As I luxuriate in my first Irish golf hangover three days removed, more than a few thoughts, recollections and recommendations waft their way over the Atlantic, across the American continent and into fingers still tingling from the soft salt seaside sting:
THE CADDY WAY — Like all true links courses, walking is the only way to go. A few “buggies” hang around Lahinch and Ballybunion, but you’ve gotta either be in a bad way or nursing a major Guinness-fueled brain pain to call one into service. For God’s sake, hire a caddy instead, at least once at each new course you play. The three I had — Michael at Doonbeg (actually it’s the Gaelic version of Michael, pronounced Mee-hail, I’m not sure of the spelling), Hank at Lahinch and Jack at Ballybunion — were a stellar at sizing up my game within a swing or two as they were quick with the pithy comment, rip-roaring joke or historical snippet. And man, could they all read those tricky greens. Going rate is 40 euro (about $60) per bag, and double-looping is standard (most of them lug one sack of sticks and pull the other in a trolley). Well worth it.
WALKIN’ SHOES — Though I adore my True Linkswear shoes, which I first put through their paces during our Essential Destination week at Bandon Dunes and vicinity, there’s a new spikeless contender in town: Crocs’ new Hank Haney model. That’s right, Crocs. I sported a brand new pair of black numbers with lime green and red accents, wearing them right out of the box at Doonbeg, and every round thereafter, with no break-in. Good thing they didn’t need any. They provided plenty of support and gripped the sandy soil and buzz-cut fescue as well as spikes, though I did experience one slip — only because I sliced a tee shot on Lahinch’s famous fourth hole and had to hit the second off a 30-degree slope. And while it never rained enough to give me a sense of their water-resisting credentials (a measly five holes of light moisture … I ain’t complainin’), they worked in perfect concert with my assortment of golf-specific socks (including a brand new pair of FootJoys that I give two big toes-up), and allowed me to head straight for the pub without changing shoes. Another precious five minutes of drinkin’ time saved!
BALLS OF FEEL — I put several types of golf ball into service over my 90 holes of links battle, including TaylorMade’s Penta TP3, Nike’s Tour Platinum D and Fairways + Greens’ excellent “house ball,” the Innovex E-Motion, but got the week off to a smokin’ start with a sleeve of new Callaway Hex Blacks, the same ball that propelled Phil Mickelson to victory at Pebble Beach in February. Can’t say I can work the hexagonally-dimpled projectile like Phil can, but I can report that it cut through the stiff coastal breezes admirably; it rode downwinds like a fairway-seeking hawk and more than held its own when I hit into the teeth. But around the greens is where the Hex Black really sparkled. Didn’t matter if I was flopping over a bunker or employing the ol’ Irish bump-and-run; as long as I kept it on the clubface, I got the soft-yet-solid feedback I wanted.
CHOWDER CENTRAL — I’m not sure what it is about the town of Lahinch that makes for some of the best seafood chowder that’s ever passed my lips, but the thick, creamy recipe I tried at the golf club’s upstairs pub was so freshly flavorful that I wished I couldn’t have shipped a gallon home. Then, three days later when I returned for a replay of that amazing course, I knocked around the village for a couple hours, doing the tourist thing, and happened upon a little pub called the Cornerstone. I slipped in for a Guinness and a bowl of chowder, which arrived in a deep, steaming crock and proved every bit as fine in flavor and generous in seafood content (especially mussels still in the shell) as its counterpart down the lane. I’ll chalk it all up to the water, the sea air and a couple centuries’ worth of chowder-stewing know-how. And the seafood back at Doonbeg more than held its own, too, especially the classic fish and chips and the seabass filet.
ON THE LAMB — Sheep and cattle graze everywhere in County Clare, and the former even get to chow down on the golf course once in a while. The beef is very good in these parts, but if you want a true taste of Irish meat, go for the lamb. I ordered lamb shank one night in Darby’s Pub at Doonbeg and came away with just one thought: Best ever. Seriously.
POTATO PROPS — It’s true. The Irish know their way around a spud. Many, many ways. And they all taste great.
THE FULL IRISH — The ultimate Eire breakfast, and you gotta order it once. Eggs cooked to order, toast, sausage, bacon (more like ham), black pudding, a large mushroom, tomatoes and potatoes, plus coffee, tea and juice. It’ll see you through any links adventure.
B&B BUMPER CROP — While most of the 166 participants in this year’s Great Irish Links Challenge holed up in one of Doonbeg’s five-star suites or cottages, there are plenty of worthy lodging options within a short drive of the resort, and most of them come in the form of bed and breakfast inns, which pretty much should rank as Ireland’s “official” form of hospitality. I counted at least 15 of them in the 30 kilometer stretch between Doonbeg and Lahinch, and many more than that on the much longer route betweenm Doonbeg and Ballybunion. Some are two or three-room mom-and-pop operations, others boast a dozen or even upwards of 20 rooms, and all offer some level of morning meal along with a casual evening repast. All appear charming and friendly. And no, don’t count on sneaking out for a McDonalds fix, because there aren’t any arches in these parts. Thank God.
SMALL WORLD DEPARTMENT — One night we found ourselves in the members’ lounge at Doonbeg, enjoying a pint with General Manager Joe Russell and Head Pro Brian Shaw, we struck up a conversation with a couple guys from New Orleans, one of whom now lives and does business in a Philadelphia suburb. “How far do you live from Merion?” I asked, referring to the one Philly club most golfers know by name. “Oh, it’s just a few miles away, but I’m member of a smaller club called Overbrook.” I almost fell off my overstuffed sofa. My great grandfather, Joseph B. Townsend Jr., helped found Overbrook Country Club in 1900. “Come out and play it sometime; it’s a nice little family club,” said my new friend. And indeed I will.
SHANNON’S GATEWAY — Shannon Airport is really the only way to get to Ireland’s west coast. With daily flights from the states on both United/Continental and Delta, it’s amazingly convenient and small enough to make the security and customs processes a relative breeze. Dublin’s airport is a good four-hour jaunt, and it makes sense if you’re planning an all-out onslaught on each of Ireland’s golf-rich regions (someday, baby!), but if you’re doing the south and west, think Shannon. Word is the Dublin Airport Authority, which runs Shannon as a satellite outlet, may cut it loose and leave it to the local jurisdiction to keep the doors open. That’s a tall order, but we’ll say an even taller prayer that it stays just what it should be: The door to a golfer’s dreams.