If you’re planning your first golfing trip to Ireland, congratulations. Ireland remains one of the planet’s best golfing destinations. It is not, it must be noted, the unspoiled and unexplored destination it was a generation ago. There is no undiscovered Ballybunion waiting for you to happen upon it. There aren’t many real bargains left, either. The renowned courses long ago figured out how much visiting Americans were accustomed to paying at places like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst. They adjusted their prices accordingly.
But only Scotland can match Ireland’s array of rugged, quirky seaside links. And not even the Scots, charming though they are, can match the camaraderie that exists between Americans and Irish. You’ll drink from the well of this mutual affection every moment you’re on Irish soil.
Now that you’ve decided on Ireland, what’s your next step? Well, there’s the obvious one: buying a first-class rainsuit. At one time or another during your trip, you’ll probably need it. You’ll also need a good windshirt and a sweater or two. Ireland is cool, even in summer. But if you really want a great Irish trip, here are twelve tips that will help.
1. Book it yourself.
Ireland is a foreign country. But it’s not Bhutan. The people speak English. You can call them on the phone. You can send email. And if you don’t already know the best courses to play, you can make up a wish list by consulting any golf magazine. The courses you pick will all have web sites, and they’ll all welcome visiting golfers, at least on weekdays.
So why would you pay someone a hefty surcharge to book your lodging and make your tee times? Do it yourself. Planning the itinerary and making your own arrangements will give you a pleasant foreshadowing of what the trip will be like and fuel many a piquant pre-trip daydream.
2. Drive yourself.
There is the matter of travel once you get there. The Irish do drive on the left side of the road. Yes, even the main roads are narrower than your garage, and they’re lined with rock walls and hedgerows. And, yes, the buses and trucks won’t slow in the slightest as they bear down on you from the opposite direction.
Rent a car anyway (assuming you’re not playing in the rent-a-helicopter league). Renting a car (or cars) will give you the freedom to explore, whether you’re exploring the little course you passed on the road or the little pub you saw when you left the little course. You’ll get the hang of driving on the left side. Just make sure you take full insurance coverage, because you’re quite likely going to dent a few left-side hubcaps. Don’t count on getting more than two grown people and their golf bags into the typical rental car.
One other thing about driving in Ireland—don’t do it after an evening in a pub. The country is abundantly stocked with both taxi services and police, called the Gardai in Gaelic. It’s not a coincidence. The wise Irishman leaves his car in the pub parking lot on Saturday night, takes a taxi home, waves at the Gardai, then takes a taxi back to the parking lot on Sunday morning to pick up his car.
3. Pick a region.
Ireland is a small country, but that can be deceptive. It may only be 200 miles from Ballybunion to Royal County Down, but you might take all day to drive them. And charming as the Irish countryside might be, you won’t be there to look at sheep and cows. You’ll be there to play golf. So pick a region and stay in it. From Dublin, you’ve got easy access to Portmarnock, Royal Dublin, Baltrae and the European Club. From Belfast, you’ve got County Down, Portrush and Portstewart. In the southwest, not far from Shannon Airport, there’s a plethora of great links, headlined by Lahinch and the aforementioned Ballybunion. The Northwest is blessed with many fine clubs like Ballyliffin and Rosapenna, which see visitors relatively rarely.
But don’t try to mix regions. If you do, you’ll spend too much time in the car and not enough time on the links.
4. Play the great courses at least twice.
Most tours put their clients on a course-a-day regimen. The golfers are on a bus heading out of town within minutes of stepping off the 18th green. But the storied Irish links courses are like fine wines. They’re complex. They can be quirky. You’ve got to play a blind shot over a dune, and you’ve got to trust your caddie when he tells you to aim over a whitewashed rock, or at a certain white cottage high above the course in the Mountains of Mourne. But you can’t quite trust your swing until you’ve seen what’s on the other side of the dune. That’s why a great Irish course is worth playing at least twice. When you book your own tour, you can make certain that you do.
5. Be canny about weekends.
Some of the most popular destinations for American golfers—Ballybunion and Lahinch, for example–only welcome visitors on weekdays. You’ll need to plan your trip accordingly. One option is to spend your weekends at a hotel with a good course. Adare Manor and Doonbeg Lodge, for instance, exist to let guests play on Saturdays and Sundays. Or you might plan to visit an out-of-the-way place like Ballyliffin or Ceann Sebeal where the members don’t mind sharing the course with visitors regardless of what day it is. You could even decide to spend Saturday and Sunday hiking. Lots of people visit Ireland and never play golf. Imagine.
