Replaying a golf course called Ireland


“You’re teeing off from the blues,” Declan noted. “What do you play off?”

“I don’t know. Five, six maybe.”

“Five handicap. Did you hear that, Eamon!” Declan announced. They hurried off the tee box and took spots behind the bench, eager spectators. I eyed the fairway of a bending par-four as the gallery carried on.

“I never played with a 5 handicap.”

“Me neither.”

“What’s yer handicap?”

“I dunno. Maybe 20.”

“You’re a 20 handicap on one hole.”

“I am not.”

“You had a 12 back there. On a par-four.”

I hammered a booming cut down the right side of the fairway to a chorus of, “Whoa! See that? He hits it farther than your dad!”

“Where’d you get that driver?” Declan asked. “Can I have a look?”

I handed it over to him. “Colin, check it out,” he said, showing it off like it was Excalibur, turning the blue shaft in the sunlight. “Gorgeous. How much did it cost?”

“I don’t really remember,” I told him.

“Where are you from?”

“He’s from America, stupid.”

“But where in America?”

“We’ve been to Disney World…”

For five holes the questions came, and I answered them coyly with a smile, playing the reluctant celebrity for them. Declan had an off-balance but consistent swing, and Eamon somehow got the ball airborne with men’s clubs – he looked like he was swinging a javelin. Colin was the quiet one, pipe-cleaner legs sticking out of his white football shorts, he was struggling to keep it moving, and I could tell he was embarrassed.

“He’s a better player than this,” Declan whispered to me on the sixth.

“He’s been sick,” Eamon agreed. “He’s long off the tee. At least I think he’s long.”

“Eamon’s the putter,” Declan said of his little brother

"Love my putter. It’s about the only thing I’m good at. Declan can hit pretty much any shot.”

“I like to play,” Declan explained. “I practice a lot, too.”

I had been of the opinion that Ireland was a country overrun by its youngsters. It was an impression hard to shake after a summer bouncing from tourist town to tourist town, having to brave packs of chocolate-fingered preteens, dodging their ice creams and wasting hours of my life in line behind kids trying to figure if they could squeeze one more piece of licorice out of their fiver. Ireland was supposed to be an old place, wobbly canes and bushy white eyebrows, a drafty old house my grandparents spoke about as if it had been knocked down years ago. So where the hell did all these kids come from? And why were they always in front of me at the breakfast buffet?

When I was those boys’ age, I’d like to think I wouldn’t have, but playing with three other ten-year-olds, I would have likely laughed at my buddies’ whiffs, thrown tantrums when they in turn laughed at mine, and found a way to end the nine holes with one of us storming off the course with a face hot with tears, all friendships suspended for a minimum of twenty-five minutes. But these lads cheered each other around the course. They stuck up for one another, were quiet when they hit it sideways, told each other to give it another go because they could do it better than that. Golf took a lot of credit for teaching good manners, much of it undeserved – I had met as many cheaters and jackasses on the golf course as off. These boys had the respect their fathers showed for their friends, and that gave them a certain poise that I didn’t expect from kids, a species I had previously considered the original four-letter word. Ireland was a changing place, a younger place, and the lads were all right.

Declan showed me how he hit his bunker shots: “I’m pretty good in bunkers. I’ve got a sixty-degree wedge,” and from his little brother, “He’s got a sixty-degree wedge, do you have one? They’re amazing.” On the last, I let them each take a swing with my driver, even Colin, whose struggles had his head hanging. He politely told me no thank you, but I wouldn’t let him leave the ninth tee without getting up there in his sneakers and giving it a rip. I’d like to tell you he split the fairway, but he didn’t, knocking a dribbler onto the ladies’ tee. But at least he was laughing, and his friends were laughing, too.

His cheeks were red as he handed my driver back to me. “It’s a good club,” he said.

They had been around the nine holes three times that afternoon and had probably taken north of two hundred swipes each, but as we finished the final par-four in front of the stone facade of Ballyheigue, Colin looked down to the beach where the sun was still hanging above the ocean, and he guessed they had enough time to play nine more. So we said good-bye, and they kept going – they had plenty of excuses to quit, I was sure, Nintendos back in their beach caravans, and probably a half dozen blisters between them. They were stuck with hand-me-down sticks and bags big enough to take a nap in, but what did that matter when you were twelve and there was still light in the sky? I watched them tug their bags toward the first tee, sure they would be out there until dark. I used to play that kind of golf, and in Ireland or Philadelphia or anywhere, it was the best game I ever played.