The drive from Shannon Airport to Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland, takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes, or roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay.
And so, in a jet-lagged, dreamlike state, I half-wondered as we passed hundreds of houses and businesses plastered with green and yellow banners, homemade signs and jerseys, if the Green Bay Packers had just won the Super Bowl and I’d somehow missed it.
It turns out that just two days before we arrived, Kerry had claimed the Sam Maguire Cup for winning the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. The trophy is to Gaelic football what the Vince Lombardi Trophy is to the National Football League. Kerry’s lads — homegrown heroes all — have won the cup a record 37 times, compared with Green Bay’s 13 NFL titles. The proud sports franchises on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean have in common two other things: team colors and passionate fans.
It was the first time, but not the last, that I was reminded of home on a recent four-day trip to Ireland.
This was to be a quick, golf-intensive trip, with six of us playing rounds on three links courses: Dooks Golf Links in Glenbeigh, Tralee Golf Club just outside charming Tralee and the rugged Old Course at Ballybunion.
Having arrived in Shannon on different flights, we rendezvoused in the airport and drove straight to Dooks, where we removed our clubs from our travel bags, stopped in the clubhouse just long enough to shake the cobwebs from our heads and went to the first tee.
Experienced traveling golfers swear that’s the way to do it, because if you arrive in Ireland on an overnight flight and sleep away part of the day, your internal clock will be messed up for the entire trip. But after flying out of Milwaukee, laying over in Newark, N.J., for several hours and then connecting on the six-hour flight to Shannon, I needed stimulation to shake me from my stupor.
The fresh air and Dooks, celebrating its 125-year anniversary and among Ireland’s oldest links courses, were just the ticket.
The word Dooks comes from the Irish douaghs, for dunes. The sporty seaside links measures just 6,586 yards from the back tees and offers incredible panoramic views of the Dingle Peninsula and, to the east, the McGillycuddy Reeks, Ireland’s tallest mountain range.
There is really only one way to play golf in Ireland: walking, and with a caddie (only 5 percent of rounds are played from motorized carts). I was assigned to James, or he to me, and his upbeat attitude, encouragement and advice kept the round from disintegrating into a disastrous string of double- and triple-bogeys. The caddies there are, in most cases, lifelong golfers, members of the clubs at which they work and experts at dispensing nuggets of wisdom and appropriately timed jokes.
It was a “pet day” — the Irish term for ideal weather conditions — but when it rained briefly mid-round, one member of our group walked in, saying he didn’t play golf in the rain. We wondered why he came. County Kerry is among the country’s wettest regions; over any given three-day period, rain is almost inevitable.
Dooks is rough-and-tumble, its fairways lined with gorse and heather. The turf is firm, fast and bouncy, which requires an adjustment if you’re used to “target golf” in the U.S. Even well-struck wedge shots must land short of the green in order for the ball to stop somewhere on the putting surface.
But as much as I struggled, I couldn’t believe the course record was 70. In 125 years, not a single golfer has recorded a score in the 60s? Afterward, over dinner in the clubhouse — monkfish wrapped in ham, butternut squash puree, braised fennel and sun-dried tomato beurre blanc for me — Shivaun Shanahan, the club’s 2014 Lady Captain, assured me it was true.
After dinner, we checked into Ballgarry House Hotel and Spa on the outskirts of Tralee. The four-star hotel was built in the 18th century as a landowner’s house and is surrounded by landscaped gardens.
My room was cozy and the bed comfy, and it wasn’t long before I fell into a deep, satisfying sleep.
The next day dawned bright and sunny and we drove to Tralee Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design that opened in 1984.
Many course architecture buffs consider Tralee to be Palmer’s best layout. Spilling away from the clubhouse on the treeless course were emerald fairways, with greens perched on cliffs above sandy beaches and the cold blue waters of the North Atlantic.
It’s one of the prettiest courses I’ve ever played. The par-5 second hole boomerangs along the cliff and bears a strong resemblance to Pebble Beach’s classic 18th. On the beach below, scenes were shot for the 1970 movie Ryan’s Daughter, which won an Academy Award for best cinematography.
