Tyler Trowbridge has quite a tale to share when he makes it back to Montana.

The 21-year-old Dallas Cowboys' fan and his father, Kurt, traveled 1,660 miles from Missoula to see football in the crown jewel of all NFL stadiums.

Mission accomplished.

But two hours after Sunday's game, the pair was still sprawled out in Sec. 148 of Cowboys Stadium with their eyes set on the 25,000-square-feet of high-def video boards.

Once the Cowboys had won, someone in the palace's A/V department switched over to Game 4 of the World Series, which of course was being played at Rangers Ballpark next door.

"It's pretty awesome watching baseball on the biggest TV in the world," said Tyler, sporting a No. 94 DeMarcus Ware jersey.

When the much-larger-than-life screens showed Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols foul out in the fourth inning, Kurt Trowbridge popped to his feet and playfully taunted a woman wearing a St. Louis t-shirt.

"Oh, oh, the Big Kahuna got an out!" said Kurt, waving a finger. "The Big Kahuna got out! He has no power left."

Tyler laughed at his dad's antics and reflected on the wonderful luck of their day.

"This is a pretty big deal considering where we are from," he said.

The balmy autumn afternoon in Arlington's 76011 turned out to be a double-dose of big league fun for ten of thousands of sports fans.

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America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, manhandled the St. Louis Rams, 34-7. Two blocks down the street, the Texas Rangers went up early in a must-win against St. Louis' baseball squad.

"Just to be around the atmosphere is so cool," said Malinda Flores, standing at the corner of Nolan Ryan Expressway and Randol Mill Road.

The Flores family scored last-minute tickets and drove six-and-half hours from South Texas to see the Cowboys. They didn't have baseball tickets, but like dozens of others, they couldn't pass up the opportunity to be within earshot of the Fall Classic.

In their Dallas jerseys, many snapped photos standing in front of a big World Series banner. Then, with every ooh and ah coming from inside, they checked the box score on their phones.

Outside the first-base gate entrance, a group of college-age men bearing jerseys with the names of Cowboys past and present tried to barter with a ticket scalper. He wanted $200 in the fifth inning. They balked, but offered their last cans of Bud Light.

"We're from Canada, so we gotta try," one of them said.

But others, like the men from Missoula, were thrilled to watch on the giant screen.

Or even the less-giant screen. In a parking lot, a Hamilton-homer away from the centerfield wall, a pimped-out motor coach showed the game on a 42-inch flat screen fixed to the side of the bus.

A group of limo drivers in slacks and starched shirts were still on the clock, but they gathered 'round to see Mike Napoli's three-run shot to tie the World Series at two games each.

It was a made-for-TV moment.

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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.

[SLIDESHOW]

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

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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 selcraig@swbell.net.

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In American golf there are more golf course rating debates than I care to consider. Shinnecock over National Golf Links? Cypress over Pebble? Century old shrines vs. Doak and Crenshaw masterpieces stuck in East Gooberville sand dunes ...

But in the UK and Ireland, while plenty discuss whether the R&A should drop some courses from the Open Championship rota or perhaps whether Donald Trump should be tried in The Hague for his Scottish plunder, no debate endures quite like Royal County Down vs. Royal Portrush. Few places in the world are as fortunate in golf terms and as cursed in political reality as Northern Ireland, home not only to three winners of recent majors but two consensus world top-ten courses little more than two hours apart.

The two royals are monuments to coherent design, relentless challenge and classic links beauty, and they've remained stunningly great for so long -- both were born in the late 1880's -- that grandfathers still proudly carry on the friendly feud as to which is best. We're not saying this should really matter at a time when the global economy teeters on the brink of becoming, well, Iceland, but we must occupy our time.

County Down Golf Club is located in Newcastle, a wee burg of some 8,000 roughly an hour south of Belfast, snugly beneath the purple and poetic Mourne Mountains and beside the Irish Sea. Newcastle, as many golfers throughout all of Ireland call the famous course, was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1898, then tweaked by[SLIDESHOW]

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Harry Vardon in 1908 and further furbished in 1926 by designer Harry Colt, who was tasked with reducing the number of blind drives, a mission that the course's few critics will say remains un-accomplished. I don't mind them that much, but they'll always trouble first-timers who aren't playing with members or caddies.

