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The remarkable restorative powers of Irish golf

October 24, 2018

My dad, God bless his soul, never got links golf. Truth be told, I never believed him. His low, bullet drives would have loved firm, bouncy golf, and he pulled his clubs in a “trolley” 40 years before it became the cool thing NCAA champions were doing.

No, I think Dad never could see past links golf’s bruised and brown fairways. Understandable, I guess, when I remember how much time he spent getting his lawn to look lush and green and “Augusta National” pretty. But I think had we been able to make a trip one time to Ireland, he would warm to links golf like it was the only game he’d ever known. To see and feel it in late May when there’s a chill in the air in the early morning but the gorse explodes in a golden yellow color not even Matisse knew existed, well, that is to understand something different about golf, and maybe different about life.

I got to make a trip to Ireland last spring, a remarkable week expertly conceived and precisely coordinated by the wizards at Carr Golf (personally, I’m pining for the Carr Golf staff to organize everything from my next golf trip to my daily commute, that’s how smooth their operation is). Oddly, given what I do for a living, it was my first visit to Ireland, and while I cannot claim to be any kind of an expert on the great links of the world, or about Ireland or its people, for that matter, what I can say for sure is this: Ireland is an inspiration.

Paraphrasing Jack Nicholson's OCD-addled writer complementing Helen Hunt's waitress in “As Good As It Gets,” Ireland (and by association, links golf) makes me want to be a better man. Sure, a better player, yes, obviously. The better your game the better you can appreciate Portmarnock and Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, and even Ardglass more than I, in my limited capabilities, could. But also, Ireland can turn you into one who appreciates golf better, too, less buffeted and broken by the winds and bounces of links golf.

I was fortunate to share one walk with Eamon, my cheery, thoughtful and patient caddie at Royal Portrush. He stopped me in the middle of a fairway as I bumbled and grumbled my way through another eyes-at-my-shoes, ball-in-pocket, newspaper triple, and simply said, "Slow down, see what you’re missin'?" (Good advice in golf and life.) And then he gestured to the roiling, sun-splashed North Atlantic down away beyond the fourth green. I took a deep breath in, sat on a bench and listened as he told me about how there’s no better way to end a day than with a walk on the beach with your dog, followed by a glass of your favorite beverage. (In a bit of an upset, his was wine.)

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My experience in Ireland with six rounds of golf in five days, and a host of new friends wanting the better for myself went beyond the golf course experiences, too. It came just from sitting on the weirdly perfect basalt columns of the jaw-dropping Giants Causeway on Northern Ireland’s north coast and contemplating just how big the world is. Or experiencing the eerie, deafening silence of an entire 50,000-seat stadium on a Saturday night in Dublin before a kick at the Guinness Rugby Final. And then the almost rehearsed delirium that follows as the ball spins through the uprights. These moments, and all the golf I could see in Ireland, are evidence, a reminder, that while there's plenty of joy in the world, Irish joy seems so viscerally tangible that it exposes the joy of everyday life you’ve overlooked.

I think if you don’t love golf after a trip like mine, you probably never really liked it in the first place. And you don’t deserve to ever love it in the future. Ireland reveals love about yourself and about golf, no less than it demands it because it is as difficult as it is obvious, as frustrating as it is rewarding, as physical as it is spiritual. Like James Joyce’s writing or Samuel Beckett’s plays or Glen Hansard’s voice, it stays with you, confounds you, inspires you, calls you back.

I don’t mean to sound like a drunk poet—although I did experience my first pint of Guinness and my first sip of Bushmill’s—but my Irish golf experience was a much-needed restoring of order, a reality check that is more hearty laughter than rueful smiles, a self-reflection that finds only hope, no regrets. Marty Carr, founder of Carr Golf, uses the lovely Irish phrase, “having a bit of the craic” to talk about the golf experience beyond the shots. I’m not sure of its literal translation, but it encompasses everything from the negotiation of strokes on the first tee to the telling of jokes long into the night. Golf in Ireland was a breath of fresh air that restored my lungs nearly as forcefully as it knocked down my 6-iron approaches. And I heartily endorse it as the best way to rediscover your game more than lessons or sports psychology or a club fitting or a yoga intensive or a new set of wedges. Or whatever else these days constitutes an excuse to make us want to love golf again.

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To be sure, links golf isn’t a stroll through the fescue and dunesland. With a golf club in your hand, it can be a fearsome challenge. And my brief tour through Dublin and then to Northern Ireland showed me some of the stouter stuff Irish golf can offer. Even on a calmish day (20 mile-per-hour winds), you soon learn that flying 9-irons pin high downwind to elevated greens is about as rewarding as trying to solve your first Sudoku puzzle in pen. But there are lessons to be learned, and like children and parents you can choose to fight against the logic for a lifetime or realize that they were right the first time. But don’t just take your medicine. Enjoy it.

