May 31, 2007

In Dublin's fair city

Two pals encounter the nation's capital, its first Ryder Cup venue and its famous links, both young and old

THE EUROPEAN CLUB: Go an hour south of Dublin to experience the 416-yard 11th hole.

THE EUROPEAN CLUB: Go an hour south of Dublin to experience the 416-yard 11th hole.

We were lying two at Grogan's, with an estimated three to play (at least), when the revelation dawned. Grogan's is a good old place to find revelations dawning. Tucked into William Street South in Dublin, several blocks from the tourist traps of Temple Bar, Grogan's might well be the perfect pub. There is no television set blaring, there's no music piped in, and there are almost never any Americans cluttering up a corner and singing "The Wild Colonial Boy" at the top of their lungs until you want to borrow a pike from the National Museum of Ireland and serve them up en brochette to the poor sods in the Ring of Kerry who'll have to put up with them by the bus-ful later in the week. Like I said, Grogan's is a good spot for revelations, in large part because you can hear yourself think.

I figured it out, I told Steve.

Steve Tougas is a pharmacist, and he grew up next door to me in central Massachusetts. We have been playing golf together since half-past The Great Society. Our first home course was a place called Juniper Hills in Northborough, one town east from where we lived in Shrewsbury. It was a well-tended public track that had as its angry heart a 469-yard 10th hole with a road on the left, a creek to carry on either one of your first two shots, and, behind the tee, an open window through which the manager of the course would upbraid youthful miscreants at the top of his voice. When he was particularly cranky, which was often, it was like playing golf on a course designed by the Brothers Grimm. Since then, we've knocked it around on a number of courses, public and private. A couple of years ago, an old political source of mine got us onto The Country Club in Brookline, where we each took three cracks at Justin Leonard's clinching putt from 1999, not coming remotely close on any of them. (We kept our wives at home so they would not rush the green and offend our NATO allies.) In any event, in Grogan's, where, thanks to the great Tommy Smith, we were now lying three, with an estimated five (at least) to play, I ran through all the rounds we'd played together through the years and announced my revelation.

"You know," I told Steve, "I think it's going to be easier to play really badly on a great golf course than it is to play really badly on a bad one. Let's say you make an 8, right? If you climb to the next tee, and you're looking off over the Irish Sea, then it's hard to still be upset about the 8. Does this make any sense?"

You're still not going to like making an 8, he said.

We were assigned to play some courses "in and around Dublin." Of course, the courses were more "around" Dublin than they were in it. We chose to hire a driver, in no small part because we didn't want to find ourselves trapped in a traffic roundabout on the wrong side of the road, gradually picking up speed until the centrifugal force hurled us off in the general direction of the land of Tir na Nog, never to be seen again. So the staff at Buswells Hotel found us a local cabbie who would get us to the courses and back. The fact that his name was Darren Clarke was taken by us to be an omen, although what kind we were loath to speculate.

Day One: The European Club

'That's the place," Darren told us, pointing toward a country pub as we made a left onto the tight country lane that led to the seashore and to the European Club. "That's the place where she had him shot."

The wife of the pub's proprietor had conspired with three men to kill her husband. After a sensational trial in 2000, Catherine Nevin, the "Black Widow," got a life sentence. The scandal had touched the entire community. It is still not known who pulled the trigger.

Pat Ruddy opened the European as a true links in 1992, laying it out along the coast between Brittas Bay and Arklow Bay, tailoring it to the terrain in such a way that, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, there are only two par 5s on the course. He also framed holes with bright yellow gorse, giving the whole place a golden look on a bright morning. Of course, the gorse is a notorious eater of golf balls. Gerry Arthur handed us two sleeves to start the round. I thanked him.

"No problem," he said. "We're going to get them all back today anyway."

He was right. He got all six of mine back, plus about eight of the balls I'd brought over with me. Even though the course was set up for my (admittedly eccentric) left-to-right drives, any time the ball rolled more than a foot off the fairway, it was gone forever. The local flora devoured every part of my game except, well, me, and that, I suspect, was only because I never went looking for my ball in the gorse. I'd have rather faced the gun-totin' widow from up the road. In fact, by the back nine, I was enormously grateful any time I saw the Irish Sea along one fairway instead of any indigenous plant life.

We teed it up on the 12th, a 459-yard par 4 with the ocean along the right side of the fairway and a beach in play. It looked a little like Pebble Beach, except set beside a more interesting, less domesticated, sea. I bumbled and fumbled up the left side of the fairway--I left my fade in the gorse, I think--but Steve put his drive in the middle of the beach. Framed by the wide blue, he played a terrific second shot, and saved himself a bogey. He found me off to the left of the green, barely visible in a bunker reinforced with railroad ties. My ball was at my feet and, I have to say, I was damned happy to find it there.

Day Two: The K Club

Well, this is the whole point of it, isn't it?

Darren drove us through the center of Straffan, and we had to wait for a long moment in the town square. There wasn't room for two vehicles on the bridge that spanned the river and, anyway, there was a First Communion procession crossing the street in front of us, a dozen or so children in white ties and lacy veils, herded by a priest into a small stone church that's about half the size of one of the hospitality tents that would be springing up here for the Ryder Cup. Darren was planning to make some money that week. "They're not going to let anyone park within six miles of the place," he said.

