Who Has Courses Like This? Welcome to the Wild Side
I direct everyone’s attention to an article in Golfweek by Jason Lusk. It is an account of a visit to several northern Irish golf courses, some off the beaten track, some of enormous prestige. I have been to Ireland on a number of occasions, and played golf there. I am an Ireland fanatic, and consider every moment I spend on the land and with the people are golden. My day at Malehyde is a great memory despite the presence of giant rodents roaming the course like short and stocky kangaroos.
The courses Lusk was writing about were all ocean-side courses, and even I was taken aback. I have heard the discussions from childhood about drawing the beauty of a golf course out of its natural surroundings so that it complements the area and looks like it belongs there. Suddenly, all that just sounds like blah-blah-blah. The Irish have taken that concept one giant step further, by doing less. To be sure, they produce a great golf course, but forget the drawing out – put some bunkers, beautiful flowers, land where no one can stand level without a miraculous shot first, and putts that rival the distance of my middle irons.
What is the point of all this? What Lusk and his Irish colleagues point to is that the courses are “wild” to the max, and that’s the beauty of it. With that word, I watched the photographs and saw centuries of either real or perceived elitism melt before my eyes. I realized that man plays this game against nature…who is a very fine player. I love a gorgeous tailored course as much as the next man, but Nature doesn’t always need to dress up for an appearance.
So, here we are, amidst bunkers that almost need ladders, sand hills that wreak a sort of havoc unknown to the decorous lawns of Augusta, an entirely different sort of difficulty. Americans flock to these links courses in Ireland, Scotland and Britain, and presumably the Canadians are intrigued with them as well. It makes me wonder where their counterparts are on the North American continent. Americans and Canadians come from a culture of explorers, mountain men, for whom a boring day is not being chased by a bear. They starved, froze, got lost, and walked thousands of miles. We would love something like that over here.
And that walking part. The most fascinating feature of all is the concept of a fairway. There usually is one, but not always. No line of demarcation between fairway and rough exists, and light cut, heavy cut is nonexistent. Add it to the ocean’s wind and rain, and the challenge is complete. On some of the courses, I could break an ankle just walking normally, and with a golf cart, I would need a driver’s test first.
Ballyliffin is one of the most daring. Of the various photographs, I wondered at first, “What have they done with the fairway?” After a little finger tracing, I realized it. “Ah! It’s the patch with the rock outcropping running through it!” The “wrinkled” ground has raw beauty that fits with the eons of history one can sense along the coast. I wouldn’t think of ever smoothing it out. I could only hope that the Mars Rover never runs into terrain like this. If it does, the mission is over.
Portsalon is much the same thing. An American would trim and style it before presenting it as a cow pasture or range land, missing the point entirely. Perhaps our misguided sense of refinement was meant to emulate high European civilization in an attempt to gain respect. Too bad. We should have adopted the Irish model, at least in a few places.
For the North American golfer leaving the house, charged with visions of winning his fight against the local course, don’t come to Ireland to do that. Enjoy the game one stroke at a time, one walk at a time. You’re probably not going to come home with a memorable scorecard, just a memorable day. Return home with healthy ankles and marvel over the distance you didn’t think you could manage with a putter. The windburn will go away in a little while. Remember it as that wild golf tour of northern Ireland.