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Hal Phillips, A Fine Golfing Ambassador: 1936-2011
Big Hal and Little Hal, crossing the Shannon on the way to Ballybunion in 2008.

Hal Phillips, A Fine Golfing Ambassador: 1936-2011

Big Hal and Little Hal, crossing the Shannon on the way to Ballybunion in 2008.

My father and namesake, Harold G. Phillips Jr., passed away Saturday, Aug. 27, after a 15-month battle with lymphoma, and so I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about him this past week. Most of this bittersweet rumination has nothing to do with golf, but some of it surely does. He’s the guy who introduced me to the game, taught me the game, claimed to do most of his “fathering” on the golf course, and took great satisfaction in the fact that I once played the game well and have ended up making my living, to a certain extent, writing about it.

Golf differs from most sporting and recreational pursuits for its heavy reliance on venue. Unlike those playing grounds accommodating tennis, baseball, soccer, football or whatnot, golf courses are all unique and, like a fragrance stuck in the deep recesses of the mind, they summon things that other stimuli cannot. I can’t possibly remember each round I played with my dad, but if I think about where we played, the memories — some fully formed, some mere bits and pieces — come flooding back. Indeed, I can begin to appreciate and readily recall, in quite extraordinary detail, the long coincidental relationship he and I had on courses stretching from the sands and forests of New England and the Northeast, to islands in the Caribbean, to the Mull of Kintyre and Ring of Kerry. Here are a few that come to mind:

As he looked when we started our golfing adventures, in the mid-1970s.

• Powderhorn GC, Lexington, Mass.: This joint is where I started out in the game, at my father’s side. I was 8 or 9, and we had just moved to nearby Wellesley from northern New Jersey. Powderhorn was a par-3 course, but that unfairly belittles it. There were 18 holes and while some were no more than 100 yards, others measured well over 200 and none were flat, rinky-dink or boring. I remember my dad and his game seemed sort of god-like back then, in that I played a lot of these holes like par-4s and -5s and there wasn’t a single hole he couldn’t “reach”. Powder Horn stood us in good stead for at least two years, and I remember playing there with my grandmother, a steadfast player in her own right (for some seven decades). I recall that I once pitched a mighty fit here after butchering the uphill 11th hole. There were tears. I recall her being sort of perturbed at my behavior but my dad, as per usual, never was… We picked up games with all sorts of people at Powderhorn — another lesson learned early: that one always invites people to join him, even when one might rather not. Made my first-ever birdie on the 17th hole there, a 130-yarder over water. We were playing with a fellow named Mr. Jolly; when that ball dove into the cup, he was nearly as excited as we were. Powderhorn is gone now, converted to a condo development in the early 1980s, which is a shame because I’ve often wanted to go back — and play it like a god.

Claiming some tournament hardware from Ken “the Hawk” Harrelson, second low gross, if memory serves (Why does it serve? because I was third!).

• Stow Acres CC, Stow, Mass.: We were public golf vagabonds, my dad and I, never belonging to a private club, at least in these early days. We played all over Eastern Massachusetts at places like Juniper Hill, Sandy Burr, South Natick CC and Saddle Hill. South Natick was just nine and survives today as a mere driving range surrounded by housing; Saddle Hill has since gone private and goes by the name of Hopkinton CC. But when we wanted to play somewhere truly fine, we ventured 45 minutes north to Stow Acres, home to a pair of really fun Geoffrey Cornish/Bill Robinson designs. They didn’t take tee times and I recall hanging around that clubhouse, sometimes for an hour or more, before finally going off. From the time I started playing until the time he turned 55, some 20 years, my dad played off anything from 7 to 10. A good player and very steady; did nothing super well but nothing at all poorly. One day at Stow North, when I was 14 or so, he went out in 33. I self-destructed at some point on the back nine, went into a funk, but managed to pull myself out of The Dark Place about the 17th hole, at which point I consulted the scorecard. “Hey dad: Par 18 and you shoot 72!”