County Antrim's Royal Portrush -- and here we're always talking about its Dunluce course, though Norn Iron native David Feherty told me once that the sister Valley course may be "the most under-rated course in Ireland" -- is also located in a seaside resort of about the same size as Newcastle, just over an hour north of Belfast. No gorgeous mountain views here, but more fine beaches -- the West and East strands -- and unquestionably a livelier nightlife, with Northern Ireland's largest nightclub complex, at Kelly's. The course was opened in 1888 but it was not until 1933 that designer Harry Colt shaped what we see today, a canvass not unlike County Down, but with somewhat smaller dunes.

There are plenty of similarities between the courses. Both have their share of smallish greens and impenetrable thorny gorse (U. europaeus) that erupts in yellow, pea-size spring blossoms. But County Down, with its backdrop of mountains and the iconic Slieve Donard hotel, is so much more photogenic and popular in coffee table golf books one might think only its gorse actually bloomed. Both lean Protestant and British, of course, but are welcoming to all, with Portrush a bit more middle class than the banker-Brahmins in Newcastle. Portrush also claims one of the most competent and personable club managers in all of Irish golf, Wilma Erskine.

Portrush has a decent driving range -- most courses over here have none, including County Down -- fewer blind tee shots, yet more diabolically sloped greens, not unlike the steep upholstered edges of an old Ford Mustang. The effective landing area of a Portrush green is often reduced by 25 percent or more, I would guess, by the rounded drop-offs that send errant shots hurtling off to bunkers or calf-high grass. County Down gets the nod on gorgeous elevated tee box vistas, yet neither really feature the ocean as much as, say, Enniscrone, Sligo or Ballybunion. I've never heard anyone disagree that County Down is a few shots harder.

In 2009, Golf Digest ranked County Down as the No. 1 course in the world outside the United States, with Portrush at No. 4, ahead of cathedrals such as Turnberry, Dornoch, Ballybunion and seven British Open venues. A more diverse international ratings panel with "Top 100 Golf Courses of the World" places County Down at No. 4, behind Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Augusta (all U.S.), with Portrush No. 14. I wouldn’t argue strongly with any of this.

The trials of 6,845-yard Portrush start innocently enough -- if the wind isn't defoliating your face. At the first tee you meet a slightly downhill 392-yard par-four, with a tough uphill second shot onto a green 40 paces deep. No. 2 is an uphill but manageable 505-yard par-five, where you can begin looking for Darren Clarke's new home somewhere off in the woods. Perhaps you’ll start with two pars. Splendid day, isn't it? World top-ten my tiny arse, you're thinking. Slowly the noose tightens as you head off to the cold Atlantic.

The links stereotype is that you can always run your ball up the front of the green. We wish that were so. Sometimes the mounding funnels your well-intentioned shots into dark fertile gulleys where you might still find missionaries or a few of Portrush's sweet blackberries.

Off the tee, listen to your inner caddy -- absolutely nothing is more important than staying in the fairway, even if this means not hitting a logical club that you hit well back home. Repeat after me: Sometime today I will hit a low five-iron so that I can find it and at least sniff par, instead of hitting a hybrid into the Duke of Whimsy's adjoining castle.

Let's not say the words "signature hole," but as I walk to Portrush's glorious No. 5, I always inhale deeply and thank the authorities for another day. It's a 411-yard downhill four that doglegs right through a Himalayan range of gnarly dunes. Every fiber of your being says cut the corner, go for the glory, but if there's any wind ... take a Sherpa. It's hardly the course's toughest hole, but the view from the elevated green, perched some 50 feet above a wide, luscious beach and the churning dark Atlantic, stands tall in Irish golf. That's a Scottish archipelago barely 20 miles beyond the wet-suited surfers and bottlenose dolphins.

Buckle your swashes for Portrush's world-famous No. 14, Calamity, a maniacal 210-yard par-three that clings to a 100-foot precipice over a chasm of sea buckthorn and utter doom. Golfers far better than us have crashed here. By the 17th you'll need some comic relief, and off to the right, thar she blows -- Big Nellie, one of the largest and highest bunkers in all of golf, an amphitheater of sand some 50 feet high, 20 feet deep and 70 across that could hold the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Aim left.

