The World's Best Golf Trail
Four buddies follow the exalted fairways and transcendent coastline of Ireland's southwest corner
The baggage carousel was still revolving, but several minutes had passed since the last suitcase had tumbled onto the conveyor. Suddenly, a young woman in a green Aer Lingus uniform was standing at my side. "Is your bag missing?" she asked, her eyes radiating concern. I looked around. The other passengers had departed. The truth sank in. "My g-golf clubs," I said.
It's the traveling golfer's nightmare. I had come to Ireland to take a weeklong tour of southwestern seaside courses, and now, I thought with horror, I was going to have to play Ballybunion with rented equipment—with battered, mismatched irons and woods contaminated by the bad-swing juju of who-knew-how-many anonymous choppers, shankers and honeymooning beginners. How could I face Waterville without my very own Banzai-shafted 10.5-degree jumbo driver, not to mention my humiliatingly extensive but indispensable collection of hybrid woods? I followed her into her office, where she helped me file a claim.
Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting numbly in a taxi, on my way to the tiny seaside resort town of Lahinch (famous in Ireland not only for golf but also for surfing, of all things), where three colleagues would be joining me the next afternoon, along with two rental cars. I was trying hard to appreciate the lush landscape on either side of the road, but I couldn't stop thinking about my clubs. Why couldn't the airline have lost Jodie Foster's daughter instead? Then the driver's cell phone rang.
"Right," he said, after a brief conversation. "You'll have your golf clubs by noon tomorrow. I'll probably deliver them myself." The young woman in the lost-baggage office, it turned out, had located my bag, in London, and had then taken the time to locate me, by telephoning the taxi dispatcher and asking if a Mr. Owen had been sent to Lahinch. I leaned back against the seat and smiled, finally able to relax.
FIRST STOP: LAHINCH
Every serious golfer dreams of making a pilgrimage to Scotland—and for good reason. Now that I've (twice) paid my respects to the Old Course at St. Andrews, though, I'm pretty sure I'd choose Ireland and Northern Ireland if offered my choice of any golf destination in the world. Irish linksland is at least as undulating as Scottish, the best courses are at least as memorable, the people are at least as welcoming, and the on-course ratio of brutish Americans to affable natives often seems to be somewhat lower. Ireland is No. 2, but it tries harder.
I arrived in Lahinch in early evening, dropped my suitcase at the (spare but pleasant) Sancta Maria Hotel, just around the corner from the clubhouse, and walked to the course, which I hadn't seen in 10 years, and which, at that hour, was being played by a handful of regulars, mostly in ones and twos. I climbed to the top of a bluff at the edge of Liscannor Bay and watched an elderly woman with a pullcart patiently chipping her ball around a significant topographic obstacle, rather than trying to hit over it. She waved; I waved. She was playing Klondyke, a legendary par 5, whose dune-flanked fairway is the width of your forearm, and whose second shot, for golfers disinclined to chip their way home, is blind. Lahinch's layout is mostly the work of Alister Mackenzie (and was extensively restored in the early 2000s), although much of the course is so engagingly quirky as to seem almost undesigned. Old Tom Morris, who tinkered with an early routing in 1892, called Lahinch the best natural golf ground he'd ever seen.
The next morning, I borrowed a set of clubs from Robert McCavery, who is just the fourth head professional in Lahinch's 114-year history—he succeeded his father, Bill, who got the job in 1927--and played 18 holes with two middle-age women from Switzerland, who were traveling without their husbands. My golf bag arrived just as we finished. An hour or so later, my traveling companions arrived, too: Bob Carney and Mike O'Malley, from the home office, and John Barton, who lives in London. The four of us teed off at 3:30, with a solid five hours of daylight still before us—this was mid-May—and the tee shots I hit with my own driver were only marginally worse than the ones I had hit with McCavery's. That night, we walked into town and had dinner at a restaurant called the Seafarer, where I had dined the night before, on the recommendation of the owner of the Sancta Maria. I had an appetizer made with local goat cheese, followed by rack of local lamb, followed by apple pie bathed in local cream—all exceptional. Then we set out for Doonbeg.
Driving the sadistically narrow roads of Ireland, for those unused to shifting gears with their left hand while evading death and the Atlantic Ocean with their right, can be unnerving. John (who is British and, therefore, accustomed to wrong-way steering) and Bob (who has many close Irish ancestors) volunteered to pilot our rental cars, while Mike and I took care of the gasping, phantom braking and door-handle grabbing. Two somewhat undersize European automobiles turned out to be a good choice for four somewhat oversize golfers: We never could have crammed everything into a single sedan, or even into a European-scale minivan (as several friends and I discovered on a previous golf trip to Ireland). John and I wedged our suitcases into the trunk of our Renault Laguna, then stacked our golf bags, laptops, golf-shop purchases and sodden raingear on the backseat.
Doonbeg Golf Club, which opened in 2002, is about 45 minutes down the coast from Lahinch. (A useful rule of thumb, when estimating travel times on older Irish roads, is to think of the kilometers as miles, and multiply by two.) Now that I've played the course twice, I take back nearly every unkind thought I've ever had about Greg Norman, who designed it. Doonbeg is laid out on a 1.5-mile crescent of wind-swept dunesland, and Norman let the terrain suggest most of the holes, with a minimum of bulldozing. Several of the holes are permanently memorable, including the teensy but murderous par-3 14th, which has a green scarcely large enough to contain a foursome.
The golf club, in contrast to the course, feels distinctly overdetermined. Doonbeg is owned by Kiawah Development Partners, of Kiawah Island, S.C., and there's a powerful American-style screw-you quality to many of the amenities, both in the massive sandstone clubhouse and on the grounds beyond the course. The walls bordering the endless private drive are draped with sod that appears to have been cut on Savile Row, and the Pro V1s in the golf shop sell for a little over $8 each. Doonbeg describes itself, on its website, as "Ireland's premier luxury destination." It has 520 (mostly non-Irish) members, almost four dozen of whom have also purchased apartments in the lodge or in the adjacent faux-village of condominiums. Green fees for nonmembers are roughly $250 (compared with $185 at Lahinch), and a prime-season stay in a one-bedroom apartment with a view of the ocean goes for about $625 a night. We stayed a few miles away, in the town of Kilkee, for less than the cost of the balls that Barton lost on the first nine.
To get from Doonbeg to Ballybunion, our next stop, we drove down the coast to Killimer, then took a barge-like car ferry across the wide mouth of the Shannon River, eliminating a lengthy loop back through Shannon itself. We arrived just as the town's restaurants were closing for the night, but our innkeeper--at the charming and very reasonably priced 19th Lodge, a few hundred yards down the road from the Ballybunion clubhouse—called ahead and secured us a reprieve.
American golfers often speak of Ballybunion's Old Course as if it were the only course in Ireland, so I was predisposed to be underwhelmed; having finally played there, though, I can't think of anything negative to say. Ballybunion belongs right where it's always listed, with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush and, therefore, with the greatest courses not only in Ireland but in the world. At least half the holes would stand as the best hole on any number of very good golf courses. I could have played Ballybunion happily until immigration officials (or my wife) came to drag me away.
Even better, all four of us played eerily well. Here's why: We had four rooms at the 19th Lodge for our first night in town, but just three rooms for the second, so we held a Stableford side match to determine who would be forced to endure whose snoring. We had already tricked Carney into taking the room that had to be vacated, so the match was really between Barton, O'Malley, and me. We called our competition the Carney Imperative. O'Malley was the loser by a couple of points, although that evening Carney heroically made the issue moot by moving to the hotel next door.