“I know!” he shot back, clearly wishing I had continued to pout and leave him alone with his demons. He made that par and I’m pretty sure it was his best round ever, though I know he shot 73 in competition a couple times during high school matches at Fort Monmouth CC (I’ve seen the newspaper clippings). He had a great story about the one year he played collegiately, at Lehigh University. He scrabbled his way onto the varsity as the 8th and last man for a match at Penn State, apparently, and managed to put together a 79. The guy dropped 71 on him. “The 8th guy! And it could have been 69!” he would later explain, still amazed that there were seven Nittany Lions better than that. Thereafter my dad resolved to concentrate on his studies.

Rocking the Merion 1981 U.S. Open hat, as he would for many years.

• Pleasant Valley CC, Sutton, Mass.: My dad and his business partner, Harvey Howell, owned a polystyrene manufacturing operation south of Worcester, Mass., and they commuted an hour each way from Wellesley and neighboring Dover, every day, my whole growing up. There wasn’t much great golf to be played out that way, not back then. But there was Pleasant Valley, which for years hosted one of only two PGA Tour stops in New England (the other was The Greater Hartford Open, now The Travelers; PV hosted its final Tour event in 1998). So, while it was no design masterpiece, Pleasant Valley was sort of a big deal club among Massholes, and because my dad was a local business guy of some standing, he could arrange games for us there. He arranged a lesson for me there, too, the only formal one I ever had as a kid; the teacher was Rick Karbowski, quite a good player out on satellite tours back in the early ‘80s… I played a match there once in college, vs. Assumption College. I was playing no. 1 for Wesleyan that day and drew a guy named Frank Vana, who would go on to win a bunch of Mass. Amateurs. We were dead even on the 12th or 13th hole when I spied my dad walking along the fairway; he had snuck away from the office, which was just a few miles down the road. I remember being pleased he was there, though I promptly doubled the next hole and bogeyed two more. My dad had played enough golf with me to know what sort of volcanic response was coming. He got out of there pretty fast.

I had all sorts of blow-ups like this as a kid, as a young adult… okay, as a full-on grown-up, too. My dad’s temperament, on and off the golf course, is really nothing like mine. A very mellow dude, he was. The worst he would ever say after botching some shot was, “Oh, Hal…” He was surely embarrassed sometimes by my behavior but he never really called me on it, beyond a quiet-but-stern, “That’s enough now.” When I heard that, it was time to pull myself together.

• Pine Valley GC, Clementon, N.J.: When one serves on any sort of course-rating panel, the inevitable question is whether one has played Pine Valley. Thanks to my dad, I’ve played it twice, both during my college days. He had business contacts at Dupont, and whoever it was (Hugh something?) invited us down during the fall of my freshman and sophomore years. They have a bet there, at PVCC, as you readers may know, that guests can’t shoot within 10 shots of their handicaps. I never came close to cashing in. My dad won that bet twice. In his day, he could shoot 84-85 pretty much anywhere. This was pre-cell phone, of course, and it would’ve been quite bourgeois to bring a camera, so no pictures exist to mark

At The Equinox in Manchester, Vt. After he had arranged so many games for me, at places like Pine Valley and Merion, it was nice to arrange them for him.

our visits. But I do have the paper placemat (a nice map of the layout) from our luncheon, which I framed and have hanging in my office. One of the years we played Pine Valley, it must have been the first, we followed up the round there with another just a few miles west, in the Philly suburbs, at Merion. This was only a year or so after David Graham’s win there at the 1981 U.S. Open. My dad closed me out on the 16th hole, the famous Quarry hole, where I four-putted, snapped my putter in two and left it in the little waste-basket below the ball-washer on 17 tee. I parred in, putting out with my 2-iron. We were not invited back… However, the Merion legacy proved long-lasting: My dad picked up a commemorative U.S. Open hat there, and he would wear it for years on golf courses and soccer sidelines far and wide. The entire time I knew him, my dad had a head of hair not unlike Albert Einstein’s. And so he always wore a hat on the golf course or anywhere the wind might make for unreasonable coiffure-maintenance. He rarely wore baseball caps, always some sort of bucket hat with the brim turned down on all sides. Before he procured the Merion model, he had a green one that he wore for years. I dabbled with it for a time. Wish I knew where that thing was… In later years he went to the wide-brimmed straw model which my mother, half in jest, claimed made him look like a fruit vendor.

