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To Ireland and Back - Day Five

By: Blaine Newnham


by Blaine Newnham

Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Blaine Newnham is in Ireland this week and will be sending daily dispatches. Here's Blaine's fifth installment from the Emerald Isle.

It had been 20 years since I first played golf in Ireland. So what's changed? For one thing there were no armed British soldiers standing nervously at the border as we passed from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. No barbed wire, no gun towers, no troubles, no nothing.

Two of the top-10 ranked courses in the world - Royal Portrush and Royal County Down - are in Northern Ireland, but first we were going to play Ardglass, above County Down, hard by the Irish Sea.

Judging by the rates of the better courses, I feared that we'd be seeing a gross Americanization of the sport. That we'd be seeing bag drops, and kids cleaning clubs after a round, and golf carts, golf carts everywhere.

After four rounds on the links courses near Dublin I had yet to see anyone riding in a cart. Other than Portmarnock, there were few if any caddies to be seen. Most players didn't carry their clubs, but pushed or pulled what they call a trolley. They all walked. It doesn't mean there aren't electric carts - or buggies - but we just hadn't seen any.

You would have imagined with the economic slump in Ireland that green fees would have plummeted with bank stocks. They haven't. It is still well over $200 a round to play a top course.

The courses are certainly prepared better than they were 20 years ago, primarily the greens. From our first trip, I remember telling someone that the greens were hard and slow. Impossible, said a friend. But indeed they were firm while still being rough, kind of like the greens at Chambers Bay (the 2010 U.S. Amateur course near Tacoma, Wash.) in the beginning.

They've irrigated the greens in Ireland since then. The coming together of better technology and more money means better surfaces.

But so much hasn't changed. On the way to Northern Ireland we played Baltray in County Louth, a one-time home of the Irish Open, as natural and peaceful a course as I've seen in the Emerald Isle. We played through a few severe storms, one including stinging hail, and huddled in one of the huts provided for relief.

Baltray is all about golf, with an active membership of men, women and children. The parking lot was filled when we came off the course in the mid-afternoon. There was some kind of a mixed competition going on.

You can stay in one of the few rooms in the clubhouse for $30, and get a slightly better rate than the $150 rack rate. The course didn't need as many bunkers as the others we had played because of its use of the natural lumpy land next to the Irish Sea. It played linoleum-fast around the green with edges that slopped away in mocking fashion.

On many holes you had to land the ball short of the green to have it end up there. And even then there was no certainty as to where it would finish.

You putt whenever you can, even from 50 yards rather than trying to chip. I made a fundamental decision before leaving home to leave the 60-degree wedge home. The decision made my bag easier to carry and my choice of clubs fewer and better.

Golf seems more of the fabric of life here than even before. They are expecting more than 100,000 spectators for the Solheim Cup - the Ryder Cup for women - in September. Everyone plays somewhere.

We're now heading for Royal Portrush and Portstewart. But first, what is certainly to be a windswept and dramatic day at Ardglass.

For more information about golf and travel in Ireland, visit www.discoverireland.com.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.