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Golfing the Emerald Isle On My Own – But Definitely Not Alone

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Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin

The fifty-something Irish salesman sucked down another vodka-diet as if one more might make my comments seem perfectly sensible.

You? A woman? From America? In Ireland? All by yourself? Traveling? Alone? Here?

Imagine if there had been a language barrier as I sat there making conversation in the upscale restaurant/bar in City Cork.

He obviously didn’t know my zest for life, my passion for golf or my never-ending search to photograph some of the most beautiful places in the world. And when a male friend, fresh off tax season and overwhelmed (and stupid), canceled at the last minute, I set out solo for the Emerald Isle. His loss. It turned out to be perhaps the best vacation I ever had. And I managed to do it without losing one side-view mirror on my rented Nissan.

Scotland used to be the top destination for U.S. golfers. But in the last few years, more Americans have been traveling to Ireland to chase after that little white ball. My trip dispelled certain pre-conceived ideas I had about this place just six hours by air from New York City.

First, it doesn’t rain all the time, as evidenced by the fact that all but two of my thirteen days were filled with sunshine. Second, it’s more than green hillsides covered with rocks and sheep.

Not only is it a golfer’s paradise, it’s a photographer’s paradise, with 3,500 miles of coastline and more than 300 courses.

How to get around proved the biggest decision. I’ve driven in Florence, Italy, where tiny street names are carved in stone on corner buildings, and where everybody – no matter bike, scooter, car or bus – seemingly has the right of way. And I’ve done round-a-bouts in reverse in Scotland after a late night at the pubs. Heck, I even T-boned the winemaster’s car in New Zealand while driving into a setting sun (no one was hurt and we all passed the breathalyzer). But to drive in Ireland, one has to be part fearless, part crazy and full of adventure.

Negotiating narrow roads was tricky enough without the sheep.Negotiating narrow roads was tricky enough without the sheep.

Start with the fact that everything is in reverse and that there are no major highways. Then consider the width of roads. Even those that start as two-lane paved pathways often narrow to a single lane, with no room for error because they’re hemmed in by rock walls or dense foliage or, with so much water everywhere, overlooking sheer cliffs.

After two days of slowing down with each approaching vehicle, and once refusing to go forward despite the tour-bus driver’s assurance there was room, I had found my comfort zone, and cruised to hidden inlets, historic forts and perfect sunset spots.

It didn’t take nearly as long with the people, who are as warm and welcoming as anywhere I have traveled.

To keep costs down, staying in bed & breakfasts was key for the first part of my trip. With green fees pricey and the dollar struggling against the Euro, this was one reasonable way to make ends meet.

In Lahinch, where the course is 165 Euros, 50 Euros seemed reasonable to fall asleep in a quaint room with a nice bed, and full view of a setting sun on the Atlantic. Plus, it was just a short walk into town, where the salmon was fresh, the Guinness smooth and the locals engaging.

I’d find another gem, the Ventry House on the Dingle Peninsula, where owner Joan gave me the run of the place, some great side-trip tips, and served up a huge traditional Irish breakfast – all for 40 Euros.

Back in Lahinch, it certainly didn’t hurt that the tiny town was buzzing following a big win by Munster’s rugby team, a win celebrated with red banners flying in front yards and out car windows as they would in the States after a big NFL or NHL victory.

Just as Guinness flowed everywhere in Ireland, so did music. Locals sang along as the solo guitarist in Lahinch belted out The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. They also sang when a traditional Irish band played Danny Boy at cozy Comerford’s in Doonbeg. And they bobbed and swayed until 3 a.m. to the heavy metal/punk rock of J90 in the tiny back bar at the Grand Killarney.

Ed Tovey, head of property sales for Doonbeg Golf sings Danny Boy at Comerford's Pub while Buddy Darby (background, far left), Chairman and CEO of Kiawah Development Partners plays spoons with the house band.Ed Tovey, head of property sales for Doonbeg Golf sings Danny Boy at Comerford’s Pub while Buddy Darby (background, far left), Chairman and CEO of Kiawah Development Partners plays spoons with the house band.

Had I been part of a group, or couple, I might have missed much of this. But alone, I was carefree, with a spirit of adventure driving me.

When I finally did meet up with other writers the final four days, nothing was more special than being invited into the Member’s Club at Doonbeg, where former Irish rugby star Keith Woods – as mean as they got on the field in his prime and as popular as John Elway in Denver – could be seen showing his softer side with a sweet rendition of an Irish folksong.

Unfortunately, not soon after the singing ended, the packing began. I was sad to leave, but felt like I had made so many new friends.

There was Liam in Ballybunion, a caddie of thirty-five years who was relaxing over a pint when, upon learning that I couldn’t get on the course that day because of a member’s only tourney, offered to give me a private tour. Before I knew it, he was in my passenger seat, then walking with me along the mighty dunes that rise up through the mist on Nos. 17 and 18, and sharing one final Guinness back at the Railway Bar.

There was Paddy, the starter at Old Head, who reached his hand through the hole in the stone marker to shake and share with me a bit a history.