• Old Orchard CC, Red Bank, N.J.: This was the course my dad grew up on, where he learned the game at the knee of the pro there, George Sullivan. My grandparents would play with my dad, along with me, and they’d often marvel that he still had “that same, smooth George Sullivan swing.” It was indeed smooth, quite effortless. He never, ever overswung (unlike some of us). Of course, my dad also learned the game from his own father, my grandfather, Harold Phillips Sr., in his prime a high single-digit player in his own right,

That smooth George Sullivan swing, circa 1952

a lefty who had a penchant for aces. Poppy would post 5 or 6 over the course of his days, at least two while he lived at Shadow Lake Village, a N.J. retirement community that boasted a par-3 course. I remember going to visit there as a lad, by which time Pop had become a bit dotty. He was bragging to me on a hole-in-one he’d just made and I looked over at Gram with circumspection — “No, it’s true,” she exclaimed. “He had another one!”… In any case, one time during the late 1980s, my dad and I went back over to Old Orchard; it had been decades and he really got a kick out of going round there again. He had caddied there, too. Apparently there were several gangland figures whose bags he toted  in the 1940s and 50s. Good stories were related that day. Plus I shot 76 and totally torched the Old Man on his own turf… I would love to have gotten him back down to the Jersey Shore in later years to play Hollywood GC in Deal, which is supposed to be a great old Dick Wilson design, recently restored, and where Pop had been a member in the 1930s. Thereafter we’d have scooted west across the Pennsylvania border, on Route 22, to play Saucon Valley, Lehigh’s home club, where my dad hadn’t played since college. But we never did find the time. File that one under “Regrets”.

• Nehoiden GC, Wellesley, Mass.: This is the 9-hole, private club across the street from which my family lived for 20-odd years. It’s owned by Wellesley College and while it’s nothing stupendous from a design standpoint, it was notorious in the 1970s and ‘80s for having a 10- or 15-year waiting list. Why? Membership was open to college faculty and staff, to folks who worked for the Town of Wellesley, and it was cheap compared to the swanky clubs all around us (Wellesley CC, Woodland GC, Weston GC, Dedham Golf & Polo, Brae Burn CC). So, my dad didn’t gain membership at Nehoiden, and didn’t really play the course at all, for the first several years we lived literally across the street from the 8th green. However, I played the course all the time: My friends and I would sneak onto Nehoiden constantly, in addition to playing in the sprinklers there on hot summer nights, looking for golf balls, sledding, playing hockey on the 7th fairway, and generally treating the place like our own personal playground which, from sundown to sun-up half the year, and 24/7 the rest of the year, it was. Oddly, when my dad did become a member, in 1980 or so, he

My ace, recorded at Nehoiden 7.16.90 … The poor man was witness to several but never had one himself.

started playing a golf course that he hardly knew but his sons knew intimately.

My dad was sort of shy socially and by that I mean he didn’t seek out social situations. Once in them, however, he was famously genial, almost courtly (a quality his NOLA-bred father exhibited in spades). So it’s no surprise that he became an active and, I think, extremely well liked figure in club activities across the street. He served on committees and enjoyed regular games with different sets of guys; he was a sought-after partner in the various scotch foursome events — because he was courtly, because he would never make a woman or any lesser player feel badly about being lesser, and because he played off 7. Though I had a big head start on him, the universe of our shared experiences at Nehoiden would prove vast. We were together there the first time I broke 80; the time he pegged that car crossing the 9th fairway; the time I aced the 4th hole (my only hole-in-one; the poor man never did post one); the many times one of us would hit what appeared to be a perfect, blind approach on 6 only to see the ball bound back into view after hitting the unforgiving pavement on Route 16; and the time he came closest to winning the club championship — finishing second, with me on the bag for the final round… He let his membership lapse over this past winter, as he didn’t think he’d be well enough to play. My brother and I called the powers-that-be in June, seeing if we could arrange what had become our regular Father’s Day game. They bent over backwards to make that happen, even hooked him up with a riding cart (which are banned at Nehoiden), something for which we’re all eternally grateful. It was the last time he set foot on the property.

