It was widely known among golfing circles in southeastern Pennsylvania that Denis was a golfer who could come up short from almost anywhere on the golf course. We called him Captain Layup. Facing a carry over a lake, a pitch to the green, or a six-footer to the hole, rest assured that Denis had worked out some way in his subconscious to keep his ball from getting there. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hit it; rather, Denis was perpetually ready for that once-in-a-century five-iron that was going to travel a three-wood’s distance. But if it was going to happen this century for Denis, I hoped that it would happen here, on our first hole of the Irish golf course, a 373-yard par-four on a sleepy little seaside course called Kilkee.
Elder linksman of the group, Denis was granted the honor. Standing on the first tee, looking out over the Atlantic ocean where the water was torn white against the charcoal rocks, Denis stood tall on the tee box and breathed it all in. Pepper-haired with age in his eyes, that day he was a young boy staring into the sea, looking over this land he loved. He placed his three-wood behind his ball with reverence, took one long contemplative pause, and brought his club back, ready to make his golfing mark on one of this planet’s most historic bits of rock.
He paused at the top of his backswing, eyes bright with hope – we braced ourselves, waiting for the cannon blasts, the trumpets, the eruption from the gallery. But all we heard was a loud “FORE!” from the window of a passing pickup truck. The yell had been launched at Denis with perfect mid-backswing timing. The rest of his swing looked like he was trying to fend off a swarm of bees, Denis fumbling into his golf ball and knuckling a heel shot into the very nearby weeds.
I had traveled far from home and my head still wasn’t sure if this was sunrise or sunset golf we were playing, but as I watched Denis curse himself in Kilkee, the rest of our foursome choking back belly laughs, I felt a warm familiarity come over me. The drive-by-backswing-golf-shout was a street-side tee-box classic. And Kilkee or Philadelphia or wherever I might find myself tomorrow, it still played funny everywhere.
I tried to pretend not to see it, but it was unavoidable, directly out the front door from the B&B, a sign that I couldn’t miss.
“BALLYHEIGUE CASTLE GOLF CLUB”
I had planned on playing an Irish golf course that was 720 holes long. By the time I got on the plane in two days time, I would have played 981. What was nine more? And Ballyheigue to Ballybunion was a fair way to finish, I decided, golf on two remote ends of the Irish spectrum – from the town nine-holer to a course that made me wish I’d packed pants without cargo pockets (if noticed in Ballybunion, I had a Swiss Army knife ready to make them disappear). I put my last pair of wet, woolly socks over my sandy feet, grabbed my sack of sticks that had just barely survived the ocean an hour before, and headed for the clubhouse.
The course would have been more accurately described as the “LAST REMAINING BIT OF BALLYHEIGUE CASTLE GOLF COURSE,” because the castle was burned down by the IRA during the War of Independence, and what remained was its facade and a few turrets, sort of a backlot Hollywood castle with nothing behind the windows. It was an adolescent nine-holer (born in 1996) and far from a true links – half the holes were treeless, and from its hillside location overlooking the water, it had a seaside feel, a fair community course with views through an old castle wall to the beach and Ballyheigue Bay. It might blossom into something more substantial, but as it was, Ballyheigue was a safe setting for kids on holiday to knock it around. And lucky for me, that’s what I found as I dragged myself up to the first tee, three lads having just teed off ahead of me. They were each pulling golf bags bigger than they were and walking circles in the rough, looking like they had lost their mothers in the mall.
I took my time and played two balls, trying not to push the threesome, but on the fifth I wandered to the tee box and found a young boy sitting on a bench. He was wearing a soccer jersey and had short brown hair and a pale, freckled face. He couldn’t have been ten years old, and there was no chance that he weighed more than my backpack.
“Do you want to play along?” he said, sounding confident. “It’s slow today.”
I had been used to getting waved through as a single, and was always disappointed when I wasn’t asked to join a group – no matter if it was little old ladies or a pack of club-throwers, it was nice to be asked. His name was Eamon, and after watching their struggles over the opening holes, I was surprised to be asked to join up, but if he wasn’t too shy to shank it in front of a stranger, neither was I.
I thanked him and headed for the back tee box, past where two lads were returning from the regular tee, headed for Eamon’s bench. They were a couple years older, maybe twelve, both of them as skinny as six-irons, a kid named Colin in a Cork jersey and football shorts, and Eamon’s brother Declan dressed in a collared shirt and spikes, the golfer of the group.