As I sit down to watch my favorite of the 4 golf majors, the Open, or as it’s better known the British Open this week, I am reminded of another adventure.
This year the Open returns to Northern Ireland after a long hiatus, some 60 years since it was first given the honor to host a British Open. It is a big deal to the people of Northern Ireland and especially the members of this great golf course. Memories flood back of my first time there.
Royal Portrush is it’s name, right on the coast, with stupendous views and it is the site of the 148th Open.
As I became more proficient at planning and operating great golf trips/adventures, my desire grew to learn all the history of the game. That led to wanting to play all the great courses in the UK. More specifically, I began to obsess about playing the courses that were bestowed the title “Royal”. That coincided with a deep desire to play all the courses that ever held a British Open. Now I know some are yawning and think golf is boring but I and many of my friends find the game exciting especially on these scenic links courses, and we actually love watching these big events on TV.
Golf on links courses overseas offers more than just hitting a little white ball around hell’s half acre. These courses are situated on beautiful pieces of coastal magnificence that you walk around (no golf carts) with a caddie. You take in the scenery and it invigorates you. You hike the land. There are cliffs to negotiate, beaches to your periphery, waves crashing, sea air to smell, and hills to climb. Walking these courses from 7 to 10 miles at a time is an exhilarating workout. Non golfers just don’t understand that golf offers such exercise. In addition you walk with a caddie, and the good ones regale you with wonderful stories of epic battles at his course be it legendary golf matches by the greats, or soldiers defending their homeland from invaders since the stone age. Many have fascinating WWII stories or Braveheart tales. I personally love that stuff. Much more fun than walking quietly through museums reading plaques and such.
Royal Portrush came up in my research and I devised a plan to get to it during one of our big trips, across the pond, as it is often phrased. Portrush and the Northern Coast of Ireland offers views that are simply breathtaking. The course is as good as it gets for golfers, tough, rewarding, strenuous, scenic and of course, the elements you have to deal with. Wind, rain and cold at any possible moment then back to sunshine. Jackets on, then rain gear on, jackets off, then put it all back on again. It is a true test of fitness, and of the ability to change clothes while walking up and down hills in heavy winds. You get good at it after a while. Of course I didn’t know this course would be so great, that’s part of what makes it an adventure. It was a fantastic design I was sure of it and I had to play it.
After visiting the “southwest swing” of Ireland three times I developed a strong desire to play in the North, and the great courses I had heard about. On many of my adventures organizing and operating golf trips, the main trip was fun but lots of work. Making sure everyone showed up on time, had caddies arranged, money games organized etc, was distracting at times and took away from some of the enjoyment. So I would organize extra rounds of golf somewhere interesting and fun with one or two like-minded golf fanatics ready for adventure. We would take a drive to a new destination and scramble to get back in time for dinner with the guys. Kindred spirit Kevin, who was up for anything as long as he got to play more golf, would join me. Others would ask to join in as it became known I was creating these extra shenanigans.
I wanted to play as much as possible while on trips, but most of the time I was looking for a quick side trip to explore other courses and sites that I would bring our group to the next time back out. My partner in AWG Marc would hem and haw but would join in much of the time as long as it was on site or close by. Kevin on the other hand didn’t care if it meant missing dinner and drinks with the guys, if it meant finding another course to try. Kevin was one of the early “crazies”.
On this Ireland swing I was scheming to stay a couple of extra days so that I could figure out how to play in Northern Ireland and see the Coast. Maybe we could even hop over to Scotland and try to play the Old Course at St. Andrews (my ultimate goal of all goals). An ambitious little side trip it would be. I needed company.
Marc, Steve A, Bill and I did what later would become known as the “pre-trip” by coming in a day early from the rest of the guys to have a fun day without the responsibilities of leading the large group. We would try out a course on the other side of the country, The European Club. This would entail landing, immediately driving to the course and playing 18 holes along the coast. A driver would pick us up the moment we finished and drive us cross country to the hotel where we would meet the rest of the group in the am. Eat in the car, sleep in the car, it was quite a whirlwind. Not the most relaxing way to start a golf vacation. This required precise timing and I am happy to say it worked out well. The pre-trip was exhausting. It was not well thought out, but thankfully it was still my drinking days and we coped. I would fine tune this element of adventure over the years and people would lobby to get in on the “pre-trips” to come.