• Western Gailes, Ayrshire, Scotland: For all his travels, my dad was 60 or so before he ever played any golf in the U.K. My brother Matthew and I sorted that, in 1998, when we arranged a mini-tour of Scotland’s west country: Gleneagles, Turnberry and Machrihanish. However, our very first game took place at Western Gailes, and it stands out for me because 1) it really was an eye-opener for the man, walking and playing amidst the dunes as opposed to watching them on TV during the British Open; and 2) my dad, for all his wonderful traits, was one of the slowest men on earth. I’m not talking a slow golfer,

Stalking a putt at Machrihanish in the late 1990s.

which, to be fair, he surely was. Physically, he did everything slowly and deliberately. This just naturally spilled over into his golf game: always the last one to his ball; never altering his pre-swing routine or undertaking it before it was his turn to play (partly because he was so frequently the last one to his ball); always coming over to look for your ball, but often disappearing into the woods/rough and having to be coaxed out. Surrounded by Scots, his game proved positively glacial. We had prepped him on this, telling him that we had to keep the pace good, that there would be precious few yardage markers, and, of course, no riding carts. I remember walking up the first fairway at Western Gailes and there was my dad, behind me, standing over the ball, looking around: “What do you think I’ve got from here?” Dad, there are no markers; eye it and hit it. Of course, he continued to ask this same question over and over during the trip, never registering the new reality. During some later round, when I was just finished admonishing him to move his ass — and to stop asking me where the 150 was — I turned to my brother and said, “You know what? I sound just like mom.”

• Lahinch GC, County Clare, Ireland: In retrospect, the timing on this trip couldn’t have been much better. In 2008 my dad was 71 and, so far as we knew, in pretty good nick. But even in fair health he’d arrived at the stage of life where walking four rounds in 4 days was too much. And little did we know that in less than three years, he’d be gone. So, this trip to Ireland really was a godsend and we made the most of it (see video capsule from that trip below). The round at Lahinch was our first, the one we played fresh off the plane, in brilliant sunshine and 70-degree weather, with rented clubs (my brother’s had been misplaced by the airline), around one of the peerless links on God’s green earth. It’s not fair to single out Lahinch at the expense of our rounds at Doonbeg, Ballybunion and Tralee; they were lovely all three and we even wangled a cart for dad at the latter. Indeed, the day before he had been able to walk only 14 holes of Round III, at Ballybunion. We met him that day back at the clubhouse where he was chatting up a group of fellow Americans in the bar, pint in hand, grinning ear to ear. “This Guinness is really pretty good,” he said. My God, Dad: How old are you? You’re just figuring this out? Not much of a drinker, my dad.

I remember asking him once — when I was quite grown-up, working in the golf business, and ever more curious about courses, design and travel — exactly where he had played his golf when we’d all lived in northern New Jersey. This would have been the early 1970s, before we moved to Greater Boston, when he was still in his golfing prime (30-35 years old) but when I, his eldest son, was too young to have played with him.

“Oh, I didn’t play much of anywhere really.”

What do you mean?

“Well, I had a wife and kids and a job. I didn’t play much at all until you were old enough to play with me.”

Of Blackthorns and Pro-Ams: Three Days in Killarney
The 18th at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, site of the 2011 Irish Open

Of Blackthorns and Pro-Ams: Three Days in Killarney

The 18th at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, site of the 2011 Irish Open

After five manic days on the road, wielding golf clubs in Ireland’s furthest northern and western reaches, we have come to rest in the Killarney, Cill Airne, meaning “church of sloes”. (What’s a sloe, you might well ask? It’s a blackthorn). This is County Kerry, in the southwest, and here we’ve continued our Golf Road Warrior mission whilst de-emphasizing the road part. We’re based here for the next few days, in this charming town 20,000, to complement the media corps covering the Irish Open and play the region’s top tracks.

Day 1 was Ballybunion. Day II, Wednesday 27 July, was the pro-am here at the sterling, Killarney Golf & Fishing Club. Tomorrow, Day III, my penultimate day in Eire, we head back to the links, at Tralee.

