The graveyard, which extends along the right side of the first hole at Ballybunion Golf Club, is an ancient, lonely plot crowded with plastic flowers and mottled tombstones etched with tributes to Carmodys, O'Reillys, Collinses et al. It sets an ominous tone. Even the mighty Jack Nicklaus was unnerved. In 1989, during his first and only visit to Ballybunion, he sent his drive directly into the dead zone. His errant ball landed on a Doherty.
"You'll want to aim at the left corner of the cemetery," said my thirtyish caddy, Jerry Rowan, who has been lugging wood and iron over the fabled Old Course at Ballybunion since he was a lad of 10.
As we waited for the foursome in front of us to move on, I surveyed the forbidding landscape. Here was a quintessential seaside links: wild, raw, treeless, wind-whipped, shaggy -- oppressively bleak and strangely beautiful. Variegated, bunker-pocked, pasturelike fairways swerved and lurched through grassy, mist-draped dunes. Moors came to mind. I half expected to glimpse Heathcliff stumbling about, searching for Cathy.
The cemetery was bracketed by dramatically contrasting sounds: on one side, the mooing of cows; on the other, the thwack of golf balls. Yonder, across the flagstick-sprinkled terrain, was the crashing Atlantic, which, at this exact spot in southwestern Eire, is fed by the River Shannon. The ocean and a broad strip of pristine shore can be viewed from several tees atop cliffs gouged by rain and gales that often exceed 100 mph. Erosion has robbed Ballybunion of not a little golfing turf.
A century old is this course. As with all seaside links, Mother Nature was the primary architect. History has it that Scottish regiments stationed along coastal Ireland during British occupation yearned for their native sport and went about walloping spherical objects into holes they'd dug in the ground -- ground that eventually evolved into shrines to which millions of golf-addicted Americans would make pilgrimage.
Back to the business at hand. My drive hooked far left of the cemetery, narrowly missing two pot bunkers, and Jerry Rowan and I took off for some golf the likes of which are bizarre to a Yank. "A good shot to have on a links," suggested Jerry, "is the long poot " -- that would be putt to you and me -- "from off the green. Lobs are no good here."
Ah, yes, this was the foreign province of touch golf.
FOUR DAYS EARLIER I had played at the Arnold Palmer-designed course at Kildare Hotel and Country Club (referred to by locals as the K Club), some 25 miles west of Dublin. No cemetery, no salt air mingling with wafts of manure, no rye-covered dunes, no long poots from off the green. Nary a gale-force wind. The tree-lined fairways looked like unrolled bolts of green velvet. There were immense man-made water hazards. Large grassy knolls, built to accommodate spectators, were everywhere. The occasional electric cart hummed from tee to green. Laborers and tycoons chased par at Ballybunion, but the three-year-old K Club was clearly an enclave for the elite. A stately wrought-iron gate framed by gas lamps opened onto the property, which envelops a five-star country-house hotel and myriad sporting activities besides golf. Jaguars, Mercedeses and Daimlers dominated the parking lot at the clubhouse, a handsome edifice with an elaborate, burnished interior, where faultlessly coiffed, Burberrys-clad women sipped tea and nibbled salmon-and-capers sandwiches while waiting for their husbands to complete their rounds. The greens fee was a whopping $115 (as opposed to $45 at Ballybunion).
Golf is going posh in Ireland. The sleek American parkland style, with all the accouterments, has invaded. Palmer has stormed ashore, as have Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, whose latest, at 200-year-old Adare Manor in County Limerick, is due to open in March. Even a swiftly emerging crop of Irish architects is doing things the U.S.A. way.
Television, a relatively recent arrival in the Emerald Isle, triggered the trend. Over the last 15 years the Irish have been transfixed by televised U.S. golf tournaments, which, of course, have exquisite venues -- places like Augusta National, Doral Country Club and Harbour Town at Hilton Head, where ultra-green and groomed fairways and water hazards the color of swimming pools and amoeba-shaped bunkers filled with blinding white sand have a Disney quality. They evoked blissful fantasy. They were unlike anything Irish golfers had seen.