A stone tower behind the third green dates to the 12th century, and legend has it that the big sandstone rock at the end of a wall running diagonally between the fourth and fifth fairways was hurled by the mythical Cuchulain from the top of the Sliabh Mish, the mountain looming to the south.
Tralee usually isn’t included on the list of best courses in Ireland, but it should be. It’s very playable, with generous fairways, big greens and manageable fescue rough.
The back nine is amazing, starting with the 595-yard 11th, which climbs to the highest point on the course and offers a stunning view of rock pinnacles, pounding surf and lonely stretches of beach.
Before dinner at Ballygarry House, we spent a couple hours roaming Tralee, the largest town in County Kerry. The shopkeepers were closing early because the Kerry footballers were staging an evening exhibition as part of their victory tour, but I managed to snag the last XL green-and-yellow T-shirt in one souvenir shop.
Golf-wise, we saved our best for last.
The Old Course at Ballybunion is ranked No. 27 on Golf Digest’s list of the “World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.” With fairways snaking through towering sand dunes and wind a constant companion, Ballybunion is the rare course that feels special from the moment you pull into the car park.
Supposedly Pete Dye’s inspiration for Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, Ballybunion wasn’t always highly regarded. In 1897, an article in The Irish Times dismissed the course as “a rabbit warren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls.”
The course was largely unknown outside of Ireland until Herbert Warren Wind, writing in The New Yorker in 1971, proclaimed it to be “nothing less than the finest seaside links I have ever seen.”
Ten years later, five-time British Open champion Tom Watson visited for the first time and said, “Nobody can call himself a golfer until he has played at Ballybunion.”
After two days of benign conditions — the weather almost embarrassingly nice for golf in Ireland — we stood on the first tee at Ballybunion and braced against a cold rain.
Other than that 15-minute spit at Dooks, I’d had no reason to don the rain suit I’d purchased before leaving for the Emerald Isle. Now, we were getting the full monty from Mother Nature. It was cold and raw, the wind whipping off the Atlantic, rain stinging exposed flesh.
Occasionally, it’s too windy for even the hardy Irish to play golf here.
My caddie, Declan, said he once hit a good tee shot into the teeth of the wind on the 11th hole and his ball took a left turn and wound up 80 yards behind him. It sounded suspect, but he swore it was true. The caddies sometimes amuse themselves by hitting wedge shots out over the water and then catching their golf balls, blown back inland by the wind.
Other than the cemetery to the right of the first fairway, the first six holes were unremarkable. Perhaps the biggest quirk is that the tee shot on the fourth hole is hit directly over the green on the par-3 third. That’s something you don’t see every day.
Just when I was starting to think Ballybunion was a bit overrated, we reached the seventh, an imposing par-4 along the water’s edge.
“I always say Ballybunion starts on the seventh,” Declan said, and he was right. From that point on, the course was a collection of mind-blowing holes, each more spectacular than the one before it. I could see the similarities to Whistling Straits, which will play host to the 2015 PGA Championship.
By the time we got to the 18th, the sun was out but the wind had intensified and was blowing golf balls this way and that.
A few in our group decided to play nine holes on the Cashen Course at Ballybunion, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and opened in 1984, but I elected to check into the 19th Lodge, a comfortable bed-and-breakfast run by warmhearted proprietors Mary and James Beasley.
Mary Beasley proudly pointed out the family portrait behind the front desk — with Tom Watson, in suit and tie, posing with the Beasleys and their children. The golfer stays at the 19th Lodge whenever he visits Ballybunion and the room he favors is marked with a bronze plaque on the door.
After a sumptuous dinner in the clubhouse at Ballybunion, we walked the half-mile back to the 19th Lodge, rehashing the highlights of the trip and concluding that the weather had been unexpectedly pleasant, the Irish had been unfailingly accommodating and the golf courses had exceeded our lofty expectations — and, of course, that we had to come back.