Steve F, a quirky character of the group as many were, happened to mention to me that Northern Ireland would be great to visit. I then planned what would come to be known as Jay’s “post-trip”. Steve volunteered to join me and that he could be the driver, so we could travel on our own without the tour bus. He said driving on the wrong side of the road was no problem. It would be a hit and run adventure with only 4 guys who could handle it, and I made the arrangements. Marc, my partner, did not like my plans to leave the big group on our last night in the Southern Ireland golf swing. I, as usual, was on a mission. He would lead the big group to it’s final leg of the tour on his own, and I would adventure on.
Kevin was in and because these things are usually done as a foursome, fellow burgeoning “crazie” Billy was last to come on board. After asking who the others in the group were, ‘Steve and Kevin”, he thought it was perfect. All low handicap guys, golf maniacs, and true adventurers. He was excited.
All my other excursions away from the group involved quick drives or timely moves to play extra rounds of golf wherever our trip was while others rested, took naps, or went to the bar. This was an actual adventure. New lands, self drive, find restaurants, meet the locals.
We would break away from the group in south eastern Ireland after playing Old Head, famous at the time, for Wayne Huizenga taking all his Miami Dolphin buddies and corporate golf nuts to
play this course out on the coast. Old Head is another truly spectacular golf course with dangerous high cliffs all around the walk. Warning signs all over the place make sure they didn’t lose anyone over the side of the cliffs. Short bouts of vertigo were common even for the most seasoned walkers. They would come from all over the world to walk this course. They sold dramamine in the pro shop.
It was hard to drive from different courses and hotels that are part of the rotation of travel golf in the area, so Wayne would hire a helicopter to get his guys there and back in time for dinner. We could not afford this method for our 20 guys so we traveled by coach for hours at a time. Many helicopter “taxi” companies sprang up to fill this ever expanding need for the unflinching well healed golf nuts now discovering the Huizenga method of hitting multiple courses, fast and easy. There goes Wayne and Marino on another Vietnam war like chopper attack as they disappear into the sun; “I love the smell of helicopter fuel in the morning!” It would get busier and busier at Old Head after Wayne and his merry men let the secret out.
My plan would be to play Royal Portrush in the north and then Royal County Down on the south east corner of Northern Ireland (lots of driving). We would spend two days exploring the coast for our buddies to make sure they would be interested in making a trip there in the future. A tour operator helped me with logistics and access to these private courses (the Royals are all must plays but require formal requests and acceptance to visit). These two courses are pretty much the cream of the crop.
The Irish people are so great and treat American visiting golfers so well that it’s no wonder we visit many times. My tour operator Eamonn knowing it would be a challenge for us to fly to Belfast and drive our own rental van to the coast without help, suggested we take a GPS. This was in the days of the bulky GPS units you would hook up in the car. No cell phone GPS apps yet. He was based near Dublin and drove south almost three hours to meet us at the airport in Cork so that we would have a unit to put in our rental van when we got to Belfast. They did not have them in the cars up there. That was over and above duty and we became good friends then and there. Imagine Alamo rental doing that here, not a chance!
The plan would end at Dublin and then our flight home. I realized that Kevin and I could take a short cheap flight over to Scotland and explored an extra day or two to go to St. Andrews and realize my dream of playing the Old Course at St. Andrews. I made the plans. We would leave Bill and Steve at Royal County Down and they would drive to Dublin with the Breadtruck and we would travel on to Scotland through Belfast (in the other direction). I could only get the two of us on the most famous golf course in the world or Bill and Steve for sure would have joined us. St. Andrews, where it all began is known as The Home of Golf. Our adventure would end there.
But that’s another story.
