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Pitch & Pint

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Photo: John Kernick

My first round of Irish pitch-and-putt was a scoring fiasco. The little eighteen-hole course at Celbridge, a County Kildare suburb of Dublin, was flat and barely 900 yards long, but the greens were the size of beach umbrellas. Every flagstick was guarded by a grassy mound or a sofa-size sand bunker. Denied the pitch-and-run, I played little punch shots to the right or left of most greens. That usually left a short chip and a putt for a par, which I didn't make often enough.

But what really drove my score up were the thirty-six penalty strokes. Playing alone, I had no one to tell me that the black rubber mat at every tee was not an optional starting point. I hit from the grass beside the whitewashed concrete tee boxes, taking divots—bad form, I learned later—and incurring two penalty strokes for each infraction. Fortunately, the handful of players on the course—a father and his two little girls, a young couple on a date, an old man right out of the cast of Waking Ned Devine—were having too much fun to notice me plowing up the terrain.

All that aside, I left feeling like hot stuff, having made two birdies. If you ignore the penalties. Which I did.

Actually, I knew more about pitch-and-putt than your average American. Having visited the web page of the sport's governing body, the Pitch and Putt Union of Ireland, I knew that it is not "par-three golf" or "short golf" but a fully codified offshoot (they even have a formal doping policy) of the Scottish game. The PPUI claims approximately 170 affiliated clubs and 16,000 members, and its players compete internationally against representatives of five other European nations and Australia. The rules follow those of golf, but a player may use only one club and a putter. The maximum hole length is seventy-seven yards and the maximum course length 1,094 yards.

The day after my first pitch-and-putt foray, I took a tour of Dublin courses with John Manning, an insurance broker and, at the time, publicity director for the PPUI. Our first stop was Irish Glass Bottle, a private pitch-and-putt club in Dublin's affluent Goatstown suburb. Formerly it had been a social club for workers at the IGB bottle factory, but when I visited anyone could join, and the membership included Ryder Cup hero Christy O'Connor Jr. (Unfortunately, the club recently went out of business altogether.)

IGB, surrounded by a tall hedge, was as flat as the public pitch-and-putt at Celbridge, but the tiny putting surfaces were raised a couple of feet, leaving a short, steep bank on all sides. "That breaks a lot of hearts," Manning said. Sure enough, an elderly player on the eleventh green grunted in frustration as his chip from fifteen feet landed by the flagstick and rolled off the green. I noticed that the Irish at IGB did not hit the ball low like their brethren on regular courses. They teed the ball high and launched wedge shots that looked like Phil Mickelson lobs. Manning said that they eschew low-spin, distance-eating modern balls, because high spin rates produce more bite. Most pitch-and-putters prefer the Penfold Commando ball, a seventy-compression marshmallow used at small-acreage driving ranges. "They're only useful for pitch-and-putt," Manning said. "I wouldn't play golf with them."

Guessing that I could use some hands-on tutoring, Manning went to his car and came back with his pitching wedge, a putter, a plastic tee and a roughed-up Commando ball. "Let's see how you do," he said.

There was no one on the fifth hole, so I took the wedge, stepped up on the hard rubber mat and chose one of a dozen small holes to insert my tee. The concrete underlayment kept the tee from going deeper than a quarter inch, so the ball sat up higher than my shoe tops. "You'll want to open the clubface and open your stance," Manning said, and when I instinctively settled my weight over my left foot, he coached me to shift it to my back foot. From that setup I thought I might slide the clubhead right under the ball. But no. My firm-wristed slap shot sailed high and floated sixty-six yards downwind, parachuting to the right front fringe.

"That's all there is to it," he said.

At the green, I elected to chip rather than putt, and my eighteen-footer went squarely into the hole. I handed Manning his wedge. "What shall we try next?" I asked. "Platform diving?"

Our next stop was the Glenville Pitch and Putt Club in the working-class suburb of Tallaght. Glenville, I quickly deduced, is the Augusta National of pitch-and-putt. With the Dublin Mountains as a backdrop, the eighteen-hole layout seems more garden than golf ground. Trees, flowering shrubs and flower beds cover the property, which features sharp elevation changes and fast greens. The club was founded in 1948, has 600 members and has hosted many national pitch-and-putt championships, including the 1998 All-Ireland Match Play.

While strolling on the front nine, Manning and I came across a threesome that included Robbie Ingram, then the reigning Dublin Stroke Play champion. "Winning that was a fluke," said Ingram, a lanky, sandy-haired man in jeans, sneakers and a club sweater. He teed up on the sixty-yard seventh hole and addressed the ball cross-handed—"cack-handed," as they call it in the combative Irish field game of hurling. With a short jablike stroke, Ingram flew his ball right at the flagstick, where it hopped once, like a small bird, and stopped ten inches from the cup.

"He tends to birdie every hole," Manning said wryly.

That was an exaggeration, but it put my two-birdie round in perspective. Good pitch-and-putters routinely shoot nine under par for eighteen holes.

Before leaving Dublin, my wife and I drove through the dock district and around Dublin Bay to the town of Portmarnock. Many years ago, we made the same drive when I was covering the Walker Cup at Portmarnock Golf Club. This time our destination was a much smaller links course, hidden behind some houses at the back of a church parking lot.

At the Portmarnock Pitch and Putt Club we found Tom Henry, a cheerful old fellow who described himself as "club secretary, founding member and dogsbody." He told us that pitch-and-putt had come to town in 1949, when a carnival set up across the road from the golf club. By 1960, the game was so popular that city folk were coming out "in busloads." Today, Portmarnock Pitch and Putt is venerable. It has three hundred members and a two-story clubhouse with a widow's walk.

The morning of our visit, in late July, the links had a bit of the old carnival atmosphere. It was the first day of the Portmarnock Open, an annual stroke-play tournament for PPUI members from all over Ireland. There were no tee times. Entrants arrived at their leisure, paid two pounds per round and played up to six rounds over four days—or all in one day, if desired. A player's best two rounds decided the main prize, with another trophy going to the fifty-four-hole winner. "We're expecting 1,300 cards to be turned in," said Henry, watching from the widow's walk.

From there we made our way to County Cork, which is to Irish pitch-and-putt what Scotland's Fife is to regular golf—the wellhead. The first pitch-and-putts sprang up in Cork in the 1930s, and many of the game's top players still hail from the southern county. In particular, I wanted to visit the Woodvale Pitch and Putt Club in Douglas, a suburb of Cork City. The nine-hole course, built in 1945, is believed to be the oldest surviving pitch-and-putt in Ireland.

Woodvale is private, so I called first, getting driving directions from the club secretary, Catherine Bell—more or less the sport's matriarch, and the first inductee into the Pitch and Putt Hall of Fame. When I drove up to the address, I thought I had made a mistake. I was in a residential neighborhood. A gray stone wall shielded houses from the sidewalk, and it took me a minute, on foot, to find the peeling Woodvale sign on a gatepost. Inside the gate, a garden path ran up a little hill between shrubs and through a backyard. A little farther up, I came to the pitch-and-putt: a charming dwarf course with miniature greens and wooden pallets for tees. The clubhouse was a tin-roofed shed no more than six feet high, and Mrs. Bell, the white-haired widow of the club's founder, Patrick Bell, stood by its door waiting for me. She wore a flowered dress and held a pair of garden shears. I had apparently interrupted a session with the roses.

No matter. The gracious Mrs. Bell invited me into the clubhouse—I had to duck through the small doorway—and showed me to a bench among the lawn mowers and garden hoes.

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