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Golfing Northern Ireland

Driving north on the Dublin-Belfast road, I was explaining to my son, Ben, the history of what are called "the Troubles." Not wanting to leave anything out, I began with the Battle of the Boyne. Sixteen hundred something. The English occupation. The Scottish settlers colonizing the north. The unrest of the Irish natives. The Easter Rising. The revolution. Division of the island. Protestantsloyalistsunionists. CatholicrepublicanIRASinnFein.

We had flown all night and Ben's eyes looked heavy, despite the brilliance and comprehensiveness of my discourse. Theangloirishagreementceasefires. His eyelids fluttered. So did mine.

Then they popped. We were crossing the border into Northern Ireland. The road had been diverted to permit free passage. But off to the left was the old border-guard station, and what a place it was: huge, encased in razor wire, sprouting antennae, cameras and gun turrets, making the old Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin seem understated. A bunker for a war zone. A bunker that said "Here is trouble." Troubled Northern Ireland. "Strife-torn" Northern Ireland, where "sectarian violence" has taken more than three thousand lives over the last thirty years.

We motored on into Ulster, then east along the coast of the Irish Sea. The police stations in the towns along the way were bunkered down like the border crossing, surrounded by high fences to test the arms of the petrol-bomb throwers. We had braved the Troubles to come north, fearless in the search for pure links golf, for courses if not undiscovered then certainly underplayed. Sure, there would be a bomb disarmed in front of the Belfast city hall during our trip. And, sure, a bunch of disgruntled republicans would carjack six vehicles and burn them to protest some wrong done by the constabulary against one of their own. But what's a bit of local disagreement to a couple of guys in search of great golf?

The towns along the coast, like little bits of England transported across the sea, were quiet and pleasant. Peaceful, and in fact, with negotiations under way and a cease-fire more or less in place, the whole country was relatively at peace. Two and a half hours from Dublin's airport, we arrived in Newcastle, home to the Royal County Down Golf Club, the Valhalla of links golf. Here we found the sort of trouble that starts with T and that rhymes with B and that stands for bunkers. And for breeze, or make it G for gales. Or D. That stands for dunes. Big dunes, big bunkers, big breeze, big trouble.

Founded before the turn of the century by the Protestant establishment of Belfast, much of which summered by the sea in Newcastle, the course began with nine holes amid towering dunes. In 1889, the original members hired Old Tom Morris from the Royal and Ancient to advise on their work and to map another nine. They paid him a most parsimonious four guineas for the effort, but he obviously didn't have to do much work. It had been done naturally. And it is nature that is the enemy at County Down, not loyalists or republicans (although some years ago someone set off a bomb in the club parking lot before a tournament. The members formed an ad hoc committee, cleared away the debris and were on the first tee by noon).


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