The familiar criticism of Portrush is that its two finishing holes are simply average. Not dumb, not contrived, just not spectacular. No oceans or grand vistas, just the clubhouse, the car park and a little street life. You might make par actually, but as you stagger off 18 like a Viking home from a seal hunt, remind yourself that a wee lad down the road named Rory McIlroy set the course record here at 61. He was 16 at the time.

I know. I know. Youth is wasted on the young.

A parting Portrush thought: "If you could put Portrush’s greens on County Down's site," says Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten, "you'd have the greatest course in the world."

Royal County Down is so sure of its place in the golf firmament that 50 yards from its leafy front gates a first-time visitor might think he has taken a wrong turn into a nursing home. I'm quite fine with not having Magnolia Lane and all the country club pomp we’ve come to expect in America, but I'm still shocked and wondrously grateful that just about any hacker with a handicap card can walk into these world top-tens, plunk down your pounds and tee it up. Take heed, Pine Valley.

County Down probably has the best conditioning of any Irish course I've played, though you should never expect greens here to run much faster than 10 on the Stimp. A Portrush member and confidant once told me: "The main difference between Portrush and Newcastle is that RCD still thinks they're slightly above the lower classes who play at Portrush, whereas we think they have perhaps the better course but a worse attitude."

Chances are you'll be too awed to notice as you walk past the manicured garden hedges and undulating practice area, groomed like a Manhattan poodle's caboose. Welcome to one of the most photographed courses in the world. Those are your knees wobbling.

The inspiring No. 9 -- Dundrum Bay to the left, dense canyons of yellow gorse framing the fairways, misty 2,786-foot Slieve Donard peak (Northern Ireland's highest) looming over the eponymous redbrick Victorian hotel by the clubhouse -- is so enthralling I stealthily climbed a dune at 6 one morning to watch it change colors. Shafts of sunlight danced through a low leaden sky, making the Mourne mountains seem larger and alive -- a brooding purple one moment, a golden Julie Andrews backdrop the next.

"It is the single most beautiful sight in all of golf," says Feherty, whom I promise will not be quoted again. (This incomparable hole is also on the cover of a must pre-trip read for your Ireland golf trip, Links of Heaven, by Richard Phinney and Scott Whitley.)

Hole-by-hole tributes aren't necessary at County Down. It is the totality of this place, the unrelenting but fair challenge in every hole, the seamless routing, an absence of anything contrived, that spawns its near-universal acclaim.

The irony is that County Down, 7,181 yards from the tips and demonstrably superior to most British Open venues, has so many exceptional but TV-deprived holes that none has become a folk hero–cum–drama queen like, say, TPC Sawgrass’ Island Green or Carnoustie's 18th. For comparison's sake, County Down has far more bunkers than Portrush, and they're of the tufted, marram-fringed, Groucho eyebrows variety. The par fours are also longer, and you can often putt from 50 feet off the green. Fair warning to those who cannot countenance blind shots: County Down has several famous ones off the tee that even the official yardage guide terms “terrifying.” This is why you beg and scheme to play with a member.

So, given all this, what would qualify these two courses to be among the world's ten best?

A month after playing them for the first time, most alert golfers can describe in some detail at least six holes from each. The overwhelming sensation is that all 18 holes offer vexing new challenges without loss of continuity. There are repeated glimpses of quiet terror and exhilaration, even some Big Nellie eccentricity, but nothing seems thoughtlessly unfair. The course seems designed by one mind.

People are briskly walking, laughing, with grateful smiles on their faces. There's no valor in making a brutal bar-exam golf course, but par is still special here.

And, though design purists might argue the pertinence, each course is certainly wrapped in unforgettable natural beauty that reminds us of what came before golf.

