Golfing in Ireland: Tricky Greens, Magnificent Courses

PHOTO: The seaside green of the third hole at Lahinch Golf Club, Ireland.Ron Claiborne/ABC News
The seaside green of the third hole at Lahinch Golf Club, Ireland.

My friend James crouched over his ball which was nestled in thick brush about 20 feet from the 16th green at Portmarnock Golf Course outside Dublin.

He pulled a sand wedge from his bag, settled over the ball, eyeing in carefully, then uncoiled a mighty, perfectly arced swing.

The ball popped up, advanced about 10 inches and then disappeared in the vegetation. He had hit the ball less than one foot and it was gone forever.

"Well," I said to James, "that's Ireland."

As James and I were to learn over five rounds played in four days, golf in Ireland can be maddening, physically demanding and psychologically challenging. You also lose a lot of golf balls.

But it was the most wonderful, magical experience I have ever had in my 40-plus years of trying to play the sport.

Compared to American golf courses, Irish courses are brutalizing. American courses tend to be wide-open and forgiving.

In Ireland, the fairways are narrow, often no more than 20 feet wide. The greens are tricky with more twists and turns than an amusement park ride.

On some holes, you can't even see the green from the fairway. You basically have to guess where to aim. The sand traps are so deep that some actually had ladders to climb in and out of them. It practically requires a bazooka to get a golf ball out of there.

And then there was the weather. It rained often and the wind never stopped howling. Not ever. But the single most difficult part of playing golf in Ireland was that darned fescue, the gnarly, thick vegetation that lines the fairways. Once you hit into that jungle, as they say in New York, "fuggedaboudit" (translation: forget about it.)

And yet …

James, my former graduate school roommate, and I went to Ireland in August to play golf, lots of golf.

We had heard about the magnificent links courses along the coast of this island that's only a little larger than the state of West Virginia.

There are more than 400 courses in the Republic of Ireland and incredibly, another 300 in tiny northern Ireland.

Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a combined population of just more than 6 million, have produced four different winners of golf's grand slam tournaments since 2007.

Padraig Harrington, a native of Dublin, has bagged three slams.

The little Emerald Isle looms large in the golfing world. Yet many -- probably most -- American golfers are unaware of its delights. And it's not that far. Ireland is just a five-plus-hour flight from Boston, Philadelphia or New York and you can play year-round, though the best golfing weather (relatively speaking) is April through October.

"Golf in Ireland is more than just the excellent golf," says Michelle McGreevy, a former pro who's now head of Irish golf tourism. "It's about the challenging courses, the fun you have on the course, but also the fun off the course. It's about the people you meet along the way."

She's right. With a few notable exceptions, the people we met on and off the links were friendly, helpful and good-humoured. And you've got to love those accents.

But this trip was all about golf or, as it seemed to us, extreme golf.

Day One:

James and I flew into Shannon, the airline gateway to western Ireland.

James is a retired corporate CEO from Baltimore who left the rat race early (at 56) and has spent the two years since working on his golf game and a few other projects. He arrived a few hours earlier than me and was waiting for me with a rented Audi.

Bleary-eyed and dazed from lack of sleep, we poured coffee into ourselves and then poured ourselves into the rental car.

We headed for Ballybunion on the west coast where we had a 2 p.m. tee time at the fabled Ballybunion Old Course.

Entering the tiny seaside town of Ballybunion, we saw a rather imposing statue of a golfer in golf pose. We stopped.

It turned out the golfer was former President Bill Clinton who played the Ballybunion course in during an official visit to Ireland in 1995.

We dropped our bags at our hotel, grabbed lunch and headed for the links. At the course, we noticed there were two private helicopters parked near the clubhouse, no doubt the property of a couple of the many well-heeled golfers drawn by what's considered one of the best golf courses in the world.

James and I would soon learn that Ballybunion is also one of the most difficult golf courses in the world. I hit my tee-shot into the left rough. Lost ball No. 1. Dozens more of its mates would be sacrificed on this trip. James did somewhat better.

He hit his tee shot into a small cemetery on the right side of the first fairway. Out of respect for dead, he didn't try to look for his.

The Ballybunion course is laid out on grassy dunes skirting the coastline. It is a links course, which literally refers to linking sea and land, in other words along the shore. It's the oldest kind of golf originating in Scotland.

For the first few holes, you only catch brief tantalizing glimpses of the water in the distance.

Then you step to the 6th tee and there it was: a magnificent vista of beach, sea and in the distance a stretch of western Ireland's famous cliffs. It almost made me forget I was playing golf. Almost.

We soldiered on, stealing long glances at the stunning scenery. Soon we were absorbed once again in grappling with open very tough golf course. We had sensibly stopped keeping score early on. Stunned by jetlag and humbled by the course, we still felt exhilarated when we finished in a rather rapid four hours.

I was reminded of what President Clinton said about Ballybunion: "It's perfectly Irish: beautiful, rough and a lot like life -- you get breaks you don't deserve, both ways."

Golf: Ballybunion has two courses. The Old Course and the Green fees range from $90 for the (new) course to $250 for the Old Course, but they go down in October to $70 and $135 respectively.

Hotel: We stayed at the Ballybunion Golf Hotel on the town's main street. It is adequate and clean. Rooms cost about $80 a night.

Eating: If you think you've been to a real Irish bar in your hometown, you haven't. They're imitations of places like McMunn, a genuine Irish bar in Ballybunion. The food is great, though a little pricey. The beer is even greater.