Television not only inspired the development of American-style golf courses but also ignited a golf boom. The folks of Eire can't get enough of the game. Memberships at existing clubs have inflated beyond capacity. Children are taking to the links by the drove. Farmers are turning parcels of land into pitch-and-putts, driving ranges and par-3 layouts in hopes of profiting from the craze. Indeed, it would appear that the wondrously unspoiled Irish soil is being carpeted with fairways: The Republic now has nearly 250 courses -- with more flying off the drawing board -- and Northern Ireland has 40, giving the island more golf courses per capita than any other country in the world.
Somewhat ironically, Americans still resolutely flock to the traditional seaside links, virtually ignoring the new spreads that replicate their own form of golf. It's the Irish who patronize the Palmer and Nicklaus tracks. An inveterate 10-handicapper from Cleveland, with whom I raised a few pints at Ballybunion, put it most succinctly: "Why should I come all the way to Ireland to play the kind of golf course that's five minutes from my house?" Gazing out the window at the stark links, he pronounced, "This is how God intended golf courses to look!"
I had been hearing about the changes in the Irish golfing scene for several years, and I was at once disillusioned and intrigued. In 1987 I had enjoyed a brief sojourn at Ballybunion, and was thoroughly enchanted. I discovered the haunting allure of true links. I also discovered that the natives of the Emerald Isle took their bogeys and birdies as casually as they took a swig of Guinness; to them, golf was most definitely a game. And I discovered that nothing equaled the warmth of a peat fire, full-bodied ale and lilting conversation after a bout with bad weather and tall grass. (Irish golfers even had their own lingo. Definition of an oozler : nearest to the flag on a par-3. Gritty : getting up and down in two from a bunker. Sergeant major : holing out from off the green.)
I resolved to go back. I had to see if the extraordinary warmth was still there, despite the onslaught of modern design. I decided to do an extensive bed-and-breakfast-based tour of the old and the new: the classical links and the plush parkland stretches. Perhaps I would find merit, if not charm, in the Nicklaus and Palmer layouts. Perhaps, like so many visiting Americans, I would frown upon their contrived intrusion.
MY QUEST BEGAN 10 minutes from the Dublin airport on a migraine-gray morning, with me driving back and forth on a road that slithers along Dublin Bay, looking for a sign. Finally, there it was -- an obscure, weather-beaten marker with tiny letters that pointed toward Portmarnock Golf Club, former home of the Irish Open and site of the 1991 Walker Cup. In front of me, on yet another long and twisting road, was a bicyclist wearing a tweed flat-cap, a newspaper tucked under his arm. It was Peter McGuire, Portmarnock's elder caddy -- a 50-year veteran of looping.
The clubhouse at Portmarnock is deliciously comfy in a Spartan, threadbare way. In the men's bar, embers smoldered in the brick-and-limestone fireplace. Above the mantel was a vintage photograph of golfers in knickers on the club's opening day, in 1894. The lounge was furnished with worn-leather and faded-print wing chairs, oak barrels topped with cushions, and an heirloom grandfather clock with a brass face and a plaque inscribed: "In memory of James Sheehan -- honorary secretary, 1921-1935." Antique golf clubs were encased in glass. An old portable heater occupied a shelf below a picture window, which looked out onto an artless little rose garden.
I was informed that all Americans request the services of Peter McGuire, so I patriotically followed suit. I soon learned that Peter, a ruddy-faced, snaggle-toothed, oddly endearing chap, has a salty tongue and an express distaste for the obstinacy and slow play of golfing Yanks. On the first tee he groused, "Some of these Americans take 10 strokes in the bunker -- they refuse to pick up when they're havin' a bad hole. And they will not take advice! I hand them a 4-wood and they insist it's a 3-wood. If the shot doesn't work, they blame me!"
