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An Unlikely Place

The final answer to a seasoned traveler’s always question
Carne Golf Course

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Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

The man sat on a short stool in the center of the pub, dressed in a brown suit worn thin by decades of Sunday mass in this western Irish town. Westport was already my favorite Irish hamlet before I revisited it in 2007, an idyllic burg of monuments and shop-lined streets and a stream that split the town with quiet, rolling water. Despite enough pubs to outnumber the thirsty, this dark room was always crowded, even on sunny afternoons like this one. We came in our baseball caps and expensive American rain gear because the guide books and concierges told us that Matt Molloy’s was the place for music and stories and the craic—Irish for fun, and the thing every Yankee had come to Ireland seeking, whether they knew how to pronounce it or not.

The craic poured out of Matt Molloy’s as laughter audible from the street, while our friend on his stool sang songs about daft politicians in Dublin and told jokes about backwards country bumpkins; our American ears struggled to discern the details through his brogue, but the punchlines were quick and clear, and we laughed and toasted strangers. Our storyteller had broad glasses and tightly combed white hair, and as he went around the room asking our origins, I leaned back against the wall, suddenly the shy visitor.

“Philadelphia!” I called over the conversations and clinking glasses, and the old man replied, “Philadelphia, here I come! The Liberty Bell! Rocky Balboa!”

He turned to a couple sitting in the corner behind bottles of cider: “And you, back there? Where’s home?”

“Belmullet,” they said. And a hush filled the room, the locals anticipating a zinger.

“Belmullet? Ah, Belmullet. I went looking for Belmullet once. I ended up in New York!”

The laughter came and the couple blushed. 

“Belmullet!” he said. “Have they heard of English up there yet?”

More laughter, and I gulped my drink as the smile slipped from my face. Belmullet. It looked like the end of the Earth on my map, a peninsula hanging off the edge of this far-western county of Mayo. And now I had more evidence to confirm my suspicions; even folks way out here thought it was way out there, a place so removed from the world that, in 1958, its residents fought the government over the placement of a fence they claimed would disturb the local leprechauns. ’Twas the end of the Earth indeed. And I was meant to start walking there the next day. 

I headed to my B&B early and rested for the journey, wondering if the legends of what its dunes held were true and hoping that it might be worth the walk.

*

My parents were driving cross-country from the Dublin airport to visit me in Belmullet, and as I hiked my way upward and over from Westport, I wondered if my itinerary might be their end. I was spending my summer walking and golfing the coastline of Ireland for a book that would become A Course Called Ireland, but in selecting Belmullet as a family rendezvous point, it became clear that I had subjected Mom and Dad, now in their mid-70s, to a drive toward their beyond. Four hours in a rental car on the wrong side of roads that were roughly the width of the aisle on their overnight flight…

I was shocked to find them sitting in the lobby of the Broadhaven Hotel when I finally arrived, both breathing and unscarred. Mom’s smile belied her long terror in the passenger seat, while Dad’s few remaining strands of hair were twisted sideways. “Jesus Christ, Tom,” Dad muttered as we hugged. “I spent four hours looking for signs to Belmullet. I think I’m here and I still haven’t seen one.”

What he had seen were plenty of signs to Béal an Mhuirthead, and in all my planning I had forgotten to advise them that they would be driving into Gaeltacht, an area of Irish-language speakers and Irish-language road signs. Ireland’s western pockets held communities where English was officially eschewed, though it remained the daily tongue for most. The name translated to “mouth of the Mullet,” which was the peninsula on which we now found ourselves, three travelers who had visited Ireland a half-dozen times together, but had never been bold enough to venture to the literal end of an Irish road, until now.

I assured Dad that our mission was a worthy one, a chance to witness one of Ireland’s last hidden treasures. I had never seen it myself, but I was convinced by my research that this little-known course by a little-known designer (at least to us Americans) was a Mecca from which he could leave and consider his golfing life complete. My friend John Garrity wrote an entire book about the place, where his addiction to its 17th hole—he plays it 18 times as its own golf course—borders on barmy. Another friend, after having spent a week at the course in Belmullet, was moved to tattoo its logo (four swans, from the local legend of Irish King Lir’s four children being turned to birds by his jealous sorcerer wife) on his previously ink-free corpus. The course’s designer, an Irishman unaccustomed to boasting, said of it, “Ultimately there will be no better links in the country, or, I doubt, anywhere.” Those who knew the place knew something the rest of us didn’t, it seemed, so we set out the next morning to learn it for ourselves, along the sandy banks of a landscape they called Carne.

