Yet another steaming summer has nearly passed without you pulling the trigger on that golf pilgrimage to Ireland.
We understand you may have your reasons. There's the seasick economy, the evolution-deniers in Congress, your lack of an actual job that pays in American currency, yes, there's all of that, plus Lambchop may leave you if she hears you stayed in a Celtic castle without her. But these are mere speed bumps in the gated subdivision of life. Man-up, please, and check your passport expiration date.
Alright, we will handle this in the lamest way possible, the venerable Q & A format.
Remind us again why we should fly across the Atlantic to play the world’s greatest links courses instead of going to Myrtle Beach?
If golf is a near-religion for you, it only makes sense that you should worship at its ancestral home, the links of the British Isles. The game is simpler there –- no valet parking and $300 sweaters, no mango-scented towels at the turn. Just you, the wind, the dunes and a caddie named Seamus who killed the last American he saw taking five practice swings. This is not croquet-and-crumpets. Your wits and stamina will be tested. You won't be using a cart. But with any effort you will meet fantastic people who treat you like long-lost family. You'll discover an entirely un-American game of golf, one that offers infinite options and maddening hazards, all wrapped in a natural, less-contrived beauty that would make Van Morrison cry for his momma. Oh, and there’s this –- in Ireland the public is welcomed to play at a handful of courses ranked in every serious world top ten list, cathedrals like Royal County Down, Portrush and Ballybunion. Try that at Augusta.
When should we go?
May and September are my favorites -– a bit cooler perhaps than July but statistically drier in most of Ireland. But the summer months are just grand, and if for some reason you can only go in April or October, don’t despair, you'll be joined by all the locals on a gorgeous links free of doctors from Dallas. So, yes, you still have time and good weather to make this trip right now.
We hear that it occasionally rains?
Listen to your mother. Prepare for horizontal icepick rain and wind that would blow the freckles off Molly O'Hare. But almost certainly you will come home raving about the blue skies and 60 to 75 degree temps. The high-latitude skies make everything seem like a New England fall day. In 16 years of trips I’ve had only two days that were entirely rained out, and several week-long spans without a drop of daytime rain. Links courses are built upon eons of sand and they drain within hours.
Pack waterproof tops and bottoms that are easily removed, a knit ski cap, non-bulky sweaters, longsleeve athletic wear, some medium-thick wool socks and a few gallon-size baggies to keep socks, cameras, scorecards and such dry in the inevitable ocean squall. But, again, dozens of summer days require only a golf shirt. (By the way, I think this whole wicking-moisture-away-from-your-skin era of undergarments is just a grand marketing scheme to convince you that clammy polyester shirts suddenly became space-age Internet fabric that defies the laws of petrochemicals. Let me know if you’ve found something that will stay absolutely dry against your skin while you're sweating beneath a sweater and waterproof jacket. I sure haven't.) Good options, if you so desire, would be hand warmers and those thin rain gloves that give you a solid grip when wet. Absolutely bring your golf bag's rain cover, but if you bring an umbrella, make sure it is of the gale-proof Davek or GustBuster variety.
Why Ireland over Scotland?
Oh, we love Scotland. Selcraig is Scottish for three-putt. But we will deal with Scotland another day. Ireland's world-famous links may not boast the ancestral home of golf (St. Andrews) or several British Open venues (Carnoustie, Muirfield, Troon, Turnberry) like Scotland, but its greatest courses are uniformly more dramatic, the dunes higher, and the music, pubs and people are an estimated 23 percent livelier. The Scots can't help this; they're closer to England.
Nothing is a bargain for dollar-wielding Yanks, but you'll save a bit of money in Ireland over Scotland. The Republic of Ireland is on the euro (trading at $1.42 today), while Scotland and Northern Ireland are on the British pound (trading at $1.62).
Should we drive over there?
This is all a matter of personal preference. If you really love to drink, don't even think of driving in Ireland. Their rural roads are gut-clenchingly narrow and dangerous for the sober rookie, much less a tipsy tired golfer. They've thankfully cracked down on what they call "drink driving" there, and while their blood alcohol limit is .08, like many U.S. states, the police have much wider latitude to do blood, urine or breath analysis at roadside checkpoints and the maximum fine for driving blotto is 5,000 euros. This is the single best reason to let a veteran bus driver chauffeur you around the country. They also don't get lost.
However, for the bold adventurer or sad overworked golf writer, taking a rental car will give you the freedom to do more photography, meet more people, explore the best of Ireland and just be more spontaneous. If I had always had a bus deadline to meet, I probably would not have met half the Irish friends I have now who offer me their homes. Nor would I have stopped at the obscure country courses, bookstores, golf shops or restaurants that "the group" often ignores. I must admit that I quite like having the confidence to drive over there now, after a dozen trips or so. I just feel far more connected to the country. Yet, some of the finest folks I've met were wise funny bus drivers. This is a purely individual decision that shouldn't be decided on cost or convenience alone. Know thyself.
