31-year-old, advised me, “You must stay up until midnight, to best adapt to the 6-hour time change.” It was past midnight when I noticed that my golfing mates were long gone. My new friends asked where I was staying, and whether I knew how to get there. Out of kindness, they accompanied me back to the Atlantic Hotel. The rule for Irish drinking establishments is, ‘don’t close until the last customer leaves’. Accordingly, the bar was open with 10 of 11 of my fellow travelers hard at it. I walked into the bar with my arms around Carly and Joan and borrowed a line from my friend Benny shouting, “Let’s tear this place apart.”
I went on this trip with a modicum of apprehension. I had a recent foot problem, and I was concerned about walking five courses. Buggies aka golf carts are not allowed. I was also the oldest participant, by quite a few decades, the worst golfer, and nine of the others were essentially strangers. The younger guys were undoubtedly equally apprehensive about having a septuagenarian geezer in their midst. I can only presume that their concerns were modestly allayed upon my arrival with the two chicks.
I asked Joan about the impact of Brexit on Ireland, and I paraphrase her response, “Things are fine as they are. We (the Irish) definitely don’t want Northern Ireland to become part of Ireland. Half of them are on the dole, and the other half work for shipyards and industry controlled by the English. If they ever become part of Ireland, the English industry will leave, and then all of them will be on the dole. We can’t afford that.” Later in the week I would encounter a young man from Northern Ireland with a different view.
We had a few more beverages and were a wee bit loud. Our trip leader asked the bartender how many rooms there were in the hotel. “13.” And we were occupying 12 of the 13. “Is anyone in the 13th room?” “No, it’s just you lads.” And so, we partied on. I left around 2 am, ending day 1 for me.
We enjoyed our first full Irish breakfast, identical to the English version, and equally tasty and filling. There was fruit, cereal, juices, and pastries to start followed by eggs, bacon (more like Canadian bacon), baked beans, sausage links, blood pudding, mushrooms, toast, and potato cakes.
Badger arrived, we loaded up our luxury coach and headed south along the coast for a one-hour drive to Trump International Doonbeg Resort. The countryside was very much like rural England, with stone fences bordering small fields, many with cattle and sheep, and bustling villages. The grass was green, but the trees had not yet leafed out. Views of bluffs and beaches bordering the North Atlantic were plentiful and pleasing.
The facilities at Doonbeg were extraordinarily luxurious with a castle-like clubhouse, a hotel, and several guesthouses. The golf course is laid out amidst the dunes (Doonbeg means small dunes in Irish). It would be the only course of the five we would play that wasn’t built in the 19th century. The first nine runs about 3 miles out from the clubhouse along the coast line. The back nine brings you home. It was sunny, but chilly, and the winds were blowing about 20 mph. Amazingly, it appeared we were playing against the wind on every hole. I mentioned that phenomena to my caddy, and he said, “You’re not the first person to notice.”
Our three foursomes were waiting to tee off #1 having been introduced to our caddies. They were attired in white overalls like those one might see at the Masters. One of the more outrageous personalities in our group would continually amaze me. He would say things to people apparently for shock value, yet just short of starting a fistfight. He asked his caddy, “What do you wear under those things?” The tall, youngish man replied huffily in his heavy Irish accent, “Why would anyone ask such a question? You concern yourself with what’s in your trousers, and I’ll take care of me own.” I wasn’t in their foursome so I’m not sure whether their relationship got better or worse over the next five hours.
My caddy, Peter, was a real pro. He had been carrying at Doonbeg for seventeen years, and he didn’t just transport a bag and find lost balls. He was a guide, coach, and read putts well. He offered encouragement when needed, which was often. Peter volunteered that he once caddied for Trump. I asked how it went. “It was before he became president. He is a very good golfer, but he’s very loud. Big time. He was nice, easy to work with, and a huge tipper.” I asked what tees Trump played. Peter gave me that what-a-stupid-question-look and said, “Gold, of course.”
I was in the last of the three foursomes to tee off. As we were walking down the first fairway Peter inquired how long I had known these guys. I replied, “A week ago most of these guys were complete strangers to me. They’re no longer strangers, but they are still strange.” That puzzled him since we were all members of the same club.
