One of the seemingly countless reasons I love golf is its unique nature. Whether you play two rounds a year or 200 (I wish), no two rounds are ever the same.
A golfer can play the same course and have a vastly different experience on each occasion. Never has that been more true for me for two rounds during my recent trip to Ireland — and it only cemented my love and appreciation for the game.
First, a little background. My wife, Diana, is an instructor in the education department at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. The position allows her the opportunity to speak at educational conferences. Fortunately for me, these conferences are often at exotic locations.
When she told me just before Christmas she had been accepted to present at a conference in Dublin, the golfer in me went ballistic. I love the history of the game, but had never played a true links course across the pond where the game was invented.
There was zero doubt I was tagging along on this trip with my clubs. Once the itinerary was determined, research quickly began on where to play. Knowing I had to find a course near Dublin one day and in Northern Ireland later in the week, the choices quickly became clear — The K Club and Royal Portrush.
Both courses were simply off-the-charts beautiful and amazing, yet each were vastly unique experiences.
The K Club surreal
Though not a links course, The K Club was the choice for my first round based on familiarity and history despite the fact it’s only 18 years old. The parkland-style course, about 30 minutes outside Dublin, was the site of the 2006 Ryder Cup — an 18.5 to 9.5 European thrashing that has become all too familiar to American golf fans. Rory McIlroy also won the 2016 Irish Open there.
Thanks to an accurate GPS, I weaved my way through about 15 roundabouts and interstates, arriving to the course in plenty of time to have breakfast and warm up. Much to my surprise, I was told there would be no one joining me in my group. Not only that, the next time wasn’t for two hours.
I strapped my clubs on my back and trudged to the first tee. It didn’t hit me until about the fifth hole — “I’m playing a Ryder Cup course and have the entire place to myself.” Things like this simply don’t happen.
The layout is fantastic. Not a bad hole on the course, each with its own unique challenge. The views differ from sheep meandering in a field behind the seventh green to a majestic hotel and resort that comes into view on the short walk between the 16th and 17th holes.
The finishing hole features a large pond on the left side, leading to its nickname of “Hooker’s Nightmare.” I learned this the hard way on my approach, but it hardly diminished the experience.
Portrush simply amazes
The golf geek in me had seen this course a few times on Golf Channel during various European Tour events over the past few years, and I instantly fell in love with it. The 131-year-old links course in the quaint village of Portrush had hosted a Senior British Open and also the Irish Open four times — the last coming in 2012.
Knowing The Open Championship (which Americans incorrectly refer to as the British Open) was coming to Royal Portrush in July for the first time since 1951, this was an absolute must. A bucket-list course, for sure.
The first view of the course came while pulling into Portrush. The course sits below the main road heading into town, providing stunning views of the course and North Atlantic Ocean. Talk about distracted driving. How I kept the car on the road remains a mystery.
Upon approaching the course, the site of the already-constructed grandstands surrounding the 18th green was surreal. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a U.S. Open, two PGA Championships, a Ryder Cup (all at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska) and the second round of the Masters. Yet there was something special about the site of a 4,000-seat amphitheatre set next to the sea.
We stopped in the pro shop to do our shopping — and did we ever shop — the day before the tee time. The clubhouse is littered with historical pictures and artifacts, and one of the employees obviously sensed my interest. He began describing some the of the pictures and talked about the private club’s history (they do keep some tee times open to the public).
He told me to stay put while he went to his office to retrieve a book. Upon handing it to me, he explained it was the course’s proposal to lure the Open Championship back to Portrush.
It was fascinating. The main reason the Open hadn’t been to Portrush in 68 years was the fact holes 17 and 18 had proven a bit too easy for the world’s best players. The book described how architects added two new holes (No. 7 and 8) while making the existing 16th hole into the 18th.
“You’ll never notice the seventh and eighth holes are new,” he said with a perfect Irish flare.
He was right. The new holes somehow perfectly blend in with the original 16.
Knowing I’d be playing a course where the Claret Jug will be awarded in July led to a rather anxious night of sleep. After hitting some balls on the practice range and rolling some putts, it was time to head to the first tee. We met our playing partners — a couple from Colorado — and, of course, the rain began to fall. We were half-soaked after one hole and I admit to being a bit concerned as Diana is a admitted “fair weather” golfer.
Miraculously, the rain stopped by the second hole and the rest of the round was played in damp, cloudy and breezy conditions — which is what golf in Ireland is all about.
The course is so incredible that it’s difficult for even a writer to describe. There are simply no words that do it justice. The rolling sand dunes, tightly cut fairways, pot bunkers, undulating greens and views of an angry-looking sea made for the golfing experience of a lifetime.
Needless to say, watching the 148th edition of the Open Championship will carry extra meaning this year.