What region of Ireland makes for the best golf trip?
The good news is that it's nearly impossible to make the wrong decision. I'll give a quick overview, but watch for stories in the future that go into greater detail about each region. (All prices are in dollars. These prices are only a range, usually from cheapest weekday off-season to most expensive weekend high-season. No caddies or carts included. Obviously check websites for precise prices, discounts and online booking information. And by all means, bargain if something seems too expensive.)
Dublin and the East Coast: Dublin is a great city full of music, film, festivals, pubs, parks and good walks. Lucky you. From a hip hotel you can easily get to County Louth Golf Club (known as Baltray; $92 to $192, no visitors Tuesday), The Island ($78 to $142), Portmarnock Golf Club (not to be confused with Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links; $205 to $248, certified handicap required); Druids Glen ($85 to $128) and Druids Heath ($50 to $78); and The European Club ($142 to $255), an exquisite but unpretentious course, the only world-class links designed, built and owned by a golf writer, the clever Pat Ruddy, who claims it actually rains less at his place. Ask about Marian's apple tart and Ruddy's famed golf book collection. Don't get suckered into The K Club, an obscenely overpriced ($191 to $400), flat, Palmer-designed, Florida muny still coasting on its 2006 Ryder Cup fame.
The Southwest: Home to some of the finest links in the world, and still the destination of about 70 percent of Ireland's visiting golfers. Ballybunion ($198 to $255 for the Old Course, $92 for the mighty Cashen; certified handicap required) is friendly, has tons of history and offers good bargains; Dooks Golf Club ($78 to $92, founded 1889) is an overlooked delight; Lahinch ($135 to $235 for "Old," $43 for the Castle Course) is eccentric and incomparable, an Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie monument, with good two-for-one discounts; Waterville ($170 to $228, winter half-price) is a big and bold, Fazio-tweaked design that attracts lots of Yanks; plus Tralee, Dingle, Fota Island and swanky castles like Adare Manor.
The Northwest: Rising in popularity every year, this rugged region of tiny-but-lively towns, lovely country estates and salmon-choked rivers was named European Golf Destination of the Year for 2011 and boasts courses every bit as good as the Southwest’s, but at a 30-50 percent discount. Enniscrone, Carne, Rosapenna (Sandy Hills), County Sligo (Rosses Point), Donegal (Murvagh), Ballyliffin, Portsalon and Connemara are all brilliant, scenic and invigorating courses. Rather than price each one, count on finding them all between $50 and $105, but every club offers an array of discounts (junior, evening, four-ball, etc) and multi-round or hotel packages. I am a member of Carne, which has a new nine holes coming soon and just might have the highest golf dunes in the world. Read up on this exceptional course with John Garrity’s masterful “Ancestral Links.” Every Easter the best amateur golfers in Ireland, including Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy, have teed it up at Rosses Point for the West of Ireland Amateur, played since 1923 on this stunning promontory. Portsalon has one of the most beautiful beaches in all of golfdom. Sandy Hills is more Pat Ruddy magic.
Northern Ireland: Remember, you are in a different country. Pounds, not euros. Some folks pay allegiance to England and the Queen (Unionists, Loyalists), some folks bristle at the thought (Nationalists, Republicans) and the vast majority would rather not be bothered. Don’t wear your Texas Rangers or Boston Celtics jerseys around town, as these team names represent not only the U.K.’s most bitter soccer feud (between two Glasgow teams) but also stand for Protestant (Rangers) or Catholic (Celtics) loyalties in Norn Iron’s simmering strife.
But you'll neither hear nor see any of that on Northern Ireland’s great golf courses. Let’s make this simple: You shouldn’t leave here without playing either Royal Portrush ($113 winter to $243 high weekends, ask for the Dunluce Course) or Royal County Down ($81 winter, $267-$291 high, simply called Newcastle by locals), two consensus world top-tens roughly an hour from Belfast in opposite directions. They are unrelenting, magisterial tests of golf that will likely put a kink in your niblick. (Rory McIlroy, at age 16, set the Portrush course record of 61, which, when you complete your inaugural round will seem humanly impossible.) Splendid courses nearby include Castlerock, Portstewart, Ardglass, and two gorgeous parkland courses in Belfast, Malone and Belvoir (say Beaver) Park. Some consider it heresy, but don’t be afraid of breaking up your links-centric holiday with some maples, elms and New England-like trout ponds. Malone ($121 to $137) has idyllic rolling hills, 27 holes and a fishing club(!), while Belvoir ($105) beckons with its Harry S. Colt pedigree and a marvelous new clubhouse and dining room.
What are some realistic prices for guided golf tours?
