Fergal O'Leary overcomes it all in pursuit of a dream
Our intrepid US Consultant turns 30 and finally plays golf’s Alma Mater
To celebrate the arrival of a new decade in my life, I spread my wings and took my golfing ambitions up above the clouds towards the motherland of Ireland. A great sense of pride and enthusiasm always runs through me when I see the early morning lights signalling the west coast of the Emerald Isle. They are the guiding stars that let me know that old familiarities and childhood memories are soon to be with me again. Such a small nation represents so much to so many – and with a smile breaking out on my face, I know I am back home. Countless numbers of golfers flock to our island every year to finally experience “true links golf” and for some, they form a baseline understanding of what a links course looks and feels like. I grow tired of, let’s call them, ‘lesser’ experienced golfers referring to their home club as a “links golf course” which could be about as non-conforming with the R&A definition of a links course as it gets. I typically respond with ‘have you ever been to Ireland?’
Growing up in the coastal town of Portmarnock, and having the great privilege of membership at Portmarnock Golf Club, I returned to a magical place where old friends extended a handshake and a welcome back. The pride of wearing the club tie, sharing a pint, looking out over the links-land, visualizing memorable shots you’ve hit to each flag brings an intangible swell of emotion. There really is no place like home. It’s often said that a golf course puts a little town on the map, and Ireland has plenty of examples. The effort to get there might be great, the roads might be horrendous, the weather might make you shiver, but the reward brings you back again and again. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. With that said, I don’t blame people for getting a mini-bus with an educated driver!
Having played 81 of the top 100 golf courses in the world, it’s been a running joke in my life that I’ve never played at the Old Course. It makes me cringe just to say it. I often look in the shaving mirror and say to myself “You’re born & reared in Ireland, and you’ve been to Nine Bridges in South Korea before you’ve been to the Home of Golf”. It just doesn’t make sense. But you think I haven’t tried? On my first attempt, my passport was in the US embassy getting a visa, and a particular Irish low-fares airline (who will remain nameless for now) wouldn’t let me fly on a driver’s license. We had to cancel everything – oh, and I don’t get on a boat. On my second attempt, the flights, the hotels, the car and the tee times were all booked, and the Icelandic volcano decided to blow its load all over European airspace resulting in my trip getting cancelled. Even if I would get on a boat, they were all full.
I don’t take being disappointed very well, and this was devastating for me. How can I play the top 100 golf courses in the world if I can’t get to the Royal & Ancient?! I was trying my best not to convince myself that some things are just not meant to be. This really can’t keep happening to me. With all the disappointment (yes, first world problems, I realise this), I decided to make it a goal of playing the Old Course with my Dad on my 30th birthday – October 1st 2012. So, was it to be 3rd time lucky? I contacted the club and was informed that due to the Dunhill Links championship, the Old Course was closing the first week of October to prepare. I remember my head falling into my hands and letting out a sigh full of sadness. All I could do was look up to heaven and whisper, “you’re really testing me, aren’t you?” I changed my flights to fly home a week earlier, and then the golfing bonanza could really begin, although my dream of playing at the home of golf didn’t happen on my birthday – but not to worry – the fact that I didn’t have to contend with Ryanair politics or a hormonal volcano was enough.
So here it was, fly to Edinburgh and play at the Old Course, Kingsbarns, Muirfield and North Berwick. Yes please, sign me up with bells on. The night before our departure, just to add another twist to the story, at around 8pm, I realized that my golf bag was locked away in the bag-room at Portmarnock Golf Club! Here I am getting ready to play St. Andrews and the possibility of having to use rental clubs was growing rapidly. I drove to the caddy-masters’ house and he wasn’t home. I left him a note to which he never saw. A last effort phone call at 10pm was rewarded with the caddy-master agreeing to drive down to the club, open the bag-room, so I could get my clubs. I was practically down on my knees thanking him. It was 11pm when I got home and had to be up at 4am for my flight. I swear you could not make this up.
We took off from Dublin on a dark and rainy morning. When our flying bird crept its way above the crying clouds, I took a deep breath and reassured myself that this was actually happening. When we arrived into the town of St. Andrews, my imagination was filled with images of a settlement which had for so many years, felt like the gold medal that was always just beyond my finger tips. I wanted it so badly. Finally we made the turn off South Street and there stood the headquarters of the R&A. My god it was beautiful. The fact that I was sharing this with my Dad made it one of the greatest days of my life. He’s such an important figure in my development and character, and here before us stood a living piece of history. It didn’t take long for me to start focusing on my first tee shot. It’s time to play golf.