** 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 selcraig@swbell.net.

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By Nicole Campoy-Leffler
TheDailyMeal.com

Athletes are used to spending blood, sweat and tears just to get a win. When you think about it, they're not all that glamorous on the job -- they're covered in mud on the football field, sliding into home plate on the dirt or sweating through a down-to-the-minute game on the basketball court. But being so willing to beat themselves up comes with lofty rewards, not the least of which is more vacation than almost any other job on the planet. And their hefty paychecks afford them as much luxury as possible as they shake off last season on a white sandy beach, cocktail in hand.

Just as they know what it takes to score a touchdown or win a Grand Slam, these stars know where to go to get away from it all in style. Who wouldn't want to be as gleeful as Tom Brady was when he sped down a water slide at a super-exclusive resort in Mexico? And who would turn down the unbridled, old school luxury of Roger Federer's favorite New York hotel, The Carlyle? Regardless of whether they're traveling for work or pleasure, sports stars don't book stays for the hot breakfasts.

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Slideshow: Top athletes' super luxe getaways

Ron Artest, for example, has discovered the sumptuous (and seductive) surroundings of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel since becoming an LA Laker, and when David Beckham is bending balls for AC Milan, he prefers the out-of-this-world luxury at Hotel Principe di Savoia Milano.

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So whether you're in the market for some serious athlete-spotting or are hunting for your next super-splurge holiday, here are ten top sports stars that really know how (and where) to get away. All you need next is that first endorsement deal.

Maria Sharapova

Fontainebleau Resort, Miami: When she's not shrieking her way through Grand Slams, Maria Sharapova heads back to where it all started -- Florida. Having cut her teeth at the famed Bollettieri Tennis Academy, we're sure she has plenty of friends she could stay with around Miami. But for a cool $700/night for a one-bedroom suite, Maria chooses to stay at the Fontainebleau Resort and has access to eight dining options on the property from Scarpetta to Fresh (a gelateria and snack bar), two bars, two nightclubs, a full-service spa, and private poolside cabanas.

Tom Brady

El Dorado Golf And Beach Club: Any resort that can turn a highly accomplished, much-praised NFL quarter back into a giggling girl zooming down a waterslide is good enough for us. The El Dorado Golf and Beach Club is a semi-private luxury resort in Los Cabos, Mexico with casitas and villas that sell for more than $2 million a pop. For that kind of fee, Tom Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele, can golf (on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus), hit the full-service spa, laze by one of the multiple pools or on the private beach, and dine on authentic Mexican cuisine anywhere on the property that they'd like.

Kris Humphries

Four Seasons Resort, Santa Barbara: Being a professional athlete is lucrative, but being part of the Kardashian clan as well takes it to the next level. Kris Humphries and his new wife, Kim Kardashian, were spotted luxuriating at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. Basic rooms there start at more than $400/night, but we doubt they'd slum it in a room with just one king bed. Booking a room gives you access to all-inclusive culinary activities like the Moveable Feast Picnic or the Farmers Market-to-Fork Culinary Experience, which combines a market tour with a hands-on cooking class.

Alex Rodriguez

W Hotel South Beach: A-Rod has a few reasons to really splurge on hotel stays. Not only is he an athlete with a very disposable income, but he's always got a new girlfriend to impress. His latest (though tabloid reports of their breakup are rampant) is Cameron Diaz and they were spotted laughing, lounging and indulging at the swanky W Hotel in South Beach earlier this year. All W Hotels coax guests to truly let their hair down and enjoy the finer things, but the South Beach property boasts a Mr. Chow and the lush and romantic Grove Bar. At more than $3,000/night for a suite, we are sure that A-Rod and Diaz took advantage of every last water sport and spa service offered on-site.

Lance Armstrong

Shore Club South Beach: With two infinity pools, Skybar, Nobu and poolside food and drink service, there are plenty of good reasons for Lance Armstrong to have been spotted at the Shore Club South Beach. A serious people-watching scene and a serene, decked-out spa are added bonuses. Regular suites cost around $600/night, but the more coveted poolside bungalows will run the cyclist more than $1,000/night.

For a complete slideshow of superstar getaways, click here for TheDailyMeal.com.

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Pick a sports mecca. Any sports mecca. New York? Boston? Los Angeles? Nice try, but this year none of 'em hold a candle to Iron Mountain, Mich.

