SI Vault
Sarah Pileggi
June 04, 1984
Golf's best-kept secret, these six spectacular Irish links represent the essence of the game, and there are no six-hour waiting timesxs
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June 04, 1984

Playing Ancient Games

Golf's best-kept secret, these six spectacular Irish links represent the essence of the game, and there are no six-hour waiting timesxs

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MacCool seems to be tinkering with Portrush lately. Two recent storms combined to suck away 25 feet of the course, including a big grassy hillock just behind the 5th green. The 6th tee is vulnerable to future storms, as is the club's second course, The Valley. Currently, Portrush members are trying to raise £250,000, the cost of a revetment project for the shoreline. "We've tried all the various government concerns, the M.P.s, the European Commission and so on," says RAF Squadron Leader Eric Wainwright, the club secretary. "They all express sympathy but they didn't put the hand in the pockets."

Fourteen years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the frightening publicity, have greatly curtailed tourism there, but a recovery of sorts has been under way in the last few years. If it keeps up, the costly fight to save Royal Portrush may be won. One hopes so. Portrush is a natural beauty, the kind of course that makes you wonder why anyone ever thought golf could be played anywhere except beside the sea.


There is this saying in Newcastle, the resort town on the east coast of Ulster that is the home of Royal County Down: "If you can see the Mourne Mountains, it's going to rain. If you can't, it's raining."

The mountains of Mourne really do "sweep down to the sea," as Percy French wrote, and the beauty of them can make concentrating on the golf shot at hand difficult. Nevertheless, the temptation to lose yourself in the distant landscape should be resisted lest the landscape at hand—course ferns, spiny gorse, wiry, impenetrable heather, thick, pillowy dune grass—claim golfer and golf ball for its own.

While many golf purists prefer the Portrush course to Royal County Down—"No true championship test should have four blind driving holes," sniffs a Portrush player in reference to County Down—the layout at Newcastle is extraordinary, particularly the front nine. The first three holes, a par-5 followed by two 4s, are narrow valleys between ridges of sand hills that run along the edge of Dundrum Bay and its wide sand beach. No matter how many other golfers are on the course, one has a sense of glorious solitude on these valley holes.

At the far northern end of this stretch, the 3rd green is set in a natural amphitheater of mountainous sand hills, and at any one time or another an elderly man in a tweed cap walking his dog across the course from town to beach and back will appear from around the base of a sand hill and pause to watch a shot or two. These discerning gents with their noncommittal gazes can create odd kinks in an otherwise acceptable golf swing.

The climb up to the 4th tee is literally breathtaking, but so is the vista from the tee as the golfer turns back toward the clubhouse, the town and the mountains. Rain clouds cling to the bare, rounded peak of Slieve Donard, the 2,796-foot king of the Mournes, while the westering sun gilds the green of its lower slopes, and the creases between them plunge into purple.

The 9th is perhaps the most spectacular of all the holes at County Down: a long par-4 with a blind shot from a raised tee and a view of the brick Victorian tower of the Slieve Donard Hotel, all seen against the backdrop of the Mournes. The tee shot crosses a rough valley and soars up toward a directional stake at the brow of a hill. If long enough, it will descend to the flat floor of the valley. For the golfer, struggling around the course while buffeted by 30 or 40 knots of wind, the descent is like dropping from Wuthering Heights into Shangri-la.

In Ireland, Royal County Down is considered a stuffy club. Its members, aside from the occasional royal, are lawyers, judges, businessmen and the like from Belfast. Because golf in Ireland, as in Scotland, is an egalitarian game, Irish golfers delight in the legend of the feud between County Down and an English club. The story has it that a team from England arrived in Newcastle for an interclub match and was refused admittance to the clubhouse. Ever since, this sign has been posted in the locker room at the English club: "All visitors welcome except dogs and members of Royal County Down."

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