Fortunately, The Island Golf Club was only two stops farther north, just across the river from Malahide in Donabate. As the train rumbled onto a long railroad bridge and crossed a sparkling, sailboat-dotted bay, I suddenly forgot my many false starts and wrong turns. From my seat on the right-hand side of the train, I spied a golf hole—a flag fluttering above a green that jutted into the bay. I didn't know for sure, but I sensed this was The Island, because that's exactly what it looked like—a large sandbar or barrier island between the bay and the Irish Sea, piled high with beach grass-covered dunes. I looked down at the shiny irons sticking out of my golf bag and began to fidget in my seat like a schoolboy.
From the station, it was a five-minute taxi ride to the club. My playing partner that day turned out to be a fifty-year-old gentleman named John, a lifetime member whose granny lived in Malahide when he was a boy (apparently a good many grannies reside there), back when the clubhouse was out on the point beyond where the thirteenth green is today (the very green I'd seen from the train) and when the members came over from the village by boat. So John spent his childhood summers at his granny's, going to the beach and rowing across the river to play golf. Today the clubhouse is located toward the center of the island and the members drive around the estuary through Donabate, a route from which the course is not visible—you can only see it from Malahide itself or from the train.
John was proud of his course, and rightly so. I'm not sure I've ever played one that has so many different looks and offers such a variety of holes yet still maintains a cohesive overall feel. There are parts of the course where you're engulfed by the dunes and can only see the shot at hand, and there are others where you can look across several holes and see the bay or the sea in the distance. There's great variety in the shotmaking required, as well. Starting with the first—a long, uphill par four demanding that the drive be slotted into a narrow notch in the dunes—the opening holes were so difficult that by the third green I'd resigned myself to a classic seaside thrashing. But then the course shifted gears, offering up a playful medley of short holes that hopscotched in and out of the sand hills, combining a blind tee shot here with a blind approach there. The front nine continued in this manner, allowing me in and then fending me off like a master swordsman trying to bring out the best in a young pupil.
When we reached the impossibly narrow par-four fourteenth that runs along the estuary's edge (it was an especially cruel first hole back in the day), John pointed across the river mouth to the beach in Malahide where he used to swim with his granny. That day there was a new generation of kids running around, splashing in the waves. I wondered how the boys from the train were faring with the gals who'd lured them away from Portmarnock.
After the round, John invited me in for a pint and some dinner. The clubhouse was filled with members and their guests; it happened to be tournament day at The Island as well, but they welcomed me anyway. Everyone was laughing and telling stories and visiting each other's tables. I was struck by the genuine camaraderie and sense of community spirit, of "belonging" to the club—membership in the truest sense of the word. As I sat listening and soaking it all in, it occurred to me that had I prebooked a tee time and rented a car I probably would have missed all of this. By deciding to wing it and take the train, I experienced a side of Dublin that tourists don't always see. It's fitting that on the first of many days of links golf in the Old Country, rather than trying to calculate the exact yardage, fly it in and spin it, I simply let it bump and run.