Suffice to say that whatever Peter advised, I did.
As I pondered the soccer field of a fairway before me, I remembered the course description I'd gotten: broad, flat links with large greens and infamously erratic winds that wreak havoc on the flight of little dimpled pellets. I was specifically warned about the par-3 15th, set flush against the sea. It looks fairly simple, but this is where the wind mounts its most capricious attacks. The logical strategy is to aim right and let the stiff breeze bring the ball back. But the stiff breeze usually has other plans, like doing an abrupt about-turn. In which case your spanking new Titleist is fish food.
"I once saw a man take 15 on 15," quipped my caddy. We were a pretty good team, Peter and I. He looked a bit peculiar carrying my pink bag and I strode briskly while he half-limped, but our rapport was right on. He kept slamming the wedge back into the bag every time I reached for it, insisting that I use a 6- or 8-iron around the greens. "Run it up, run it up," he commanded. I ran it up.
According to Peter, caddies are a "dyin' breed" in Ireland. More and more golfers opt for less expensive pull carts (the average caddy fee in Ireland is $20, plus $5 tip). Only six members at Portmarnock engage caddies on a regular basis. Peter and his brethren are heavily dependent on the yearly flood of American golfers, who always want a savvy bag-toter the first time out.
ON TO THE K CLUB. The eve of my visit, I checked into Rose McCabe's lace-curtained B&B in the humble village of Celbridge. In the dining room the next morning I watched a fat cat loll on the windowsill. The pope smiled benevolently at me from a wooden frame. As I poured my second cup of coffee, Mrs. McCabe whisked in from the kitchen for a light exchange. "Too many golf courses coming up in Ireland," she said. Just down the road from her place were two manifestations of the game's unbridled popularity: the Celbridge Pitch 'n' Putt and the Elm Hall Pitch and Putt.
As is the case with many of Ireland's new courses, Arnold Palmer's K Club layout is an adjunct to a historic country house cum hotel, in this case the magnificent 19th-century Straffon House, dripping with statuary, precious porcelains and original art by old masters. The elegant motif carries over to the clubhouse, which, for my taste, is too glossy, too lush, too new, what with teak-and-marble locker rooms and extravagant paintings of famous golfers.
I expected Palmer's course, which I cruised via electric cart (a full contingent of caddies is also available) to be slick too, a target-style track with tricked-up greens and fancy bunkering. Granted, it has its American affectations, but on the whole I found it to be a superb, gruelingly long test requiring just about every shot in the bag. A rolling stretch studded with massive beeches and oaks, it is rife with sidehill-downhill lies. Its winning feature is the trout-rich River Liffey. The great body of water that flows through the heart of Dublin reaches west and meanders throughout the K Club's acreage. Palmer made sure it came into play, most significantly on the seemingly endless, double-dogleg, par-5 seventh hole, where the daunting challenge is to hit two extremely well-placed shots followed by a pinpoint pitch over the river, which snakes in front of the humped island green.
Pheasants strut and squirrels scramble alongside fairways. In fact, it is the abundant wildlife combined with ancient trees and that lovely, murmuring old river that lends a traditional feel to a golf course that verges on the nouvelle.
Ernie Jones, an argyle-clad pro who has a wry grin and a faintly Old World countenance, also adds a touch of tradition. Prior to my round he pointed me in the direction of the state-of-the-art practice facility (encompassing putting and pitching greens and bunker) -- a decidedly American amenity. Irish golfers are rather averse to warming up. "They usually bolt from the car and tie their shoelaces on the first tee," observed Jones.
EN ROUTE TO Waterville Golf Links, deep in the southwest, along a tangled network of skinny, weaving roads, I passed tractors and trucks packed with bleating sheep. In the village of Roscrea I saw a wizened postman on bicycle; attached to the handlebar was his "mail pouch" -- a battered cardboard box labeled "Bailey's Irish Cream." A sign at the edge of Tipperary read "You've Come a Long Way."
