Let’s Check in With That Guy Who Has Played Every Golf Course in Ireland

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Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every eighteen-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the seven-thousand-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married:

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I’ve had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:

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And here he is at Portstewart:

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Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club—which I’ve played, though not with him—has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club’s profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will “move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf.” One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.

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Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham’s photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit—the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members —but David O’Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn’t mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I’d be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O’Donovan.
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Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O’Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart—an Irish first for me. When you’re in a cart, it’s hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff—on a par 5 called the Jump—and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here’s the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
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We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we played the club’s third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for twenty years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). “My game is coming back,” he said—a man at peace.
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Reader’s Trip Report: Ballybunion on New Year’s Eve Eve

Seventh hole, Old Course, Ballybunion Golf Club, Ireland.

Seventh hole, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland.

American golfers often speak of the Old Course at Ballybunion as though it were the only golf course in Ireland, so when I first visited, in 2006, I was predisposed to be underwhelmed. After actually playing it, though, I realized that it belongs right where it’s always listed, with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush and, therefore, with the greatest golf courses not only in Ireland but also in the world. At least half the holes would stand as the best hole on any number of very good courses. I could have played Ballybunion until immigration officials (or my wife) came to drag me away.

Dan Tani, seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Dan Tani, seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013. That’s Jeremy and Anthony on the bench. (Dara took the photo.) Rainbows are officially disallowed in golf-course photos published on this website, but every once in a while one slips past the censors.

Dan Tani, an American reader (photo above), joined Ballybunion as an overseas member in 1998, when the cost was next to nothing. Two years later, he married a woman from Cork, and so now is obliged to visit twice a year. (He proposed at the stroke of the millennium, after playing Ballybunion in the afternoon and rehearsing his lines on the drive home.) Ever since, he’s made a point of playing at least one round very late in the year. This past December, he played on New Year’s Eve Eve—December 30, 2013—with three Irish guys whose fourth had exceeded the legal limit on showing up late.

Seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Seventeenth tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Highlights from Tani’s trip report:

Golf in Ireland in December can be wet and cold, but it can also be surprisingly mild. I’ve played in short sleeves and in full winter rain gear. This year, it was cool—about forty degrees, but dry, clear, and sunny—and the wind was only about ten miles an hour. I joined Anthony, a local publican, hotelier, and landscaping-company owner; Dara, a former assistant pro at Ballybunion, now an accountant in Dublin; and Jeremy, a greenkeeper currently working on a new course in Finland. They were old friends from years ago, getting together over the holidays. Dara is from Newcastle, Northern Ireland, and he grew up as a member of Royal County Down. He had a beaten-up golf bag with the R.C.D. logo on it.

Dara, seventh tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

Dara and his R.C.D. golf bag, seventh tee, Ballybunion, December 30, 2013.

One thing I have noticed when I play Ballybunion is that I am always the oddly dressed golfer on the course. If I  wear beaten-up clothing with various golf clubs’ logos, I end up playing with three guys in full Ballybunion gear: jackets, hats, etc. This time, I wore my Ballybunion sweater, and, of course, the other guys were dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed: tattered pullover sweatshirts, Converse sneakers, jeans. I envied them and wished I could be cool enough to shoot even par in sneakers and pub wear, too. 

Eighteenth tee, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland, December 30, 2013.

Eighteenth tee, Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland, December 30, 2013. That’s the seventeenth green in the foreground. The eighteenth fairway is at the far right, receding into the distance, toward the clubhouse.

After the round, we went to the clubhouse for a lunch of “toasted specials,” which are the real national dish of Ireland. We finished at three. I had about ninety minutes of sunlight left, so I went out on the Cashen Course [which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., in 1984]. I played the first seven holes, teed off on the eighth (a six-hundred-yard par 5), then picked up my ball and went to the fifteenth tee and played in from there: eleven bonus holes. I saw only an occasional golfer, on a distant hole. My only regret is that I didn’t have any light-up balls, as I did in 2010. That year, after thirty-six holes and a full dinner in the clubhouse, we went out again, at eleven p.m.:

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Tani indirectly makes a point that I myself have made before: rather than going to Myrtle Beach for winter golf, why not go to Scotland or Ireland? The weather is often worse in Myrtle Beach. Anyway, here’s one more rainbow shot, as long as we’ve broken the rule. Tani took this one from his car on the way to the course.

