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"There's a lot of fellas in graveyards who'd like to be where we are now." That's Joe Murphy talking as we're walking down the sixth fairway toward the Atlantic Ocean at Ballybunion, one of Ireland's most revered golf courses. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon in September, with only a slight breeze coming in off the sea, and Murphy and I were enjoying a four-ball match against Tom O'Toole and Kevin Roche.
Murphy, O'Toole and Roche live in the nearby town of Tralee and are members of Ballybunion, a club that, like nearly all the others in Ireland, accommodates visitors and members alike. The three older gentlemen had graciously allowed a Yank to join them for an afternoon of golf.
Like many of the Americans who go to Ireland to play golf, I sought out links courses as I worked my way up the west coast. A true links course is a rarity in the United States, but Ireland has a bundle of them. It's one of the reasons Ireland rivals Scotland as a golf destination - that and the friendly hospitality of the Irish people.
A links course is so named because the land on which it sits is a link between the sea and the fertile land a bit farther inland. The terrain on a links course is sand-based - not good for growing much of anything besides grass. Thus, links courses are devoid of trees, and they appear to the eye to be wide open, but they are defended quite well by sand dunes and thick, gnarly rough that swallows up errant shots.
BEARNA GOLF CLUB. "The best value for golf in Ireland is Galway and up, by a long while."
Michael Meade, Bearna's director, is talking about greens fees, which at his club are $32 Monday through Thursday and $40 Friday through Sunday. The premium golf courses in the southwest, at $110 and up, are "way too dear," Meade says.
Bearna lies five miles west of Galway, the largest city in the west of Ireland (pop. 60,000). Meade says tourists often play the course on their way west to the scenic region of Connemara. Bearna is a good golf course, but not in the same category as the others I visited. It's built on a bog and therefore not technically a links course. Also, it's two miles inland from Galway Bay. Its hazards are not dunes but rather huge clumps of heather and gorse, into which golf balls fly and are never heard from again.
ENNISCRONE GOLF CLUB. "This is the only par-4 where you'll need two timbers."
Kevin Geraghy is telling me that I'll need a driver and fairway wood to reach Enniscrone's 450-yard, par-4 fifth hole. I've hooked up with two members - Geraghy, a bakery truck driver, and Keith Bain, a factory worker - at one of Ireland's most underrated courses. Both men are rightly proud of their club - a relative bargain at $45 Monday through Friday and $60 Saturday and Sunday.
"I've played golf courses all over the world, and nothing beats this place," Bain says. "If Tom Watson were to come here for one visit. ... That's what did it for Ballybunion."
A celebrity plug would certainly upgrade Enniscrone's image. Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara had scheduled a round at Enniscrone to prepare for the British Open, Geraghy says, but they pulled out when local media got wind of it.
Until last year, Enniscrone was a rather plain golf course, situated mostly on flat land, separated from the ocean by large sand dunes. Then the course was redesigned, integrating six new holes that meander among the dunes.
COUNTY SLIGO GOLF CLUB (AKA ROSSES POINT). "Some would say the best in Ireland." That's manager Jim Ironside talking, and just when you begin to think the Irish are given to hyperbole when it comes to their golf courses, you discover that Ironside may be right. If not the best, County Sligo is possibly the most picturesque.
A visit to County Sligo Golf Club, more commonly known as Rosses Point after the village it overlooks, is a joy from the moment golfers step out of their cars. While the other golf courses I visited feature modern, nondescript clubhouses, County Sligo's conjures up images of the most traditional golf courses in Scotland.
At $55 Monday through Thursday and $70 Friday through Sunday, County Sligo is a bargain on a clear day. But cloudy or hazy weather can obscure some of the beauty - that's always the risk in Ireland.
DONEGAL GOLF CLUB. With Donegal Bay to the west of the golf course and the Blue Stack Mountains to the north, Donegal Golf Club is a match for Rosses Point in terms of scenery.
American golfers are missing out - manager Patrick Nugent says they account for only 4 to 5 percent of the club's visitors.
"The Americans don't tend to travel farther north than Sligo, really, and not many travel that far," he says. "But this course is comparable to any of the top-rated courses in Ireland." Seeing is believing.
DOONBERG GOLF CLUB. Doonbeg - which had its official opening this past summer - is a spectacular course designed by Greg Norman.
In terms of aesthetics, it surpasses Ballybunion. Its fairways wind through huge sand dunes, creating a sense of serenity that even a bad round of golf cant ruin. The golf course sits isolated, three miles north of the village of Doonbeg. To the east, golfers see farm houses dotting the countryside. To the west is the ocean.
The course is exceptionally challenging, and first-timers would be advised to take a caddie for guidance. Irish golf courses are not particularly well-marked, so figuring distances can be a problem. Doonbeg has the manicured look that Americans expect when they pay top dollar - the greens fee is $185.
BALLYBUNION GOLF CLUB. Irish golfers play by the rules. They dont make an issue of it; they just do it. They play the ball as it lies from tee to green, and they stare in disbelief when told that the average weekend golfer in America improves his lie in the fairway and even the rough. Thats not golf, the Irish say.
The Irish are no stranger to American golfers. They see them routinely at 109-year-old Ballybunion, which sits in an idyllic location between the ocean and the village of Ballybunion. Tom Watson of Kansas City, who has won five British Open titles, has been quoted as saying Ballybunions Old Course is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world.
The greens fee at Ballybunion is 110 Euros (a Euro is roughly equal to a U.S. dollar), and the Old Course is booked far in the future. At Donegal Golf Club on Irelands north coast, a golf course even more scenic than Ballybunion, the fee is $40 on weekdays and $55 on weekends.
IF YOU GO
SIGHTS TO SEE: Although an ambitious driving-and-golf vacation doesnt leave much time for sightseeing, a few stops are almost mandatory. On the west coast, situated along the road between Doonbeg and Galway, are the Cliffs of Moher, one of Irelands most popular sights. The cliffs rise as high as 700 feet over a stretch of five miles. Another easy stop is Drumcliff on road N15 between Sligo and Donegal. Situated along the road is the Protestant church where poet William Butler Yeats is buried.
GOLF COURSES: Ballybunion, www.ballybuniongolfclub.ie; Doonbeg, www.doonbeggolfclub.com; Bearna, e-mail email@example.com; Enniscrone, www.westcoastlinks.com; County Sligo, www.countysligogolfclub.ie; Donegal, www.donegalgolfclub.ie