Waterville, easily the most isolated, halcyon seaside links in Ireland, is a latter-day layout that hints at the hand of man. The greens are unusually ample, and wending through scruffy hillocks are level, well-defined fairways. Bounded on three sides by the tumultuous Atlantic, Waterville serves up rough rough, what with blankets of gorse, waves of marram grass and flaggers -- dense, ugly, unruly vegetation that swallows golf balls the way Venus' flytraps gulp insects. Topping it all off are volatile winds.
It was from this desolate peninsula backdropped by rippling mountains that the transatlantic cable to America was laid in 1883. The British telegraphers also put together a semblance of a nine-hole golf course. In fact, the cable cuts straight through the links. In Waterville's contemporary but homey clubhouse (there's a telly next to the fireplace), I made it a ritual to follow my daily round with a hot whiskey and a leisurely perusal of the artifacts in the Cable Bar and adjoining lounge. Sections of the original cable are affixed to wooden plaques and there are rare old photos of each cable station.
In 1967, a flamboyant entrepreneur named John Mulcahy, who early on emigrated from Ireland to make his fortune in America, revamped and expanded the original nine-hole links. He hired as head pro an Irish golfing legend, Liam Higgins -- a rugged young man with a high-voltage personality who was renowned for his colossal drives.
It was with Liam that I played 18 holes one blustery afternoon. First-tee jitters hit hard. I was rather overwhelmed by the brutish terrain and illustrious company. But Liam, as loquacious as an Irishman gets, quickly put me at ease. "Just crank up and hit the bugger," he counseled astutely.
Liam launched one missile after the other while I executed my standard demure 150-yarders. Throughout our trek over the longest links in Eire, he excitedly pointed out the unique traits that make seaside links seaside links. "Look at those ridges and swales! They try to copy things like that inland by machine, but it doesn't work! The wind has formed the mounds here, not bulldozers!" He also unleashed his rabid misgivings about the Americanized parkland mode sweeping Ireland. "It's doing away with real golf!" he thundered. "It's taking a lot of shots out of the game. A drive and a wedge -- that's what golf is being reduced to by these new inland courses. Proper golf is hitting a drive and then a long iron and then a finessed pitch-and- run. It's the glamorous TV look that they're all after these days. And it's not proper golf!"
Things simmered down by the time we ascended the tee of the 206-yard par-3 12th hole, a k a the Mass Hole. Indeed, a palpable hush fell around us. In the 18th century, priests sneaked into this hidden vale to celebrate mass -- a ceremony then punishable by death in Ireland.
"We had 100 laborers working on the course when it was built," said a suddenly solemn Liam, "and not a one of them would take a shovel to it. I tried over and over again to get them to do it, but they refused. It's a sacred ground. You could even see the little earthen altar set into the bank."
Ultimately, as a compromise, the green was positioned behind the sacred spot.
IT WAS PITCH BLACK when I pulled into the gravel driveway of Mary Beasley's bed-and-breakfast, the 19th Green, directly across the road from the Ballybunion links, so it wasn't until morning that, peering through chintz curtains, I saw the monstrous edifice looming in the fog. I thought I was hallucinating. I rubbed my eyes. It looked like a cross between the Starship Enterprise and an air terminal. What it was, I learned all too soon, was the new, $3 million Ballybunion clubhouse. The primitive, one-room wooden structure that offered a strictly utilitarian bar, simple tables and chairs and the perfect warmth that so captivated me seven years before was gone. Gone!
Ballybunion is big-time now. And Tom Watson is to blame. In 1981 he "discovered" this obscure course, hailing it as "a true test of golf." Suddenly the royal and ancient game had a new holy land. Today, some 15,000 Americans, plus legions of other nationalities, pour over this consecrated sod every year. The cost of membership has soared; there are no more openings.
