Replaying a golf course called Ireland


Every adventure sets out to answer a question.  It might be, “Can I?” or “Should we?” or “What if?”  In my case, my endeavor to walk and golf the whole of Ireland began and ended with one particular question, an inquiry I bumped into almost every step of the way:

“Yer doin’ what?”

It was a question with another question quick on its heels: “Really – yer doing what?” often followed by, “Why in the hell are you doing that?” to the point where my four-month adventure in Ireland became a search for a satisfying solution to this last, and most relevant inquiry.

After 1,000 seaside golf holes, 1,100 miles on the hoof, and 320 pages, I hope that I have pieced together a proper answer.  And perhaps some of the following will help explain why anyone would mistake Ireland for the world’s greatest round of golf, leaving his wife at home for a summer, and setting out from the Shannon airport with ten clubs on his back, and ten pages worth of tee times.  My plan was to go and figure out why so many felt as passionately as I did about the golf being played along the coastline of Ireland, and to understand how golf had become the thing that had reconnected so many people of Irish descent with the home of their grandparents.  I found Ireland to be a place that revels in its ironies, and none more so than the fact that a game brought to Ireland by an occupying army is now the pastime that brings so many thousands to its shores, a game that Ireland now does as well as (and for my euros, better than) any golf destination in the world.

A country the size of Indiana possesses some 40% of the true links courses on the planet (a links is a course built on sandy dune soil, designed by the wind, and perhaps the truest – or certainly, the original – expression of the game).  It’s an astounding statistic (by strictest definition, there are no true links in the United States), one that should be celebrated as a tremendous source of Irish pride, and one that certainly seemed to require some investigation.

It was a golf map of Ireland, its outer edges ringed with golf holes, that first had me contemplating a round of golf that would truly go around, the ultimate game of golf played across a course called Ireland.  But as I chased my disloyal golf balls around the dunes of Ireland, those golf holes became the least important characters in this journey.  The people, the pubs, the roads, the history, the friends, the chippers, the sea cliffs, the gossip, the Gaelic, the caddies, the travelers – hell, even the dogs – all quickly became the easy answer to that question of why.

There was one other question that I heard in the clubhouses and on the roadsides as I made my way, a question I felt less equipped to answer: “Are you (bleeping) mad?”  Some days, it felt that way.  But on most days, like these days here, I just felt like the luckiest golfer, husband, tourist, and distant son of Ireland in the whole damn world.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a dozen young men and women set out from towns in the west of Ireland, traveling by cart and by foot, headed for ports in Ballina and Westport, County Mayo. They bundled up their lives and stepped onto crowded ships pointed toward a place they had never seen before. One of those young women carried with her a mahogany cupboard with delicate glass doors, flowers hand-carved into the panels. Today it hangs in my parents’ living room, next to a fifty-two-inch flat-screen television.

The names of those people, why they came, or precisely where they came from, had been lost in my family’s shuffle. It had been my experience that the one thing Irish families did better than talk was whisper, and generations of whispers – who was unlucky and who was ungrateful, who drank too much, died too young, who was a good daughter, a lazy son, who never married and, more quietly now, why not – blended into a collective hush. I found myself looking at that cupboard from time to time, covered with the next generations’ macaroni Christmas ornaments, a ceramic teddy bear, last month’s Mother’s Day cards. There was a golf ball in one of the nooks, a Titleist with a purple-and-red logo on it and the letters BGC: Ballybunion Golf Club. That cupboard came to America in the arms of a woman trying to put Ireland behind her, and now it hung on the wall showcasing a golf ball from County Kerry, reminding some of us how much we wanted to go back. And as I stood on my first tee box in the southwest of Ireland, looking out over golden dunes and black cliffs holding back a frothy sea, I felt certain that over the next 119 days spent walking the longest possible path to Ballybunion, I was going to figure out which one of us had it right.

My friend Denis had children my age, but we’d become good friends over the years as semi-regular golf partners – he divorced, me self-employed, we had high golf availability in common and found ourselves sharing a cart on many a Tuesday afternoon. And over those many Tuesdays, I came to understand that Denis dearly loved two things in the world – golf and Ireland (and his kids, I’m sure, but that wasn’t really relevant during twilight golf). For golf in Ireland, his availability was extreme – grandson of immigrants, he even had an Irish passport. He was packed for the trip before I even got around to inviting him, booking a spot during my first week, a stretch that promised more links than most.