Twelve days in Ireland

Twelve days in Ireland

It had been 30 years since my last visit to Ireland - the North to be precise. I was 17, on the cusp of discovering that my Father and I were far more alike than we were different.

Born in Larne, Northern Ireland, Dad grew up just outside of Belfast in the town of Lisburn, emigrating to Canada with my Mother in 1952.

The rather sombre yet honest purpose of the trip was to visit my grandparents before they died. My Grandfather was a soldier who lied about his age to join, as he described it, the 'adventure' that was The Great War. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli, somehow survived, and returned home to labour at the Harland and Wolff shipyard and become a reserve in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I clearly remember my grandfather's iron grip of a handshake and the decidedly steely resolve of my grandmother. Both had previously suffered strokes, and would pass within a couple of years of our visit.

Looking back on the summer of 1985, I realize the time we were able to spend on the golf course in Northern Ireland came as a welcome rest to Dad, allowing him to breathe between visits to the hospice. Our trips to the pub certainly helped too. 

Thirty years later, with the kids away at summer camp and the dog comfortably stationed with my now 89-year-old Dad for the next 12 days , my wife and were off to Dublin, with a clockwise self-driving sightseeing and golf tour at hand.

We drove west to Galway upon arrival, which gave us time to grow accustomed to driving on the left side of the road on a roomy four lane motorway. 

After a long, restful night and the first of our daily full-Irish breakfasts at the well appointed Seabreeze Lodge, a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher took us past the glorious links at Lahinch, sufficiently whetting our appetite for the golf that was to come the next day, further north at Sligo.

Our round County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point came to us on a recommendation from a friend (thank you, Richie Ryan). Sligo proved to be a wonderful introduction to both links golf, and the craic.

We'll remember the round at Sligo for its tremndous routing, which affords views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Benbulben Mountain, and for the two gentlemen who invited us to join them on the fifth tee. But we'll mostly remember it for the time near equal to that of our round we spent in the clubhouse with our new-found playing partners.

County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point

County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point

Over a pint or two of Guinness we discovered one was a member at San Francisco's Olympic Club while the other called England's Walton Heath his home course. This was an annual trip for the pair of former schoolboy rugby teammates. Their self-drive adventure was completely lacking a formal itinerary, allowing them to stay and play wherever the wind took them. Next time we may well do the same.

After our first night at the spectacular Lough Eske Castle, the exceedingly young by Irish golf standards, Donegal Golf Club at Murvagh was next.

Confident after our first round, and a rather gentle first three holes, the Eddie Hackett designed links began to bite back as the rain lashed, and then subsided. As we were beginning to learn, links golf is eminently more strategic than that to which we were accustomed back home.

Time and again we found ourselves looking back on the previous hole from the next tee, discovering the placement of bunkers hidden on our approaches, plotting in our minds the proper route one should take to navigate to par.

Onward to Northern Ireland and the spectacular Antrim Coast.

Tucked in at the Bushmills Inn, we took a day to explore the ancient volcanic basalt column formations of Giant's Causeway, the spectacular Dark Hedges of Game of Thrones fame, and Dunluce Castle.

The Harry Colt designed Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club, scheduled to host the Open Championship in 2019 was up next. Over tea in the member's lounge we listened as a longtime member of the club provided a detailed history of the course and of the pre-Open renovations to come. 

The fifth at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Dunluce course

The fifth at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Dunluce course

Despite heavy rain and the strongest wind of our trip to date, on to the course we ventured. The fifth hole, a 411 par four (it will play considerably longer during The Open) is dogleg that plays directly toward the North Atlantic, with a green perched atop the cliffs above White Rocks beach.

As difficult a test as it was that day, Royal Portrush will undergo significant renovation prior to The Open, adding new tee boxes to extend holes and provide more challenging angles. Routing will also be altered, taking the current 18th hole out of play.

Two nights at Belfast's modern Fitzwilliam Hotel was next.

My previous memories of Belfast -- a city dotted with worrisome military checkpoints at most every turn -- were quickly erased by what is now a vibrant, modern city. The Titanic Museum is a spectacular experience. Flame and Havana Bank Square are indicative of Belfast's surge in culinary arts. Mix this upward trend with old standards like the Crown Liquor Saloon and you have the best of the old and new.

On our way to Newcastle, we ventured up to Scrabo Tower, which provided views of the Mourne Mountains in the distance to the south, Ilse of Man to the east, and tucked just below, Scrabo Tower Golf Club. Intrigued by its hilltop location and criss-cross fairways, what looked like a hidden gem would go unplayed.

On this day, we were simply enjoying the opportunity to explore. And explore we did, taking time for a long walk and afternoon tea at nearby Mount Stewart. Our tour of the estate, managed by the National Trust, takes you back in time, evoking thoughts Downton Abbey. 

With four days left on our itinerary, two more rounds were scheduled. Unfortunately, our plans to play Royal County Down with a hosting member were dashed due to an unforeseen conflict. The number one ranked course in the world would have to wait until our next visit.

Our disappointment was offset by our stay at Slieve Donard, a spectacular hotel with unobstructed views of the Mourne Mountains, the same my Dad climbed in his youth, traveling by train from Belfast during his summer holidays. 

A short drive from Newcastle is Ardglass Golf Club.

Hard by the sea, Ardglass is a rugged, quirky links featuring views of the Irish Sea at every turn. At just over 6200 yards from the medal play tees, Ardglass isn't overly long - not that it needs to be. A calm day would likely yield lower scores, as would most links. But on the day we played, the wind was up, making the test both stern yet imminently fun.

Ardglass Golf Club, third tee

Ardglass Golf Club, third tee

Memorable holes include the first, Lambs Lough. It's a short, sharply uphill par four with a steep bunker fronting a narrow green tucked between the Irish Sea on the left and tall dune to the right.

Howd's Hole immediately follows. A medium length par 3 over a deep crevice, it's an early test of nerve. Any tee ball left short and to the right would spectacularly ricochet to a frigid, permanent grave. It may be worth it, for the spectacle alone.

The coastal beat continues from holes three six before turning inland at the seventh, at which point fairways become more generous, and opportunities to score are there for the taking.

Upon finishing with pars on the home hole, we pondered a return to Ardglass the following day having enjoyed our round so much. But with Martine battling painful elbow tendinitis, we opted to end our Irish golf adventure on a high note. 

We spent our remaining two days exploring Dublin on foot, relaxing at Clontarf Castle between tours of the Crumlin Road Goal, and the Guinness and Jameson factories. It is Ireland after all. 

Our twelve days in Ireland and Northern Ireland came to an end all too quickly.

Despite not playing as many rounds as we originally planned, the discoveries we made and the people we met as a result more than made up for the holes we lost. Here's looking forward to our return, which cannot come soon enough.