The most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course was walking under the archway at Augusta National out onto the first tee, a place where Masters are identified. Never in my life has my body felt so weak. The first tee on the Old Course feels like an altar of epic proportion with the golfing gods of Old Tom Morris peering down watching your every swing. I was standing on the shoulders of giants. Every time I heard the wind blow, I felt like it was OTM offering a word of warning with his distinctive white beard blowing in the North Sea breeze. Let’s hope I was listening closely as not many courses have topology so natural and a devilish name for every bunker. The valley of sin awaits those who care to tango. I gripped my 1 iron and ripped it down the middle. Dad gave me the thumbs up and that’s all the encouragement I needed to proceed down the first fairway.
Everybody has their own unique experience on the Old Course, and you never forget your first time, but with the upcoming Dunhill Links championship, the greenskeepers had the white tees slightly forward which made the course very playable and offered up 4 birdies to me. I was there to experience the ‘out & back’ feel of a property, the craftsmanship of the bunkers, the memories of the Open Championship, the dual-greens and the excitement of hitting a ball over a hotel! I carded a 72 and reflected on the magnificence of a piece of property which has stood the test of time and will forever be a place for golf architecture excellence. I bore witness to a layout which has been copied and replicated around the world, and I understand why golden age architects would come here to populate their imagination with brilliance. Wow, I had just played at the home of golf with my Dad. It’s what this game is all about.
A few miles down the road lays the tiny town of Kingsbarns. Here in this corner of the ancient Kingdom of Fife, where golf has its spiritual and cultural home, Art Dunkley and Mark Parsinen, the developers, along with Kyle Philips, the course architect, have created a wondrous place. The views of the North Sea immediately differentiate Kingsbarns from the Old Course. The hospitality from the get-go and constant desire for golfing feedback makes you realize that Kingsbarns Golf Links is serious about the experience. There are no members at this club. The management decided that everybody will be treated equally and a member for the day. It’s quite a successful approach and has been a winning formula since 1999. With the preparations for the Dunhill Links also in full swing at this famous venue, the conditioning was marvellous and the test was mighty. Each hole has a unique name with its own personal history, and having the benefit of the chief developer walk the back nine with me, I couldn’t go wrong and the day couldn’t be better. I felt that this course was far superior to the Old Course and the routing across the natural topology was stunning. You’ll notice the American touches around the place and the locker-room amenities. I’d happily play here every day.
A golf trip to the South-east of Scotland couldn’t be complete without a drive out to East Lothian. The fabled fairytales of Musselburgh and Leith went through my head as we followed the signs for Berwick. My favourite architect of all time, Harry Colt, made his way to Muirfield decades ago and today we know it as ‘The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’. The name says it all. My suit and tie were on, my cufflinks were shining and I could see my reflection in my black leather shoes. I met my host early that Friday morning at Greywalls and we proceeded into the clubhouse. Almost every second locker had the name of a Knight, a Lord or a General from the British army. An Irishman had entered and was ready for battle. The format on that Friday was two-balls, as is traditional with the exception of unaccompanied visitor play on Tuesdays & Thursdays. It was enjoyable to watch 4 golfers playing foursomes and keeping pace. The first hole at HCEG is the toughest opening hole on the Open rotation. A long par 4 with a gentle move to the right, accompanied by high rough and a small green – and add in the prevailing wind in your face. The kidney shaped bunkers were in full force and I shivered as I happily walked past as many of them as I could. I was reminded of Ernie Els’ magic touch to win the Open at Muirfield and how only a miracle would get his ball out of what is appropriately called a Hazard. You don’t want to go into any bunker at Muirfield because you won’t win. They all could be convicted of murder at a moment’s notice. My host shared many a story of Open championship heartbreak on this links. Memorable holes at the front side included the par 4 6th hole with the wall jutting out across the fairway, which is to be avoided at all costs if you want to have any hope of hitting the green in regulation. Colt narrowed the landing area at about 265 from the tee, and stacked plenty of stones in that wall to get your attention. With just two balls in play, the front nine was done in just over an hour. Its world ranking is magnificently deserved and the memorability of each visual is breathtaking.
Having played so many of the best courses on the planet, my benchmark for golfing supremacy is not normal. With this club’s exclusivity, and extraordinary membership (I was told not to submit an application for at least another 35 years), the sense of privilege really made you feel like you were amongst honourable company. The routing does take you in many different directions across this relatively flat layout. The rises in the land are gentle and there is certainly a natural flow to the topology. The green conditions were impeccable, as is pretty much everything once you get through the front gates. Approaching the 18th is a somewhat daunting shot. The swirling winds, the ominous death traps do everything they can to disrupt any sort of inner peace you are trying to maintain between your two ears.