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My Latest Contribution to the Divot Museum

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The seventh hole on my home course is a 125-yard par 3. I hit 9-iron the other day, and I took a divot that was just about perfect—uniform depth, playing-card size and shape—except that it began a couple of inches behind the ball and extended a couple of inches beyond it. In addition, my tee peg (a half-length stub I’d found nearby) remained upright near the center of it, untouched. Even so, my ball finished just twenty yards short of the green, meaning that I’d hit what was essentially a 90-yard explosion shot. And they say the long bunker shot is the toughest shot in golf.

If I hadn’t sent my divot to the Divot Museum, I could have used the tee stub to refasten it to the golf course. Believe it or not, a company called McDivot makes biodegradable anchors that do exactly that. Here’s what they look like:

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I saw a bowl of McDivots on the counter in the golf shop at Royal Portrush Golf Club a few years ago, and one of the assistants told me that using them prevents wind, rain, mowers, and crows from flipping replaced divots out of their holes. (The same company also makes an industrial-size version, called GreenStakes, which can be used to hold down entire fairways.) I took a McDivot home as a souvenir, and displayed it on my desk for several years. At some point, though, I must have thrown it out, because I just spent almost an hour unsuccessfully searching for it in my office. So the photo above, which is from the McDivot website, will have to do.

Anyway, divots aside, it was a nice day for golf, as you can see here:

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Want to Buy a Building Lot at Augusta National?

Olmsted Brothers' 1932 Augusta National real-estate development plan. If your eyes are good enough, note the tennis courts and the brand-new clubhouse—none of which were built. Also note the small practice area, between the ninth and eighteenth holes.

Augusta National Golf Club suffered severe financial problems during its first two decades, which coincided with the Great Depression and the Second World War. Its lenders actually foreclosed in 1935, just eight months after Gene Sarazen had seemingly secured the future of both the club and the Masters by hitting “the shot heard round the world.” (I explore those difficulties at some length in The Making of the Masters.)

One of the club’s best hopes for raising money in the early years was to sell building lots overlooking the course. Roughly a third of the club’s property was reserved for that purpose, and the lots were delineated and numbered on several early maps, including the plan reproduced above. For the most part, the lots occupied areas west of the second fairway and east of the tenth and eleventh. (Note to Laurentius: The spot where Rory McIlroy’s yanked tee shot on the tenth hole ended up during the final round of the 2011 Masters was near the edge of Lot No. 1.)

The club’s development plan, which was created by the landscape architecture firm Olmsted Brothers, called for two dozen building sites, and additional acreage was reserved for more. Most of the lots were between three and five acres; the largest, No. 6, was twelve acres. The club actively tried to sell those lots or others for more than twenty years. Boundary lines were cleared, access roads were built, lots were numbered with signs that faced the roads, and a major, continuing effort was made to stir up sales—all without success. In the early 1930s, W. Montgomery Harison, an early member, bought three adjoining lots just beyond the first green, but he was the only taker. He built a huge brick mansion, which stood until 1977, and the elder of his two sons built a much smaller house next door. (Harison’s younger son, Phil, was the tournament’s official starter for more than sixty years. He died 2008, at the age of 82. His own son is a member now.)

W. Montgomery Harison's house overlooking Augusta National's first green, during the Masters in 1941. (The photographer was standing near the ninth green and looking up the first fairway.) The house was torn down in 1977.

After the war, the club briefly considered leasing or renting the remaining lots, at annual charges ranging from $250 to $500 a year. When no enthusiasm for that idea was evident, the club gave up on the original subdivision and for four or five years pursued a more modest development plan in a different location. This new subdivision—which was to be called De Soto Trail—was situated just east of the area now occupied by the par 3 course. It consisted of twenty-four lots, most of them about a half-acre, and was targeted not at club members but at local middle-income families. To avoid the expense of building an access road and installing utilities, the club in 1949 offered the entire parcel to Augusta real-estate agents. There were no bids. The club then tried without success to sell the lots individually. Late in 1952, a developer offered $18,000 for fifteen acres. Roberts viewed that figure as too low, and the club eventually abandoned the entire idea.

Today, golf fans and even club members are almost always amazed to learn that Augusta National, in more than twenty years of conscientious effort, could turn up only one buyer interested in building a house near what today may be most fabled golf course in the world. If the same lots were offered for sale today, the bids would undoubtedly be astronomical. The failure of the real-estate projects underscores the immensity of the challenge that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, Augusta National’s founders, faced in nearly every area of the club’s operation. As late as the early 1950s, Roberts couldn’t get local real-estate developers to return his calls.