There are literally hundreds of holes Ireland and Northern Ireland could present to you that show you how thrilling and restorative golf can be. The first tees at Portstewart’s Strand Course and Ardglass are epic stuff. The former is set on high dunes, like you’re surveying the kingdom with beach and ocean waves down to your right and all of County Antrim in front of you. It’s no wonder Game of Thrones has used nearby land as scene-setters. The latter opener at Ardglass, quickly becoming the hidden gem of Northern Ireland, is a sporty carry over sea and rocks that when the wind changes its mind becomes as beastly as the 14th-century castle that doubles as a clubhouse just yards from your first backswing. (And, oh by the way, Ardglass, which dates to 1896, also throws one of the best par 4½s at you with its 11th hole, named after the patron saint of friendship.)

But the one-shotters stick with you, too. There’s the chasm to be carried at Royal Portrush’s 16th (former 14th), Calamity Corner, or the coastal gusts blowing in from the right at Portmarnock’s 15th. The latter is the crown jewel of a stretch that Bernard Darwin once called “no greater finish in the world.” And the three par 3s in the final 10 holes at Portmarnock Hotel Links each feel like you’ve won a prize when you escape them unscathed, especially the short 11th where the green seems as plainly obvious and reachable as Kafka’s Castle.

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But the white whale of my trip and probably any trip to Ireland is, of course, Royal County Down, which routinely is short-listed for the best layouts in the world. There is first the golf fairytale setting at a meeting of sea and the mountains of Mourne. The short walk from the stately Slieve Donard Hotel makes you feel as though you’re playing in a magical through-the-looking-glass golfing backyard, but the golf is no bedtime story. Best to lace up your boxing gloves and be ready for a fight from an enemy you sometimes don’t see, given the handful of blind holes. Of course, all the rest that you can see are twice as tough. (A note on blind holes, by the way: Our two caddies, both of whom were 20 years my junior, had a combined 40 years of experience looping at RCD. So, well, we knew where we were going, and I’d advise you take advantage of that wisdom.)

It’s this seeing without seeing that occurs over and over again when I think about Ireland and links golf. It’s a comfort that the game always wins, a greater comfort still that sometimes it shares the victory with you, and greater once more when you realize that’s how it goes. I went to Ireland bogged down with all the baggage golfers tend to overpack on a trip like this, the physical and the carry-on that hides in your psyche. It’s what someone looking in from the outside might call neuroses, a combination of pre-trip over-planning mixed seamlessly with over-worry and crushing panic. In practical terms, it went like this:

I’m going to Ireland to play golf.

Let’s read up on these courses.

Let’s study the hole-by-hole descriptions and the flyovers.

Let’s read every book that’s ever been written and every article that’s ever been published on the subject.

This looks fun.

Well, fun, but hard.

Well, actually, with my game, I might shoot a hundred.

What if I run out of balls?

Boy, I could embarrass myself in a lot of ways.

Maybe I can fake an injury …

I noticed mid-nervous breakdown that cycle of despair really had worked its way down to every aspect of my relationship with golf. Heck, I’ve gotten to the point where the spiritual burden of chipping balls at the practice green requires deep breathing exercises and incense just to calm me down. Everything had become serious as a heart attack and nearly as much fun.

But I came away from my week in Ireland and the challenges of links golf lighter, lifted by experiences that celebrate the game as you find yourself being reintroduced to it. The worry is an exercise in point-missing, and trust me, there was an awful lot I could have missed in Ireland. Instead, I found myself going for a walk in town instead of studying a yardage book for the next day’s round. Or looking at the waves rolling onto the beach and the sound the wind makes when it’s telling you one more club won’t be enough. It was a different kind of focus that maybe freed me up to just play the game wherever and however I found it, rather than lamenting that it wasn’t something else. Being thankful that I was there in that moment. “There are no blind holes,” Neale, my caddie at Royal County Down said. And I get it. Embrace the next surprise that awaits you, he was saying.

The great Irish amateur golfer Joe Carr, who is to Ireland golf what Lincoln is to American presidents, perhaps has been overlooked by U.S. audiences. But as great a player as he was with some 40 wins, 11 Walker Cups and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Carr was a study in perseverance, self-belief and intensity, all married with lovely self-deprecation and consummate sportsmanship. When he was asked to be captain of the R&A in 1991, the then 68-year-old Carr wondered about his health, and then caught himself, realizing there is only one first Irish captain of the R&A. As it’s told in Dermot Gilleece’s biography of Carr, “Suddenly he found himself thinking, ‘Even if I was to die in the process, wouldn’t it be worth it?’” As captain, Carr would later say, “We still have our share of troubles in Ireland, but one thing I can tell this audience is that they stop on the first tee of every golf club north and south in the country. That, for me, is a tiny ray of hope.”

All the golf I saw in Ireland and I imagine you’ll see when you hopefully make your next trip over is that ray of hope. I’m sure it’s something my Dad would have seen, as well. It’s something I’m doing my best to embrace now, to slow down and smile with recognition and maybe even gratitude at the surprises the game and life throws your way.

It’s why when you walk off the 18th hole and head for a pint in the clubhouse when you’re in Ireland, the toast isn’t “Cheers!” or “Bottoms up!” or some other odd contrivance. It’s “Slainte´!” The word in Gaelic means health, but I can just as easily hear in it that ray of hope, that wish for better and a belief that it will come.