Steve becomes Magoo…
Marc and the group dropped us at the airport near Cork and we began out “post-trip”. It started with some wrinkles. Bill had jumped on the chance to join myself, Kevin, and Steve to make this exploratory journey. He knew, as did I, that this type of adventure needed the right mix of adventurers to make it smooth and fun. Golfers who could play well and move along, but also problem solvers and go-along guys who could make adjustments easily if necessary. We all had to pull our weight as well. You guys get the luggage, we will get the van. You get the GPS activated, you get the snacks etc. It almost all fell apart before we started when Bill and Kevin realized that our good buddy and regular golf partner Steve A was not the Steve who first happened to run this idea by me. A nice guy, Steve F, but not our regular adventurer material.
The look the two exchanged as the realization set in was priceless and one that repeated itself at every bizarre thing that would transpire going forward. It was a lesson for me to plan these excursions properly like a navy seal operation and remember not to take my role lightly.
Steve was the one who assured me he could drive the narrow roads and handle the wrong side of the car/roads in Ireland, so I never gave it another thought. We had our driver. At arrival in Belfast we were on our own. No more local driver/tour guide and bus. We would be adventurers navigating the plan. I had us staying at the Bushmill Inn the nicest of the Inns in the area near the course That was the prime stop on this journey. The course, site of this year’s Open and the impetus for this story to come out of my head at this time. Royal Portrush.
Bill and Kevin expressed their displeasure that the 4th musketeer was not a tried and true “crazy” as we called ourselves. The Crazies are the guys who played from daylight to sundown on these adventures and would travel great distances to do so without sleep food or drink if necessary. I assured them it would all be great. After all he was our driver.
The boys would collect our bags and golf clubs as Steve and I would go to the car park and find our little minivan. To my chagrin our little minivan turned out to be a big square van similar to a UPS truck and that was not good news for novice negotiators of these roadways. We watched our bus drivers handle driving so well for years. Half the times our eyes were closed when horns blared and expletives were exchanged. I turned to Steve “you got this, right”? “No problem Jay”. Why was his voice so high? Driving on the wrong side of the road from the wrong side of the car was one thing, well two things, but driving the giant breadtruck, as I called it, was another. I tried to remember if I ever finished that will I was working on.
He climbed into the driver seat and looked for where to put the keys into the ignition. “Steve that’s my seat. The steering wheel is on the other side here.” ”Oh right Jay.” As he backed up, as if he was driving a fiat spyder, I yelled “stop!” and he came within inches of crashing into the cars parked behind us. “Calm down Steve. You got this. Just go slow.” I contemplated: how do I take over driving? I have to admit I was a little scared of what he was going to do, but more scared of what I might do if I took over. I let it be. As we exited the car park, Steve would be too far left and we took out one of the arms that goes up and down. Luckily no one was there to witness this little mishap.
As we barrelled ahead to pick up the guys, Steve could not figure out what side to pull over to, and as the guys started walking towards us, he went faster and almost hit them. I saw that look exchanged between Kevin and Bill once again. I yelled “STOP,” and he stopped right in the middle. Cars drove around us with people shouting something we couldn’t understand. The Irish dialect was harder to understand in the north than in the south it seemed. The boys loaded us up.
Onward to the first roundabout. Most of us don’t regularly use roundabouts here in the states but they are pretty easy to figure out with experience. The whole yield situation so that there is no need for a light works well. However, when the traffic is coming the other way, it takes quite an adjustment to get in sync and to do so without killing yourself and others. “Steve you’re going the wrong way,” I said calmly so as not to panic anyone, especially him, as two lanes of traffic came right at us instead of with us. “NOOO!” we shouted in unison. The bread truck, almost went over as Steve made the moves necessary to save us. We went around twice before he figured out how to exit the roundabout and get to the highway. I am not sure if Bill and Kevin were laughing in the back or crying, but there were definitely tears! Jesus was being invoked as I tried to give Steve instructions calmly so as not to cause any more sudden moves, but by the end of the first roundabout I was a lunatic.