It was only in the mid-1950s—when the tournament was securely established, and both the club and the country were on better financial footing—that Roberts began to view all development ideas as a mistake. A local club member named Julian Roberts (no relation) eventually bought Harison’s property and later sold it back to the club. One of Clifford Roberts’s last acts before taking his life, in 1977, was to walk to the first tee with the help of a waiter so that he could look up the fairway and assure himself that the house had been torn down.

 

Should You Live on a Golf Course?

Houses overlooking the second fairway, Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2008.

To live on a golf course is not a universal aspiration. At a club where I sometimes play, a dozen houses back up to various fairways. Over the years, the owners of those houses have taken pains to obliterate their views of the course. They’ve built fences, planted bushes and trees, and hung No Trespassing signs. One scary old guy patrols the boundary of his yard the way East German soldiers once patrolled the Berlin Wall. Follow a bad drive into his garden and he unchains his dog.

It’s not that the course is ugly or the golfers rude. It’s just that to some people a fairway is no more attractive than a freeway. Golf, to them, is a public nuisance. (You can’t sunbathe in your underpants when local slicers treat your patio as a cart path.) Some people live next to golf courses because they figure they can’t afford to live someplace nice.

Howard indicating the house I'm going to buy as soon as this blog has made me rich. Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland, April, 2012.

I belong to the opposing camp, the folks who view an adjacent par 4 not as an invasion of privacy but as a big, free, weedless lawn. At least, I would if I lived next to one. The perfect neighborhood, in my view, would be the one in the photo above, next to the fourth fairway at Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland. Or how about something ocean-oriented at Cypress Point, in California? I’ve even picked out a building site: that wind-swept knob to the right of the sixteenth green:

Sixteenth hole, Cypress Point Club, Pebble Beach, California.

I wouldn’t care if a stray shot shattered my front window every once in a while. Heck, I wouldn’t care if you and your foursome cut through my kitchen on your way to the seventeenth tee. Help yourselves to beer! I’d just like to be able to step out my back door and tee it up whenever I wanted to.

I'd also be happy with any of these. North Berwick Golf Club, Scotland, April, 2008.

Next: Would you be willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a building lot at Augusta National? You (or your parents or grandparents) could have, but didn’t.

These are the Best Golf Shoes, and I’m Not Kidding

The True Linkswear golf shoes of Tony, David O., Tim-o, & Tim. Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland, April, 2012.

Among the hits of last year’s PGA Golf Merchandise Show were some unusual golf shoes, made by True Linkswear. They look a little like Earth Shoes and a little like Crocs: the front end is wide, allowing your toes to spread out the way they do when you walk barefoot, and there’s almost no heel. A teaching pro who now works for the company told me, “It took me a week to get over it, visually.” But golfers learn to love the look, he said, and are often able to throw away their orthotics, like crutches at a revival meeting. (It’s also possible that True Linkswear shoes promote a slightly better swing, by making it harder for you to lean over your toes.) The company’s reps brought 300 pairs to Orlando but had to stop selling them after just a few hours because they were running out of samples. By the time I got to the booth, they no longer had a pair in my size, but the ones I tried on—which were half a size too small—were still the most comfortable golf shoes I’d ever worn. I now own four pairs.

I took two of those pairs to Ireland this month, along with some New Balance walking shoes. I figured that the walking shoes would be good for après-golf—but I was wrong about that, because by comparison with my golf shoes they felt like army boots. I wore the walking shoes when we went out to dinner our first evening in Ireland but left them in the car after that, and wore only my golf shoes. And I never felt even a twinge, despite the fact that, according to Tim-o’s Fitbit Ultra, we walked between eighteen and twenty-two miles a day (while playing 36 holes and searching for balls among the dunes). And I wore my Trues on the flight home, too.

I wasn’t the only True believer on the trip: Tony, Tim-o, Tim, and I all wore them, in various models and colors—as you can see in the photo above.That’s four of the seven golfers on the group. And Jack wore FootJoy Contour Casuals, which look and feel like sneakers and which he also didn’t bother to take off. It’s now hard for me to believe that golfers ever played in shoes that had stiff soles and metal spikes and had to be broken in.

I’ve retired my original pair of Trues from active golf duty, but I wear them when I work in the yard, walk the dog, and wander through the woods. I’d wear them in the house, too, if I ever wore shoes in the house. And a day will come, I predict, when I will own no other shoes.

Brendan icing a foot rubbed raw by a week of links golf in conventional golf shoes. Cullen Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2008.