One of the guys organized a Ryder Cup type event. We were split up into two groups. I was on team US, captained by Mike. The other team would be known as team Europa, captained by the strongest and youngest player in the event, Ricardo. Each of us would have a match play contest (where the player earns a point for each hole in which they best their opponent, as opposed to stroke play) against a different opponent for each of the next four courses. I was allowed to play the senior tees in exchange for reducing my handicap (17.7 in my case) by two strokes. At Doonbeg, I had a significant advantage playing 5,279 yards vs. the rest of the field playing the gold tees at 6,425.
I started well, with three pars for the first six holes. Then I chunked my tee shot into impenetrable grass on a par three taking a six. On seven I got in a pot bunker, took four shots to get out and recorded a 9 on a par five. I played better on the back nine, finished with a par on the picturesque 18th running parallel to the ocean and ended up with a 103 for the day. Amazingly, I won my individual match by one point.
We met for drinks and hors d’oevres on a sheltered patio offering commanding views of the sea and the golf course. Badger arrived, loaded us up, and we returned to Lahinch. En route we stopped by the Cliffs of Moher. They are granite cliffs that rise up to 700 feet up from the Atlantic. They run for nine miles between Lahinch and Galway. A dozen castle-like watch towers are scattered over the cliffs. They were built in the late 1400’s by the English and served as an early warning system against the Spanish navy.
We got back to the Atlantic, and arranged to dine in the hotel’s dining room. We started at nine. There was a young Australian couple in the restaurant, and we learned they now occupied the 13th room. They quickly joined in the festivities, but I was tired and retired around 1 am.
We had an early tee time 10 am for Lahinch, Old Course, as we would be driving to Dublin afterwards. Lahinch Old was originally built in 1892 by Old Tom Morris for the British Army then stationed there. It was redesigned by Alister MacKenzie in 1926. It has been dubbed, ‘The St. Andrews of Ireland.’
The weather forecast was perfectly awful, with a high of 48 degrees, rain, 25 mph winds gusting to 40. Worst of all, it was accurate. I wore the identical clothing I have used for climbing 14ers in Colorado; five layers on the torso, ski cap, gaiters, and waterproof hiking boots. It rained intermittently, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, but it always rained. Caddies don’t use umbrellas, because they would just blow away. Lahinch Old is rated the 30th best course in the world, and justifiably so. Like Doonbeg, it is built on dunes running along a crescent shaped beach. My caddy, Jerry, nearly my age, was excellent. He was a delightful companion for the five-hour round, and extremely helpful. Near the end of the round he asked, “Have you had a good life?” “Aye, I have. And you?” “Aye.”
I shot a 91, my best round of the week, in spite of four putting for a five on a par three and taking an 8 on a par five. I even had a sandy (getting a par out of the sand) on a par three. I played the ladies tees at 5,502 yards, and the big boys played 6,339 yards. I was appropriately attired, and stayed warm and dry.
One of the caddies in our foursome, Dewey, had been caddying for 55 years. He had a leathered face that looked like he’d been on the losing end of many a bar fight. He was also a guitar player and singer. I told him of the fantastic singer we heard at the Cornerstone, and he said, “That’s Ireland for you. It’s a musical land.”
We showered in the clubhouse to warm up, hopped on the bus, and were off for the three-hour drive to the center city of Dublin 170 miles distant. The Irish countryside is uniformly beautiful. The smaller farms bordered by stone fences gave way to larger scale operations. Yellow barley fields accented green pastures. Badger told us that Ireland grows seven times as much food as it uses, the remainder being exported to other EU countries. I observed no ugliness; no billboards, no unkempt barns or houses, nothing was untidy. The bus occupants were uncommonly subdued during the ride. We stopped at a truckstop that was nicer and cleaner than any I’ve seen in the U.S.
