Of Fairways and Fairy Tales
Published by Homefront Magazine | By Tyler Dillon
There is a place where the land is so steeped in golf that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish a city, or even a country, from a golf course.
A place where, after a round of one kind is complete, another is served, where pubs burst into song on a Friday evening and dark porters flow like water from a spout in the wall.
Ireland admits of a distinct seasonality; perhaps that’s why the pre-Christian Celtic religions had so many gods of land, earth, and nature. Things move according to the weather and growth, but while the weather moves fast, the growth is slow, betraying the island’s magnificent contradictions. Even in the local music there is an ebb and flow, bringing to mind stony hills and rocky beaches, or the faint scent of salt in a fiddle tune—listen to a reel for a second and you’ll see what I mean.
Perhaps this is why golf is so at home here—Ireland provides the perfect atmosphere for a game that from the beginning has spanned land and sea. Across the North Channel in Scotland, the original links courses – named for the Celtic word hlinc, meaning “rising ground” – were founded on the verdant land between ocean and farm, and to this day the game remains best played with an ocean breeze at your back. In island living, the sea becomes a reference point for everything. It helps you set your direction, it determines the way the wind blows and it provides life a perimeter—you always know that if you bike, hike or drive in one direction, before long you will reach the water. And there, at the edge, right before you jump in, there will be 18 holes of the most natural, fun, challenging golf you can find.
Eddie Hackett, the famed Irish golf architect, was known for his eye more than his design; he left that part to the gods. “I find that nature is the best architect,” he said, “I try to dress up what the good Lord provides.” He would walk the dunes and see where the natural lay of the land rolled out a course, plug a flag in the ground, and call it a day’s work. This almost Zen-like approach to the game and the course was what I found so refreshing when I first golf Ireland’s links; coming as I did from manicured, constructed hills of country club North America, this felt wild, natural. You feel it when you walk the course at Waterville—I have known players to finish and walk the course again just for kicks because it feels natural, like it is what we were intended to do. And perhaps that is the feeling I am trying to explain: golfing in Ireland makes you feel like you are doing what you were intended to do, walking, breathing, thinking, and striking a ball towards (or, as is so often true in my case, into) the sea.
I grew up in the Southern United States, where golf and tennis are year-round sports and attendance on the course and court is almost as mandatory as it is at church. In my native Georgia we go so far as to call Augusta National a “Cathedral in the Pines”. So when I found myself living in western Ireland years ago I was keen to explore the raw expanses of the island’s courses.
The first Irish course I played when I arrived on the great green island in 2005 was one of Eddie Hackett’s, the Connemara Links. Before I saw Ballybunion, Doonbeg, or Tralee, I happened into Connemara Links looking for a lunch spot after being soaked by a classic north Atlantic rain storm during a long bike ride. I found the course at the end of a long road heading west, past castles and farm land. (In western island, just about everything is past castles and farm land.) I had just flown over from Scotland where I had been guiding a tour for a family on a week-long trip, which allowed me to play the Old Course at St. Andrews. On the heels of such iconic courses in Scotland I had limited expectations for their Irish counterparts.
At St Andrews I was amazed to see how the village and the course melded into one and the same; throngs of people walked the course and watched the line at the tee box. But in Ireland the melding was less social than geological. Here I was out in the middle of nowhere, or what seemed to be nowhere to me, and as I watched the land shift from mountains to flats and then to ocean, a perfect course unfolded in front of me. I was immediately disabused of the notion that Irish golf is second-tier; this course was on par with, if not better, than Scotland’s best
The next day my friend Dominic O Morain (Manager of Lough Inagh Lodge, not far away) and I set out to play the course. Dominic had grown up in Connemara and this was his home course, so he explained to me every lie to the tee. I was struck as well with the constant noise of western Ireland, a noise that was absent on the east coast of Scotland, sheltered as I was by the Highlands. There is a constant motion on the Atlantic coast with the reeds blowing in the air, the howl of a trap and wind blowing above it. The white noise of place is louder here, and it also affects your game. It can get into your head or it can soothe you; it depends on what you bring with you when arriving. The wind changes often and the traps are deep, which make it a tough, but endlessly fun course.
Irish courses like Lahinch and Ballybunion have the same elemental feel I experienced at Connemara. Henry Longhurst explained it best by saying of Irish courses: “Its simple, elemental quality sweeps away the cobwebs of golfing theory and brings home to you once more the original fact that golf is a business not of pivots, hip turns, wrist formation and the rest, but of grasping an implement firmly in two hands and banging the ball with it.” It is a different sport in a country like this, wind chapped in tweed. It was the hardest day of golf I have ever had, and reminded me of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.