There are several excellent tour companies, and prices for just about any budget. The guys who run North & West Coast Links, John McLaughlin and Justin Farrell, represent 11 courses, but can help arrange trips throughout the island. Here are two typical trips they offer to the West: (1) Fly into Belfast (air fare not included). Six rounds of world-class links, at Ardglass, Portstewart, Royal Portrush, Ballyliffin (Glashedy) and Rosapenna (Sandy Hills and Old Tom Morris); seven nights four-star hotels, Irish breakfast each morning and all ground transportation. About $2,222 per person, based on eight traveling. (2) Fly into Shannon, Dublin or Knock airports (air fare not included), rent and self-drive a van; five rounds at Donegal, County Sligo, Enniscrone, Carne and Connemara; six nights four-star hotels; Irish breakfast. About $1,300, based on four traveling.
Maura Nolan’s Irish Links Tours is the official tour operator for the 2011 Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle in County Meath, Ireland, and also offers golf tours to Scotland, England, Wales, South Africa and Italy.
Do we always have to make formal tee times months in advance?
No you don’t. Obviously, that’s the best way to guarantee a round and to avoid disappointment, but particularly in the downtrodden Irish economy, walk-ups are welcomed. Call ahead and know when to avoid member tournaments and, yes, big bus tours.
This all sounds grand, but we are terribly cheap church mice who can’t be paying $100 to $250 a day to play golf, no matter how fantabulous.
Throw off those chains, you golfing proletariat! No, you don’t have to pay retail. If you have time and creativity, you can save great wads by researching regional golf passes through Tourism Ireland, Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and the best golf tour consortiums, North & West Coast Links and SWING (Southwest Ireland). Or simply write the club secretaries or course managers and say, "We’re an American foursome, can you cut us a deal?"
But there are still better ways. Let’s say you want to play Portrush, but the championship Dunluce links is booked up and over your budget. Ask to play its sister course, the beloved and under-rated Valley Course ($40 to $60) – David Feherty calls it one of the ten best in Ireland -- and try to join some members. Be your charming self, buy a beer or two and ask how you might join them later and pay the Dunluce guest rate. Repeat as needed at Portmarnock, Ballybunion, County Down….that’s right, dump the tour bus clique, introduce yourself and make friends. Every club member in Ireland is aghast at what tourists pay to play their golf courses.
Present company excluded, who should we be reading to get prepared for this trip?
"Links of Heaven," 2007 edition, by Richard Phinney and Scott Whitley, is the most comprehensive, candid and clever of the Irish golf guide books, followed closely by Jim Finegan’s more poetic, “Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas.” But for great narrative tales on and off the course, try Tom Coyne’s “A Course Called Ireland,” “A Pint of Plain,” (Irish pubs) by Bill Barich or “No News at Throat Lake,” by the Guardian’s fine golf writer, Lawrence Donegan.
Have you more random wisdom that might make the trip go smoothly?
** Give some thought to NOT going as The American Foursome. Yes, I know, that seems illogical, even un-American, but when you do everything as the Yankee Quartet you stand little chance of ever playing a round of golf with someone from Ireland. It is those friendships forged on the first tee by spontaneous needs of the less-than-foursomes that you will cherish long after you’ve forgotten your score at Enniscrone. Or, go as a foursome, but one day split into pairs, beg to be attached to local twosomes and meet up later in the bar. Seriously.
** Bed & breakfasts really save money, bring you closer to locals and usually have owners who know the golf scene. In Ballybunion, for example, Patricia and Maurice Boyle's Old Course B&B, just 50 yards from the fifth fairway, offers four immaculate rooms, fine food and conversation, free wireless internet and it's walking distance to town -- all for 40 euros and up. And you'll find B&Bs like this in every golf town.
** If you've never driven on the left side before, plan your flight arrival for daylight hours, go to a smaller airport — you want to learn in Dublin traffic? -- and rent an automatic. You'll know why when you negotiate your first roundabout.
** Take lots of business cards, plenty of balls (though don’t make caddies carry them) and a favorite spare driver, because it’s your most expensive club. Show up at least an hour before your tee time, have a meal, study the land, slow down, take photos, avoid the car park rush.
** If you are used to riding in a cart for 51 weeks of the year, walking Ireland’s links might be an ordeal. Despite their flat appearance on TV, true links are the hilliest, most ankle-breaking golf terrain in the world. It’s not too late to quit smoking.
** Great caddies can be fun and hugely helpful. Poor ones can ruin a round. Be sensible if money matters. Again, try to play with locals who know every swale and steeple.
** Resist the overwhelming urge to play 36 holes in a new town every day. An Irish tour bus driver once told me: "I actually feel sorry for these men. They can't remember where they are by the third day. They see little of our country and mainly talk to themselves." Amen.
** And most important — there is fun, memorable golf to be had at the $40 to $80 range, the welcome is genuine, and the local flavor more enchanting. Don't think you have to play County Down every day.
-- Texas-based journalist Bruce Selcraig is a former Sports Illustrated writer whose work appears in the New York Times, Smithsonian and Irish Times, among others. E-mail him at Selcraig@swbell.net.