Southwest Ireland: Storied links allure presidents, celebrities and droves of golf fanatics

By Travel ArticlesNovember 20, 2012, 3:52 pm

COUNTY KERRY, Ireland -- Passionate about their sport, it's easy to understand why the Irish love golf for it has all the right ingredients.

It's played in the fresh air and in the most gorgeous of settings, which appeals to the romantic Irish. It takes a deal of time and can't be rushed, which strikes a sympathetic chord in a society not given to undue haste or gripped with an enormous sense of urgency.

And then there's the humor. Golf offers almost unlimited scope for mirth and the Irish appreciate a good laugh at least as much as they do a hot tip in the last race at Fairyhouse.

And, finally, it affords an almost unrivaled opportunity to indulge in what the Irish do brilliantly well, which is talk at length about anything and everything without reaching any particular conclusion.

So it should come as no surprise that Ireland produces a great many more talented golfers than is reasonable and has far more fabulous courses than it really needs. Three of the very best are in the southwestern counties of Kerry and Clare.

But splendid though they undoubtedly are, these golf courses are only part of the appeal of golf in Ireland. What makes it irresistibly attractive are the wonderful characters and barely believable stories that enrich the overall experience.

President Clinton, who first played the Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club in September 1998, recounted one such story. Before he teed off, his caddie asked him how many Irish golf courses he'd played. When he said, 'Just two' the caddie commented, 'Then the bet's good.' It transpired that the caddie had offered odds of 20-1 that his man wouldn't break a hundred. Despite a 12 and two sevens, President Clinton just squeezed under the target and the caddie lost comfortably more than he earned that day. To say the Irish like a bet is akin to suggesting they enjoy a sip of Guinness now and again.

Clinton has been back several times and famously drove into the cemetery well to the right of the opening fairway. When he shouted 'fore', the starter suggested he was wasting his breath. 'Nobody in there is worried about getting hurt.'

Although there's certainly no shortage of Irish characters, it was Tom Simpson, an English eccentric, who deserves much of the credit for improving the Old Course at Ballybunion. Back in the 1930s and with no funds to spend, the club turned to him for help. An independently wealthy man who enjoyed the luxury of turning a hobby into a career, he happily accepted the challenge.

Simpson always turned up for work in a chauffer-driven silver Rolls Royce, wearing a flowing cloak and beret, wielding a riding crop and accompanied by his stunningly beautiful wife, Molly Gourlay, an accomplished golfer in her own right.

The chauffeur would polish the Rolls and then drive it onto a pre-designated fairway at the appropriate time to serve lunch from an enormous wicker basket. Because it was their favorite picnic spot, the two pot bunkers in the middle of the first fairway (back then it was the 14th) are named 'Mrs. Simpson's' after Molly and not, as is often thought, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

The Old Course has recently been tweaked by Martin Hawtree, another famous English architect who not that long ago helped restore nearby Lahinch Golf Club to its former glory. Opened in 1892, Lahinch had previously been modified by a succession of great names, including Old Tom Morris, George Gibson and Alister MacKenzie. In 1927, MacKenzie improved the course enormously and went on to design such icons as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Cyprus Point.

A purist, MacKenzie passionately believed in using the existing attributes of a site and keeping a course's natural appearance. Holes weaved through the dunes and the greens rolled with the natural fall of the land. Who was responsible and why it was done no one seems to know, but the greens were flattened considerably in the 1930s.

'I think they were altered simply because the members found them a bit too difficult,' said Robert McCavery, who has been the pro at Lahinch for more than 50 years. His father was the pro before him and McCavery remembers his dad walking home to lunch across the course, pausing every so often to remove a weed with the penknife he always carried.

In 1999, Hawtree was asked to restore the MacKenzie characteristics of the Old Course (there's a gentler Castle Course at Lahinch as well). Only four greens and two tees weren't touched. The 'restored MacKenzie' course received a rapturous reception and Lahinch has since soared back up the rankings.

Photos of famous golfers, including Phil Mickelson (twice), Tom Watson, Stewart Cink, Ian Baker-Finch and dozens of others, hang on every wall in the pro shop. There's even one of Neil Armstrong, who may have walked on the moon but never won a major. The other person in nearly every shot is McCavery, who keeps a camera handy at all times because, 'You never know who's going to drop in.'

A more modern great Irish links is Tralee Golf Club. Arnold Palmer designed it and said that he is proud of the outward nine but really didn't have much to do with the back nine because, 'God had already designed it.'

There are wonderful views of the Atlantic from every hole and its elevated location leaves it particularly exposed. A calm day here is even harder to come by than an Irishman who doesn't like a drink.

'Links golf tests temperament in a stringent manner because good shots can end up bad and bad shots can finish up good,' said David Power, the professional at Tralee. 'One doesn't always get what one deserves. Be patient, accept the challenges and regard it as part of the fun. That's what the Irish do.'

Power suggests the trick is 'to use the wind rather than fight it by playing punch shots with a choked-down grip and restricted follow-through. Play by feel, imagination and trajectory control. Remember, the best scrambler wins.'

And, more important, try and have as much fun as the Irish always do.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up right where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.