That's right, Iron Mountain, the hometown of Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci. It's located in the Upper Peninsula, which was described once by a federal report as a "sterile region on the shores of Lake Superior destined by soil and climate to remain forever a wilderness."

Turns out that report could not have been more wrong, as the former mining town of 8,154 nestled on the Michigan side of Wisconsin's northern border is suddenly in the sweet spot of an impossibly successful state rivalry.

The Milwaukee Brewers are in the thick of the National League Championship Series. The Detroit Tigers are battling in the American League Championship Series. The Green Bay Packers are 5-0 and the reigning world champions of football. The upstart Detroit Lions are the only other unbeaten team in the NFL. In college football, the Michigan State Spartans are ranked No. 19, the Michigan Wolverines are ranked No. 10 and the Wisconsin Badgers are ranked No. 4 in the nation. And we might as well mention the Badgers, Spartans and Wolverines are all either emerging or established powers in college hoops and hockey.

"The best two states, the best place to be in the freaking country is Wisconsin and Michigan," says Scott McGuire, wearing a bright yellow Michigan shirt. "Who'd have thought. If I would have sat down and talked to you at Christmastime and said that Michigan and Wisconsin would be the two hottest places to be, you'd have said I was crazy."

McGuire is spending his Saturday night at Famers Sports Bar and Grill, located just outside of Iron Mountain, having dinner with his family and watching Michigan beat Northwestern.

Famers, the home of the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame, is an easier place for McGuire to track sports than the spot where he used to listen to games.

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"I couldn't get Michigan games when I was in high school," McGuire says. "So I used to drive 30 or 35 miles to listen to Michigan games on the A.M. radio. I used to park on the side of the road."

McGuire says Michigan State basketball is big in the area -- because of Izzo -- as well as the Packers. But Michigan and Wisconsin college football and the Brewers and Tigers all have their fans in the area, too.

Sometimes those fans are in the same family.

"I have a son-in-law that is a Lions fan and my son is a Green Bay Packers fan," says Virginia Coombs of nearby Norway. "So Grandma keeps her mouth shut and doesn't root for anybody but the high school kids."

Coombs works at the Iron Mountain Iron Mine, a roadside attraction-type museum. She sees people from all over the two states visiting the area and says there is a lot of buzz about the teams this year.

"Mostly Packers fans but there are a few Lions fans," Coombs says. "Now I'm sure they're all going to get on the bandwagon for the Lions this year."

Watching Sunday football at the Big 10 Sports Bar and Grille in nearby Quinnesec, Scott Theary of Quinnesec has a handlebar mustache and a Detroit Lions hat.

"I'm a Packers fan," Theary says. "I just wear this to irritate other Packers fans." Theary points emphatically to his hat.

Then he says this is best time ever to be a Wisconsin fan.

"I watched (the Brewers) last week when they were on at the same time as the Packers," Theary says, referring to last Sunday afternoon when the Packers were playing Denver and the Brewers were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS. "I hooked up another TV so I could watch them both."

For the owner of the Big 10 Sports Bar and Grille, being in a border area makes things complicated.

"I have to watch what I say sometimes," says Bruce St. Arnauld, a Wisconsin Badgers season ticket holder, about his his mixed-loyalty patrons. "Being on the border, I had to decorate (the bar) around Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. I have to play the game out here, but in my office its all red."

St. Arnauld expects an uptick in Lions fans now that they are competitive and says that the vibe of the area is wonderful. In St. Arnauld's first year owning the bar, Izzo coached Michigan State to the NCAA Final Four and it was a big boon for him. He says the feeling now is similar to then. It's a help for the whole area, as parts of the "U.P." are losing population.

"We're Brewers fans, we're Tigers fans up here," St. Arnauld says. "So now today we'll use all of that -- we'll have the Tiger game on, we'll have the Brewer game on."

Fans of both Wisconsin and Michigan are loving the success so far, but the two states could be on a collision course.

The Tigers and Brewers could find themselves face-to-face in the World Series. The Packers and Lions already have a huge nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game on the schedule. And the Wolverines and Badgers are headed for a showdown in the first-ever Big 10 conference championship in football -- if the Spartans don't ruin it for Michigan this weekend.