For all its formidable reputation, the K Club seems less Irish than it does a bit of North Carolina built along the banks of the Liffey. It is a dignified, muted place, a gated community of the spirit and, as such, a perfect spot for the corporate, globalized fandango into which the Ryder Cup has evolved. In fact, even in May you could see the event coming almost everywhere on the grounds. The greens were sanded. There were a number of places where the ground was plainly in transition, and even the clubhouse was under repair. Still, there's an undeniable charm in crossing the clattery metal footbridge that leads onto the Palmer Course, a soft rain pattering through the leaves. It is a place where you can get lost to the world. The European is a place where golfers have to think. The K Club seems aimed more at contemplation.

Now, far be it from me to advise any of the people who will be knocking it around the K Club this autumn, but Mr. Woods should note that, on the club's regular first hole, the tee box is ringed with patriarchal old trees that are home to the noisiest crows in Christendom. They are notoriously ignorant of golf etiquette and notoriously unimpressed by human beings. (One of them strutted right up to the tee and watched us, like a marshal, or Peter Kostis.) So don't bother sending your caddie aloft to threaten them. He'll never come back alive.

The crows are the only impolite thing about the place. There is a profound quiet about the K Club, a level of self-containment that can be nearly otherworldly. On the par-4 fourthmdash;"Laurel Haven"mdash;I found myself concentrating almost despite myself, and made a nifty little up-and-down for the par. However, Steve had the hole of the day, parring Arnold's great finishing hole over the water and onto a green that looks like the stage at the Abbey.

Day Three: Carton House G.C.

This is where I should tell you about Lawson Little. For years, I used a set of hand-me-down irons that belonged to my father. They had shafts made out of a revolutionary new material called "fiberglass." They carried the autograph of Lawson Little and, once, I made fun of this in print only to be deluged by angry letters from Lawson's descendants regarding his U.S. and British Amateur championships, his U.S. Open championship and, generally, the fact that I was unworthy to swing clubs bearing his name. Out of respect, and in penance, I still carry the 2-iron from the set. On the 15th at Carton House, I pulled Lawson—yes, it has a name—out of the bag.

We were playing Mark O'Meara's course. (The other course here, designed by Colin Montgomerie, was being prepared for the Irish Open.) O'Meara has done a brilliant job conforming his layout to the terrain, winding it with painterly precision through woods along the River Rye, and around a large central rise topped by Tyrconnell Tower, which is thought to have medieval origins. Atop the rise, the course opens itself to the countryside the same way the oceanfront courses open themselves to the sea. From next to the tower, you can see all the way down to the old seminary in Maynooth, and the effect is to render the course less insular than the K Club is.

A steady rain had blown off toward the distant mountains, and I was in a bad spot along the 15th fairway, but I was in the fairway. The fade had returned from wherever it had gone, and I couldn't miss a fairway nor hit a green. I was fed up. I didn't fly across an ocean, battle the devouring gorse, and get heckled by crows to lay up. Lawson was coming out, and we were going to carry the Rye and run up on the green. I stung the ball and my hands—the revolutionary fiberglass shafts tend to vibrate—and it took off on a low line, clearing the water and very nearly clearing the wall on the other side.

"Thought you had it," Steve said, as the ripples faded on the surface of the Rye.

Still, I thought, pursuing my revelation, it's a really lovely place to play, and a great peace descended upon me, and it lasted just long enough for me to knock my tee shot into another part of the Rye on the next hole, a par 3 that O'Meara, that criminal genius, threw across the river and toward the trees.

Day Four: Portmarnock G.C.

This is the place to SUM it all up—a links along the sea that it shares with the European, that already possesses all the history that the K Club would like to have, and that seems to rise organically from the topography the way that Carton House seems to track the Duke of Leinster's old demesne. They first teed it up at Portmarnock in 1894, and they ran the Irish Amateur across it five years later. That same year, Harry Vardon won the first professional tournament played here. And, through the years, the last five holes have come to be known as one of the game's great set pieces.

In that closing stretch there are three par 4s, a par 3 and a par 5. Steve parred the 14th brilliantly, playing his approach to exactly the right spot on a huge green that rolls like the ocean does on the other side of the dune. The 15th is a par 3 along the beach; Ben Crenshaw calls the 190-yard hole "the shortest par 5 in golf." So far that day, the course had won my heart, but the game had not. I was hacking my way into triple figures again. I hit a shot high into the breeze and watched it carry, left to right, in the general direction of Wales, and then I saw the sea breeze push it back the other way, gloriously, toward the heart of the green. The two to get down got me a par--take that, Crenshaw--and I didn't even mind much that, on the 17th, a virtual hurricane blew up, with cold raindrops the size of quarters, forcing us to play the Portmarnock Two Step up the fairway and through the rough. By the time we got to the 18th tee, the sun was out again. We sipped a couple of pints in the clubhouse and watched some poor souls carving themselves out of the rough a ways up the fairway. What stayed was not the 10-minute hurricane, or the hole we halved with 11s. For me, it was how bright my golf ball looked, framed against the blue sky and being brought gently back onto the green on 15. The memory came back, again and again, like the in-rushing tide in the inlet below.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer at The Boston Globe Magazine and a contributing writer to Esquire. His book, Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything, will be published Nov. 1 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.