It was a brutal 5-hour drive to Killarney from Carne, but if you’re going to put down temporary roots somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Killarney. Like Tralee, the home base for my father, brother and I when we last visited SW Ireland, in 2008, Killarney is a lovely, walkable, vibrant town full of restaurants, pubs and high streets awash in colorfully painted signs and facades. Killarney comes off as even more alive, this week, as it’s fairly well bursting at the seams with Irish Open enthusiasts. The pride of Irish golf fans is bursting, too. They have come from all points to see their four major heroes — Paddy Harrington, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell — in action.

Pro-Am day was also free admission day, so the crowds were quite substantial. I’m not used to playing in front of a gallery, but I can report that no one was hurt. Indeed, I treated them to my typically dazzling shot-making, when I wasn’t mixing in self-loathing mutters, three-jacks, and high, peeling slices into the pro-style rough. I was essentially useless to my team, but no one seemed particularly pleased with the way they played, either, and fun was had by all. Chris Wood was our pro. You might remember him for having finished 3rd, as an amateur, at the 2009 Open at Turnberry. I can tell you, having viewed him up close over the course of 5-plus hours, that he’s quite tall, resembles an oversized Dale Earnhardt Jr., hits the ball a bleedin’ mile, and comes off as a genuinely nice lad. I’m rooting for him this week, though as I sit here in the media centre, I see on the big board that he’s 3-over through his first 11 holes. He’ll need to pick things up to make the cut.

Robin Lopez

At first blush, it might seem odd that an Irish Open would be played over a parkland track like Killarney. This is Ireland, after all, home to so many stunning links. But, as we’ve learned, many of those links are stupendously remote, while others don’t have the facilities to handle the huge crowds. With the exception of Dublin, there are more hotel beds in Killarney than in any other Irish city. That would include, I presume, the 14 rooms at Killeen House, a B&B where we dined in admirable style and substance our second night here.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

English pro Chris Wood

Our group is about 11 media strong, and the Killeen had us at a long table occupying half of a private room. After our appetizers arrived, the other party arrived: 12 dudes on golfing holiday from St. Louis. We recognized them immediately from Ballybunion earlier that day — these were the guys whooping it up on the clubhouse balcony when were putting out on 18. We had seen them at Carne, as well. They were soused at Ballybunion 2 hours prior, so they were predictably boisterous and even more lit by the time they sat down for dinner. Ah, the joys of being an American abroad…

Thankfully, we took our desert in the bar, where the spirits flowed with more decorum and the walls are bedecked in golf balls (the barman here will readily trade you a logoed ball for a pint). The sun was all the way down when we stepped outside. It was quiet and still, and the gloaming made our deep green surroundings that much deeper. A thunder clap of laughter, surely emanating from our original dining room, breaks the silence and continues — ebbing and flowing but remaining constant — for a minute or more until, again, it’s quiet and all we can hear as we approach our bus is the muted crunch of gravel beneath our feet.

The gloaming descends on Killeen House, home to the superb Rozzers’ Restaurant.



Ballybunion, Enniscrone and Carne: Discuss
The 16th at Carne GC, in the remote west Ireland town of Bellmullet

Ballybunion, Enniscrone and Carne: Discuss


The 16th at Carne GC, in the remote west Ireland town of Bellmullet. [photo courtesy of John and Jeannine Henebry]

About 50 minutes outside of Bellmullet, bearing down on Ballina, headed east so that we might eventually tack south to Castlebar, Galway, Limerick and Killarney, it registered with me that we were playing Ballybunion the next day. So I was thinking, “How many links golf courses are rated higher than Ballybunion, I mean, in the whole freakin’ world?” Now, ratings are nothing if not subjective, and, as a member of the GOLF Magazine panel since 1997, I am party to that subjectivity. Nevertheless, if you refer to the GOLF list, only the Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, and Royal County Down, Royal Dornoch, Royal Portrush, Turnberry, and Pacific Dunes are more highly rated. Sand Hills? I just don’t think of that as a links.

This would normally be the fodder for yet another pedantic ratings discussion, and I have played Ballybunion before. But as we made our my way down the N56, it occurred to me that I’d be playing it this time having played 7 stellar links courses in the space of 5 days, including one that I’d have a hard time placing behind any links course we’ve mentioned here, so far.

