The priceless emerald isle


My idea of heaven is to play golf on the West Coast of Ireland in mid-summer. Except the last time I tried it, I was battered by 30mph winds and horizontal rain that stung my face like miniature darts thrown by particularly malevolent fairies and I could barely grip the club because my hands were so cold. I had no idea where I was supposed to hit the ball as I was standing in a hollow between huge mounds of grass and I could feel a trickle of chilled rain making its way down the back of my neck.

And no matter what claims the makers of rainsuits may make on behalf of their products, none will keep you dry through 18 holes of hissing precipitation.

I looked at my caddy, a skeletally thin man whose face showed the ravages of every one of his 61 years - very few of which had been devoted to quiet, spiritual contemplation, I guessed - and he grinned.

'Ah yes Sir,' he said. 'It will take three very good shots to get up to the green in two today.'

I can rarely remember being so happy.

Playing golf in Ireland is like that. You may not have tropical weather, palm trees waving gently in a mild offshore breeze, and be obliged to carry an extra towel to wipe off the perspiration but by heaven it has plentiful compensations, the main one being the magnificence of the courses over which you play. And there are the Irish themselves who, like my caddy, make apparently daft remarks but ponder for a few moments and you realise they contain an inherent, flawless logic.

A few days earlier myself and a friend had been driving to Ballybunion, the magnificent links course or, in the eyes of many a golf nut, the cathedral of the game to which we like to make pilgrimage, and we stopped at the side of the road to ask directions.

'Ballybunion you say?' enquired the man we asked. 'Well now, if I was going to Ballybunion I wouldn't be starting from here.'

I told this story some time ago to a fellow travel writer and he said he once sought directions to Roscommon and was asked in reply: 'Are you sure you wouldn't rather go to Athlone?

'You see, I know the way to Athlone.'

I was reminded of those words, several times, by my caddy, Mac (the only name he would offer), as we plotted our sodden route through the daunting topography of yet another magnificent Irish links. Where Scotland has mounds and hollows and undulations, Ireland has mountains, valleys and rollercoasters, or at least that's the way it seems. It's like links golf on steroids.

And where Scottish caddies, in my limited experience, have a dry, slightly gruff sense of humour, in which they seem to take pride in not allowing the smallest of twitches to cross their lips, Mac was almost the caricature of a twinkly-eyed, smiling grandfather who has been there, done that and quite possibly nicked the T-shirt (or at the very least, charmed someone into giving it to him).

Throughout our round - and I most emphatically think of it as 'ours' rather than 'mine' - he interjected all manner of advice, observations and information - such as when we reached the 13th green and he informed me that my putt was 'slightly straight.'

And yet his easy style disguised a great deal of knowledge. After two holes he had my swing completely sussed and knew exactly which club to suggest. After two more I trusted his judgement so completely that I stopped asking for the yardage to the flagstick and simply held out my hand. If I subsequently hit a proper shot, the club he'd handed me was always the right one.

And then, after a couple of bad holes, he asked me if I breathed in or out during my backswing. I had no idea of course, but then proceeded to hit a succession of good shots and came to appreciate just how good a caddy Mac is. He knows that most golfers have far too many thoughts going on, so he gave me just one idea to think about, freeing my body to hit the kind of shot of which I am (occasionally) capable.

When I twigged what he'd done I asked him about it but he just smiled and said: 'You just have to let the golfer inside you come out, Sir.'

It's the best advice I have ever been given.

M Vousden

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