Day Two

This would be our most ambitious day: two rounds of golf at two different courses, Doonbeg and Lahinch. And we'd be walking. No carts for us -- or anyone else, they're not allowed at either course.

Doonbeg was a wonder. The clubhouse looked like an ancient castle set alone in an open plain dotted with a handful of farmhouses and small homes.

The first hole looked easy enough.

It was long but straight with a tight fairway lined by more of that troublesome, ball-eating fescue. But if I hit it more or less straight, I'd be fine.

Sure enough, my first tee shot curved wildly left into a hillock thick with fescue. Let the fun begin.

The Doonbeg course turned out to be deceptive. It was easy. The holes were more wide open than Ballybunion. There were no blind shots.

What you see is what you get. We got in trouble. Doonbeg revealed itself to be devilishly challenging course.

On one hole there was a sand trap in the middle of the green, diabolically tilted away from the fairway so we never saw it until we were on the green. I mean, that's just not fair!

The impeccably manicured greens were so hard it was tough to keep the ball on them, even when you hit a perfect shot.

I hit a rare gem onto the 17th green, but when I reached the green I discovered the ball had rolled off the back into a patch of gnarly fescue.

Still, like Ballybunion, the course was gorgeous and the setting along the ocean magnificent.

It was just an hour drive to Lahinch on country roads too narrow for two cars to pass at the same time.

The town of Lahinch was much larger Ballybunion or Doonbeg.

The main road was lined with bars, restaurants and shops. James and I were paired up with a married couple from Boston.

They had hired caddies, a pair of real local characters, one in his 20s, the other in his 60s. For a while, I played well despite a grotesque tendency to hit the ball at an angle to the left.

I played close to par until the 5th hole when the proverbial wheels came off the proverbial cart on a cruel Par 5 hole that featured a massive hill that blocked the fairway approach to the green.

I eavesdropped on a tip one of the caddies was giving our friends from Boston. He advised them to play it conservatively: hit just short of the hill, then over the hill with the next shot.

Irrationally, I decided I could do better my own way. I went for a monster shot that was supposed to clear the hill. Four lost balls later, I was staggering down to the green, with my score on this one hole already in double-digits.

Three hours later, in a drenching rain, I staggered, wet and agitated, to the 18th green. I parred this final hole, from which I took a measure of consolation and a determination that I would get better.

Golf:The green fees at Doonbeg range from $100-$235. At Lahinch, they'll run you $45-$175.

Eating: We had a wonderful dinner at a new inn called the Vaughan Lodge. The bar-lounge was friendly and cozy.

Accomdations: About 5 miles south of Lahinch via a very windy road, Moy House is a lovely seaside mansion converted to a B&B with a view of the ocean from one side and vistas out brilliantly verdant pastures from the other.

A room goes for around $180. The restaurant looked very nice but we didn't eat there.

Day Three

We drove across Ireland in a about three hours, checked into our hotel and headed to The Island Golf Club just outside of Dublin, which was established in 1890.

As we piled out of our car, it began to pour rain. An elderly gentleman emerged from the clubhouse and as he passed by he called out cheerily: "Welcome to the weather!"

We teed off in a downpour. As far as we could tell, we were the only ones on the course.

But snug in our weather gear, it was actually fun. Man, golf ball and the elements. It felt like golf reduced to its purest, rawest form.

Island was actually a peninsula and a true links course, that is, built on top of the natural grassy dunes that created undulating fairways.

Some of them were even lumpy with mounds. There was not a tree in sight. This time, James and I played well despite the gale force winds and occasional driving rain.

On one hole, we had to blast into a stiff headwind that practically grabbed our shots and flung them to the ground. It was extremely challenging but a lot of fun.

As I knew would happen eventually, my game went downhill on the back nine, but I finished with flourish, nailing a tee shot and approach on a long par 4 and tapping in for a par. Take that Padraig Harrington! This is my house, too.

Golf:Green fees at the Island are about $160 U.S.

Accommodations:Just as its name implies, the Grand Hotel at Malahide is an old-fashioned and stately. Our nice but small rooms cost $125.00.

Eating:There are a few pubs in the tiny suburb of Malahide. Prices are moderate but the cuisine was less than impressive.

Day Four

We had a late afternoon flight back to New York, so we had to get out early on this final day.

The venue for our last act would be Portmarnock Golf Club, a country club open to the public. It's been the site of 18 Irish Opens (an annual mid-summer professional tournament).

Portmarnock is another gorgeous seaside course outside of Dublin.

The holes were utterly wide open. No trees. Not much in the way of hills. Even the fescue was trimmed, which made it easier to actually find an errant golf ball. It also meant full exposure to the wind.

I'd also never seen so many sand traps! Some were so deep and steep, the only way to get out was to hit backwards toward the shallower incline, which forces a golfer to override the automatic instinct to always hit toward the pin. I learned the hard way to override the instinct.

James and I played erratically but overall quite well.

The sun even came out and stayed out, bathing the Port Marnock course in a golden autumnal glow.

This was the least difficult -- notice I do not say easiest -- course of the five we played. Nothing especially tricky or treacherous.

It was like skiing a very steep but well-groomed slope after three days on double-black diamond terrain pocked with icy moguls. It was the perfect soft landing after a tough week of golf.

James and I walked off the course with smiles on our faces and, for once, the wind at our backs.

Golf: Portmarnock's greens fees are as steep as its sand traps. You will pay $170-$375.

Getting there: Delta, Continental, US Airways and Aer Lingus all fly non-stop flight to Shannon and/or Dublin from U.S.