Whatever happens, the good people of the so-called "sterile region" of Iron Mountain will be sitting pretty.

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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.

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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 Ken [SLIDESHOW] McElroy, a poet, playwright and official "Blue Badge" guide who can be reached at 0044 2838 840054 or info@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 selcraig@swbell.net.

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Day One of my Irish golf trip meant flying into Dublin this year, so with jet lag still foggin my noggin, I stopped into see one of the golf world's special people.

Forty-five minutes south of the capital, between Arklow and Wicklow, along Brittas Bay, I slow down off the busy N11 and wait to see the familiar yellow exterior of my trusty landmark, Jack White's Lounge & Restaurant (try the salmon and prawn salad), where I turn left and head down a narrow beach road to The European Club, designed, built and owned by Irish golf's
irrepressible iconoclast, Pat Ruddy.

For virtually all of Ruddy's life he has been happily consumed by golf. He would skip school in tiny Ballymote, County Sligo, in rural northwest Ireland, to go play an afternoon round with his dad, who died when Ruddy was in his 20s. Ruddy became a freelance golf writer, working for papers from Dublin to Sydney, then promoted occasional events like long-drive contests on airport runways, before earning a considerable reputation designing or restoring some 30 courses in Ireland. Clever and forever optimistic, Ruddy provided for his wife, Bernardine, and five children, but was never rich in material things.

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He did, however, save money because unlike so many, he knew from an early age exactly what he wanted in life. So one day in the mid-eighties he rented a helicopter to fly over the east coast of Ireland in search
of the country's last remaining linksland, that dune-filled sandy strip of coastal real estate that "links" the ocean to more fertile inland farms, rumpled land that is usually only good for some mild grazing, windy picnics and the world's finest golf courses. An estimated 246 genuine links exist in the world, and green Ireland has 55 of them.

Ruddy found a modest patch overlooking the Irish Sea, quietly negotiated with the farmer for over two years, then cashed-out insurance policies, took out a second mortgage and depleted his life's savings to buy the
[SLIDESHOW]
land. With his son, Gerald, he spent the next five years building a golf course by hand -- driving the backhoes and front-loaders, laying irrigation pipe, literally building 90 percent of the golf course by themselves.

With his typical whimsy and international view of things, Ruddy named the place, The European Club, but kept it simple -- no faux elegance, no swarm of bag boys, no elaborate dining -- and characteristically eccentric.
He added two reserve holes – "20 holes sounds sort of metric, sort of European," he says with a wink -- and created perhaps the world's longest green, at 127 yards. (He and Tiger once had a closest to the pin putting contest from its farthest edge.)

Lovely and unassuming, the clubopened in 1992 and soon became a local favorite. But Ruddy constantly tinkered, tweaking every gorse bush and menu item until it rang true. By the late Nineties, The European Club was being mentioned in the same breath with Ireland’s world-famous courses -- Ballybunion, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Portmarnock. Johnnie Miller and Nick Faldo dropped by to play and pronounced it sublime.

"I'd love to see a British Open held here," said Miller.

Tiger helicoptered in one morning, shot a course record 67 and declared his love for Ruddy's homemade masterpiece. Suddenly, in the new millennium, the world noticed, and miraculously golf's most influential critics were calling The European Club one of the top 100 courses on the planet, and three of its holes were selected among the finest 500 holes in all the world.

Literally from the moment you pull into the car park you notice the owner's personal touch. There are so many pine trees, palms (yes, in Ireland) and thick ferns, you'd be excused for thinking you pulled into a snazzy Northern California spot, but it's just Ruddy's way of creating both a welcome wind block for his honored guests and a little drama by hiding even the slightest glimpse of the course until you walk onto the first tee.

One of his fair-skinned daughters, Sidon, a big Jane Austen fan, greets me at the pro shop, and within moments Ruddy rides up in his golf cart. He is a pear-shaped fellow who is proud of the two stones (about 28 pounds) he has lost recently, dapper in a professorial way in his standard cardigan sweater, tie and wide-brimmed hat. Ruddy once studied to be a Catholic
priest, adores America’s little blue highways, is predisposed to find the best in everyone, can be cunning, and loathes the self-important golf snob.

