May 31, 2007

True North

A lone golfer goes to Northern Ireland—the only 'Troubles' to be found are on the devilishly beautiful links that punctuate the coastline

Royal County Down: the par-4 third is a challenge at 477 yards with a tricky green.

Royal County Down: the par-4 third is a challenge at 477 yards with a tricky green.

On the thorough-fares of Belfast, citizens passing by toss each other a wistful and kind of backward or sideways nod that takes practice to

Looking out the window from room 1034 of the stately Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Northern Ireland ("In Europe," says the concierge, "if you please"), the Divis Flats are visible in the background. They are a high-rise Catholic ghetto on the Falls Road. In the foreground is a typical and beautiful mural of an Ulster Freedom Fighter (Protestant) wearing a ski mask and toting a machine gun. The painting announces: "You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row." In a few days, the alleged South Armagh home of a Provisional Irish Republican Army commander named Slab Murphy will be raided at dawn by helicopter. In a few weeks, an alleged IRA turncoat named Denis Donaldson will be found shotgunned to death at his house in Donegal. But the "Troubles" are said to be easing steadily.

British border guards once blocking the roads between Northern Ireland and the Republic have packed up and gone away. Two army watchtowers, mysteriously known as Golf Two Zero and Golf Three Zero, are scheduled for dismantling. By many accounts, the most dangerous thing left in Ulster is the Ulster fry, a breakfast of egg, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, grease, more grease and thoroughly (almost incredibly) baked beans topped off by potato pancakes, fried bread and black pudding.

"Sure, you'll be going to Portrush first," says an Ulsterman encountered in the Crown pub (directly across the street from the Europa and the Grand Opera House), "unless you're not the full shilling, or you're as queer as a bottle of chips, or you're running around like a griskin with the head-staggers, or it's Newcastle [Royal County Down] first instead. If it's not one of them two [Portrush or County Down], I'll give you a looter, so I will."

I think I know what a looter is. What's a griskin?

"You must be jokin'! Are you daft? It's a horrible wee creature that has never been described, but when people around here use the term, you can dead believe they know what they're talking about."

As a matter of fact, Portrush is first.

"Grand. Brilliant. I knew you weren't an eejit."

Royal Portrush: Almost as good as it gets

Old friend Royal Portrush still sits on the Antrim Coast, teetering on the same cliff's edge as the ruins of Dunluce Castle, above the Giants Causeway, 40,000 stone columns (most of them six-sided, a few of them 40 feet tall) left behind either by some volcanic anomaly that the geologists can't explain, or by a certain Irish giant named Finn MacCool. Portrush is the only Ulster course to host an Open Championship (1951), the only one to nurture an Open champion (Fred Daly, 1947). The golf shop has been moved. A wall has been constructed. A practice ground has been expanded (a handsome one, too). But neither the mist nor the mood has been tampered with. In a cacophony of bird song, magpies still compete with larks. Foxes still jitterbug in the fairways. The rough continues to consist mostly of hay thatched with thorny-fisted wildflowers (the yellow ones smelling of almonds) and 19 kinds of orchids. The sea is everywhere around.

Is Dr. Moore's locker still operating?

"Indeed it is," says Wilma Erskine, in her 22nd year as secretary and foreman. "For that matter, so is Sam Moore." (He isn't really a doctor, by the way, but he has a medical turn of mind.) It was the graceful British writer, Peter Dobereiner, who, years ago, recommended stopping off at Sam's locker on the way to the first tee. From a white apothecary pail emblazoned with an official-looking red cross, a rusty but fresh solution is dispensed through surgical tubing: whiskey, Drambuie and ginger—"a penny a small go."

Three pennies are spent this morning; it's raining. Alongside the opening hole, a conversation is struck up with a compact, silver-haired man named Sid Carruthers (no relation to the nylon money, he says with a distressed grimace), who likewise is waiting out the storm. The caddiemaster here once, Carruthers is retired now. Sid more than knows the lay of the land.

"We have peace of sorts in Northern Ireland today," he says. "It's better than it used to be. My father before me, and his father before him, said, 'If you take my advice, you'll get out of this cursed country. You'll pack up all your possessions in a little brown parcel and go get a job in Scotland or somewhere else, because it will never be the way it should be here.' But I said to Dad, as he probably said something of the kind to his dad, 'Haven't you been out to the fifth hole at Portrush? Haven't you looked back from the white rocks? From the green by the sea all the way up the fairway? Isn't that the most wonderful sight in the world? How can you think of leaving it?' It's as good as it gets. Almost."