Dublin, the capital city of Ireland, was founded in 1191 and is home to 1.2 million inhabitants. It is located on the east coast of Ireland at the mouth of the River Liffey, and lying in the shadow of with Wicklow Mountains. It is also uncommonly tidy. We passed a beautiful canal that bisects the city in one direction perpendicular to the River Liffey segmenting the city into quadrants. It is a high-density city, but few buildings exceed five stories. Badger told us, “No building can exceed the height of the Guinness Brewery.” Above ground trains were ubiquitous and modern.
We arrived at The Dean Hotel, in the center city and arranged to meet in the rooftop bar and restaurant at 9. Our new lodgings featured hipster touches everywhere. My room had a functioning turntable and ABBA albums. The phone was an old time Crosley Kettle Rotary. The only drawback was the presence of a package of earplugs on the bedside table. A loud disco located somewhere nearby blared a pounding beat until 3 am clarifying the matter.
Our organizer had a party room available for us featuring a well-stocked bar, foosball table, and other amusements. We had a few drinks and ambled to the roof top bar for an exquisite dinner and great views of the city. We returned to the party room for after dinner refreshments. Someone suggested we go to a disco. Sadly, I didn’t go. I would learn I missed the Silent Disco experience. In such a place, everyone is issued headphones through which one selects their own choice of music. One of the lads took a video of the proceedings. With little fear of offending, it looks a bit goofy to see people dancing solo to their own tunes. It’s not as though the world needs even less socialization.
We took a respite from golf, much needed in my case. We met for drinks and lunch at the Shelbourne, an elegant hotel built in 1824. From there we took a tour of the Guinness Brewery. It was a bit touristy, but it featured free beer in a viewing room that gave 360 degree views of Dublin. Afterwards, some took a tour of a distillery, but I went back to the hotel.
Badger picked us up at 6 for the 30-minute drive north to Malahide, described by our leader as the ‘Mission Hills’ of Dublin. Two newcomers joined us on the bus. Apparently one of our group engaged two Australian ladies, Kate and Ashley, in conversation at the brewery and invited them to join us for dinner in Malahide. Kate, sat beside me on the bus ride, presumably because I look harmless and grandfatherly, and we chatted. She is a 26-year-old optician, married, statuesque, and the part owner of six stores in Brisbane. Ashley, is her employee and traveling companion as her husband doesn’t like to travel. They were mugged while in Rome, and she spent the night in the hospital from a blow to the cheekbone. Her left arm was covered in multi-colored tattoos, and I inquired, “What if fashions change?” They were keen to watch the evening’s soccer match between Liverpool and Rome, which was the semi-final of the Premier league. Kate was originally from Liverpool so she was avidly rooting for the Reds.
The Grand Hotel, where we would stay for the next three nights, is an elegant establishment. We all had ocean views and extremely nice rooms. It was clearly the grandest of the lodgings we enjoyed. After drinks in the hotel’s bar, we walked to Gibney’s, a nearby pub. It is large, and it was packed well beyond capacity owing to the start of the soccer match. We dined on bar food standing up, sort of watching the game and chatting with anyone we encountered. Liverpool scored the first goal just as I was commenting on the lack of scoring to my new pal, Kate. Liverpool won, and everyone was happy, and we drank until it was time to go back to the hotel. Kate and Ashley invited us to go discoing back with them in Dublin, but all declined.
Lamentably, one of our number had to return to the states owing to a family emergency. This left us with eleven golfers in a twelve-man match. The problem was solved by inviting Chris, a young bartender at Gibney’s to join us. He proved to be a delightful and informative companion for the rounds at Portmarnock and Royal County Down.
The Portmarnock Links Course was only a 15-minute drive from our hotel. It was built in 1894 and has hosted nineteen Irish Opens, the Walker Cup, and many other notable golf events. It is ranked #47 in the world and is located on the Dublin Peninsula reaching into the Irish Sea. It is also home to at least a dozen pot bunkers per hole. It was more like golfing on a pinball machine. I played the senior tees, 5,851 yards, and the others played 6,705. I had my typical round with 5 pars, a few blow up holes, and a 94. I won my match only because my opponent missed a three-footer on #18 that would have tied the contest.