Much as I enjoyed the two courses at Ballyliffin, the Sandy Hills course at Rosapenna, Narin & Portnoo and Donegal, they are simply not in Ballybunion’s class. But Enniscrone is, and it’s interesting to compare the two, having played them both in the space of 48 hours. Both routings spend considerable time NOT weaving their ways through the deep hollows of giant dunes corridors. This is to their credit. Links that spend all their time in there are too intense, too difficult, too funky. You need a break, and there’s nothing wrong with wrapping holes around the perimeter of a dunes complex, or routing an open fairway to a green that sits in a dunesy amphitheater. Both Enniscrone and Ballybunion serve up this sort of thing, in spades.

So, what does Ballybunion have that Enniscrone doesn’t? Or what is it about Enniscrone that keeps it from these lofty heights? Is it, as my colleague put it, simple inertia on the part of the scum-sucking media? It could be that. But here are some alternate theories.

1)    Ballybunion is older and more accessible, meaning that more people have played it over the course of more years. Enniscrone is way out there in County Sligo, hours from Galway and even further from Dublin, Limerick, Belfast or any sort of hub. It’s remote, and unless you’re course was designed by Ben Crenshaw, or developed by Mike Keiser, these types of remote courses don’t get the same sort of attention.

2)    Ballybunion is, I would say, 2.5 shots easier per side than Enniscrone. Now, this can depend a lot on conditions the day you play. But we played the two on very similar sun-splashed days in similar 15 mph winds, maximum. Enniscrone kicked my ass and kicked the ass of everyone in our group. Today, at Ballybunion, I shot 85, best score of the trip. Ditto for the others. Bottom line, it’s a feel good course. I don’t want to call it a “resort” course, where the design is intended to please first-time/only time players. It’s far more quirky and too flat out awesome for that. But the landings areas are more broad, the rough not so thick, the twists and turns not so confounding for visitors.

You know, I was going to just list these reasons one after another, as to why Ballybunion is ranked higher than Enniscrone, but I’ve run out of ammo at two. Beyond that, it’s sorta hard to make the argument. So I’ll stop.

Now, Carne is another matter. There are some who feel this is among the world’s great links, and I’ve decided they’ve got a point. It’s more raw than Enniscrone, not in the same sort of condition, and we played it in a dank mist. My feet were soaked by the third hole (too much walking around searching for balls in the heavy, wet rough) and I lost several golf balls. It’s hard to separate these factors from one’s perception, especially re. a one-time golf experience. Carne goes out into the dunes and never really ducks out for a breather, but I’ve just gone through the course again in my mind, on the card, in the par-saver book, in the pictures and videos we’ve gathered. It’s extremely tough, crazy penal in spots, but it’s the equal of Ballybunion, as well.

So there. I’ve said it.

Making room for new memories of Ireland

Making room for new memories of Ireland

The last time I visited Ireland, my brother and I chaperoned the old man around the Southwest, taking in the links at Doonbeg, Lahinch, Tralee and Ballybunion. That was nearly three years ago and our timing couldn’t have been better. I don’t want to go all Jim Dodson on you, but my dad has since been diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s hanging in there, but my brother and I are pretty damned glad we took him to Ireland when we did, because his days of walking 18 on consecutive days are in all likelihood behind him.

I’m turning these things, these most recent memories of Eire, over in my mind here in Dublin Airport, waiting on the rest of my party. A leaden gray sky hangs low over the modernist terminal I spy across the street, through massive picture windows. We have a mighty drive ahead of us, once we’ve all assembled — straight up to the island’s northernmost tip, skirting the new golf capital of the world, Northern Ireland, to the links at Ballyliffin. From there a veritable string of equally hallowed venues await.

There will be plenty to write about in the days to come, plenty of memories to be made. I and my comrades in Gortex will be diligent in relaying them to you via word, sound and image. But for now I’m loathe to shake the memories from last time.

I won’t bore you but one moment stands out: That first day we arrived, in Shannon, the three of us promptly headed straight for Lahinch on a beautiful sunlit morning. There is no better cure for jetlag than a round of golf, first thing, right off the plane. As one enters the tiny beach town of Lahinch, it’s not clear to the novice exactly where to find the golf club. We pulled over and asked directions of an older woman.

