One of the occupational hazards of playing Ireland's world-class links is that you can become a bit jaded. Sit in the 19th hole of any famous Irish course long enough and you'll hear so many Yanks waxing about their conquests of County Down and Portmarnock that you might begin to think your week of merely wonderful reasonable golf ranked with mowing the lawn.
So, despite hearing nothing but good things from good players all these years about County Sligo Golf Club, in the western peninsular village of Rosses Point, I felt no huge demand to play it, convinced it would be just another pleasant, second-tier, Irish round of golf.
After all, Golf Digest Ireland, then edited by his lordship, Dermot Gilleece, ranked County Sligo a distant 16th just in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) some years ago, behind four parkland courses and a full six places behind the Americanized and much-reviled K Club, site of the 2006 Ryder Cup. (No mystery here, however. At Ryder time, Gilleece wrote a glowing tribute book about the luxurious K Club and its majordomo, packaging mogul Mike Smurfit, while more candid sources like Golfweek were saying, “[We were] stunned at how lifeless and dull this inland resort/real estate layout played [and] overwhelmed that the greenfee was about $450.)
But if you haven’t played County Sligo, you haven't seen the best of Irish golf. Known throughout Ireland simply as Rosses Point, it is arguably the strongest of Ireland's northwest courses, with nearby Carne and
Enniscrone every bit its equal in scenery and challenge. (Though Carne wins the seafood chowder duel.)
From its quirky but unforgettable second fairway, which rises 50 feet to a short par four like a green-carpeted ramp to golf heaven, to the uphill dogleg-left 17th that members both love and loathe, County Sligo is filled with unique, demanding holes that annually test Ireland's finest golfers. Every Easter, in gales or picnic weather, Sligo hosts the historic West of Ireland Amateur Open, which has produced great champions like Joe Carr, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Rory McIlroy, who won it at age 15.
Designed in 1927 by the profoundly gifted Harry S. Colt (Pine Valley, Royal Portrush and 300 others on six continents), this course latches on to golfers the moment they crest No. 2 fairway, where the course unfurls beneath you as though you've ascended by hot air balloon into a copy of National Geographic. Seeing so many compatriots flailing away at our beloved game all at once is a joy to watch.
The cold Atlantic washes over an enormous beach at Sligo Bay to the left -- support the lifeboat rescue crews! -- and separates the course from the massive butte of Ben Bulben, a 1,700-meter, glacier-carved rock that, were it not so green, would fit perfectly in our Navajo Country.
Sligo's fan club would make a splendid Ryder Cup team. "I came for a day,"Bernhard Langer said, "and stayed for a week." Tom Watson said in 1988 that the 14th and 17th holes were the best par fours he had played in Ireland. Plus, it has a real driving range, though it's not exactly close to the clubhouse.
The weekday fee of 75 euros (about $100 USD) is hardly cheap, but well under half the cost of Ballybunion, County Down and Lahinch, to name a few, plus you can hunt around for regional discount passes. Better still, if you contact Sligo's very able director of golf, David O'Donovan, and weep and moan that you are a destitute American foursome that hitchhiked all the way from your gated Dallas subdivision, he might cut you a deal.
Then when you're done ask for directions to Carne and Enniscrone, where the dunes are even larger and the rainbows more intense. In downtown Sligo get your fix for churning traditional Irish jammin' at Shoot the Crows pub (check out the videos on YouTube).
** Former Sports Illustrated writer, Bruce Selcraig, lives in Austin and writes for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Mother Jones, among others. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.