On a trip to play 13 courses in 7 days, Brendan savors the view at Old Head on a warm, sunny day.On a trip to play 13 courses in 7 days, Brendan savors the view at Old Head on a warm, sunny day.

And of course, there was the Gang of Eight on that spectacular course just south of Kinsale. This group of eight men, all but one from California, were playing Nassaus and half-a-dozen other bets during their 13-courses-in-seven-days adventure. But like me, who found my way into one of their foursomes, they were mostly awestruck by the scenery on this sun-splashed day. It was hard to concentrate on golf when each view rivaled that of Pebble Beach, with crashing waves down below, caves at the bottom of the dogleg, par-5 12th and a dozen holes on the water to-or-away from a lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula. There may be better courses, but it’s doubtful one will find one as scenic.

All in all, I saw less than half of the Emerald Isle in two weeks.

There’s no doubt I’ll be back, even if I’m schlepping my own clubs up and down the fairways and trying to convince that Irish salesman I’m really not insane.

The Courses

The Lodge at Doonbeg is as spectacular on the outside as the inside.The Lodge at Doonbeg is as spectacular on the outside as the inside.

Doonbeg’s stone lodge is spectacular, with not a detail left to chance, from the goose down quilts and oversized artisan soaps to the soft slippers and handmade chocolates left in the suites and cottages.

Though the course was built by Greg Norman, CEO Buddy Darby’s “Come to Jesus” meeting with the designer led to significant changes in recent years. As Darby recalled, Norman lost five balls in the grand opening. “Tell me how to put that in the marketing plan,” he quipped in explaining the changes.

The changes still made it challenging enough that Stewart Cink based himself at Doonbeg the week before he won the British Open in 2009, making it three years straight the champion has prepared for victory the previous week on the Emerald Isle.

For even the non-golfers, there’s nothing like a great spa to ease the aches of traveling, and White Horses Spa at Doonbeg is one of the finest.

After Doonbeg, it’s a short drive to Lahinch and Ballybunion, while Tralee is a bit further south. Old Head won’t be found in top 100 lists but it’s a magical place, located at the southernmost tip of Ireland. In addition to the 15 suites located on-site, further accommodations for the course can be found in Kinsale, Cork, Cobh or Fota Island.

Ross Castle. It's not much of a hike but while most visitors come during the day, I caught it at sunset, when the lake was ablaze with color.Ross Castle. It’s not much of a hike but while most visitors come during the day, I caught it at sunset, when the lake was ablaze with color.

Or it’s just two hours from Killarney, a colorful city with some top restaurants, plenty of bed and breakfasts and a good jumping off point for the Ring of Kerry.

I found the Killarney Lodge perfectly located, very reasonable and with a comfy feel and great food.

Tips

Be flexible. There are plenty of bed and breakfasts throughout the country, especially traveling before the height of tourist season.

Rent automatic. If you’re driving, it takes away half the stress.

Call ahead. To make sure tee times are available on certain days and not limited to members only.

Bring rain gear. But be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t rain all the time. I was there thirteen days and had sunshine all but two. Even on my last full day, we awoke to heavy rain, only to see a thin blue line on the horizon grow and blossom into another sun-splashed day.

If You Go

How2GetThere

Flying into Shannon provides a perfect jumping off point to some of the best golf on the island.
With many flights arriving by 9 a.m. from the States, one can be at Doonbeg – just 45 minutes away – to play not one but two rounds of golf.

Where2Play

Ballybunion Golf Club
County Kerry, Ireland
Tel: +353 68 27146
www.ballybuniongolfclub.ie/index.htm

Lahinch Golf Club
County Clare, Ireland
Tel: +353 (0)65 7081003
www.lahinchgolf.com

Tralee Golf Club
West Barrow, Ardfert, Tralee
County Kerry, Ireland
Tel: +353 (0)66 713-6379
www.traleegolfclub.com

Where2Play&Stay

The rugged coastline off Doonbeg's 18th hole.The rugged coastline off Doonbeg’s 18th hole.

Doonbeg Golf Club, LTD.
County Clare, Ireland
Room Reservations: +353.65.905.5600
Tee Time Reservations: +353.65.905.5602
www.doonbeggolfclub.com/index.html

Old Head
Kinsale
County Cork, Ireland
Tel: (+353) (0) 21 4778 444
http://oldhead.com/home

Offering 15 sumptuous suites with a full service spa, the location of this course is unrivaled.

Small B&Bs and Lodges

Craglea Lodge Bed & Breakfast
Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland
Tel: (+353) (0) 65 708 1450
www.clareireland.net/craglea

Killarney Lodge
Countess Road
Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland
Tel: (+353) (0) 64 663 6499
www.killarneylodge.net

Ventry House Bed & Breakfast
Church Cross, Slea Head Drive, Dingle, Ventry, Co. Kerry, Ireland
Tel: +353 (0) 66 915 9967
www.ventryhouse.com

Top photo: The rugged, green ooastline on the Dingle Peninsula.

Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.

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