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How the Irish and Ireland inform their golf
A quiet Sunday morning on the Diamond in Donegal Town. That's the road south, to Sligo.

How the Irish and Ireland inform their golf

A quiet Sunday morning on the Diamond in Donegal Town. That’s the road south, to Sligo.

Sitting on a park bench this Sunday morning in the Diamond, the central square area of Donegal Town. The Road Warriors straggled back here, battered and bruised, late last night between rounds at Donegal Golf Club and Enniscrone. What we found upon checking into the splendid Abbey Hotel was a major league party underway, in our hotel bar/disco, and in every hotel and bar surrounding the Diamond. Saturday night in Donegal is no joke, and it wasn’t just the gaggle of young things strutting about. This was clearly a cross-generational night out. When I checked into my room, I shared an elevator with a 50something couple and another woman who had broken the heel off one of her 60s-era, black, Nancy Sinatra-style, go-go boots. The three of them were literally falling all over themselves in hysterical laughter at what had happened, and they wanted me to join in. When I crashed last night, sometime around 3 a.m., there was still plenty of laughter emanating from the Diamond.

It’s morning now, close to noon actually, and it’s quieter here in the square. A motorcycle club has gathered here on the stone plaza, but their comings and goings are the only break in the quiet remove of a Sunday morning after. You may think I’m crazy, but I believe I hear some Irish pan flute in the distance. Honestly. Some business establishment must be piping it in. I listen to the familiar chug of diesel engines (they predominate here) as lines of slow traffic putter by me. The three main roads all meet on this one spot, heading off south to Sligo, north Letterkenny and west to Killybegs. Nothing here in the square is made of wood. It’s all stone masonry, businesses on the first floor, resident apartments on top. People are out and about and the pubs are open for business.

I’m from Boston, so I’m used to the way Irish towns are laid out (i.e. around a square or town green — these forms of public architecture were imported directly to New England from the old country), and I’m used to the Irish. Growing up, I just assumed (up to a point) that everyone in America but me was Irish and Catholic. Everyone had relatives back in Ireland, just as everyone here has kin in the states.

The difference is (aside from the presence of a proper castle, Donegal Castle, just off the square), the Irish in Ireland are all too happy to chat you up about their relatives, where they live, where you live, what sort of trip you’re doing, have we played Sligo, there’s a pub round the corner you must try, and let me buy you a pint. The American Irish are nice enough; no more or less congenial than me, or any other immigrant population in the U.S., which is to say all of us. But the indigenous Irish are off-the-charts friendly.

Oftentimes the Scots and Irish people are compared, as the links courses in Scotland and Ireland are often compared. There is, I think, an austerity to life in Scotland, to the golf they play, to the courses they play, to their outlook on life. It’s nothing cold or perverse, but there is a reserve, a near asceticism to the people, culture and the courses. I love it there, but when you think of the Scottish links you’ve played, do you think green?

Well, this ain’t the Emerald Isle for nothing, people. It’s green and lush. The outlook is sunny, even if the weather isn’t always. Ireland and the Irish don’t do asceticism. They are, in contrast, generally garrulous and outgoing. Their golf courses run the gamut, naturally, but they generally reflect their keepers: they are greener, the dunes are bigger and more dramatic, the welcome in the clubhouse more genuine than those you find across the Irish Sea. Handsome is as handsome does.

Donegal Castle is just a stone’s throw from the town center, better known as The Diamond.





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.