November Golf in Northern Ireland

P1100471The mystery golf course in my previous entry is Kirkistown Castle, on the Ards Peninsula, in Northern Ireland. (Adam Heyes, who also identified Ardglass Golf Club, from photographs of some cannons and a life preserver, got Kirkistown right, too, but he let me know by email so that others would have a chance. Tralee wasn’t a terrible guess, but it credited me with the ability to teletransport myself and my golf clubs to the other side of Ireland and back.) I played Kirkistown last week with Kevin Gallagher and Jonny Breen, both members, shown above. You can see the ruins of the eponymous castle in the distance, between their heads. The structure on the right is the remains not of a castle but of an old tower windmill. It stands on one of the two sand hills that are the most conspicuous topographical features of Kirkistown:


Kirkistown was founded in 1902, and the modern routing was created by James Braid in 1934. Among the few significant changes since then has been the sod-revetting of quite a few of the bunkers, a project undertaken with enthusiasm by the current greenkeeper, shown here in one of his ongoing creations:


To get to Kirkistown, I drove from Newcastle to Strangford, through an area that a road sign identified, correctly, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (A.O.N.B). There was also quite a lot of unnatural beauty, including this row of houses along the Strangford wharf:


I then had to cross Strangford Lough on a small ferry—which, naturally, was pulling away as I arrived:

P1100403Small ferries are one of my favorite things in the world. I wrote about some even smaller ones in the Atlantic Monthly a long time ago. The Strangford ferry runs every thirty minutes, so I didn’t have to wait long for the next one. Here we are arriving at Portaferry, on the other side:

P1100435Kirkistown is just a few miles up the road from the ferry landing, on the other side of the peninsula. Rory McIlroy—who would have arrived from the opposite direction, since he grew up in a suburb of Belfast—played at Kirkistown often as a junior. A recent golf bag of his is displayed in the trophy case in the lobby of the clubhouse:


I intentionally took an unnessarily long way home, by doing a sort of figure-eight loop around the entire peninsula. The sun was gone by the time I got back to Portaferry—where, once again, I just missed the boat:

P1100499I was in Northern Ireland mainly to write about Royal County Down for an upcoming issue of Golf Digest. The weather during my rounds there was mostly spectacular, too—much better than the weather at home:



P1100228On my first day at Royal County Down, I played with Kevin Markham, who has played every eighteen-hole golf course in Ireland:


We were accompanied for nine holes by Kevan Whitson, the club’s longtime professional. (Nearly everyone I played golf with on this trip was named either Kevin, Kevan, or Johnny.)


I’ll have more to say about Royal County Down in the magazine—and here, too, probably. Toward the end of our round, I told Kevin I was never going to take another picture of a rainbow on a golf course, or anywhere else. But then I did.


New Year’s Day for Golfers

ANGC No 12

The modern golf season never ends, but it does begin. When the first contestant tees off at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning during Masters week, golfers all over the world reset their internal clocks. The first page in a golfer’s calendar is April.

For the world’s best players, the Masters divides one season’s aspirations from another’s. A tour victory means recognition, money, autograph requests, endorsements, exemptions—and an invitation to Augusta. As the first full week of April draws near, winless players juggle their schedules to maximize their chances, and television commentators count down the tournaments remaining. When the Masters begins, every competitor has a theoretical chance of matching Bobby Jones’s unduplicated feat of winning all four major tournaments in one year; when the Masters ends, the Grand Slam field has shrunk to one.

For tournament spectators, the Masters is an annual reunion where the passage of time is measured not in years but in the names of champions. The principal viewing areas have the settled feel of old neighborhoods; the course is as familiar as a friend’s backyard. In countless gatherings beneath the pine trees, acquaintances are renewed and records are brought up to date: deaths, marriages, children, grandchildren, new houses, old jobs. The dogwood blossoms are compared with the dogwood blossoms of previous years. A rebuilt green is examined and approved. Two veterans discuss the careers of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—and then Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer walk by. A guest once said, “I rode here in the front seat and will be in the back seat going out so I can stay as long as I can.”

For distant golf fans, the first glimpse of Amen Corner on TV is proof that winter is gone. Northerners who haven’t swung a club since Halloween scrounge an old ball from the garage and roll a few wobbly putts across the family-room carpet during commercials. A swirling gray New England sky stops looking like a vestige of December and begins to seem like a harbinger of spring. The hours crawl from Saturday evening till Sunday afternoon. Meetings and social engagements are ignored or rescheduled; no avid golfer was ever married on Masters weekend. In 1987, two fans from Olympia Fields, Illinois, named their new daughter Tori Augusta National.

For sportswriters, the Masters is the plum assignment of the year. It is the first trip entered in a reporter’s appointment book, and it is written in ink. Journalists take the Masters personally. Herbert Warren Wind, The New Yorker’s incomparable golf correspondent for many years, once stopped another reporter upon arriving in Augusta’s airport and anxiously inquired about the state of the greens: “Are they firm?” Senior golf writers postpone hip replacements and cataract operations until just after the tournament, giving themselves a full fifty weeks to recover.