6. Ask your caddie for more than the yardage.
Of course you’ll take a caddie, at least the first time around a links. You’ll find he can be a great source of information about more than the right club. Caddies know the best pubs in town and sometimes the best places to eat. And don’t forget to ask where the caddies play golf on their days off. Quite often, the response will lead you to an inexpensive gem of a course that’s ideal for the second 18 you’ll want to play on a long summer’s day. A caddie at Royal County Down, for instance, tipped me off to Ardglass, about 20 miles up the road. It’s a little short to be a championship layout, but the first tee abuts the ruins of a castle and the opening drive has to carry a cove in the Irish Sea. Spectacular.
7. Play with the locals.
Most American golfers go to Ireland with a group of buddies in a number divisible by four. They play all their golf with the same group they play with back home. It’s understandable. It can be memorable. But I think that it misses something, or, rather, someone: the Irish golfer and his wry, gregarious wit.
A few years ago, my brother Dennis and I played Ballybunion in the company of two members. Our host was a fine golfer and finer fellow, Pat Harnett. Dennis happened to sink a lengthy putt to birdie the first hole. “Walk slowly, Dennis,” Pat advised my brother as we left the green. “Enjoy being under par at Ballybunion.” The compliment was genuine, as was the implicit warning: the second hole at Ballybunion is infinitely harder than the first, and the third can be nastier still. It was the sort of thing only an Irish playing companion could say and it made for a story my brother loves to tell.
Though I’ve enjoyed all the rounds I’ve played in Ireland, including the ones in exclusively American company, my most memorable rounds have been with locals. How do you arrange to play with them? One way is to enter tournaments. Look under “fixtures” on the web site of a course you’re interested in. There are lots of them. Enter. Make friends.
8. Bet modestly.
If you’ve found an Irish playing partner and you fancy a match with a few Euro on the line, remember that when he says he plays “off seven,” he’s talking about an extremely solid seven. In the Irish handicapping system, the rounds that count are stroke-play tournament rounds. Your “off seven” opponent averages 79 when he putts everything out, under tournament pressure, in weather that would cause you and your Yank friends to stay home. Your American handicap is based on friendly, informal rounds with buddies who concede everything under four feet. And you played most of them on balmy Saturday mornings.
9. Work the ball.
If you want to shoot anything close to your normal scores in Ireland, you are going to need to be able to hold the ball against the wind. That means hitting a cut into a wind from your right (if you’re right-handed) and hitting a draw into the opposite wind. You don’t want to stand on a tee like the clifftop third hole at Tralee, with the wind blowing twenty-five miles an hour from the ocean on your right, and have your only option be to aim at Buenos Aires and hope. So before you leave home, practice working the ball. Two of the most pleasant memories I have of Irish golf were irons I worked into holes at Lahinch and Killarney in just this sort of situation, making birdies. This is what golf is supposed to be.
10. With the wind in your face, consider a three-wood.
It seems counter-intuitive, I know. Any maybe it’s just me. But when the wind is threatening to pull my hat off as I stand on the tee, blowing right in my face, I have learned that I am generally better off hitting a three-wood rather than my driver. The most important thing when any golfer plays a tee shot into the wind is to hit it solidly and straight. That’s easier when for me when I take a three-wood, because pulling that club means I’ve already conceded that I’m not going to try to hit it as far as I can. I am more likely to make a normal swing. I may have to play a long par four as a three-shot hole, but at least I will finish it with the same ball I started with.
11. Ditch the umbrella and go commando under your rainsuit.
Here’s a scenario you’re bound to encounter at least once during an Irish golfing trip. You’ve got one more round to play at a great course. Say it’s Waterville. But it’s raining sideways, coming down so hard that your caddie, whose name is Finbar, says, ”Quack, quack,” when you tell him you didn’t fly 3,000 miles to spend the day in some clubhouse. You’re playing golf.
You’ve got your rainsuit, but you know from experience that no rain suit produced by human beings can keep your clothes dry in this sort of weather. Your umbrella will be worse than useless. It’s blowing too hard. You know that after you play, you’re going to be driving somewhere and you don’t want to be cold and wet. What to do?
Nip into the locker room, strip down, and hang up your clothes. Put the rain suit back on. It won’t keep you completely dry, but it will keep you mostly dry and warm enough. When the round is done, take a shower, towel off, and put on those warm, dry clothes.
12. Enjoy the craic.
You may be tempted to expend all your energy on the links, then fall into bed immediately after supper. Resist. The craic awaits. It’s a Gaelic term of ambiguous provenance that can be translated as “fun” or “party.” The craic generally occurs in a pub, and it’s lubricated by Guinness and music. Be prepared to sing. And if you happen to be in Kerry, make sure to get to a place called Nick’s, in Killorglin. Stake out a spot near the piano in the bar. Wait until you see the crystal hanging over the bar start to vibrate, which is a sign that either you, or the craic, is getting into gear. Ask the piano man to play some Motown. Don’t worry. The locals know the words better than you do. You’ll still be grinning and humming a pleasantly foggy version of “Be My Baby” when you board the plane for the flight home.