Monday, May 24, 2010

Back to the Links

"I'll never forget how I felt when we got to Ballybunion and I saw those unbelievable dunes, and those holes perched on the clifs over the ocean . . . This wasn't just a different kind of golf. It was a different kind of experience." -- Mike Keiser

As it happened, I made my first golf trip to Ireland in the summer of 1986, the same year that Mike Keiser marvelled at the wonders of Ballybunion. The first course I played was Connemara, and I remember the sense of strange excitement as I approached the clubhouse, driving past a meadow stippled with buttercups and tiny daisies. This didn't look like any golf course I knew, and the sense of strangeness built as I pushed deeper into the course. There were rock outcroppings everywhere, and jumbled Celtic hills, and the smell and sound of the sea slashing at rocks, more buttercups, wind and weather speeding swiftly by. I was playing golf, or trying to, but I felt more as though I had stumbled through some kind of looking glass into an enchanted world. It was spinning, or my head was spinning. Out there near the ocean, the golf felt more like an adventure than a game, and I knew I wanted more of it.

I didn't know Mike Keiser then, though we might easiy have run into each other that summer. We played several of the same courses. I link us here as representative Americans who discovered links golf in those years -- there must be thousands, tens of thousands of us. The great pilgrimage back to the source of golf, back to the links, was just starting to gather steam. For many, the exposure to links golf was a conversion experience. For Mike, it provided the model for the kind of golf course he would build at Bandon. He would become, in Bill Coore's words, "a living American connection to links golf."
Mike started thinking about how he could build a links course, and I started thinking about how I could manage to play them. I annoyed my golfing buddies by going on and on about the joys and virtues of links golf -- though when I finally got them over to Ireland and Scotland, they were hooked, too. They liked the rugged, rumpled, natural look of the courses and the firm fast turf. They (mostly) liked the brisk, changeable weather. Up at Brora, they liked playing in among the sheep ("What sheep?" said a Brora member, who'd stopped seeing the critters). They liked the Honor Box at Enniscrone where visitors were asked to deposit a few pounds before going out to play. It was at Enniscrone, too, that a black collie decided to accompany us, and a very good thing that was -- we wouldn't have found our way with him. They loved sitting in the bar at the Marine Hotel in North Berwick and watching the passing groups struggle with the green on the 16th hole, that wild Biarritz green. They couldn't believe Gullane, the town where the golf radiates outward in every direction. They woke at four to get in line for a tee time of the Old Course at St Andrews. They loved the warmth of the hospitality and the inclusive spirit of the game and the general lack of pretension. They had a high old time trying to pronounce the name of that course out at the end of the Dingle Peninsula and finally decided that the correct way to say it was Celine Dion.
Of course we were on a golf vacation (the alert reader will realize that the above paragraph lumps together several different vacations), and the grass is always greener, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so on. Still, it is hard to play links golf and return to golf American style without feeling that something, somehow, got lost in translation. Maybe I'm just too accustomed to American parkland courses (and I'm not even talking here about condo-lined fairways, overmanicured fairways, carts and cart paths), but they don't have the wild, gamy flavor of the links.
Mike Keiser was able to capture the spirit of links golf at Bandon Dunes, and now many American golfers have their religious moment as they play along the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The courses aren't old but they feel the ancient magic of the game.
I'm just guessing, but I imagine that their inner voice goes something like this: "Holy Tom Morris, great patron of the links, have mercy on my golfing soul for I did not know what I was missing."

No comments:

Post a Comment