“Well, it’s right over there,” she said, gesturing to an intersection where we should’ve gone right. The course lay on the high ground just beyond. It proved pretty difficult to miss, but she didn’t press this point.

“Have you a game today? I see that you have. Well, you’ll love it. Absolutely love it. It’s a wonderful golf course and you’ve got a beautiful day for it. Where are you from?”


“Well, I have several relatives living there. They’re not golfers, sad to say. But that won’t matter to you. Just take that right hand turn and the course is on your left. Can’t miss it. Lovely course, lovely weather. You’ll have wonderful day…”

We thanked her profusely, of course, and, duly bathed in the hospitality for which Ireland is rightly famous, we all turned to each other and smiled. We may have giggled. At which point my brother summed it up: “What a bitch.”

We laughed long and hard, then headed off into the dunes at Lahinch.

New Links, New Rough, New Sleeve: Doonbeg Could Use Some Old-Time Greenkeeping

New Links, New Rough, New Sleeve: Doonbeg Could Use Some Old-Time Greenkeeping

It’s been a couple years since I played Doonbeg Golf Club, Greg Norman’s “new” Irish links in the southwest of the country. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since because, well, a lot folks have played it too — it’s just south of Lahinch and just across the Shannon River from Ballybunion and Tralee — and we’re headed back to the Emerald Isle next week. Doonbeg GC is also coupled with one of the finest on-site golf hotels anywhere in the world. So it’s natural to stay at Doonbeg and play the course at least once during a weeklong tour of this stupendous golfing corner of Ireland.

That’s pretty fast company to keep, and Doonbeg is a new course, not even 10 years old, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it tends to suffer by comparison. I don’t see it frankly. I found the terrain, the routing and the greens to be of a very high quality, design-wise. Doonbeg is, as its critics contend, very difficult to play. Too difficult, one could argue, but I’ve decided this judgment has very little to do with the design.

Agronomics are important to the maximizing of any course design, but maintenance of the outlying areas on a links course is particularly crucial. We saw what an overzealous fertilization program could do to the best players in the world during the famous train-wreck at Carnoustie in 1999, and this is the nub of the issue at Doonbeg. The dunes through which the fairways quite masterfully weave here are covered with a thick matting of ball-eating, deep-green fescues. My opening drive at Doonbeg landed in the fairway and bounced some 5 yards into the rough, never to be found. I’ve heard tell that Norman himself lost 10 balls during his inaugural round. That’s nuts, and one begins to understand why even those players far better than I tend not to leave Doonbeg with that warm fuzzy feeling we expect following a round on the coast of Ireland.

I had played Lahinch the day before. As is my custom, I drove the ball all over the map. But the outlying areas at Lahinch were quite different, featuring as much brown matter as green. The fescues were high but sorta wispy. I found a dozen of my wayward balls in there and nearly always had a swing, albeit a recovery swing, at most every one. That’s what more than a hundred years of expertly burning off the rough can produce: The perfect balance of playability and penalty. Doonbeg is simply not there yet.

Will it get there? A murkier question, that. Despite the fact there had once been an ancient links on the site, Doonbeg’s modern development came with caveats. The club rightly touts what is a heavy emphasis on organic maintenance practices, but I’ve heard from several people in the know that Doonbeg isn’t free to do everything it would like in caring for these rough areas. I doubt very much the crews are fertilizing them, at all, but I’d bet they’re not allowed to burn them off as often as they’d like. Like I said, I played there two years ago and I’d wager they had never been burned off.

You gotta figure that today not every British course superintendent who graduates from turf school, or leaves his various course apprenticeships, with a working knowledge of how to properly burn off the rough on a links course. Not any more (and, of course, not every course in Britain is a links; most are not). Methinks the crazy-thick rough at a place like Doonbeg, or at Sand Golf Club (a fabulous Steve Forrest-designed “faux” links, which I played in Sweden the week before Doonbeg) is more the result of agronomic stricture, or a lack of ancient know-how in our modern age, than design intent. Here’s hoping it’s the latter, and it is ultimately overcome, because Doonbeg (and Sand) are both awesome tracks in need of, well, a trim.