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Travel: The Emerald Isle of Golf
by Terry Moore

Someone asked me recently where one might spend a bulletproof-money-back-guaranteed-unforgettable golf trip to celebrate the new Millennium. Without hesitation and notwithstanding Michigan of course, I recommended Ireland. I've been fortunate to travel there several times and the country, its people and its golf never seem to disappoint me. Last fall, I made my way back there once again and found Ireland to be an ideal setting to rediscover what's best about the ancient game. Here are some highlights and suggestions gleaned from that memorable week:

Portmarnock: This is the famed Dublin links course that all the native Irish hoped would host the Ryder Cup in 2005. Founded in 1894, it's one of the finest and most natural links courses in the world. Those new to links golf may find the experience unsettling at first inasmuch as the course plays "low to the ground" and in the dunes thus providing scant view of the hole from the tee. Hence, a caddie is highly recommended. The greens have wonderful swales and curves and pot bunkers lurk nearby. Located only ten miles north of Dublin on the Irish Sea, every true-green lover of Irish golf must allow for a round a Portmarnoch. As a friendly added attraction to the area is the Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links. There are several real pluses to staying and playing here. First, it's near the airport and so is a convenient and classy full-service hotel for one's Dublinesque and even Northern Ireland golf forays. Secondly, the golf course, although admittedly no Portmarnoch the Elder, is a worthy test of golf with several stirring stretches of links golf. Designed by Bernhard Langer and cohorts for IMG, the layout offers a good test of golf with four distinctive par-threes and a terrific finishing hole. Moira Cassidy is the affable and service-conscious Director of Golf who's been active in Irish golf circles for the past 18 years. Her family's course was The Island GC, an unsung beauty just north of Portmarnoch.

The European Club: Located an hour or so drive south of Dublin in County Wicklow, this is indeed a special golf course. Its course designer is Pat Ruddy, one of Ireland's most celebrated writers and observers of the game. How can you not love a place designed and owned by a noted golf writer? Pat and his family preside over this homespun gem and after the visit you come away knowing the Ruddys' heart and soul have been poured in it. The wonderful land was discovered by Ruddy more than ten years ago via a determined helicopter reconnaissance trip, looking for a true linksland course in the caliber of Ballybunion, Portmarnoch, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. Well, Ruddy found it in an area frequented for generations of Dubliners for its lovely, sandy beaches. It's a grand locale for a links course with firm, fast fairways and natural green sites all set amid high rugged dunes. Unlike the old links courses, you'll find no blind shots here. On 14 of the holes, the player has a full tee-to-green view of the hole. Best yet, the routing takes one up and down and around the windswept dunes, lending sensational and inspiring views of the bay and sea. As mentioned, The European Club is family-owned and operated. It's the equivalent to a well-conceived and energetically managed local public golf course. As such, it's a neighborly and humble outpost far removed from the fast-paced world of packaged-resort and corporate-driven golf. Thus, the conditions may be spartan at times and the amenities few; but a majestic spirit of the game is prevalent at The European Club. Well done, scribe!

Druids Glen: Pat Ruddy along with Tom Craddock designed this elegant, four-star parkland course. It's the venue for the Irish Open and it made a spirited bid for the Ryder Cup, only to lose out to the equally elegant and to the deeper financial resources of The K Club. If you're looking for a course with exquisite plantings and landscaping, exceptional conditioning and first-class amenities, Druids Glen is the place for you. It's also an excellent layout with a diverse and rich assortment of holes requiring steady shotmaking throughout. Fittingly located in Wicklow dubbed The Garden of Ireland--Druids Glen is surely one of the most scenic parkland courses in all of Ireland. Its trademark hole is the Augusta-like 12th, where a preserved stone altar of pre-Christian worship sits on a hillside overlooking the green. Landscaping in the form of a Celtic cross highlights the hillside. One word of warning for aquaphobes: water hazards beckon here. There are ponds, lakes and brooks lurking on the premises. The 18th hole, a daunting uphill par-five, challenges players with three cascading ponds guarding the green. Indeed, it must make for lively last round theater for the Irish Open!

Old Head Golf Links: Located on the south coast of Ireland near the charming harbor town of Kinsale, Old Head is the ultimate "Big Game Hunters" golf destination. Its so breathtakingly beautiful and larger-than-life that commenting on it seems like hype from a Hollywood publicist. But it's the real thing and must be experienced. The genius and prime mover behind Old Head, some six years in the making, is John O'Connor, a real estate mogul who poured ten million or more dollars into this project. The centerpiece of Old Head is Old Head itself, 220 acres of historic and geologically rich headland that juts out into the ocean offering up one of most spectacular settings for golf imaginable. Due to the severity of the winds that can roar across this promitory, O'Connor and his trusted coterie of designers, including American designer Ron Kirby, Irish legends Joe Carr and Eddie Hackett, experimented with 42 different routings before settling on the current one. Many holes sport landing areas that are two, three and even four fairways wide so as to compensate for the ferocious winds off the Atlantic. Some holes skirt precariously above cliffs and bluffs which rise 200 feet above the water that's double the height found at Pebble Beach. Some near-sighted visitors will quibble that Old Head is not a true links course. But for me it's in a league all its own: a singular, wild, memorable, and exhilarating golf experience. Golfers will be talking about and marveling at Old Head so long as the sun rises and sets which incidentally is another magical sideshow here.

You can take Times Square and Dick Clark. I'll take Ireland in 2000.

For more information about golf and Ireland, contact the Irish Tourist Board at 1-800-223-6470 or its website at www.ireland.travel.ie

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