I should know better, but on this trip to Ireland I scheduled nine courses in ten days. I'm a fool, but I've gotten to know people at various courses and I hate to be so close and not say hello. Next time, I'm doing no more than three stops, three beds in ten days, maybe six rounds, and I will spend more time in towns like Sligo, Derry and certainly Belfast.
On this my fifth trip through Belfast, I finally found some competition for the famous Hotel Europa, which was once a magnet for journalists covering the "troubles" in Northern Ireland and so lays claim to the title of “most bombed hotel in Europe.”
The Belfast Malmaison, in the heart of downtown on Victoria Street, is a former seed warehouse turned into a 62-bedroom boutique hotel that is so hip it has two rock n’ roll suites. They came in handy, too, because during our stay "the Mal" was filled by the dancers and posse with Rihanna, the Barbadian R&B mega-star who was doing concerts and filming a video. (She rented out a cornfield from a local farmer who then interrupted things when the sumptuous siren took off too much clothing for his liking.) The hotel is convenient to great pubs like the John Hewitt Bar, the Spaniard, Bert’s jazz club and the Northern Whig, a sprawling modern bar with high ceilings and several large Soviet-era statues. The Mal would be a fine HQ for a Norn Iron golf trip, being roughly an hour or so between Royal Portrush and Royal County Down.
For less-urban accommodations, try either the Galgorm Resort & Spa, just 20 minutes from Belfast International, with a lovely parkland golf course, stables, fishing on the River Maine, and even rustic log cabins to go with uptown suites. Or, 14 miles east of Belfast, in lovely hills on the way to Newcastle, try Anna's House B&B, an exceptional "luxury" organic inn made all the more wonderful by the delightful owners.
On a trip with beer-wise guys from Glasgow, St. Andrews and Amsterdam, the one beer they actually remarked upon was Smithwick's, an Irish red ale purchased by Guinness in 1965 and now under the giant Diageo brand, but still brewed in Kilkenny and Dundalk.
In Belfast, be sure to take a "troubles tour" through the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods along Falls Road (Republican leaning) and Shankill Road (British loyalist). It's very safe now. You'll see all the political murals from the IRA and UDA, the Peace Wall, and learn from seasoned scholar-driver-guides like Keninfo@kmtgs.co.uk.
This is heresy to those on links-obsessed pilgrimages, but if you're playing a week or more of golf on some of the toughest courses in the world, you might give serious thought to breaking up the links diet with one day at one of Belfast's two exceptional parkland courses, Malone and Belvoir Park. For those of us not from upstate New York or autumnal Pennsylvania, it's still a sublime treat to play these rolling tracks in the Lagan River valley, just miles from downtown Belfast. Both are lined with gorgeous hardwoods, now turning golden and rust, hilltop views of the city, and at Malone, a trout-filled lake that highlights several holes. Belvoir (pronounced beaver) has an impressive new clubhouse, dining room and a course remodeling job by British Open tweaker, Martin Hawtree.
A wonderful Ford dealership mechanic named Liam Mitchell, in Sligo -- that's far west, Republic of Ireland -- saved my trip by replacing in record time my rental car's burned out low beams. I had steeled myself to hear that they would take four days to get by rowboat from Stockholm ...
And the owner of the Downhill Inn in Ballina over-nighted my forgotten laptop battery to intercept me at my next stop. These are not unusual acts of kindness in Ireland, where the welcome still feels genuine.
In the western town of Ballina, full of good pubs and hotels and just minutes from the astonishingly good Enniscrone course, fish people will find one of Europe's great salmon streams, the River Moy, running wide and cold to the Atlantic.
Anthropology digression: You almost never see bumper stickers in Ireland or the UK. On this trip, along with others over the past 15 years, I drove roughly a thousand miles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and did not see a legitimate opinionated sticker. One friend in Derry, Northern Ireland, was convinced they were actually illegal and would be viewed by police as distractions to safe driving. Not so -- just another curious difference between our cultures. In the States we insist that you know our opinions.
Also, despite Ireland's high auto fatality rate, which is usually attributed to alcohol and narrow roads, I continue to be amazed every time I’m there that I rarely see tailgating or aggressive driving of any kind. I heard car horns maybe twice.
The biggest golf lesson from this trip is one I've learned and forgotten before, and that is, in their typical 20-mph wind, on a strange course with maniacal gorse, gnarly rough and bathtub-size bunkers, it is imperative that you not always pull the club that you hit back home successfully, oh, half the time. Your favorite hybrid that goes 220 yards on some Florida fairway can easily trot a mere five feet from safety and be lost or unplayable in Ireland. As galling as it may seem, so contrary to all our wondrous maleness, sometimes you must wimp out and hit a low five-iron that absolutely guarantees a fairway lie. Hence the advice: to really master links golf, master your short game. You’ll be chipping for up-and-downs all day long.
The best seafood chowder in all of Irish golf is found at Carne Golf Links, in Belmullet, a wee Gaelic town of about 2,000 hearty souls as far west as you can go in Ireland without being in Newfoundland. It’s a deep robust orange, as it should be, not a milky white, filled with monkfish, cod and the restorative powers of head chef John Conmy.
If you go to Carne – and you must -- be aware that even bilingual English/Gaelic signs are out of favor officially, so the course can be difficult to find. Ask at the Eurospar market.
All these golf arrangements can best be made through John McLaughlin and Justin Farrell at Galway-based North & West Coast Links, which represents 11 stellar courses in the West and Northern Ireland, but can arrange trips virtually anywhere.
And last, the airline rant. Every time I go to Ireland for golf, I promise not to make the same mistakes from the last trip, which for some reason I cannot quite remember until I'm paying my obscene $70 baggage fee on the Continental flight home. D'oh!
But this time the unpleasant airline, now merged with United, did its best to make the cramped international flight worse than normal. My seat-back TV monitor was broken, dark, useless for the entire seven-hour flight. I asked about it three times, and was told three times by flight attendants, "We'll look into it."
Yet, as I feel my veins bulging from recalling how indifferent the flight attendants were -- they never reported back, never offered to move me, just ignored it all -- I try to remember that it's Continental's management that has so squeezed the life out of its employees that passengers have become their personal chew toys. Flight attendants never used to be this way. Then they, like the pilots, like everyone, had their health benefits and pensions reduced. More work for less pay became the business model in America, while CEOs feasted. Combine that with the post-9/11 security culture and you have a workplace filled with angry dehumanized folk who profoundly do not care if passengers are happy or not.
I wish American Airlines were really an alternative, but the corporate culture there is hardly better. What’s the alternative? If only Southwest would go to Europe ...
** 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 email@example.com.