Thursday, August 07, 2008


I have a new favorite golf destination.

It’s Belfast, the tough old capital city of northern Ireland. You wouldn’t think that golf would have much place in this peculiar little country with its outsized history of blood and turmoil. When I was a teen-ager back in the 1970s, it seemed as if the latest Belfast bombing was always on the grainy black-and-white tv evening news. It was like Biafra and Cambodia, in that category of hellish places that not even those brave backpacker tourists dreamed of visiting.

Everything has changed. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the worst violence between Catholics and Protestants. Although a bit behind the so-called “Celtic Tiger” of neighboring Ireland, a growing economy has brought new prosperity. Now Belfast has the chic outdoor cafes, track-lighted modern art museum, and boutique hotels of any other mid-sized European city. The Troubles, as they are now called, left 3,000 dead and lasting mistrust and hatred, but they're also now part of Belfast mythology. Each side's colorful propaganda murals have become tourist attractions. Tour buses cruise along for a view of the strangely named “Peace Wall.” This monstruous concrete barrier – a model for the more recent Israeli security wall to keep out Palestinians -- separates hardcore Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. There’s even a little museum where you can buy a poster of Bobby Sands, the long-haired young Irish Republic Army (IRA) who smiles down from the street murals like some martyred revolutionary savior in the tradition of Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

And golf has become a booming growth industry. Many of northern Ireland’s early settlers came across the Irish Sea from Scotland, and they had the game in their blood. Even during the worst of the Troubles, the dedicated hacker would still tee it up. One friend, an officer in Royal Ulster Constabulary, recalls using a mirror on a stick to check for bombs under his car before driving off to the club. There’s a scruffy little old public course in downtown right by the church where Ian Paisley presided as the minister. Parishioners would listen to the famous Protestant firebrand rail against the “republican devils,” then head for their Sunday eighteen just across the street.

Now, in peacetime, the game has expanded as never before, a boom propelled by new golf tourism. With dozens of new tracks, boasts one brochure,northern Ireland has become “one big golf course.” Back in the 1970s and 1980s, young British troops flew into Belfast with guns, tear gas and riot gear to try to keep the peace. Now a new generation of British invaders comes over from Birmingham and London for a golfing weekend. And that's not to mention the legions of American, Swedish, and Japanese businessmen pulling those rollaway golf travel bags through the Belfast International Airport in the summer high season.

I had the good fortune just now to play the two crown jewels of northern Irish golf, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. Both these two venerable tracks lie seaside just a little over an hour’s drive from Belfast;they rank sixth and twelfth in the ranking of the world’s best courses.The green fees are pricey, and northern Ireland is no bargain for Americans with the pathetically weak dollar. It felt like a privilege even so to spend a few hours out on these two gorgeous, scary, and just plain sublime outdoor temples to the game.

You head north from Belfast to Royal Portrush. By contrast to the gated exclusivity of seaside American resorts like Kiawah Island and Hilton Head, the town of Portrush is an unpretentious vacation spot of little distinction besides its famous golf course. The clubhouse itself sits right by the highway, and there’s a trailer park out to the right of the first hole. As typical of so much British Isles golf, all this gives Royal Portrush an appealingly less cloistered feel than the sterile American country club cordoned off by its hedges and fences from the workaday world.

I marveled at the sheer beauty of the place for all that. The gloriously blooming gorse made for a palette of its yellow patches against the pale links grass green and the big blue sea stretching out towards the Isle of Skye. And the ruins of the ancient Dunluce Castle rose down the coastline straight from the Lord of the Rings (and old Irish mythology was one of J.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for his great fantasy masterpiece). It’s a muscular seacoast that reminds me of Mendocino on California's north coast,a place to bring your hiking boots and a sweater and leave your beach towel and bathing suit behind.

And then there’s the golf. Portrush is links golf, but very different from the archetype of St. Andrews back in Scotland. There it’s flat, and you can see out to the Firth of Forth and the town from almost anywhere on the course. At Portrush the crumpled, angular dunes make for a much more up and down topography. You feel as if in your own private world down in the twisting fairways; the towering dunes block your view to sea, and sometimes even the next hole over. Then you come up to a tee or green and suddenly the view of the Irish Sea and its massive coastline opens up once more. I can’t think of a more gorgeous hole anywhere in the world than the 5th. Here the fairway climbs up to a green perched on a high sandy bluff with the waves rolling in just down below. The alleway intimacy down in the bottomlands accentuates the vastness of the windy panorama at these high points. Portrush is a course of breaks, dips, and angles that mesmerizes exactly in the breathtaking aggregate of its contrasts.

