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Pitch & Pint

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Photo: John Kernick

The Woodvale membership, she told me, numbered about thirty, off a peak of fifty just after World War II: "We've gone down over the years because all the new courses are eighteen holes, and we're a bit out of date."

The upside of being pas au courant was that Woodvale provided a window to a distant time. "The war was on, you couldn't get to real golf," she said. "My husband saw the little course in Fountainstown"—the birthplace of Irish pitch-and-putt, a vacation village on Cork Harbour—"so himself and the lads started pitch-and-putt in Cork City. Then we got married, and he put his eye on the place here. This is my family home."

At one time, Woodvale was a power in pitch-and-putt. (Member Clare Foley Keating won fourteen national ladies' championships between 1963 and 1977.) Now the competition is more subdued: a pleasant four-ball every Saturday afternoon, plus an annual week of members tournament play.

Mrs. Bell smiled. "The members are a bit mature, to put it mildly," she said. As there were no members around, I took her word for it.

Leaving the club secretary to her gardening, I drove to the nearby Douglas Pitch and Putt, a public layout on hilly land. Douglas has a large white clubhouse and two postcard holes: number two, which features a pair of palm trees on either side of a greenside bunker, and the tree-lined sixth, a downhill terror with out-of-bounds on the left and behind the green. I lost two balls to Douglas's wild perimeter but had a fine time playing and got some exercise in the bargain. I also noticed some improvement in my chipping and pitching, which John Manning had predicted. He said that former pitch-and-putters tend to have "wizard" short games. "You have this expectation of getting down in two from the side of the green," he said. I suspect it comes from having nothing but the wedge in your hand for eighteen holes.

The next couple of days were pitch-and-putt free, as my wife shopped for lace in Cork City and crystal in Waterford. On Saturday, we drove southwest of Cork City to Clonakilty, where the Fernhill Pitch and Putt Club was hosting the Club Tournament National Qualifying Round. The Fernhill course clings to a steep slope below a Fawlty Towers–type hotel (Fernhill House), and when we arrived the players were scattered over the property like grazing sheep. Instead of bleating, we heard occasional cries of "Bite! Bite!"

This was serious competition. Most of the players wore steel-spiked shoes and marked and cleaned their Commando balls with the practiced nonchalance of touring pros. A gallery member pointed out the player I had come to see: Ray Murphy, one of the top-ranked pitch-and-putt golfers in Ireland. Murphy, a thirty-eight-year-old burglar-alarm salesman with a plus-two pitch-and-putt handicap and a surprising shock of gray hair, was midway through a better-ball match with a pair of youngsters.

I followed for a few holes, studying Murphy's straightforward technique. With his hands low on the grip, he opened the face of his sand wedge and swung on an upright plane, imparting terrific spin on the ball. On one hole, his ball landed eight feet beyond the flagstick and sucked back past the cup as if powered by a motor. It was easy to see how Murphy had made a dozen holes in one in as many competitions in a single year. His putts, however, were curling to a halt short of the cup—the greens were slow, everyone agreed—and he and his partner were having trouble dispatching the kids. "Not a good day," Murphy said with a smile and a shrug.

But it was early yet. My wife and I went into town for lunch. When we returned, Murphy was just completing another round, an eleven-under-par forty-three. "That's good shooting, all right," said a teammate—noting that it was still off Murphy's best, a fifteen-under-par thirty-nine.

"A lot of pitch-and-putt is in your head," Murphy said after his round. "Your mind has to be like a computer." He said that equipment is less important (his Wilson Reflex sand iron is now more than fifteen years old) and beating balls less important still. "We practice by playing," he said. "Competition will sharpen you up a lot more than going off by yourself."

With that, he changed his shoes in the parking lot and went into the hotel lounge to meet his wife for a pint.

A month later, in Florida, I ran into a teaching pro from Ireland. "Played golf there," I said. "And pitch-and-putt. A lot of pitch-and-putt."

I expected him to grin the way we grin when people discover our national treasures. Instead, he looked apologetic. "I've never played the game," he said. "Hear it's fun."

I shouldn't have been surprised. No more than a quarter of Irish golfers have tried pitch-and-putt, and the game is not growing. The reason?Golf. The Irish have built more than 150 golf courses since 1990, making the fourteen-club game more accessible.

"We're suffering from that," John Manning had said. "People start with pitch-and-putt and then move on to golf." But for that very reason, he didn't expect the game to disappear. "We want to maintain pitch-and-putt as the nursery of golf," he said.

In my own case, the Irish game made a real impression. Playing my home course recently, I came to the 125-yard fifteenth hole, a downhill par three. Instead of hitting my usual wedge, I got out my eight-iron, my Commando ball, and a long tee. Opening up the clubface, I hit a moon shot that landed ten feet from the hole and made the putt for birdie.

And with that, I finished my round and went to meet my wife for a pint. •

10 Top Irish Par Threes

Fermoy (Fermoy, County Cork): In Fitzgerald Park, the Fermoy course has twelve extra holes, allowing it to be modified for various competitions. 011-353/253-1415

Glenville (Tallaght, County Dublin): Situated at the foot of the Dublin Mountains, Glenville has the nation's largest pitch-and-putt membership. 011-353/1451-9916

Lakeside (Templemore, County Tipperary): This course is in the town's public park, which is also great for walks and year-round fishing. 011-353/87-205-0311

Lucan (Lucan, County Dublin): Situated beside the Grand Canal near the Finstown House Hotel, Lucan features very fast greens. 011-353/628-1570

Portmarnock (Portmarnock, County Dublin): A links course near the famous golf club. 011-353/1846-1622

Rosscarbery (Rosscarbery, County Cork): Two eighteen-hole courses in a prime holiday region. 011-353/234-8188

Royal Meath (Clonee, County Meath): Ten kilometers from the Dublin city center is a championship course with some of the best shots in pitch-and-putt. 011-353/1825-2907

Sandfield House (Liscannor, County Clare): A links course set amid beautiful scenery, also in holiday country. 011-353/87-232-1076

Seapoint (Termonfeckin, County Louth): Sand dunes and a lovely strand surround Seapoint, a links course located near Baltray Golf Club. 011-353/41-988-1315

Tullamore (Tullamore, County Offaly): Set in hilly countryside in the heart of Ireland, Tullamore offers great, testing holes. 011-353/5062-1023

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