*

Dad was waiting by the trunk of his car when I finally caught up to him in the parking lot—no automobiles for me—and I was already angry from the sneaky half mile separating the club’s sign from the first tee. 

“This is it?” he said, not hiding his prejudice toward the small box of a clubhouse and the empty parking lot. I doubted my bet on Carne as well; there was no magic in the thinly stocked pro shop, or in the AstroTurf walkways toward the tee boxes, or in the course’s heritage. It was a juvenile links, dating to the mid-1990s. There were no caddies to guide us, nor any tour busses in the car park to proclaim the place a destination.

We climbed to the first tee and launched balls toward the crest of a fairway framed by two hulking dunes, the likes of which I had seen rivaled only in nearby Enniscrone. We found rare sunshine and gentle breezes blowing across lofted tee boxes and wide greens placed as if they had been sitting there since these hills were born. We found few blind shots to nag us and shepherded our balls around skyscraping ridges of sand that no course shaper would dare traverse. We found a course that was somehow spiked with drama yet untouched, a contradiction of penal views and playable holes. Carne screamed as it whispered. It vexed and soothed, a trail of both safety and woe. And it gave me something I would carry for the rest of my golfing life, gifting me an invaluable answer to the always question. My travels have blessed me with a chance to play nearly all of this planet’s links courses, and doing so comes with a regular inquiry: “Your favorite?” By Carne’s fifth hole, I had finally found a quick and conclusive answer.

Making the clinical, objective case for Carne’s quality is small work. Shot-value searchers will note its variety and subtle challenge, along with its fairness; with few of the blind shots that besmirch the reputations of other links, this course feigns giant carries from vaulted boxes without necessarily requiring them. You can see where you are meant to hit it, whether you believe it or not, and on no other links have I felt so simultaneously excited yet disquieted about the fate of my ball. I like big dunes and I cannot lie, and they don’t get any larger than at Carne, where you can’t help but feel your own smallness, joyfully so, as you sneak your ball through the shadow of the sand, arriving at greens licked by Atlantic spray. There are no quirky greens or questionable sand traps (there are few at all, really), no holes upon which you can feel the designer’s handprints, grasping to force an impact. No one would expect a course conceived in the 1980s to play so pure and show so much design restraint.

It is that purity that makes the subjective case for Carne’s quality: You feel it in the lightness of your steps; you see it in the grasses all aglow. It is a peace in your gut that tells you everything here is right, that this is your place. I’ve felt it elsewhere, on rare occasion, but at Carne came my first realization that design metrics and course ratings are laughable fluff of utter insignificance. The course grabs you or it doesn’t. And Carne grabbed both me and my dad by the throat.

I wanted to know why. What was the recipe for golf that so shifts one’s perspective? Location may have played a part; à la Bandon and Cabot and Askernish, proper pilgrimages incline one to be impressed. But it was more than its location that made Carne roar. My research into its origins revealed an answer in the form of three persons: a former nightclub operator turned furniture salesman, an old golf pro and whomever that old pro prayed to.

*

A year after that first visit to Carne, I finally got to shake hands with Eamon Mangan, on a blustery day in May 2018. Thinning hair beneath his wooly cap, he had a gentle demeanor and a stocky Irish frame built for battering winds. I had heard him described as the driving force behind Carne’s existence, a man without whose efforts the place never would have been more than a pub dream. But Mangan seemed an unlikely patriarch and steward of one of the world’s greatest links creations: Soft-spoken with thick glasses, he wasn’t born into golf or raised on the writings of Bernard Darwin; he didn’t study templates or grow up caddying the classics of Scotland. Born and raised on the Mullet Peninsula, Mangan ran a gas business in England with his brothers before returning to Ireland to operate a family-owned dance hall. He eventually opened a furniture shop in the center of Belmullet town, where, in the 1980s, nobody was looking for a new leather sectional. The town was broke and bleeding away denizens to America and the U.K. “There was no smoke coming out of factory chimneys here,” Mangan told me. But there were some sand hills, just over there.

It was his older brother Michael who used some of that petrol money to purchase Carne House near their hometown, and with it came a 1/17 share of commonage known as the Carne Banks, commonage being land in Ireland whose ownership was shared by a group of farmers or herders. Following Ireland’s independence, the Land Commission divided up ownership of property formerly held by British landlords, but sand and peatlands were considered unsuitable for farming and left as commonage, unfenced and shared by grazing herds. When Ireland later joined the European Economic Community (later renamed the European Community), farmers were incentivized with cash to divvy up their commonages and fence off their properties for the sake of conservation. The fences were coming, and Michael Mangan weighed his options: Own a slice of barricaded duneland amid 16 other useless slices or buy them all and preserve a stretch of property to rival any linksland in the world.