To accommodate the onslaught, the club built (with the aid of American contributions) a gargantuan, trilevel, geometric, concrete-and-glass facility outfitted with mauve, spike-proof carpeting, an atrium, pricey golf art and three cocktail lounges, one for members only. I was nonplussed when I saw that the bar/restaurant has no fireplace. Shame!
The Old Course is the same -- still a study in contours demanding laser-accurate shots into the green -- but the atmosphere is not. As so often happens with expansion and modernization, soul has been forfeited. The colorful Ballybunion locals whose acquaintance I'd made back when now had a reserve bordering on arctic. My caddy remembered the old clubhouse. "Everybody was within shouting range of each other," he said, laughing. Precisely.
For the most part, I retreated to the comparative warmth of Mary Beasley's place after my rounds, where the cheery, well-scrubbed proprietress proffered tea and a bit of humor. "Once," she chirped, "this older woman who has a farmhouse B&B in Galway called to tell me that she was sending some golfers to me. I asked what their handicaps were so that I could arrange tee times for them and she said, 'Oh, good Lord, luv! They're not handicapped. They're perfectly normal!' "
LAHINCH GOLF CLUB, in western County Clare, was like an embrace after Ballybunion. The wind-washed, severely plain village of Lahinch revolves around golf; every resident is a member of the club, which dates to 1892. The unassuming stucco-and-wood clubhouse is redolent of bonhomie. I was further buoyed by the sight of the metal lockers -- earnestly painted canary yellow -- in the ladies' locker room. And there was a familial feel among the staff. In his small, cluttered shop, the avuncular pro, Robert McCavery, whose father held the same job from 1927 to 1987, drew for me a diagram of the notoriously wicked and eccentric Dell Hole, a par-3 consisting of a tee and a tiny green completely concealed by hills. A whitewashed stone serves as a guidepost.
"Take one more club than you think you need," admonished McCavery, "and play it off the hill behind the green and let it roll back onto the putting surface."
If ever there was a seaside links that necessitated a caddy, it's Lahinch. The roller-coaster terrain packs a ton of surprises; blind shots abound. The caddy I randomly chose turned out to be a star among Irish bag-toters, one B.B. Dillon. A foxy Lahinch fixture, B.B. has worked this turf for 44 years, transporting the clubs of countless VIPs, from Dan Quayle to the king of Malaysia. And he's not afraid to tell you right up front, "They all know me in the States."
As we slogged over hill and dale, B.B. kept me well-informed and thoroughly entertained. On the seventh hole he gestured toward the goats that roam the links, a trio of woefully disheveled creatures that smelled like Greek salad. The farmer who originally owned this property a century ago was allowed to let his goats graze even after the golf course was built, he explained. Thus was born a Lahinch tradition.
B.B. apprised me of the fact that he always caddied for the late Tip O'Neill, an avid fan of Irish links, whenever he came to town. On the 13th tee, as I scanned the lunar landscape that stretches toward the green, which nestles amid craterlike depressions, B.B. told me O'Neill had once stood on this launch pad, also taking in the view, then turned abruptly and exclaimed, "By God, B.B.! We could have sent a space shuttle, dropped it right there, flashed the photos home, and saved ourselves a fortune!"
After his battles with Lahinch, O'Neill and his entourage would pile into a motor coach and take off for Gus O'Connor's pub, in a remote speck of a village named Doolin, for a revelrous evening of Irish folk music. B.B. dutifully carried the speaker's canvas cigar bag over his shoulder.
MY JOURNEY ENDED INLAND. Jack Nicklaus's contribution to Irish golf is in the heart of thoroughbred country -- Thomastown, in the eastern county of Kilkenny. In 1991, when his 18 holes at the walled estate of Mount Juliet were unveiled, the Golden Bear helicoptered in for opening-day festivities. Two priests ceremoniously blessed the emerald grass. Toasts were made with crystal goblets from Tipperary. A bounteous buffet was served.
