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A Sort of Homecoming

Which brings me to Klondyke, my favorite par five in the world. Old Tom found an alley in the valley -- a curvy, 482-yard lane that passes between grasping, greedy grass dunes. From the tee, you ask after a prospective fairway, and Joe-Bob tells you, "It's out there." He points to some big-shouldered hills and says, "Hit that gap -- you'll find the golf course." I try, and fail. On a hillside right, I have one of those level-with-your-head lies, but I give the ball enough of a nudge to send it skimming onto the fairway. Now I wait, obeying bright red letters on my scorecard that announce: "Special warning re Klondyke: 5th hole -- the Committee of Lahinch Golf Club informs all players that they will not accept liability for accidents at the crossing of the 5th and 18th fairways." Joe-Bob confirms that people do get whacked, so we wait, then play through to our green.

Things get stranger. Number six, the Dell, is a blind par three. A blind par three. There's a tee that faces a hill and -- Joe-Bob promises -- a green on the other side. A white rock is moved to a new situation on the hill's rounded summit each morning. That's your line, and your job is to hit the ball 155 yards and not worry. When you round the hill, you find a small gem of a green in a cathedral setting. There are dunes surrounding you and no wind in here. Suddenly, you can't hear the ocean.

On the ninth tee, I pause, peer ahead and notice four kids -- goat kids, real kids -- scampering up the fairway. Their mom is grazing in the rough not twenty feet from me, and I stand off the ball as the family settles -- way out here at the farthest reaches. So, of course, it starts to rain. Poor excuse for goats, these are.

Expect rain every day you play in Ireland. You can get a cold day in July or a balmy day in December, but it's an odd day that doesn't have a spell of mist, drizzle or worse. Sometimes the rain can be brutal, but often it's gentle, rainbow rain. It comes whispering in and leaves the gorse glittering in the sun. It makes the cursed gorse pretty.

We are in a lovely little shower at Lahinch as I launch a wedge on the 138-yard eleventh toward another pin I do not see. I think I've pulled onto a hill, but Joe-Bob offers a maybe. Indeed, the ball settles ten feet from the hole. "Ah, the pooka's up there today," says Joe-Bob. You'll hit a lot of pinball shots in Ireland, but they're not cheapies. The lay of the land is the lay of the land--you're playing true golf, and if you know how to bump and run, you'll thrive. There are pookas everywhere, particularly on the old courses.

And that's how I come to regard Lahinch as I putt out on eighteen: a still old, still great course. Nothing much has changed over the last fifteen years. And that's just fine with me.

Lahinch to Ballybunion is sixty-seven miles -- to which I might add, like hell. The roads of County Clare are sweet, scenic and slow, then you take a ferry, which is slower. Now you're in County Kerry, slower still. Until 1980, Kerry still had no phone service after 2 p.m. on Sundays. Kerry has come a ways since then, but only a ways.

Ballybunion has come a ways, too, I realize as I drive into the car park and behold a modern, cement clubhouse. Last time I was here, I played post-round snooker with my caddie in a dark, dank room that was barely keeping out the storm -- worst clubhouse I'd ever seen at a world-class course and the one I liked best. Now there's this ... edifice. Albert Speer takes up golf; Bally-B's Bauhaus bunker. A monstrosity. An obscenity. Progress.

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