He chose the latter. Buyouts and some arm-twisting brought all the farmers on board, and soon the newly formed and community-owned Erris Tourism Ltd. controlled 260 continuous acres of tumultuous dunes. Eamon Mangan and the other local board members took to handling the company’s daily operations, with just two questions to sort out: Who to build their golf course? And how to pay for it?

Ireland’s third-tier economic status in the 1980s proved an unlikely boon when it came to funding Carne: The European Economic Community was pumping money into the economies of its less-prosperous members, and the Carne project won funding as a boost for a locally depressed economy. Some more money flowed from the government body charged with preserving the Irish language, as Carne conveniently resided within Gaeltacht. The balance needed for the new course was covered by bake sales and pub lotteries; they literally passed the hat around Belmullet, and locals gave what they could for the chance to change the peninsula’s trajectory. It had worked down in the dunes of Connemara, where a destination links had revitalized hopes in a similarly remote corner of Ireland. Maybe the same could happen in Belmullet, so Michael Mangan and Brendan Padden (another local director of Erris Tourism Ltd.) went seeking counsel in Connemara. Like any good Irishmen, they didn’t talk to the golf pro or the mayor. They went looking for the priest.

The land was there; the money, however, was not. So the Mangan brothers and the rest of the Belmullet community rallied in every way possible. They used more-traditional routes, wisely taking advantage of available funding from the European Economic Community, and did what many Irish do best: passed the hat in the local pub. It all added up to the purchase of a stunning plot of linksland.

*

The weather didn’t give us much to smile about on the day I visited with Mangan at Carne, but he did grin through the rain when he spoke of meeting the man whom Father Waldron suggested build their golf course. The Irish golf travelogue Links of Heaven tells the story of Father Waldron, the parish priest turned golf developer, spearheading an effort to bring the Connemara links to life in the 1970s—a grassroots miracle that saw a top Irish course appear out of the dunes for the absurdly low sum of £50,000. The priest told the elder Mangan and Padden that he knew who could find the course in their sand hills, and that his man would do it for a pittance if they had great land to work with. Luckily for the men from Belmullet, they had both.

Eddie Hackett was a name known to plenty of golfers in Ireland. His designs at Waterville and Connemara and Enniscrone and Donegal and Dingle had won him a national reputation, but Hackett was doing his work during a time before Irish golf had been properly discovered by the larger golfing world. It soon would be, thanks in large part to the designs Hackett shared with more than 100 Irish courses before his death in 1996. His fees often amounted to bus fare and out-of-pocket expenses—maybe a few hundred quid, if the course could afford it—and the only thing that interrupted his on-site work was evening mass. A devout Catholic, being approached by a priest to build Connemara was a fait accompli.

Born in 1910 into an Ireland of meager means and a national insecurity following centuries of British rule, Hackett saw the potential in the country’s abundant duneland and imagined the courses that might exist there as a chance to boost local economies and lift Ireland’s collective spirit. A sickly childhood ruled out the Gaelic game of hurling and football for Hackett, so he turned to golf young, working at Royal Dublin in his teens before eventually becoming the head pro at Portmarnock in 1939. He was the Grandma Moses of golf architecture, not taking up his first design assignment until the age of 53, but his vision for finding golf holes in untamed terrain without aerials or bulldozers at his disposal has not been equaled since the days of Old Tom Morris. Yet his name remains internationally untold; he never designed a course outside of Ireland, nor did he trumpet his brand or market his services. (Humble to a fault, when he was made an honorary member at Portmarnock, he still refused to enter the clubhouse, ever the former employee.) He didn’t build courses for Eddie Hackett. As he would have described it, he didn’t build golf courses at all.

“Nature is the best architect,” Hackett told Eamon Mangan at their first meeting, after Michael Mangan had collected the Dubliner at the train station in Ballina and driven him 40 miles out to see the Carne Banks. “This land is sculpted by the elements down the centuries,” Hackett explained. “I will simply dress up what the good Lord has given us.”

Hackett asked Eamon to walk the property with him. They hiked the 3-plus miles around the acres’ periphery, up dunes and down valleys and scurrying under wire fences. When they had surveyed the circumference, the 76-year-old Hackett said, “We will now walk down the middle.” A few hours later, Mangan was ready for lunch in town, but Hackett asked him to bring him back a sandwich and headed back out into the dunes. 

