Common GroundJuly 20, 2019

Every golfer's an Irishman at Portrush

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland—Shebeen is a rich and beautiful Irish word. It describes an illicit pub where alcoholic beverages are served without license, songs are sung merrily off key, and stories are told that may have no resemblance to the truth. It's Ireland, after all, and the point is to have fun and play golf and drink up the joy of being Irish even if you're not.

This Open at Royal Portrush was one big shebeen. Not since 1951 had the Open been played on the Island of Ireland. Returning here was the closing of a chapter and the opening of a new one. It was not lost on the locals who spent millions cleaning the streets, painting the buildings, tweaking their golf course and otherwise preparing to return to world golf.

Ireland, both north and south, emerged this week from the shadow of Scotland as a premier destination for golfers who love the feel of links beneath their feet and a hard-driving rain on their faces. Castlerock was down the road, Portstewart five miles away, and Royal County Down a couple of hours' drive. And that's just Northern Ireland; the Republic of Ireland, the south, has more than 100 great links.

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Royal County Down, also in Northern Ireland, ranks as the top golf course in the world according to Golf Digest's most recent ranking.

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On farmland overlooking the town of Portrush, there before us was an actual shebeen—the sweet smell of Guinness dark, dry stout emanating from within. We were standing in front of it at a party thrown by the Carr Brothers, the premier travel agents of Ireland, when an Irish-American businessman, Larry Foley, started telling us about a new/old course with the lovely name Narin & Portnoo that was being redesigned by Gil Hanse in Donegal for Foley and his partner, Liam McDevitt (the names in this article are not made up).

Yesterday,
All my troubles seemed so far away...

The Beatles classic was being murdered in The Shebeen as revelers serenaded Wilma Erskine, the Portrush club secretary and boss lady, who was responsible as anyone for bringing the Open back to the old sod and now soon retiring.

Why she had to go, I don't know
She wouldn't say
I said something wrong
Now I long for yesterday

A couple of nights before, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and his pal Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, were in the same shebeen talking wistfully about the spirit of golf. Jay had just been anointed a new member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and he promised to return and play often, so moved by the occasion.

Love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday

Missing from the party was Joe Carr, the hosts' late father, 15-time Walker Cupper and winner of three British Amateurs (1953, '58 and '60). Joe was the first Irishman named captain of the R&A. His sons Marty and Roddy presided over the night's festivities.

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"Marty has the gift of laughter—he runs Carr Golf," Roddy said. "You always know where Marty is—he's the one laughing the loudest." Roddy was the player, representing Ireland on a winning Walker Cup team; he played the tour and later managed Seve Ballesteros.

Roddy was saying, "This moment is really important for the people of Ireland. It has brought them out of their houses." He reminds us that four living Irishmen have won major championships and all were in the field this year–Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke from Northern Ireland, and Padraig Harrington from the Republic. Back when the announcement was made that the Open was returning to Portrush, all four champions showed up at the host course and were cheered by a thousand locals.

"And you know who got the loudest cheer?" Roddy asked. "It was Padraig. They wanted to show him we're one country, one people."

As a young writer, I remember flying into Belfast and playing Portrush for the first time in the early 1980s. It was a magnificent course even back then. I wasn't quite smart enough at the time to know, but good players told me it was the best in Ireland. People will say County Down for its beauty and Ballybunion Old for its drama, but as a test of championship golf, Portrush has no Irish equal. It's to Ireland what Muirfield is to Scotland.

The thing I remember from those times, even more than the golf, were the soldiers without smiles, carrying automatic weapons across their chests, and the barbed wire on the walls around Belfast. I was told Belfast was the second-safest airport in the world, behind only Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. Safe, but for the wrong reason.

"Thirty years ago, I remember going north to play in a tournament and seeing the soldiers and guns," Roddy said. "When I crossed the border, I was asked to step out of the car and show the golf clubs in my trunk. There was a red laser pointed on my forehead. I'll never forget it. Those times are behind us, and we don't want them back “

David Cannon/R&A

A rainbow forms behind the green on the 15th hole at Royal Portrush Golf Club.

Whether you come from Northern Ireland or the Republic, golfers have always played for one Ireland. It's an example of sport standing apart from politics. As the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland face the decision of leaving the European Union, it struck me this week that Ireland will suffer the consequences. This shining moment of peace and solidarity that this Open symbolizes will be at risk.

Today there's no border between north and south. The unspeakable fear is that Brexit will return a border and along with it The Troubles. Na Trioblóidí, it was called—the ethno-nationalist conflict that tore apart Northern Ireland in the late 20th Century. There are whispers of one Ireland someday, and maybe even a separate Scotland.

But on this week, standing in front of The Shebeen, we join the voices singing in celebration of Portrush, this country returning to the world stage, and the Irish coming out of their houses.