- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
There are no secrets in Ireland. It's a small country, its people are gregarious, and things just naturally get around. In 1981 Tom Watson played in Ireland for the first time at Ballybunion in County Kerry, near where the River Shannon empties into the Atlantic. Watson's visit wasn't publicized, in the hope that he'd be able to play as a private citizen. However, on the ferry crossing the Shannon on the way to Ballybunion, it became clear that the cat was out of the bag. Every car was filled with golf fans, all on their way to watch Watson tackle Ballybunion. Several hundred spectators saw him tee off, and eventually the crowd swelled to a thousand or so.
Now the clubhouse wall at Ballybunion is replete with photographs of Watson taken on that atypically balmy summer day, and every clubhouse regular can detail his round, shot by shot, all 72. As one struggles up the last of many, many hills toward the 18th green, dizzy from the relentless battering of the wind off the Atlantic, eyes watering, nose running, feet wet, hands frozen, someone is sure to mention that the Ballybunion Watson played on that tame day wasn't the "real Ballybunion."
The 1st fairway skirts a small stone-fenced graveyard that's thick with Celtic crosses. One can view this as an omen, however morbid, but, in fact, as graveyards go, it has a certain charm. It's also out of bounds. But the real Ballybunion, in all its ferocious beauty, begins at the 448-yard, par-4 7th, on a tee perched high above the Atlantic, a gale blowing from right to left. From there to 18, you hit it—and pray. At Ballybunion, one often drives, as the late Henry Longhurst once wrote, with the certainty "that if your slice carries far enough, there is nothing to stop it pitching on Long Island, U.S.A."
Steel baskets of stones, called gabions, now barricade the bottom of the cliffs below the 7th, 11th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes, but they weren't in place that brutal winter night in 1976 when abnormally high tides destroyed a 600-yard section of the cliffs. "I remember I went down there and I was absolutely certain our course was gone," says Sean Walsh, the secretary. "If you walked off the 15th green you would certainly have walked into four or five feet of water. Off the ladies tee at 16 you'd have drowned. It washed the carcass of a dead pig—this is quite true—right up into the gap of the 16th."
A successful campaign to raise money to save Ballybunion resulted in worldwide publicity and contributions from as far away as Australia, and the cliffs were reinforced.
Traditional seaside courses, based on the Old Course at St. Andrews, tend to be nine holes out and nine back. Many days a round of golf on such a course can be one long trudge into the teeth of a gale followed by a long nudge home. Portmarnock, laid out in 1894 by two Scottish professionals, could easily have been the same. But these Scots were inspired. On a long narrow peninsula on the northeast edge of Dublin, washed by the Irish Sea and the Baldoyle tidal estuary, Portmarnock unfolds in two vaguely circular loops, something of a figure eight, so that the hole you're playing rarely lies in the same direction as the last.
Portmarnock is a city course. Its members are prosperous Dub-liners, many of whom belong to inland clubs as well. In the early days members took a train from Dublin to Baldoyle Junction, then crossed the estuary at low tide by horse cart.
Harry Bradshaw, an Irish institution, retired as Portmarnock's head professional last year, but visits the premises most days. Now 70, Bradshaw is a big man with a tweed cap and jacket, and in his day he won everything that countryman Christy O'Connor did not. Bradshaw is best remembered, however, for the way he did not win the British Open in 1949. In the final round his ball rolled into a beer bottle. Instead of waiting for a ruling, which would have given him relief, Bradshaw played the ball as it lay, bottle and all, and wasted what turned out to be a crucial stroke. He tied Bobby Locke, then lost to him the next day in a playoff.