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From Dublin's bay around to the mouth of the Shannon, from sea to shining sea by the coastal route, this is Irish golf. Before you are six of the most glorious seaside golf courses that ever nature and man conspired to create. They rank alongside the best in the world, yet they are virtually unknown to golfers outside the British Isles. They were laid out at the end of the last century, with Scottish courses as their models, on the same terrain that first shaped the ancient game.
The roots of golf lie in Scottish linksland, sandy wastes beside the sea where only low-lying vegetation survives and where the wind carves wavelike shapes in the dunes. Over the last century the game has strayed far from its sandy origins, but a tribal memory persists in golfers and draws them back to their ancestral turf. Every year by the tens of thousands these pilgrims descend on Scotland to play the game the way it was meant to be played, in solitary communion with the wind and the sea.
Lately, however, the communion has turned into a revival meeting. In St. Andrews, where until only a few years ago the tourist season ended in September, tee times on the Old Course are booked through Christmas. By contrast, a golfer with a strong urge to push his electric cart into a nearby artificial lake and get back to basics will find Irish courses both empty and inviting.
Each of these courses—Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, County Sligo, Lahinch and Ballybunion in the west of the Irish Republic and Portmarnock in the east, on the edge of the Irish Sea near Dublin—is separately and distinctly memorable, and each is a test of skill and character when a spell of Irish weather sets in. In Ireland, foul weather gear is essential, but umbrellas are useless. The rain blows sideways. And wind, of course, is at the very heart of linksland golf.
The only way to travel among these six courses is by car; the distances are short, the sights along the way rare, and the traffic in most places four-legged. On a one-lane road that runs along the rim of the Irish world in the northeast corner of County Antrim, where the Atlantic Ocean is a thousand feet below, and where it seems that on a clear day you could skip a rock across to Scotland, the only things moving in the opposite direction are a flock of sheep and the man and dog herding them. You pause to let them pass, your car becomes a metallic island in a sea of wool, the man touches the brim of his cap, and you move on.
Ireland is made of memorable moments, not all of them on golf courses. Take an early morning stroll on the outskirts of Ennis, a lovely town on the River Fergus in County Clare, not far from Lahinch, and you'll be passed by schoolboys riding their clunky bikes toward town. As each of them passes, you hear a soft sound that seems to be "gluck." At first you're puzzled, but then it becomes clear. How can anyone resist a country where children wish a stranger "g'luck" when the day has barely begun?
The British Open has been held only once in Ireland, over the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush in 1951. Bent clad sand hills roll and heave across the Portrush landscape on the northern coast of County Antrim, but sand bunkers are few. Only two of the 18 holes are absolutely straight; the rest bend and curve. More often than not the greens, polished smooth by the wind, are guarded solely by natural mounds and hollows. The only vegetation higher than wild rose, heather and dune grass is a few scrubby trees clumped in depressions between sand hills. One such clump, between the 9th green and the 10th tee, hides a tin-roofed hut, the "Refreashment House." If a flag is flying above the hut, it means the kettle's on, heating water for hot whiskey.
"The Scots drink hot whiskey," says a Portrush player as the bartender combines Bushmills, the whiskey of the north, with boiling water, a slice of lemon and a couple of cloves. "But they call it a toddy and they drink it for medicinal purposes." At Portrush, hot whiskey is fortification against the rigors of the wide open landscape and the winds that blow in from Scotland and points north.
County Antrim is Finn MacCool country. MacCool is Ireland's Paul Bunyan, a giant who once picked up a clod of earth and hurled it into the sea, thus creating the Isle of Man with the clod and Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland, with the hole left behind.