Rick Cleveland

Challenging trip abroad gently reminds Rick Cleveland ‘this is why we golf’

Rick Cleveland with the statue of Arnold Palmer at the Tralee Golf Links.
Rick Cleveland with the statue of Arnold Palmer at the Tralee Golf Links.

So, as this is written, Mississippi State and Southern Miss are about to play in a regional championship in Hattiesburg and your correspondent is roughly 4,400 miles away in Dublin.

And your correspondent won’t return until after either State or USM plays LSU in a Super Regional this weekend in Baton Rouge.

Now then, some would call this poor planning. On the other hand, this has been a bucket-list trip long in the making. There are places to see, bogeys to make. Lots and lots of bogeys.

A group of eight of us have played seven of Ireland’s greatest links golf courses in nine days. Actually, the seventh was in Newcastle, northern Ireland, a storied course known as Royal County Down. It is the most difficult course I have played in my 54 years of golfing.

The other six — Waterville, Tralee, Ballybunion, Old Head, The European and Portmarnock — all have been hard.

It reached the point, we would make our bogeys, head for the next tee, survey the situation, and someone would say, “Ah, lads, what fresh hell have we here...”

Nothing in Mississippi prepares you for links golf: for the wind, the hard fairways, the thick gorse, the deep pot bunkers (often hidden from view), the dunes, the hard, undulating greens and more wind.

At Royal County Down, we seemingly experienced four seasons in one 18-hole round. We were alternately cold, warm, cool, hot (not for long), wet and dry and wet again. We changed in and out of rain jackets and sweaters so often we needed changing rooms. And all the while, the wind blew.

One good thing: We could always see the rain coming from over the mountains in the distance. We had fair warning.

The wind has blown the entire trip. On the west coast of Ireland at courses such as Old Head, it came from the Atlantic Ocean. On the east coast, it came from the Irish Sea. Always it came, sometimes harder than others. But it was persistent and it changes the sport entirely.

At Royal County Down, downwind, I hit a 210-yard 5-iron second shot into a 520-yard par-5 hole for my only birdie of the day, an easy two-putt. Now, anyone who has played golf with me knows I don’t hit the ball that far. But that’s how hard the wind blows.

On the same course, going the opposite way (toward the sea), I used a 5-iron for one 135-yard shot. It came up short.

Once, I asked a course ranger if the wind always blows like this.

He replied, “Ah, lad, ‘tis but a breeze today. This is not wind.”

In America, we refer to any golf course as “links” — as in, let’s go hit the links. We are in error. Links comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “hlinc,” in the 10th century, which meant a ridge. It evolved to refer to the rough, grassy area between the land and the sea. And, yes, there are often ridges and dunes involved.

Trees are scarce and sometimes just plain absent. Gorse — a thick, prickly, yellow-flowering shrub — abounds. It’s everywhere and seems to dine on golf balls, mine in particular.

Links golf plays with your mind. The wind is in your face on a 440-yard par-4, so naturally you swing harder. You lose your rhythm. You hit your ball into the gorse — or into one of those deep pot bunkers where the only fear worse than knowing you probably can’t blast the ball out is that you might not be able to get yourself out.

The greens are hard and difficult. So are the fairways. Tight lies abound. Often, it is better to use your putter from 30 yards away instead of risking a wedge shot off one of those tight lies. You tense up. You tighten your grip. That’s never good.

Yes, there are times you ask yourself: Why did I pay all that money to put myself through this wringer?

And then you hit that one shot, the 5-iron with the wind that leaves you the 15-foot eagle putt. Or you see one of those amazing vistas over the Atlantic Ocean or the Irish Sea. Or you and your partners, in the 19th hole over mugs of Guinness, recount the round, tell stories and laugh like school kids. And you remember: This is why we came.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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