When we finally got on the long straightaway of the highway (more like a normal 4 lane road in the U.S.) I started getting used to how it looked to keep the truck in the center of the lane. Every minute or so, bump bump bump, and I would shout “more right, more right!”. Steve’s inclination was to not get too close to the cars coming at him so he over compensated to the left, and would go off the road often. The boys in the back would raise their eyebrows every time, “more right he said Steve, more right!”. Thank God we figured out the GPS and had our directions for the two hours plus drive to the coast. Mostly highway we were told. There were no cell phone GPS apps like there are now so we were dependent on that thing. Cell service was spotty so we weren’t calling for help if we needed it, but what could go wrong now?
About 35 minutes in, Steve suddenly decided to exit this motorway to grab a cold drink. As we shouted “NO No please” it was too late. The straight run to the coast on this easy to navigate highway was just put in jeopardy. The GPS recalculated and with that heavy accent kept telling us to go around, block after block, and somehow we got to a Stop-n-Go type of store miles away from the highway. How would we ever find our way back to that highway and where in God’s name were we?
We all went in after much back and forth trying to park and I believe some orange cones were flattened. We got some refreshments and stocked up. We still had an hour plus to go. When we all took our places in the truck, I had to remind Steve he was in my seat. “Other side is the driver’s side Steve.” I had a small sandwich and a drink as did Bill and Kevin. As Steve began backing up the breadtruck, at a too high a rate of speed as usual, we all noticed that he had a premade footlong tuna fish sub. Could you imagine a worse thing to buy at a petrol station? In one hand the oozing sandwich. A giant soda was in the other that he negotiated the steering wheel with.
The Boys in the back started moving their lips. I believe they were praying. Their hands moving, maybe it was the sign of the cross? Stuff was flying out of the sandwich as he chomped and shifted and turned the vehicle. We barrelled down the street dragging something from the parking lot underneath us. We were too scared to tell Steve to stop and find out what it was.
None of us could remember which way we came from. We somehow left it up to Steve? The GPS kept recalculating and we listened to it and we made one wrong move after another. We watched Steve never miss a beat with that giant sandwich. How could we know that the GPS recalculated us away from the highway to a completely new route? Now that we were off course
it was taking us through little towns and into the deep, deep farmlands of nothingness to take us north.
I decided to call my wife as I somehow had service in one little town. I had been away for several days. We planned the trip over two weekends and the fourth of July to make the actual time away from work no longer than 1 week. She hadn’t heard from me in several days. We moved through some construction barricades that made the lane a little tight. Steve was going way too fast, as my wife said “It’s about time you called hon. I had no idea you were doing this excursion.” I was notorious for not telling her my plans until the last minute or even not at all.
My answer was “OH MY GOD watch ouOOUUT!” boom, boom, crash, boom, and then she must have heard click as I closed and then dropped the phone. I lost her as we took out a couple of the big metal barricades making that lane a little wider for the next people traveling through.
My wife would have to wonder for quite some time what happened. IRA? (it was Belfast). Off a cliff? Head on collision? I am not sure how she put up with me all these years. I just didn’t think to call her back right away. I was too worried about surviving.
When the dust settled there was not much damage to the truck, some scrapes and things hanging but fine. Our bread truck was a tough one. Steve finished his sandwich as we all caught our breath. “Which way now guys? I think the GPS has us going in circles” said Steve. Let’s just follow it, we figured. How bad could it get? No taking us back to the highway now. We were left to that device and hoped for the best. It rerouted us to the best way to go north and then west by taking us through the heartland and farmland between Belfast and the northern coast.
Our new route meant way more narrow roads and near collisions with every car that came up against us. It was getting dark and all we could do was follow instructions. We were Gillgan and the Skipper. A three hour tour was now going on its fifth hour and we didn’t know where we were. It was fields and fields and nowhere to stop.
Turn right here, turn left there. The destination on the GPS said we would get there by midnight. We wondered how many Bushmills there were.
On one road the telephone poles were so close to the road’s edge that we brushed a few and the big side mirrors were soon hanging on for dear life as we travelled on. They were getting quite a beating from “Magoo.” We called him that with love of course. We almost gave up hope and the guys almost revolted but I managed to keep order. Even though for most of the few hours we saw nothing but hills and grass and dirt roads, we finally came to the coast road and the GPS came back to life and said, “turn left and proceed five miles to Bushmill.” It was like sighting land on a life raft after a shipwreck. “We are going to live, we are going to live!”
