Golfing in Ireland: Tricky Greens, Magnificent Courses

PHOTO: The seaside green of the third hole at Lahinch Golf Club, Ireland.
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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.

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