As your American-based golf correspondent, I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t fancy my first pints of Guinness. In fact, I didn’t acquire a taste for it until my first trip to Ireland a little more than a decade ago and a visit to Temple Bar’s cobbled streets between the River Liffey and Dame Street in Dublin.
Guinness may be one of Ireland’s best exports, but it truly tastes better here. It’s so much better that it’s almost worth the price of a flight over here.
Which is how I feel about links golf: America has a few beauties , especially at Bandon Dunes set hard against the Pacific Ocean on the southern coast of Oregon, but it’s such an adventure to get there that I tell people you might as well just fly to Ireland for the real thing.
Once, during an interview with Pádraig Harrington, I asked the three-time major winner to name his five favourite courses in his native land. He took a pregnant pause, thought about it, and said, “Can I give you six?”
He actually ticked off seven, but who was counting. Beneath the spectacular gaze of the Mountains of Mourne lies Royal County Down, the most beautiful golf course these eyes have ever seen. It is one of the most challenging tests of golf, with great swaths of heather and gorse lining the fairways that tumble beneath vast sandhills, and severe bunkers defending small subtly contoured greens.
Some may claim there are too many blind shots - five from the tees and others where the green is all or partially concealed - but somehow they are so in keeping with the nature of the course that they cannot with any justice be condemned. I tell anyone who will listen to me that a trip to play golf in Ireland should be mandatory.
I especially love how the courses are ruled by Mother Nature and devoid of artificial lakes, railroad ties, island greens, motorised carts (for the most part -- sorry John Daly) or sympathy.
Links golf is a reminder of what golf once was and what it always should be.
Many of my Americancolleagues arrived early for their annual links golf fix and came away raving about the likes of Enniscrone and Carne. My golf bag made the trip too and I’m sticking around to enjoy five courses that I’ve yet to have the pleasure of playing: Cruit Island Golf Club, Narin and Portnoo Links, Donegal Golf Club, County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point and Concrawood Golf and Country Club.
Next week can’t come soon enough for me.
But for now, Portrush, the small resort town in Country Antrim, is taking centre stage. The main part of town is built on a mile-long peninsula, Ramore Head. Along the wharf, fans are squeezed into bars and restaurants post-round.
I ran into former Masters champ Danny Willett eating with 2018 Ryder Cup Captain Thomas Bjorn on championship-eve at Neptune & Prawn. The walls of Harbor Bar, which claims to pour thefinest pint in all of Ireland, are decorated as a monument to favourite sons Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke and if you’re lucky enough to be there when they are in town, you might be able to join them in song.
The Harbour Bar has two memorable signs, the first noting that Portrush is so small it doesn’t have a town drunk. “So we all take turns,” it reads.
The other was a sign of the times: “No WiFi. Talk to each other!”
Hanging around there this week reminded me of the words of wisdom bestowed upon me by one of my caddies from a previous visit. “In Ireland there are no strangers,” he said, “only friends you haven’t met before.”
No sight of McDowell at Harbour Bar after Thursday’s opening round, but his caddie, Ken Comboy, was waiting outside for a pint. The mob of revelers discouraged me from staying too long so I headed off for a fish and chips shop.
I’m staying this week with two American couples that have built a holiday around this week’s Open Championship. When not stalking Tiger Woods, they have explored the Causeway Coastal Route, starting with the ruins of Dunluce Castle.
The more famous of the two courses at Royal Portrush is named after the ancestral home of the lords of Antrim, a striking 14th-century castle whose ruins are perched on the stark, rocky headland to the east of the course.
On a previous trip, my cabbie suggested spending three hours minimum at the Giant’s Causeway, a three-mile stretch along the coast just outside the village of Bushmills. Indeed, you could easily spend a full day hiking and admiring the seals and dolphins at play in the North Atlantic.
This lunar-like landscape of jagged cliffs and giant hexagonal basalt stones tell a thousand tales. According to Irish mythology, the rocks were left by the Irish giant
Fionn MacCumhaill during a battle with a Scottish giant. Scientists will tell you this natural wonder is the result of a volcanic eruption during the Cenozoic era 60 million years ago. Who to believe? My cabbie says it all depends on how much whiskey you’ve consumed.