As we steamrolled into the car entrance to the Inn through a gorgeous stone archway that is quite a sight to see, we almost took out two tourists and scraped the wall that had stood for years almost taking it out. “Slow down Steve!” shouted the boys in the back. We finally screeched to a halt at the check in area. We stopped and Steve got out. Bill and Kevin reached over me at the same time to pull the keys out of the ignition. They handed them to me. “YOU ARE IN Charge JAY and YOU are NOW the Driver.” I had to break it to Steve. He took it well.
The Hotel was great and the late shift was on now. At the 5 mile warning from the GPS I had cell service, and, instead of calling my wife to tell her what she must have heard was all a big mistake, I called the Bushmill to make sure our rooms were not given away. I inquired about the restaurant hours and food. Again we were given the great hospitality of the Irish people as the young listened to my tale. The restaurant was closed. However, she said they would be happy to get the cook up and “was it ok if he prepares some hot and cold sandwiches and tomato soup with some chocolats, and of course some complimentary Bushmill whiskey would be our treat as well.” “Wuulld t’aat be o’k wit ya’s?’’ “Ay yes maa’m that wuuuld be lovely.” We tried to speak her language. We were beginning to get it. It was the best tomato soup I ever had and the namesake whiskey was smoother than any I had ever had as well. Sitting by the fire I almost forgot the harrowing road trip to get here and again forgot to call home.
The next morning after a fine breakfast at this first class INN we set off to find the golf we were making this trip for. I was nervous about being the new driver, kind of like making the charge of the light brigade and the flag carrier next to you goes down and the captain picks it up and hands it to you. You can’t refuse to carry it, and you forge on, and you do the best you can until maybe you go down. “Go on now!” I took to it pretty well though and was comfortable quickly, and no one cried. We made it just fine to Royal Portrush.
Portrush as we call it was the cream of the crop in Ireland and the only Irish course that ever hosted the Open. I was determined to play all the Open courses, I just didn’t know it yet. It started with this one. Graham Mcdowell and Darren Clarke were golfers who played at this course and were known to us. We were determined to play the best and here we were.
The two most famous courses and arguably the best in Ireland are Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. The fact that they are both “Royals” should pretty much say it. And much like other resorts and restaurants and clubs there are distinct differences in how you are treated and how these establishments present themselves.
RCD is more like an aristocratic high end resort. Everything about it screams expensive, exclusive. Don’t dare come inside with mud on your shoes. “Gentleman, sign in over there.”
Wait your turn.” “Can I have a credit card for any damages?” “I’m sure you’re happy to be here, just follow the rules please, and have a wonderful visit. Thank you, that will be 300 pounds please.” A fantastic golf course and worth it’s extremely high ranking. On some lists it is number one in the whole world and we played it after we played Portrush. It was extremely impressive and a great one to check off. I preferred Portrush though.
On our visit to Royal Portrush, we had to meet our host on arrival. His name was Michael O’Leary, I believe. We weren’t allowed to go into the clubhouse of this private course without a member. He was chosen to host us this day. He was there waiting for us, an older gentleman who looked fit and seasoned and also looked like he was ready to go play a round himself, if not for the jacket and tie. He explained that at Portrush the money earned from tourist visitors like us helped with the operating expenses and upkeep of the club. They appreciated our visiting and each group would be hosted by a member on any given day and today was his day. “Apppy to do it gints.”
Only one or two groups were allowed per day if I remember correctly. He brought us into the absolutely gorgeous clubhouse. Lots of leather and wood trim and feeling of warmness.