As the caddiemaster, Sid collected memories, but only first-hand ones. "I didn't rate any of the people who came by unless I talked to them personally," he says. "Howard Keel. Johnny Mathis. Michael Douglas. Dan Marino. Of course I was looking at Marino's navel as we spoke. Davis Love III was here with Brad Faxon, and Faxon asked me, 'How's the course playing at the minute?' I replied, 'Look, I play off a 14-handicap, and you're asking me? I'll tell you what--you let me know how it's playing.' And he did! When Faxon finished his round, he came and found me to say, 'It was this, it was that, it was the other.' What a grand man he is. And how much he loves links golf. It shines in his eyes.

"When Dan Quayle was here, I asked him after his game, 'How did you like Calamity Corner?' [A reference to the 210-yard 14th hole, where short, long or left are inconvenient, and right is dead.] He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I had to endure a lot of calamities today, and a lot of cruelties, too. These guys behind me never let me up. But, I'll tell you something, they wouldn't have made so much fun of me when I was vice president.'

" 'No, they wouldn't,' I told him.

" 'Well, come to think of it, they did,' he said. 'Everybody did.' And he laughed. We all laughed. I rate him a hell of a good guy."

Later, drenched in the locker room, sodden shoes are pried off under a photograph of Darren Clarke that he has signed "To my favorite 'home.' "

Royal County Down: Ireland's jewel gets even better

The co-champion golf course of Northern Ireland is Royal County Down in the green and purple Mountains of Mourne where, when the Masters is on in America, a bedspread of buttercups overwhelms the heather, and the children of Newcastle (Protestant and Catholic alike) swoop in like locusts to pick the gorse and whin for dyeing Easter eggs.

Even Portrush can't compete with the front nine here, and the back nine has had its face lifted in recent years, magically. Where once they were a bit abrupt, now the finishing holes are almost worthy of the start, and every scrap of new mounding or bunkering already seems 100 years old. The second shot to 18 is no longer blind. The 17th green suddenly fits the rest the course. The 16th hole, still a short par 4, has been promoted from poor relative to a members' favorite. "They're proud that their course is so hard," says the head pro, Kevin Whitson, "and they're proud that it's so beautiful. The mountain views are fantastic, of course, but it's the holes that make you look over your shoulder, away from the mountains—like the third--that are the real glories.

"Unless you take a good striking game to this golf course, you're playing on a knife's edge. But if you make extremely good decisions, and even pretty good shots, the rewards are huge. Jim Furyk stopped off here on his way to the British, just to find out what Tiger and the others had been talking about. ["I shot an 83 at County Down once," Woods says with a grin, "and was the low man in my group."] Furyk had the ball on a string that day, absolutely on a string. Shot 69, I think. He didn't seem to want to leave. If I had said, 'Come on, finish your Guinness, let's go play another nine,' I just know he would have."

After "them two," the north is strewn with worthwhile stops like Ardglass, Malone, Clandeboye, Balmoral, Castlerock, Warrenpoint, Royal Belfast (which the locals call Craigivad) and Portstewart. Like Spyglass to Pebble Beach, Portstewart to Portrush is just a different kind of spectacular, in the same neighborhood. A medley of big-league dunes and fastidiously revetted bunkers, Portstewart (without the sea) is actually the stiffer test.

Ballyliffin in Donegal is the hot new stop. Like Tom Watson at Ballybunion, Nick Faldo has taken Ballyliffin under his wing. The newer, longer Glashedy Links is formidable, but the older, shorter one (Old Links) still leads in smiles. Those Olympic skiers who twist and bounce on slopes that look like the bottom of egg crates would break their ankles on the fairways here.

Farewell

The nameplate of the woman at the checkout desk of the Europa Hotel identifies her as Carolyn Stalker, the "front-office manager." It's a famous name in the lobby. One time, she and a colleague noticed a suspicious truck at the side of the hotel and ordered the immediate evacuation of all the guests and staff. In less than 15 minutes, this feat was accomplished. At which point the Europa blew up for the 28th time. "We used to be No. 1 in explosions," she says cheerfully, "but a hotel in Beirut has gone way by us."

There is just enough time for a farewell drink at the Crown, and the same Ulsterman encountered before is still buying. His name is Kavan McDermott. "I've reserved a snug, for me and Christine," he says, meaning his wife, "and you." The "snugs" in the gaslit bar are mahogany enclosures that call to mind private compartments on the Orient Express, or stained-glass confessionals in a sacristy.

"All the best," Kavan toasts, lifting his glass.

Behind the bar, a sign on the wall reads, "No football garments are to be worn on these premises at any time."

"It's a sign of normalcy," he says softly.