Of Fairways and Fairytales
There is a place where the land is so steeped in golf that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish its cities, or even the country itself, from a golf course. A place where, after a round is complete, another is served; where drinkers burst into song on a Friday evening and dark porters flow like water from a spout in the wall.
Ireland has a distinct seasonality; perhaps that’s why the pre-Christian Celtic religions had so many gods of land, earth and nature. Here, the weather moves fast but growth is slow, thus betraying the country’s magnificent contradictions. Even the local music has an ebb and flow, bringing to mind stony hills and rocky beaches, or the faint scent of salt in a fiddle tune.
Spanning land and sea
Perhaps, this is why golf is so at home here. Ireland provides the perfect atmosphere for a game that, from its beginnings, has spanned land and sea. Across the North Channel in Scotland, the original links courses—named for the Celtic word hlinc, meaning “rising ground”—were founded on verdant land between the ocean and farms. To this day, the game remains best played with an ocean breeze at your back. In island living, the sea becomes a reference point for everything. It helps you set your direction, it determines the way the wind blows and it provides life with a perimeter—you always know that if you bike, hike or drive in one direction, before long you will reach the water. And there, at the edge, right before you jump in, will be 18 holes of the most natural, challenging golf you can find.
Eddie Hackett, the famed Irish golf architect, was known for his eye more than his designs. “I find that nature is the best architect,” he said, “I try to dress up what the Good Lord provides.” He would walk the dunes, see where the natural lay of the land rolled out a course, plug a flag in the ground and call it a day’s work. I find this almost Zen-like approach to the game and the course very refreshing. Coming as I do from the manicured, constructed hills of country-club North America, golfing Ireland’s links courses feels wild and natural.
You sense it when you walk the course at Waterville. Players often walk the course twice, just because it feels like the right thing to do. And perhaps that’s the feeling I’m trying to explain: Golfing in Ireland makes you feel that you are doing what you were intended to do—walking, breathing, thinking and striking a ball towards (or, as is so often true in my case, into) the sea.
A long way from home
I grew up in the southern U.S., where golf and tennis are year-round sports and attendance on the course and court is almost as mandatory as it is at church. In my native Georgia, we go so far as to call the Augusta National the “Cathedral in the Pines.” So when I found myself living in western Ireland years ago, I was keen to explore the raw expanses of the country’s courses.
The first Irish course I played was one of Eddie Hackett’s, the Connemara Links. Before I had even seen Ballybunion, Doonbeg or Tralee, I happened into Connemara looking for a lunch spot after being soaked by a classic North Atlantic storm during a long bike ride. I found the course at the end of a long road heading west, past castles and farmland (in western Ireland, just about everything is past castles and farmland). I had just flown over from Scotland where I had been guiding a week-long tour for a family, which had allowed me to play, among others, the Old Course at St. Andrews. On the heels of such iconic courses in Scotland, I had limited expectations for their Irish counterparts.
At St. Andrews, I was amazed to see how the village and the course melded into one and the same; throngs of people walked the course and watched the line at the tee box. But in Ireland, the melding was less social and more geological. Here I was out in the middle of nowhere—or what seemed to be nowhere—and, as I carried on, the land shifted from mountains to flats and then to ocean, and a perfect course unfolded in front of me. I was immediately disabused of the notion that Irish golf is second-tier; this course was on a par with, if not better, than Scotland’s finest.
I was struck, as well, by the magical sounds of western Ireland. There is the constant motion of the Atlantic, the reeds blowing in the air, the howl of a trap and the wind blowing above it. The white noise of a place is
louder here, and it affects your game. It can annoy or soothe, depending on what you bring with you when you arrive. The wind changes often and the traps are deep, both of which make Connemara a tough but endlessly
fulfilling course to play.
Irish courses such as Lahinch and Ballybunion have the same elemental feel that I experienced at Connemara. Henry Longhurst explained it best, saying of Irish courses, “Their simple, elemental quality sweeps away the cobwebs of golfing theory and brings home to you once more the original fact that golf is a business not of pivots, hip turns, wrist formation and the rest, but of grasping an implement firmly in two hands and banging the ball with it.”
Golf is a different sport in a country like this. Connemara presented me with the hardest day of golf I have ever had, and reminded me of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.
Tyler Dillon was born in California and raised in rural Georgia. He spent his early adult life travelling and working around the world—largely in Ireland, China, Myanmar and Peru. Tyler now makes Toronto his home, where he designs golfing,
biking and walking trips for luxury travel company Butterfield & Robinson. He still steps in, when he can, to guide trips with Butterfield & Robinson to Ireland and Scotland.