I got to play Portrush through the American journalist Bruce Selcraig, whose friends Noel Gault and Garth Bresland are long-time members there. Back in the clubhouse, I asked Noel and Garth about northern Ireland. What had it been like to live through the Troubles, I asked with regulation American golf tourist naivete? Noel, a retired bank manager, looked incredulous. "What,” he replied, “do you think it was like to have your friends getting killed?” Garth explained that this northern tip of the island was heavily Protestant and, in general, the more upscale clubs were the same in this country where a feeling of second-class citizenship among Catholics catalyzed the violence. But Portrush, he added, does have Catholic members, and, at least in his view, “ninety percent of the people in northern Ireland don’t care now about sectarian identity.” By contrast to the image of an Ulster in flames, Garth said he always felt safer than in than Florida, where he has a condominium in a golf development. The most obvious change has been the flood of golf tourists up to Portrush. Noel and Garth didn’t like the slow play of the Americans, but they admitted they had nothing to complain about. The take from the $250 dollar green fees means that their own membership costs less than $2,000 a year, a steal for one of the world’s great clubs.

I made my way down to Royal County Down the next day. I was especially interested in this course because it so influenced my favorite American golf course architect Mike Strantz and, before I headed to the first tee, I chatted with club secretary James Laidler about the club’s history. A northern Irish Augusta or Pine Valley in its exclusivity, Royal County Down has only about 120 members; Laidler is only its sixth secretary. This affable Englishman also saw the violence as a thing of the past. The unification of Ireland and northern Ireland, he believed, was inevitable in this new age of the superhighway, the Internet, and the borderless European Union. “It used to be four hours from here to Dublin,” he said.“I made it in an hour and a half the other day.”

As for Royal County Down, Laidler explained that the club keeps faithful to hallowed links golf traditions. That means minimal watering and firm conditions. Interestingly, he added, the long-term ambition was to dig up the gorse, the thorny plant I’d always thought was emblematic of the links golf experience. According to Laidler, gorse is really an invasive weed. Rabbits and sheep kept it in check in an older day. The plant and its vast banks of signature yellow flowers are nonetheless in no imminent danger at Royal County Down. It's hard enough for the ground crew just to keep it in check much less get rid of it.

I was assigned a veteran caddy with a good Irish name, Mick. A construction worker in the winter off-season, Mick had not long ago taken his kids to Disneyworld on the strong pound. He looked more like some Irish movie star in his wrap-around sun-glasses than the stereotypical grizzled Scottish bag toter, but was very much the the master caddy with his yardages and good advice. I wasn't surprised when he told me he’d caddied for the likes of Gary Player and Mark O’Meara (having lost the draw of straws for carrying Tiger Woods’s bag when the two friends played a Royal County Down a few years back).

Mick turned out to be Protestant. His took a very dim view of the IRA, and admitted that divisions still run deep in northern Ireland. As he noted, wearing the Catholic green of the Glasgow Celtics in a Protestant neighborhood – or, conversely, the Protestant Glasgow Rangers Blue in a Catholic one – can still get you beaten up. This white-on-white hatred recalls what Freud famously labeled the “narcissism of minor difference” where two groups of people with very much in common nonetheless make blood enemies of one another. And yet for all this, Mick felt optimistic that the worst of it was over in these new times. His sister was married a Catholic. A few older relatives had objected, he said, and yet most of the family on both sides was fine with this mixed union.

The course was just as marvelous as Royal Portrush, albeit in a different way. If Portrush feels more untamed with its big rugged coastline, then County Down is a golfing version of the impeccable manorial seaside garden. Meticulous greenskeeping means not a stray dandelion or a blade of bent grass out of place.Here the sea is more beach than bluff and an archetypal Irish countryside of stone fences and houses spreads out to one side with the lovely mountains of Mourne rising up in the other. That the courses lies right up against the charming beach town of Newcastle and its rambling red brick Victorian hotel adds to the picturesque old moneyed civility of it all.

Everything about the course was by turns artful, lovely, and perilous.“The kind of golf people play in their most ecstatic dreams,” wrote Bernard Darwin, the nephew of Charles and a leading golf writer of his time. It felt a bit magical indeed to be out there on this gentle summer morning. I was especially taken by the front nine with its views of the silvery sea and mountains; it's easy to see why some cognoscenti call it the world's greatest opening nine. Mike Strantz took his love for the blind tee shot from Royal County Down, and the single most memorable hole is the 9th where you hit over a big hill down to a twisting fairway backed by the town of Newcastle and the mountains of Mourne. Miss and you end up in the gorse or some impossible bunker. It’s a course where the blow up hole awaits at every turn.

Mick and I had the course almost to ourselves on this day. I only wish that I’d taken more time. Like Portrush, Royal County Down draws thousands of well-heeled golfing pilgrims from abroad, and Mick knew the psychology. Early on, he commented that I seemed to be quite a fast player. This was very flattering, of course, the expert native caddy singling me out from the stereotypical slow-playing American as if I'd been made an honorary Irishman for a day. I started playing even faster to live up to Mick's expectations. We finished the round in just two hours. Mick got off the course with his full fee and an extra couple of hours at the pub or home with his kids. I realized that I’d rushed through one of the world’s best golf courses at the hurry-up speed of quick twilight nine at the local public track. It was like journeying to Paris to visit the Louvre and then sprinting by the Leonardos, the Raphaels, and the Venus de Milo in less than an afternoon.

But I didn’t mind.

Now I have an excuse to return some day.