Golf in Ireland Over the Years

By: Blaine Newnham

Could it be 16 years since the first tip to Ireland to play golf, when the guys were all turning 50 and we decided it was now or never? Indeed it has been that long. We would go again, in 1999, but since then have been chased away by the price and the pomp.

A few years ago, at the Masters, I attended a gathering hosted by the Irish Tourist Bureau. I had a chance to meet the man in charge of Irish golf and tell him how much we all enjoyed our trips. He wanted to talk more than listen.

"I keep telling my people," he said, "that they need to work more on service for the American golfer. They simply expect more." I told him he was absolutely misguided and that he didn't need to make golf there like it is here. We go, I said, because it is different. "More service," I continued, "just means more money."

We had such a great time in 1992. We'd been playing together since college. The four of us went to Cal-Berkeley in the early '60s. We met in New York and flew Aer Lingus all night to Dublin. From there it was pick up the rent-a-car and drive three hours north, across the border into Northern Ireland, getting a closer look at "The Troubles" - 18-year-old Brits holding automatic weapons - than we wanted.

Our first round was at the great Royal Portrush, the only Irish site to host a British Open. We had no hint of the dynamics of links golf. There was no Bandon Dunes to help prepare you. It only took a couple of shots to realize that the wedges and 7-woods were useless into a persistent wind. My second tee shot disappeared into a bunker from which I had no way out but the way I had come.

You learned to avoid bunkers like they were water hazards. You might get your ball back but you'd lose at least a stroke in the process. Of course there was nothing fair about the golf or the weather. If your approach shot bounded over the green, then you knew the next time not to hit the green but in front of it. We were hopelessly overmatched and infatuated at the same time.

A round at Royal Portrush cost $35 then. It was pretty much the same at Ballybunion and Portmarnock. Seven years later for our next trip the cost for a round at Lahinch had almost doubled, to $75.

But that was then. I looked on the web the other day for the cost of green fees and the top Irish courses they were in the neighborhood of $250. Certainly, the dip of the dollar contributes to the overwhelming cost. But it goes beyond that. Many Americans don't even know what it costs to play in Europe these days. Either they don't go, or they pay ahead for a package that, when all is said and done, can run them $1,000 a day for golf, a ritzy room, wine with dinner, and a bus driver to get them and their Guinness from one hotel to the next.

When we went, we drove. We stuffed four guys and our clubs and suitcases into a small car and went off without room reservations. It seemed that every other house in Ireland is a B&B. We found one within walking distance of a town, which was within an hour or so of where we would play golf.

A room in 1999 was $50 a night. Two guys would share a room, pay $25 each, and that included a major breakfast and a good dose of local lore. We would walk into town for dinner at a pub. And walk home again, influenced or not. I talked to guys on organized tours who never saw the inside of a pub. They were booked into hotels near the courses that had their own dining rooms.

Having already played most of the top courses in Ireland at a time when they were surprisingly accessible and affordable, we made the second tour to a string of second-tier courses in Ireland's Atlantic Coast region. We played 11 courses in 10 days, obscure places like Narin Portnoo and Portsalon, but well-known ones too, like Carne, Ballyliffin and Connemara.

I may never again see a course as wild and wonderful as Carne, or remember as well the distance and desolation of getting there. The wind blew so hard we couldn't keep our trolleys (pull carts) upright. The wind blew so hard and it was so cold the sheep were sleeping in the middle of the road, trying either to end it all or absorb what little warmth there was from the asphalt.

We ended the round at Connemara, right in front of the man who, as a young priest, patched together a community's idle land and desperate needs to build a golf course in the first place. We were able to not only meet Father Peter Waldron, but buy him a pint.

The point is the secondary courses were more fun than the primary layouts. Even now, with a new set of troubles - such as the collapse of the dollar - you can share a B&B near Carne for $50 each a night and play golf for $100 a round. Even in the middle of summer.

A few months ago, at Bandon Dunes, I sat in the lodge waiting out a frost delay. A couple of guys from California were talking about their next trip to Europe. We played a lot of the same places. But whereas I had always needed the assurance of a tee time in Europe, they had taken the search for real golf one step further. They simply played their way across the countryside. They often found a village before they found a course. They weren't afraid to play nine-hole courses.

I've never played St. Andrews, although I walked every inch of it during the six days I was there for the 2000 British Open. I did pay $120 to play Kingsbarns the week that course opened, and happened to get into a foursome with Herb Kohler, the toilet czar who built Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. The tee sheet was booked that morning. I sat in the bar and drank coffee hoping there might be an opening. There was.

But it was that week, staying above a post office in the town of Crail, that I played a wonderful seaside course established in the 1700s. And I was invited later to play a round at Glasgow Gailes, itself built in 1892, and the stout links course at Glasgow Golf Club.

On my way out of St. Andrews I swung past Edinburgh, and headed to North Berwick, home of the famous West Links and the stone wall that has been copied throughout the world. I was told I had a better chance of getting on the lesser-known Glen course. The starter looked me up and down and surmised I might be a candidate to join the senior group for their day of competition. He sent me over to meet George, an octogenarian wearing a cardigan sweater over a dress shirt and tie. George explained the competition and the ante: one British pound.

I went back to pay my green fees - which were 25 pounds - and was informed that I would pay only five pounds because I was George's guest. I played with a retired Glasgow cop and a retired attorney. Our threesome won the competition - they readily accepted my handicap index - and I was honored and happy to buy a round later with my winnings.

The course was both seedy and spectacular, the way good links courses are. One par-3 was played along the beach. Views of the Firth of Forth were everywhere.

I'll never forget that day. Which is my point. Now, with the Internet and the overall popularity of golf in the British Isles - I'm dying to do Wales. There's no reason to play just the courses you're familiar with.

Venture out. Do your own research. Save money, and bank memories.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.