Trophies and paintings adorned the walls of all the famous golfers who were members or played here. He told us the history of the club as he gave us our lockers and keys, and the glory of the only OPEN that was played there. He expressed their believing, that the Open would come back some day. We knew about Clark and McDowell being pros playing their junior golf there when he spoke of them, but he brought us over to a framed scorecard on the wall as he got us all a morning whiskey from the bar. “Ere gents is the scuurrecard of the club record holder.” (The lowest score shot at a club is the course record.) “Tis a scuure held by a young tiien of only 14 named Rory, shot 61 ere he diiid!” “Watch that name giints e wiell becuume famous.” Rory Mcilroy was the name. We would remember.
We followed his career after that and he did become very famous indeed, winning majors and making more records becoming one of the best in the game. Now in 2019 he comes back to this very club to compete in the Open as Mike and all the members had hoped. He further explained that at Portrush he makes us members for the day. We can eat and drink in the club play our golf and hang out as long as we like. This is the kind of treatment that makes you want to become a member on the spot. It became my favorite golf course in Ireland that day. A great and scenic, hard and wonderful golf course, it is a true masterpiece. Our caddies would delight in taking us around this course and guiding us. They were not hired out caddies but were members who volunteered to caddie for us, and were proud to show us every nuance of their baby. How can you beat this treatment?
After a wonderful day of golf and some lunch, the weather turned bleak. The pro arranged for us to play the sister course down the street. The weather always gives you a taste of the four seasons when you play golf in these areas, but our thirst for an afternoon round didn’t stop us. We walked this course pulling our clubs on trolleys. It was exhausting and as the rain came down the cold chilled our bodies to their cores. We pushed on. The ladies playing behind us in their matching sweaters, looking like it was a walk in the park, would not laugh us off this course. We he-men could not let them see us dragging and whining. We became delirious at some point and could not figure out what hole we were on after a while. However, we remember fondly this day for the unbelievable welcome we got at the fine Portrush and for the crazy second round we played in nasty weather like the true natives around us. With delirium turning our legs into jelly, with no idea if we would ever make it back to the hotel, we thought, would the chef make us some more of that tomato soup, in front of the fire? Push on boys!
The next morning we drove down the coast for the round at RCD after which we would split up. We made it without incident. We were pros now. Bill took me aside worried that I may give command of the mother ship back to Magoo for the harrowing drive from RCD to Dublin (they would leave for home from there). As I handed Bill the keys I could see the responsibility shift in his demeanor and I knew it would be ok, or at least I hoped. “Meet you back in the States gents. Kevin and I will report on the next adventure.” Off they went.
Bill and Magoo now traveling on their own would traverse mountain roads with cliffs on both sides, narrow bridges, and sheer mayhem. When a car came from the other way, Bill had to stop, back down the hill, and let the other car pass where there was the tiniest bit of room or go over the cliff. On one such mountaintop an overly aggressive local backed Bill all the way down from the crest. Driving the breadtruck in reverse, rocks tumbled down the cliffs as Bill skirted the edges. There was nowhere to go but down. Any mistake and that was it. This time Bill quickly found the only spot to let the offender pass and proceeded onward like a pro. Bill became a driver that day!
Kevin and I would get a second driver (before UBER) who would take us to Belfast in his own car so we could travel on to Scotland and the grand finale of this extra long adventure. We slept on our long journey. When Kevin and I got to the airport, I finally had a chance to call my wife. My battery was almost dead when she answered. “Where are you? What the hell happened two days ago? Where are you going now?” “I am going on to Scotland!” I said enthusiastically. “Scotland? You’re not flying into Glasgow, are you?” “Yes we are, why?” “Jay! Didn’t you hear? Terrorist bombs went off at that airport!” “When? Where? What? Hello? Hello…? damn, phone died!” Then over the loudspeaker we heard “now boarding Belfast flight to Glasgow, now boarding.” Extra security was on hand. Soldiers? That seemed curious.
I am sorry to say I didn’t find a charger or call her for another two days. But I am getting better at that now.
“Kevin, my wife said something about a bombing at Glasgow airport?” We never watch tv on these trips and rarely see a newspaper. We play golf, drive, and play golf. We boarded the plane. Nah, she must have been talking about somewhere else. They don’t bomb places in Scotland, do they?
Well that reminds me of another story… “that time when tanks surrounded Glasgow Airport: I made it to Scotland”.