Nicklaus's debut on Irish turf signaled the new era. Officially gone were the days when the island had, basically, only one brand of golf. The red-white-and-blue suburban country club style had arrived.
I had envisioned the standard American stuff: fairways as plush as deep-pile carpeting, lavishly sculpted landing areas and clever, highly strategic bunkering. It was all there. Hard as I tried, however, I could not dislike this imported model; there was simply no denying its aesthetic appeal. Mount Juliet, a young, contemporary course in a mature setting -- was as bucolic and soothing as a Gainsborough, laced with babbling streams and 300-year-old oaks, beeches and lime trees. Holes 11 through 15 fringe a paddock wherein noble steeds graze (part of the estate is still a thriving stud farm called Ballylinch). Surrounding hillsides are patchwork quilts splashed with white cottages.
I concluded that no golf course in Ireland could appear too outrageously artificial, given the omnipresent breathtaking scenery. You could install a putt-o-rama replete with windmills and dinosaurs and it would look natural, as if the leprechauns had whipped up a little diversion for themselves. So all right, these Nicklaus and Palmer spreads are a dime a dozen in the United States, and, okay, they don't provide the wide array of subtle challenges that linksland does, and, yes, they are much too pricey, and of course there is the danger of overkill. But variety is the spice of golf. At least, it should be.
I had the good fortune of playing with Matt Bolger, who, when the manor was a private residence, started as kitchen boy, then graduated to the post of stable manager. He now holds the title of estate host. Matt's Irish came shining through on the first tee. "My handicap's 18," he announced in a thick brogue. "I hope to be down to a 17 in about 10 years."
The air was crisp and crystalline as we made our way around Jack's track, a gently rolling, arduously long stretch that has become the stage for the Irish Open. When Nicklaus came to Mount Juliet to size up the terrain he would transform into fairways, Matt spent hours walking the property with him. He says he was astounded by the golfer's knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna.
"He knew the name of every shrub, every tree, every plant!" exulted Matt. "And no one had to prompt him. He tried to spare as many trees as possible. Very few were cut down." Indeed, some of the holes are as tight as prison corridors.
Also, Nicklaus incorporated a lot of stonework (i.e., greens faced with rock walls), which, coupled with the ancient forest, makes his course look as if it has been there forever. The par-5 10th hole is a supreme example of how he worked around the estate's leafy treasures. In front of the green, smack in the middle of the fairway, are three oaks and one beech. To the right of the trees is a labyrinth of bunkers. To the left, a broad swath of grass slopes drastically toward the putting surface.
Ambling down the water-skirted 18th hole, Matt started telling me about Knockroe, the fastest stallion ever to grace Ballylinch. "He was everything you could think of put into one horse," Matt reflected with a trace of wistfulness. "He was a bad-tempered rogue one day and a perfect gentleman the next -- totally unpredictable. He was the most extraordinary horse I ever handled ..." I could tell this was a story that might have no ending. At any rate, it would assuredly spill over into the pub.
The sun's fading light was turning the golf course into something approaching the ethereal. The smell of wood smoke grew more pungent. A candle glimmered in one of the windows of the manor. Suddenly there was a deafening flapping sound overhead. The sky was black with crows. At about this time every day they swarm into the rookery on the estate.
It was at that moment that I realized I am not a golfing purist. The purists throng to Ireland for the seaside links and nothing but. I am a golfing tourist. I perceive the sport as a vehicle. It allows me to see diversity abroad. And now that Eire is in the midst of a golf explosion, with courses reaching into every hamlet -- all the better to absorb the many facets of that storied land.
I will always gravitate toward golf's most traditional and historic arenas, of course. The seaside links are peerless in that respect. But in Ireland, every millimeter of earth is steeped in the past. You can feel it. Even on the sophisticated, glamorous fairways that Jack built.
Jolee Edmondson, a Washington writer, has written two books on golf and is a former associate editor of Golf Magazine.