Mangan arrived the next day with his Land Rover and asked Hackett to ride along, but he preferred the walk. “I want to feel the ground,” he explained, so Mangan used his car to transport the stakes Hackett would use to mark natural green sites. When he found one, he would stake it and walk back to a potential tee and plant a marker there. He wasn’t bound by drawings and sketches; he disliked straight lines on a golf course, and his minimalist approach saw the rare feature created as simply as possible. If they wanted a bank or mound, he suggested they throw some sand in a pile and leave it there for the wind to shape. “If ever the Lord intended land for a golf course, Carne has it,” Hackett explained, and he insisted that none of it should appear as if man had interfered with it.

Hackett’s philosophy was at odds with other earth-moving designers of the 1980s—Nicklaus, Palmer, Dye—and it was both ahead of and behind his time. In utilizing the bygone “stake it and play” method of golf’s 19th-century architects, Hackett unwittingly became the first modern minimalist, out of both belief and necessity. The natural terrain should never be bulldozed, he contended—and good thing, because on most of Hackett’s jobs, they couldn’t afford one.

The on-site labor at Carne was done in shifts by local farmers who would work one week on the course and the next week be back tending their farms. Mangan explained that Hackett was delighted to see the work being done by spades and rakes and wheelbarrows; on the rare day that a diesel-fueled digger appeared on site, Hackett warned Mangan to stay close to it lest it disrupt any of Carne’s natural features.

When Hackett was back in Dublin, Mangan oversaw the daily work at Carne and called the architect for advice on a weekly basis; when on site, he stayed close by Hackett, listening and learning as they went. When a member suggested that a par 3 early in the round might not be an ideal routing, Mangan said Hackett was resolute in his approach: “I will take what the land throws up to me,” articulating an architectural credo valuable to golfers as well. Links golf is about playing with the land and not against it. We too often worry about golf played down the middle, but as Hackett saw it at Carne, here was a place to play down the centuries. 

*

Eddie Hackett was never too proud to see his work updated or augmented. They weren’t his courses; they belonged to the communities. I was not so convinced about his graciousness when I heard that a new nine, the Kilmore, had been built between Hackett’s front and back stretches. Carne was his final masterpiece, and retouching the property felt blasphemous to this new Hackett convert. But as Mangan toured the added nine with me, I quickly learned why it fit. Not only did it squeeze seamlessly into the biggest and formerly overlooked dunes at the property’s heart, but it was born of what had completed Carne’s original 18: Mangan’s passion and the wisdom of the man he so admired.

The new nine wasn’t designed by Mangan; American architect and overseas member Jim Engh started the Kilmore routing, which, following a hiatus, was completed by Ireland-based designer Ally McIntosh. But Mangan was the constant through Kilmore’s construction; he was on site for every decision, every splitting of the soil. When he wasn’t taking tee times or tracking down clubs for visitors, he was walking those middle dunes and likely thinking of his old friend. He insisted on holes that honored what Hackett had taught him, stressing walkability and elevation shifts, and demanded that as little ground as possible be disturbed. “This was a labor of love for Eamon; he deserves loads of credit,” McIntosh explains. “And the whole thing was built for under £200,000.” It was a large sum by Belmullet standards, but would have been barely enough to cover a cachet designer’s travel budget. 

In the Irish language, carne comes from a word meaning “a hill of rocks,” but to me, it means “unlikely,” because Carne was that from the start: unlocked from land with 17 different owners, paid for by pub raffles, built by farmers accustomed to cutting peat, not fairways—and none of it more unlikely than the guy who owned the furniture store adding nine holes of Tír na nÓg, Irish heaven. As Mangan showed them to me, my mouth agape at what I was witnessing—valleys of unsettling depths beneath tee boxes on cloistered ridges, with Jurassic dunes shouldering fairways that felt as if they had been poured here rather than placed—I was dumbstruck that yet another miracle had landed in Belmullet. 

The Kilmore nine was Mangan’s, though like the humble Hackett, he never would have suggested as much, no matter that I heard from more than one member that it was his commitment alone that saw the addition completed. Mangan hid any signs of parental pride as we surveyed holes that rekindled that sensation my dad and I had felt years before: an awareness, and a relief, because we hadn’t just found the golf course we were looking for, but had found the place. Courses might be built by Hacketts and Doaks and Coores, but the places—they come from elsewhere. Hackett knew where: “I just dress up what the good Lord gave us.” And what a giving it was in far-off Belmullet, where somehow there always sat the 27 greatest golf holes never built. 

When something is close to perfect, it’s best to leave it alone. Except in Belmullet. The land held even more sublime holes, and so the Kilmore nine was born. It’s yet another remarkable twist on this heavenly golf turn.