By now our routines were pretty standard. Badger would get us safely back to the hotel, we’d clean up, meet at the hotel bar, and then head for dinner. Our trip organizer had every reservation made in advance, so we never had trouble seating 12. We dined at Duffy’s, a pub in downtown Malahide, a 10-minute walk from the hotel. Like every establishment we patronized, it was extremely crowded. A band called the Moogs, started at 9 and played for an hour. I was hoping for Irish music but they played a high energy set of pop standards, ala Eagles, Journey, etc. They were world class good.
Then we returned to Gibney’s to meet up with Chris, the newest member of our golfing group, who was back to bartending for the evening. A tribute band calling themselves Mack Fleetwood was playing in the back room for a mere 10 euros extra. A large and appreciative crowd listened. I was impressed by the mixing of generations in the pubs. The girl singing the Christine McVie parts was as good or better than the real thing. We stayed until they closed down and returned to the hotel bar.
One of our number was chatting with a rather provocatively clad 24-year-old and her Mum, Michelle and Colette. I complimented her on her attire, and we were drawn to her like moths to a flame. We subsequently congregated in the hotel lobby to enjoy the final concert of the evening. Michelle had an enchanting voice and sang ‘Danny Boy’ and other Irish standards until the wee hours.
Royal County Down Championship Course is located in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, about a two-hour drive north of Malahide. There was nothing to let you know when you left Ireland and entered Northern Ireland. Brexit could change that, but it is still up in the air. The only thing I noticed was that gasoline station signs went from €1.40 / liter to £1.23 / liter.
Newcastle is a charming seaside town nestled at the foot of Mount Mourn. RCD is rated either number 1, 3, or 5 in the world, depending upon your source. It is undeniably wonderful. It was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1889. Every hole is distinct. The multitude of bunkers that guard the greens and defend the approaches are all natural. The bunkers in the other courses we played were made by walls constructed of sod layers. The principal hazards were gorse, heather, and dense sea grasses. We were fortunate to be there during the six weeks the gorse was in bloom, with vibrant yellow colors and 2” long thorns. If your ball went into the gorse, it was gone. It would be the warmest day of our trip, probably in the high 50’s. It was somewhat windy, and got windier as the day went on, but there was no rain.
My yardage advantage over the young guys was reduced. I played 6,249 yards vs. their 6,675. My tees featured five par fours over 400 yards. As we were walking down the first fairway my opponent inquired if I wanted to take on a side bet suggesting a $100 Nassau. I declined, explaining I didn’t need any more stressors. In keeping with my custom, I started strong. I was on the green in regulation on the first three holes, all going downwind, but I three putted all of them for bogeys. I birdied the fourth hole, a 159-yard par three into the wind. My putt stopped short of the hole and then the wind pushed it in. Yea! Then the wheels fell off. I met my goal of breaking 100 finishing with a 97.
I used my iPhone feature to track of the miles and elevation of my walking each day. Portmarnock was 9.2 miles and 48 equivalent flights of stairs climbed. RCD was 8.2 miles, 30 flights. Doonbeg was 7.4 miles and 25 flights. Lahinch Old Course was 8 miles, 30 flights. That’s a pretty good day’s walk. It was so much fun I never really got tired.
My favorite course, a view shared by all, was RCD. The remaining rankings are a close call, but I’d go with Doonbeg, Lahinch Old Course, Portmarnock, and Lahinch Castle.
Like most European countries, the people we encountered were predominantly trim and fit. Real estate prices are quite high. I checked real estate office signs in both Lahinch and Malahide. Relatively modest dwellings were being offered for sale in the €650,000–€850,000 range. The euro traded at $1.20 during our trip. One of my caddies is a real estate speculator. Smoking is heavier than in the U.S. Most people roll their own as packaged cigarettes cost €12 / pack.
A special thanks to Dan for organizing this wonderful trip. Thanks also to my eleven lively traveling companions. I heard some terrific stories from some mighty impressive people. I was again reminded that we live in a big small town with one degree of separation.
And that’s the news from here.
Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
Author of: Ordinary People Who Aren't: An Anthology and
Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
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