The traditions continue after the 18 holes have been played. The “lunch at Muirfield” is known around the world, and now it was finally my turn to see what it was all about. We adjourned in the expanded ‘Smoke Room’ while the dining room was being prepared. This room is populated with enormous gold frame paintings of British monarchy and glass-case cabinets of precious silverware and historic golfing trophies. Scholars of this game have entered this legendary room and it leaves quiet a mark on your mind. As I was introduced to each member that entered, the bell rang and lunch was ready. That day was particularly busy with almost 80 people for lunch. There is a large table full of wine bottles where you select which one you’d like to seduce your senses with during delicious consumption. The layout of the dining room reminded me of the dining hall at University and how boys used to jostle for position as hunger smacked them across the face. The British elite sauntered into the room and the food was revealed. Grown men sat on long benches wherever there was a free spot looking forward to what was piled on their plates. It created a great sense of camaraderie and everybody became instantly friendly. I sat with the most fascinating gentlemen and I couldn’t help but gaze around the room feeling that the game that I love unites people of all backgrounds, beliefs, abilities and passions. Each member is one of nature’s gentlemen. The high ceilings, historic paintings, royal membership, boisterous laughter, clinking of wine glasses and endless supply of opulence made me feel like a King. This place is epic. I didn’t have time to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming as I was too busy soaking it all in. Dad picked me up and said ‘how was it?”. I didn’t know where to begin.
We continued down the narrow roads to North Berwick Golf Club. The hailstones for the first 3 holes made me question my sanity and the sky looked about as friendly as a bull to a red rag. As is typical in that part of the world, the weather changed every 20 minutes and you start counting rainbows just as soon as you begin guessing when to put back on the Gortex. This golf course is so significant and its global reputation is almost unparalleled. CB MacDonald and Seth Raynor created a par 3 Redan hole at every course they ever built, and the original sits along the land of the 15th at North Berwick. The 4th tee and the 15th tee box are shared, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why every group was taking photographs. The Redan holes which I’ve played around the world were slight modifications of the original to the extent that at North Berwick, you could barely see the top of the flag due to the large bunkered mound between you and the green. Other Redan holes I’ve played weren’t as blind, but regardless, the original is so unique and arguably the most challenging shot of the day.
Like the Old Course, the links at North Berwick is a traditional ‘old and back’ layout which becomes a little predictable playing with the same wind for 2 hours, and then the opposite wind for the next 2 hours. For a scratch player, it’s not terribly difficult or long, but that’s where the enjoyment came for me. Shot-makers love old quirky courses where the need for intelligence overpowers the need for length. The joy of hitting over stone walls, playing through bouncing quirky fairways full of moguls, cavernous grass bunkers, mind-blowing green contours and a no-frills atmosphere about the place lets you know that this club has history older than history. Modern day architects couldn’t recreate North Berwick if their lives depended on it. It just comes from another era and takes you back in time when hickory shafts ruled the roost. Dad and I were looking at the features with amazement. The weather conditions didn’t make it easy that evening, but hitting back towards the clubhouse on 18 takes you back into the town and offers one last chance to pick up a shot. Like many of the par 4s out there, they aren’t very long and are there for the taking with modern day luxuries. It was nice to end my Scottish adventure with a classic bump & run approach shot and a closing birdie three.
We returned to the emerald isle where I managed to experience 40mph winds at Lahinch, 30mph winds at Ballybunion and 25mph winds at Royal County Down and Portmarnock. The wind and rain were doing their level best to dampen my determination, but I am a man of passion and nothing stops me when I put my mind to something. Walking the creations of Alister MacKenzie, Tom Simpson and Harry Colt is a fortune that so many will never experience. It’s always very important to remember where you come from and celebrate what your country has to offer the world. The benefits of coming to such countries as Ireland and Scotland become immediately evident when you can experience so much world-class golf in a relatively small geography. I smile when I recall witnessing the famous goats at the renovated Lahinch, the beautiful shining strand at Ballybunion where my grandfather used to walk when he was alive, and I hope he looks down on me every day with pride. And of course, just for kicks, I initiated the never-ending debate of whether you’d rather play Portrush or County Down. That argument may never be settled and we’ve all had a go at it at some point! My 30th birthday itinerary was one for the ages. My poor 1 iron was exhausted, but its value was, and always will be, immeasurable. My two weeks across the pond brought me up to 85 of the top 100 golf courses in the world and I finally got the ‘Old Course’ monkey off my back! I fall in love with this game everywhere it takes me and the memories I have will be with me forever. I’m excited for the future and what lies ahead. Written by Fergal O’Leary - photos of Fergal by his Dad