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Whether you target the familiar and wondrous names of Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville and Killarney, prefer to play in and around the fair city of Dublin on the east coast, or take a daring tour of the wild (north) west, Ireland boasts some of the finest links golf the world has to offer. Jim Frank kicks off our double-header on the best of the Emerald Isle (see also On the Wild Side)

According to Wikipedia, Ireland was discovered around 8000 BC by hunter-gatherers who came from the east, what is now Great Britain. But for another tribe of nomadic zealots – American golfers – Ireland was founded in August 1971, when Herbert Warren Wind, writing in The New Yorker magazine, introduced them to a remote golf course in County Kerry.

“Ballybunion revealed itself to be nothing less than the finest seaside course I had ever seen,” Wind wrote, adding, “no other links…presents such a satisfying adventure in golf.”

That was more than 40 years ago, and Ballybunion Old (as it is now called to distinguish it from the next-door Cashen course, built in 1984) has undergone significant change since Wind first extolled its virtues. But it’s hard to argue with his message: Ballybunion is not to be missed It’s no stretch to say that’s how most Americans, particularly the golfers, feel about all of Ireland. We come back from Irish golf trips raving about the courses, retelling funny stories, and with a list of favourite pubs and the new best friends made in them. Even if our ancestry is more Kiev than Kerry, after returning home our blood flows green. We can’t help it.

But having been to Ireland at least half a dozen times, I have no idea if golfers on your side of the Atlantic feel the same way. I’ve yet to meet any club-toting Brits in the Emerald Isle. In Scotland, I regularly run into Englishmen, even a few women, playing the great courses. But in Ireland, I meet only locals – and other Americans. You guys should get out more. Follow the example of the earliest tourists and start hunting and gathering the courses of Ireland. I’ll make it easy for you with a few suggestions, starting (where it wall began for me) with Ballybunion.

I’ve played it twice. Well, actually one-and-a-half times. I was there about 15 years ago, in drenching rain and unable to finish the round largely because I had to continually stop and wipe my glasses. (This was the final straw – upon returning home I had eye surgery so I could play golf spectacle-free.) But even through the sheets of rain – and please don’t call it “Irish mist”; that’s no longer funny – I could see that the layout was incredibly exciting, especially beginning at number 7 when the holes are close to the sea and move over and through massively beautiful dunes.

There’s little point describing individual holes, good as they are. Ballybunion is about the atmosphere: the wonder, childish glee, and sense of awe at what nature created – dunes, ocean, and wind. When I returned a few months ago, my round was in a howling gale that made it difficult to stand let alone swing. But despite the conditions, and the horrible shots that ensued, it was delightful.

One more Ballybunion memory. Slogging into the locker room to peel off my insufficient “waterproofs” 15 years ago, I ran into Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson. They, too, were trying to extricate themselves from soaked apparel, but they were all smiles and laughter, having had a marvelous time despite the conditions. Along with Wind, Watson deserves credit for steering Americans to Ballybunion: He first played it in 1981 and has been lavish and vocal in his praise. In 1995, he helped renovate it; further tweaks were made last year by Martin Hawtree. It has only improved.

There’s more wonderful golf in lower-left Ireland, notably Lahinch, Waterville, and Tralee, which I’ve played, and Dooks, Killarney, and Old Head, which I’ve not (but I’m inclined to believe their proponents).

Lahinch is the quintessence of Irish golf, perhaps not as gasp-inducing as Ballybunion but every bit as good a course with similar dunes-and-seaside landscape. Hawtree modernized the course about 10 years ago while restoring much of the Alister MacKenzie design from the 1920s, itself a reworking of Old Tom Morris’ design circa 1892.

There are many unforgettable holes, such as the short “Dell” that demands a totally blind shot over a tall mound. I’m hardly the first to note that it’s a hole one either loves or hates, but I can’t figure out what there is to hate about it.

My memories of Waterville are distant, but what’s great about Irish golf is that a decade and a half later, they are all good. The links is a series of dunes and drops, spectacular views, wild weather: During one July round, my foursome experienced every possible climatic condition except snow (that includes hail). I also remember being able to stand on a few tee boxes with perfectly possible, and pleasurable, shots at a a number of different fairways and greens.

The deities heard their names mentioned, often loudly, at The Island Golf Club. Not nearly as well known as Royal Dublin or Portmarnock, The Island is also north of the capital but harder to find down windy wee roads in the village of Donabate. Between the sea and a series of estuaries, the land here is more rugged: Tall dunes run north to south with holes tucked amongst them and lined by Marram grass and other vegetation, including bright spring flowers. Golf has been played over this exciting terrain since 1890, with golfers arriving by rowboat until the 1970s.

Even without much wind, The Island would be tough, plenty of blind shots and some of the narrowest fairways I’ve ever missed. With the wind? It was treacherous, the holes angling in every direction, the sparse bunkering more than compensated for by the claustrophobia-inducing tightness and never-flat landscape. Back home, I’ve told other golfers that The Island is the hardest little (par 71) course they’ve never heard of. I trust it’s better known in the UK. It certainly should be.

Last but not least is The European Club, Pat Ruddy’s modern links about an hour south of central Dublin. Ruddy, who went from golf writer to architect (a progression the rest of us can only dream of), is also responsible for terrific courses at Ballyliffin and Rosapenna in Northern Ireland (which is a subject for another time) and other designs.

The 20-year-old course starts inland, rolling over authentic linksland before playing along the Irish Sea. It’s a thrilling golf experience as well as a textbook on what makes links golf unique in its integration of landscape and strategy. If you’re lucky, Ruddy will be on property: He is the stereotypical Irishman – warm, witty, and happy to talk.

Like Ireland and its courses, he’ll be thrilled to see you.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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