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A Sort of Homecoming

The trip would again involve golf -- why go otherwise?-- but would be a little different. As the boom in Ireland was coincidental with the boom in golf, new layouts had been carved from the old sod since last I was there. Two courses in particular had developed powerful reputations, and so I planned, this time, to sample the modern along with the antique. I'd play old favorites Lahinch and Ballybunion, then scoot down to the recently opened Old Head and then over to Tralee, where an Arnold Palmer design debuted in 1984. A nifty, concise plan. What had slipped my mind was that nothing is concise in Ireland. They'll tell you it's "only the size of Indiana," but who drives around Indiana?Wherever EEC money has not been spilled across an Irish road, the road remains an Irish road, which is to say a hedgerowed, twisting lane. So please don't consider the following as any kind of sensible itinerary, and do not trust your map. Maps of Ireland are like the Irish themselves: They are friendly and inviting, but they're telling you only half the story.

The Burren is a fantastic bit of Ireland that sits north of Limerick and south of Galway, lying for the most part in County Clare. Terraced limestone hills paint a gray horizon; the Aran Islands belong to the Burren, and if you consider for a moment the tight knit of a coarse-wool Aran sweater, you know what this region's about. You'll want to keep the peat fire burning in the Burren.

The fire is burning at Gregans Castle when we arrive, smoldering turf bricks suffusing the inn with warmth and a sweet aroma. Gregans is part of the New Ireland: high-quality inns that charge large tariffs and deliver on the promise. If there were any of these when I was last here, they were hiding under rocks. My wife and I agree that our accommodations at Gregans are the best we've ever settled into anywhere: spacious, high ceilinged, with a slant of white Irish light coming in over the Burren, filtered by the flowering bushes outside. If the golfing weather is raw, this will be nice to come home to.

The next morning, it is less than raw and more than breezy: a great day for Irish golf. And is there a greater place for it than Lahinch?Not for my money. My game is not long and has quirks; Lahinch is like my game. Rolling up and over great marram grass mounds by the sea, Lahinch is not the terrible beauty that Ballybunion is, but a funky, hairy layout. It was designed -- placed, rather -- by Old Tom Morris in 1892, and originally Lahinch featured a host of the screwy, tricky holes such as were fashionable at the time. Alister Mackenzie redesigned "Ireland's St. Andrews" in 1928, just after he'd built Cypress Point but before he'd done Augusta. He left the land alone, while smoothing Old Tom's more eccentric edges. Today, only numbers five and six are pure Morris.

Presently we are in the first tee box, happy to see no goats. It is believed the Lahinch herd possesses infallible instincts for meteorological prognostication. If the goats are cowering by the clubhouse, rain's coming; if they're out upon the course, the weather will be fine. How firmly do the locals believe this?When the barometer by the pro shop broke, a sign was taped to its face: see goats.

No goats, and I step to the plate. I hit a timid three-iron down the middle on the 385-yard par-four first, remembering not only that Lahinch is modest in length (only 6,697 yards, in fact) but that the thing to do on a links is stay out of trouble. Trees are no worry, but pot bunkers and the surrounding hay are to be avoided. Especially Lahinch's hay, which is as long and tentacled as it gets. "Steer well clear of the gorse at all cost," says our caddie, a grizzled fellow of between forty and eighty whose name may be Joe. He was introduced as Joe, but when other caddies give him a wave, or jog over to bum a smoke, they call him Bob. Joe's little joke, I guess.

Joe seems disengaged on the opening holes, but I'm enjoying myself mightily, hitting the ball not too badly. There's a devilish aspect to the old links courses: None begins at number one. The clubhouse is usually a bit inland, and that makes all the difference. You gain a false sense of security as you head seaward, and then after a nice little par-three third, the gusts pick up, the sound of the surf changes from a drone to a cadence and your swing blows away on the breeze. "Course starts here," Joe-Bob says as we gaze at an immense hill fronting the fourth tee box. A steady wind sweeps down, and this mere two- hundred-yard carry to a plateau seems impossible. "Take out everything you've got, and hit it all you can," Joe-Bob advises. I follow his instructions, but it's no use. I sink a bogey putt and am happy.

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