An editor reflects on his ultimate golf-buddies trip
Our first stop after flying through the night to Shannon was Old Head, a 16-year-old course built precariously on a peninsula that makes for a spectacular golf experience -- provided you don't inadvertently step over one of the cliffs and plunge to your death.
By 8 p.m. Thursday night, many of us had been awake for more than 30 hours. Yet the setting at Old Head was so majestic -- almost transcendent -- we were exhilarated.
We managed only a couple hours of sleep Thursday night before boarding our bus for Ballybunion. We packed a lot of driving into our five days in Ireland -- more than 450 miles -- so chartering a bus with a driver proved an instrumental part of the experience, allowing us a setting for constant banter, impromptu bets, and the occasional nap.
If Old Head was a relative infant, Ballybunion, built in 1893, overflowed with history. Our opening drives sailed over a graveyard where, we learned later, members of our bus driver Mike's family are buried. This was the par-4 11th hole, one of several holes where errant tee shots wound up in the Atlantic.
The options you have coming into greens on links courses can be overwhelming. Our caddies, perhaps wary of our sketchy short games, were partial to handing us our putters even when we were 50 yards out.
After our morning rounds at Ballybunion's Old Course, we took up seats outside and ordered a few rounds of Guinness and Irish stew. An hour later, we realized there was only one thing left to do ...
... So we headed out to play another 18.
And to think our wives thought all we did in Ireland was play golf and drink Guinness. To be perfectly clear, we also enjoyed plenty of Jameson.
I have a weakness for betting games -- not necessarily advisable for mediocre golfers with a family to support. Along with an elaborate Stableford calcutta, we had a daily game of "putting poker," in which players earned cards for one-putting and contributed money to the pot with every three-putt. Admittedly, putting games aren't good for pace of play, but they can be a lot of fun as long as you're not holding anyone up.
We lucked out with the weather for the first part of the trip (not the end -- more on that later). No day was more glorious than Saturday at Waterville.
One of the great pleasures of our trip to Waterville was our visit with Jay Connolly, a decorated war hero and retired investment banker who was part of a group of Americans who bought Waterville from its original owner, Jack Mulcahy. Connolly invited our group back to Waterville House, a former farming and fishing estate that now serves as lodging for visiting members, where we enjoyed a drink and the spectacular view at sunset.
And just like that, the benign conditions were a memory. Gone were the shorts and sunscreen and out came the ski caps and rain gear. There were 50 mph winds the day we played Doonbeg, so strong that they canceled golf at neighboring courses. I'd say it was the windiest conditions I've ever played in. But I'm pretty sure it was the windiest conditions I've ever been in.
For example: the par-3 14th at Doonbeg measures 85 yards, directly into the wind. I hit a 7-iron and barely reached the green. This was our caddie Finton, who we encouraged to take a shot. He got there with a knockdown 6.
Even in the most miserable conditions, you'd be a fool not to look around and take in your surroundings. Very often, you'd be rewarded.
Lahinch, our last stop, has a similar feel as the Old Course at St. Andrews, with the neighboring town serving as a backdrop. More than once our caddies advised us to aim for a building window as a line off the tee.
I had a great run with caddies, but my caddie at Lahinch, Pedar Thynne, was my favorite. He turned 70 this year, "but I've only caddied here for 68 of them," he said. Pedar had a knack for clubbing me, a filthy sense of humor, and a soothing manner when I briefly started to hit the ball sideways.
With our last round completed, the 12 of us bought flags from Lahinch and signed them for each other -- all of us throwing in references to inside jokes that won't make sense to anyone else.
Our group before heading out for one last night at the pub. For 12 guys with a dozen wives and 34 kids among us, we knew a trip like this was going to be difficult to replicate. Unless ... "I think we should just get divorced," one guy in our group said. He was kidding. I think.