The first stroke I ever played in Ireland was my drive on the opening hole at Lahinch more than 20 years ago. I urge you to follow in my footsteps, for as the ball leaves the clubface to wing over this restless and hummocky and tumbling terrain and land on the upslope of a great sandhill, the flag straining on its stick higher yet on a perfect plateau of green, you will know without being told that here is links golf -- the reason you have crossed an ocean -- in its purest and most joyous form.
Lahinch seems to me the ideal introduction to the game in Ireland, and not just because of irs wonderful golf holes.
There is the plain little town itself, which has been called the St. Andrews of Ireland. In truth, Lahinch is even more single-minded in its pursuit of the game than is the ancient royal burgh, for Lahinch has no university, no historical monuments, no handsome blocks of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses. It has the two eighteens, a handful of small hotels and B&Bs, some tweed and souvenir shops, several convivial pubs (where the Irish folk music for which County Clare is noted can be enjoyed), and a passion for golf. Even lovely Liscannor Bay, on which the town is set, seems of little moment other than as a backdrop for some of the golf holes. Golf, more often than not, is the opening subject in any conversation here, and though other topics may well be touched upon along the way, the talk will inevitably come full circle back to what really matters, like the blind second shot on Klondyke, or the best line for the drive on 12 (perhaps a little left of the castle is more prudent), or the impact of World War II on thecareer of the illustrious John Burke. If you play golf, talk golf, or are merely content to listen to golf being discussed, you will be entirely at home here.
The place has another distinct virtue: It is just 30 miles north of Shannon International Airport. There can be few things more rewarding in the life of an American golfer than to make the transatlantic night flight, pick up a rental car at Shannon, and, somehow miraculously refreshed and rejuvenated, tee off not an hour later at Lahinch.
I recall doing just that in 1974, when the predecessor of the present clubhouse was still in use. It was a simple, spartan structure then, the stone-floored changing room unheated and sans lockers. You hung your clothes on a wooden peg. Dangling from the peg next to mine were rosary beads. It could only be Ireland!
That day there was a neatly typed little notice at the main entrance to the clubhouse advising the members that the club would be closed Monday out of respect to John Burke, whose funeral was being held then. John Burke was the greatest player in the history of the club and one of the half-dozen greatest in the annals of Irish amateur golf. A big strong fellow with a wide swing arc, he was noted for the phenomenal length he could produce with woods out of deep and clinging rough. He won the Irish Open Amateur in 1947, defeating the up-and-coming Joe Carr at Royal Dublin; the Irish Close Amateur eight times, between 1930 and 1947; the West of Ireland Amateur six times; and the South of Ireland Amateur 11 times (Lahinch was the permanent venue). In 1932 he was named to the Walker Cup team, the first golfer from the Republic to be so honored. I suspect that no one could remember the last time Lahinch had been closed. Only an event of such magnitude as John Burke's passing could have prompted it.
It was a day for encountering notes at Lahinch. In the clubhouse there was one under the broken barometer that said: "see goats." Some four or five goats have for years grazed on the links, and they continue to do so today. They are our guide. We may not have the sense to come in out of the rain, but they do. When the weather turns mean, the goats turn toward the clubhouse -- and shelter. So keep an eye out for them and their peregrinations.
Golf was first played at Lahinch in 1892, when members of the Black Watch Regiment, stationed at Limerick, heard of what was rumored to be ideal golfing country in the sandhills by Liscannor Bay. Over they came to see for themselves, and agreed that it was worthy ground. Nor would this mark the only time that Scots would bring the gospel of the game to the benighted Irish heathens.
The club itself was founded a year later. As is almost always the case, the course we play today is an evolutionary product incorporating elements of the original layout (half the holes in the sandhills, half in the much less interesting terrain on the other side of Liscannor Road); of the Old Tom Morris scheme, 1897 (still half and half, but considerable improvement to the holes themselves); of the Charles Gibson design, 1907 (13 holes now in the dunes, five on, if you will, the wrong side of the tracks); of the Alister Mackenzie plan, 1928 (all 18 now in the glorious duneland); and of the current eighteen (basically Mackenzie but with a number of attractive later modifications).
A word or two about Alister Mackenzie, whose fame today rests on such masterpieces as Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point, Augusta National (with Bob Jones), and Crystal Downs (with Perry Maxwell). A Yorkshireman born in 1870, Mackenzie studied medicine at Cambridge, served as a surgeon in the Boer War, then came home to establish a practice in Leeds. He began to dabble in course design during the first decade of the century and gradually gave up medicine to devote full time to golf course architecture. Over the next 20 years, beginning about 1914, he designed, remodeled, or expanded countless courses in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and the United States. In 1920 he published a small book titled Golf Architecture in which he set down what he judged to be the 13 essential features of an ideal golf course. One of them must endear him forever to the high handicapper: there should be a complete absence of the annoyance caused by having to search for lost balls. The book was widely influential and is considered a classic of the genre today.
Lahinch, par 72, can be stretched to over 6,700 yards, but it is regularly played at about 6,300 yards, with the ladies' markers at 5,500 (par 74). That perfect opening hole, uphill, is followed by a delightful short par 5, spilling downhill past the clubhouse, and then a good 145-yarder with a steep falloff on the left of the raised green. Now comes the strong -- and altogether wonderful -- 410-yard 4th, where the drive must gain a fairway at the top of a high, steep hill, and the long second shot, turning left now, must carry a broad expanse of rough country in order to reach a green defended by low dunes and little sandy pots at the wings. There is not a great quantity of sand at Lahinch, but it is doled out in such meager measures that there are actually 101 bunkers.
Two of golf's most celebrated curios now confront us, consecutively. First comes "Klondyke," the 475-yard 5th. We drive up a narrow, secluded valley formed by high grassy dunes on both sides of the fairway. Nothing unusual in that. What makes this hole unforgettable is the sandhill that abruptly terminates the fairway, looming some 30 feet above us at about 350 yards from the tee. This startling obstruction calls to mind a traffic cop's hand thrust up intimidatingly to make sure you stop. What is now required is a 4- or 5-wood that surmounts this blockade and comes to rest on the far side of it in the expanse of fairway shared by the 18th hole. An item on the back of the scorecard, appropriately printed in red, is worth quoting:
"SPECIAL WARNING re KLONDYKE: 5th HOLE. The Committee of Lahinch Golf Club wish to inform all players that they will not accept liability for accidents at the crossing of the 5th and 18th fairways. It is the responsibility of each individual golfer to en