At Ireland's Golfing Greats, The Grass Is Always Greener

Even golfers who don't have the same handicap as pro Des Smyth, above, can play a round at the mythic Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
Even golfers who don't have the same handicap as pro Des Smyth, above, can play a round at the mythic Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland. (David Cannon - Getty Images)

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By Oliver B. Patton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 10, 2005

On the first tee at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland I had the jitters pretty good, which made sense considering that I was a neophyte pilgrim on hallowed ground. I started into my routine, hoping that the procedure would carry me through, but then became distracted by, of all things, a smell.

The vapor of wet earth and sea brine snuck up on me. It seemed to seep into my vitals and loosen something that had been too tight. For the barest instant I saw a connection between myself and some mysterious essence that I cannot describe but I know was real. It came and went as fast as light, but it made me pause, lift my head and look about.

Portrush is on the wild northernmost coast of Northern Ireland. Between me and the North Atlantic, about a quarter-mile distant, the links land was a turmoil of hills matted with coarse brown grasses, interspersed by fairways of radiant green. The dark sea was streaked with ribbons of wind-chased foam. Low clouds dispensed a heavy mist. It was not the image you see in marketing brochures, but it was, in its own way, more compelling: links golf on a gray day.

This was the second of three rounds my wife, Biz, and I were going to play during our four-day Irish mini-vacation last fall, a 250-mile driving circuit that took us from Dublin into Northern Ireland and back again. It was also our first experience with classic Irish links golf. Ours was the last tee time of the day; no one was behind us. Biz, who plays golf but is not the devotee I am, was waiting for me on the ladies' tee. I am one of those golfers who is preoccupied with getting it done--a walking encyclopedia of swing thoughts, few of which last longer than a single round. At that moment, though, as I tasted the air, I felt as if I were in a supernatural place. It was as though I had been lightened, and it was a sensation I wanted to preserve. I resolved that for this round I would set all thoughts aside and only swing the club.

This worked brilliantly for my first swing. My drive was everything I could have wished for, a low missile under the wind that drew nicely into the center of the fairway, leaving me a 6-iron to the pin. Naturally the 6-iron did not go to the pin. It went to the gorse, in which I would have been hard pressed to find an aircraft carrier, much less a golf ball. My reload was again brilliant, dropping within two feet of the pin. I sank the putt for a bogie. Not a bad start for a mid-handicapper's first round on a mythic course.

In this manner I proceeded for several holes, until one or more of the swing fundamentals simply vanished from my knowledge. After hacking a fourth ball into the wretched gorse, I was forced to admit that perhaps I'd been over-hasty with the idea of golf as a gateway to the mystic world. Now I was going to have to do battle with armies of negativity.

Then the tempest struck.

The mist thickened into a sturdy downfall, which built into a wind-driven torrent. With the rain sweeping in from the sea in horizontal gusts, golfing became minimal. Biz and I were properly suited in jackets, pants and gloves, but the best you could hope for was a modest advancement of the ball. The pages of my Pocket Caddy melted and fused together. Raindrops clung to my glasses like a thousand tiny magnifying lenses, producing a kaleidoscopic blur of green, brown and gray. It made no sense to wipe them because everything connected to my person was of equal wetness.

It was evident, though, that these conditions were simply part of the Irish game. On other fairways, golfers hunched into the wind and went about their business. The larger hills on the course had tunnels dug into them, with benches along the walls, but no one was taking shelter. The tunnels were for protection from lightning, not from your run-of-the-mill deluge.

Doom, gloom, you big baboon: At a course like Portrush, one of the Irish Greats, you want so much to bring your best game. Biz wasn't buying my mope.

"I have a question," she said as we trudged through the teeming rain. "I mean, besides the obvious one of are we out of our minds, or what?"

"You know you love it," I said. I knew no such thing and had no interest whatsoever in any question that anyone could ask on any conceivable subject.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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