For non-golfers, the Masters is the one tournament of the year that compels attention. Over breakfast on Sunday morning, a golfer’s non-playing spouse may suddenly offer an informed observation about the chances of Woods, Mickelson, or McIlroy—the result of an hour’s seduction by the sports page or the TV. The beauty of the setting makes one’s love for golf comprehensible to the game’s antagonists. For four days, the national flower is the azalea.

Gary Player once said, “The Masters is the only tournament I ever knew where you choke when you drive through the front gate.”  The trip down Magnolia Lane may be the most dreamed-about entrance in sports. Although the Masters is not ancient as golf goes, no contest runs deeper in the imaginations of participants. Sam Snead once told me, “If you asked golfers what tournament they would rather win over all the others, I think every one of them to a man would say the Masters.”

ANGC clubhouse

Does Practicing Making Golfers Worse?

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

I haven’t hit a ball on my club’s driving range in two years, and during that time I’ve played the best, most consistent golf I’ve ever played. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether hitting range balls didn’t make me worse. My first few shots on the practice tee would inevitably include my best shot of the day. Then, as I worked my way through my bag, my swing would deteriorate until I was shanking my wedges, fatting my irons, and slapping weak leakers with my woods. And then I’d go play. One day, I decided to skip the warm-up.

I also stopped using the practice green, and almost immediately I became a better putter. One possible explanation: when I tee off now, I’m the only guy in the group who hasn’t missed a putt that day. I’ll watch other guys on the practice green, to get a feel for the speed, but I won’t stand there lipping six-footers.

The explanation is probably just that I’m a bad practicer. In the old days, when my swing would turn sour I would attempt a frantic intervention, by churning through two or three buckets in the hope that at some point quantity would metamorphose into quality. All I was really doing was cranking my tempo into the red zone and filling my head with negative thoughts. I was also rehearsing, and therefore ingraining, whatever problem had sent me to the range.

But even for players who practice well, hitting range balls before teeing off may be overrated—as Rory McIlroy demonstrated on the final day of the Ryder Cup this year, when he nearly missed his tee time for his singles match with Keegan Bradley. He didn’t have time to go to the range before teeing off, yet he birdied four of the first nine holes and beat Bradley two-and-one.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after not going to the driving range  before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after defeating Keegan Bradley two-and-one in their singles match, on a day when he didn’t go to the driving range before teeing off.

18 Good Things About Golf: No. 7

Strokes: member-guest, 2011.

7. Golf, like all sports, is perfectly meritocratic: If you shoot the best score, you win. At the same time, though, golf is highly socialistic. In fact, it’s the world’s only welfare state that works. The U.S.G.A.’s handicapping system takes strokes from each according his ability and gives them to each according to his need—communism with a human face. Unlike raw capitalism, golf has figured out how to foster individual achievement without smothering the hopes of those who can’t keep up. Like most golfers, I am proud to give strokes yet unashamed to receive them.

Because of handicaps, competitive matches can be played by players of greatly different levels of skill. If Rory McIlroy, for some reason, could find no one else to play with, he could play with me and, after spotting me one or two dozen strokes, still hope to have an interesting contest. Golf is the only sport I know of in which direct competition between pros and amateurs, or between men and women, or between adults and children, or between young women and old men, or between old women and touring professionals, is routinely feasible. The use of different tees makes it possible to adapt the course to the abilities of the players, and the handicapping system allows further adjustments. As a result, you can play golf on an equal footing not only with your wife but also with your kids or grandkids. Thus, golf simultaneously enhances sexual parity (important to liberals) and traditional family values (ditto to conservatives).

You’d think that a system designed to facilitate gambling among strangers would be fatally vulnerable to inconsistencies and abuses. In fact, though, the handicapping system, like the post office, works better than we have any right to expect. I often play nassaus with people I don’t know—people whose ideas about reportable scores may differ wildly from my own—and yet, far more often than the laws of probability would predict, our matches come down to the final press or the final hole or the final putt. How does that happen?

The explanation, I believe, is that human nature makes the handicap system almost magically self-correcting. A golfer with a pop has a mindset different from that of a golfer playing naked. Players with too many strokes inevitably find ways to waste them, and players with too few are often inspired to shoot better than they know how. (Ben Hogan—or was it Sam Snead?—once played a match with an amateur who complained that he wasn’t receiving enough strokes, and Snead—or was it Gene Sarazen?—replied, “Then you’re just going to have to play harder.”) Every club has its sandbaggers, chiselers, pretenders, and poseurs, but, over the course of a season or two, the bets tend to even out. One way or another, most of us manage to live up or down to our innermost expectations.