"When Mr. Important comes," says Ruddy, "and the driver asks, 'What do we do with the clubs?' I always like to say, 'Well, we certainly aren't coming out to get them.'"

He has no quarrel with clubs that offer shoe shines and pro shops that double as men's clothing stores, but he knew that wasn't for him. "We also have no TV here," he says proudly. "We want this to be place of conversation. TV kills conversation. And we have great apple tarts. I must have auditioned a hundred of them before finding just the right one."

Ruddy profusely apologizes, but he must supervise the delivery of 30 plumply-upholstered leather chairs for the dining room, once again carefully chosen not for their opulence but because the owner has an artificial hip and these just feel better. "I am constantly tweaking," he says, delighted with the new purchase. "I'm like a little kid. I like all things new."

Having done this drop-in on Ruddy several times before, I swore to myself this trip I would try to simply have a normal lunch and not be "the reporter," but that ruse lasted about two minutes. He is just too quotable for his own good. A group of American golfers wanders into the dining room for some drinks, and Ruddy's eyes are lasered to their heads, which are adorned with baseball caps and Aussie outback hats.

He catches his head waiter's attention and silently orders that only their hats, not their heads, should be removed.

"There aren't many things that piss me off," he says without rancor, "but I've been to Augusta, Merion, Shinnecock, and I don't see people in their dining rooms wearing hats. If people live in caves, I don't mind them acting like cavemen. But if they live in palaces, they shouldn’t act like they live in caves."

Of the estimated 20 Irish golf resorts that are badly in debt or already bankrupt, Ruddy says, "Golf in Ireland was always a sport. Then it became a tourism and business enterprise. And they always had to open on the first day with total grandeur. They couldn't do like me and slowly work your way up as you can afford it. I know it's heresy, and I don't wish misfortune on
anyone, but we'll live without them. If no one played golf, the world would go on. It's not war."

The European Club, as one might expect, is masterfully engineered, with each bunker, sight line and patch of native rough so carefully placed -- often after three or four tries -- that they seem effortlessly natural, never contrived or simply stitched onto the land as an afterthought.

Ruddy's infamous bunkers are quite controversial because they're lined with wooden planks, or "sleepers," as railroad ties are known over there. In my first few rounds years ago, I never seemed to find them, so I remained above the fray with an "each unto his own" aloofness. But now that I've experienced the torment of watching an errant shot get unnecessarily launched into oblivion, I will say they seem excessively punitive.

Yet because golfers know there's not a cruel bone in Ruddy's body, they tolerate his playfulness and, yes, learn to avoid bunkers at all costs. If you want an endorsement of the course's relentless challenge and invigorating assortment of holes, know that Padraig Harrington practiced here for several days before his two British Open victories.

Ruddy is often the first to arrive at the club and the last to leave, and he still greets visitors at the clubhouse door, sometimes mistakenly getting tipped by oblivious high-rollers. The Ruddys have a permanent home in south Dublin, but they also have stunning quarters on the top floor of the clubhouse, including a golf library that Ruddy says contains 5,000 volumes, one of which cost him $35,000.

That would have been an unthinkable extravagance for Ruddy 30 years ago, but he spends virtually nothing on advertising, was debt-free within seven years of opening and says he has resisted a dozen offers to buy his club, the latest reportedly around $40 million.

"So what?" Ruddy scoffs. "What would I do with it? I can't sleep in ten homes. I can afford $40,000 watches now, but my old Timex works fine. Worldly things can’t be held together. At some point you have to stop planning and accumulating and earning, and simply enjoy.

"My life is golf and family," he says. "This dream has always been about being able to walk out on my own golf course in the early evening and just throw down 50 balls and hit them without anyone saying boo. For a real golfer that is rich beyond your wildest dreams.

"The greatest reward has nothing to do with money. I simply walk out on the dunes, surround myself with family and beat my chest like King Kong. Then I say, 'Done.'"

** Bruce Selcraig lives in Austin and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Mother Jones, among others. You can reach him at selcraig@swbell.net.

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