When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne

When the End Draws Nigh

Six uncharted Irish links to close a book years in the making

I’d stolen my opener and was ready to come clean.

The dog was going to be a problem. Maybe it was an homage. Maybe we steal all of our lines—can we really write something new?—but at the 2023 Masters I had the chance to confess to the man whose inspiration helped turn my life into a golf odyssey I could not have imagined or authored on my own.

I’d spotted him roaming the press building, a writer I’d admired well before I taught one of his Esquire stories in my creative-nonfiction workshop. The piece was about astronauts stranded on the space station, and each fall I assigned it and told my students to savor the first lines because they had everything our stories needed—character, scene, conflict—all stuffed into a teaspoon of syllables: “The coffee, he thinks. The coffee’s a concern.”

I was climbing the stairs from the interview room when suddenly he was two steps ahead. I hustled to get in his way, then stuck out my hand: “Chris Jones, I just wanted to introduce myself…” I described my admiration for his essays and features, and he said kind things about mine in return. I thanked him for the words I was thinking about when I wrote the opener for my Ireland book. He tilted his head, curious, but when I recited my sentence about the dog, he let out a deep and honest laugh. I didn’t need to tell him from which of his stories I’d borrowed. We might forget all of our middles, but first and last lines stay stuck to our fingers.

We talked about that feature and my book and made plans for lunch the next day. We identified as kindred spirits in an arena of frenzied reporters and young Tweeters; we wrote long things, and this was a room for blasting out insights that lost their insightfulness not long after leaving the keyboard. I returned to my desk, relieved I wasn’t the only one here not reheating a Rory angle, and got to thinking about that Ireland story and how I wouldn’t be sitting here without it—a book that finally made some money and landed on some lists and gave shape to a career that, to that point, had felt like a maze.

Meeting Chris was supposed to feel like I’d closed a loop on something, but instead I pulled up the map I’d kept in my Google tabs since 2010, when I’d started hearing from golfers both here and there about the links I had missed in my every-links-in-Ireland adventure. I started checking dates and plotting a path. There were far fewer courses to visit this time, but that former trip—where I walked the circumference of Ireland for four months with clubs on my back—came before kids and sobriety and sanity. That itinerary had looked like a playlist from a golf rager, and as I studied my plan for its epilogue, I wondered how much of that rage remained. I was a different person now, and Ireland a different place. I could do the miles and tick the boxes, but could I be the traveler, the writer, the golfer I was then? And did I need to be? Only one thing was certain: There was no way in hell I was walking.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne
In 2007, I set out to golf every links in Ireland and eschew the conveniences of modern transportation, walking the coast for four months. That adventure became my first book, A Course Called Ireland. But the journey wasn’t quite finished. Until now.

I’d heard often about Dunfanaghy. Sutton, too. Bushfoot was recommended as a nine-holer I shouldn’t have missed in Northern Ireland, and there was one reader who seemed to take it personally that I’d overlooked Kirkistown Castle. I remember skipping Arklow to spend an extra day with Allyson—we were barely a year married back then—but Rush Golf Club had never been on my radar. I’d be glad it was this time, because its dunes glowed at twilight and the assistant pro joined me for nine holes and told me about that island in the distance that he swore was full of wallabies, and suddenly I was back in 2007 on Day 1 of that erstwhile Irish loop, snapping pictures of the water because locals in the pub told me there was a whale out there in the bay.

“Just go on outside—you’ll see the waves breaking over its back, about a hundred yards out.” After we’d filled our table with empty pint glasses, they confessed that I’d filled my camera with pictures of a rock, so when it came to the wallaby island, I wasn’t so easily convinced. But I had Google now, and Waze and a smartphone—what a boring book that would have been if I’d traveled Ireland with all these cheats in my pocket—and I could quickly confirm that indeed the Dublin Zoo had sent its overpopulation of wallabies to live on Lambay Island, just off Ireland’s east coast. Fifteen years and 20 more visits had passed since writing 350 pages about Ireland, but it was something of a relief to know I still had a lot to learn about the place, plus six more Irish links to visit before I could finally claim that I’d played them all.

A Course Called Ireland had a late-night-wager feel to it—go walk Ireland and play every course that gets in your way—and that was roughly how I’d pitched it to my publisher, as something of a gag. But that gag—that I’d play Ireland as one giant course and hoof the whole thing because they don’t take golf carts in Ireland (well, the Irish don’t)—meant I had to stop in places the tour buses didn’t. I had a 20-mile leash on each day, so I landed in pubs that hadn’t seen an American in months, where they wanted to talk about their cousin in Chicago, and in places where the only room to stay in town was at the house of the lady up the road, who may or may not be renting it anymore. It was 2007 and Ireland’s Celtic Tiger was still feasting on cheap money and hefty sums from the European Union, transforming a country whose top industry had been shipping its citizens to North America (my great-grandparents among them) into an island of holiday homes and shopping sprees and farmers flipping their land for golf resorts, with a young population of educated immigrants instead of hungry émigrés.

Not long after I returned home, that all crashed. Hard. And as soon as it felt those wounds had healed, stringent COVID-19 protocols locked the country down tight. Irish courses endured the longest shutdown in the golfing world, but that all seemed long past when I landed in Dublin and headed south for Arklow Golf Club, where the sun was bright and low at 7 a.m. I didn’t believe I was as close to a golf course as my GPS claimed—Houses, stores, a marina…oh, there’s a green—and Arklow gained immediate status as one of the few courses I could recall (St. Andrews, Lahinch, Moray, North Berwick) where the town so lovingly hugged the holes.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne

My 5:30 a.m. arrival from Philadelphia meant the parking lot was empty when I reached the first of my unfinished courses, which gave me time to sit outside the perched clubhouse and study a spread of beautifully rumpled golf holes and wonder how I hadn’t been here before. It stung to recall how many times I’d claimed that I’d completed Ireland’s links when this was pure linksland. These weren’t the hulking dunes of the island’s west coast, but the giddy bends and ripples and deep burns and fescue were here and soon underfoot as I crossed the holes with Pat, the club’s general manager, who was of a wind-blocking build and thumped the ball with a thick-fingered grip. The sea was in view for nearly every shot, and on one tee Pat pointed out to the water and said, smiling, “There’s Dad. He won’t give it up.” I squinted in the sunlight to make out a tiny vessel on the horizon. “That’s your dad’s boat?” “It is. He loves it. We’ll never get him to retire.”

Pat was roughly my age, and I struggled to imagine someone of my dad’s vintage pulling shrimp pots. I’d been here only three hours, but slid right back into Ireland’s native slagging tongue: “Dude. You’re here playing golf and your old man is out there by himself? Shame on you, Pat.” He insisted that he helped when he was needed, but that the golf course had all his time now. He ran the entire property with six full-time employees and a league of member volunteers, and if they had greens this good with those numbers… It reminded me that Ireland’s turf and climate are golf-ordained, and that good golf requires so much less than we think it does back home. 

Pat noted the quarry to our south with pride—“Half the houses in the county would have been built with stone from right there”—while the other end of the course butted up against warehouses for processing fish from the marina. If you lived in Arklow, you probably worked at one or the other, and you likely spent some time around its rowing club. The little town caught the world’s attention when two local men, Eamonn and Peter Kavanagh, rowed from Tenerife to Barbados in a 1997 transatlantic race. The brothers bested teams composed of U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs and became the first Irish duo to complete the crossing in a (very fancy) rowboat. (Sorry, St. Brendan—the brothers have witnesses.) 

Their vessel is still on display in town, and I would have liked to stop and see it, but the next course was calling. As I hurried up the road, it struck me how quickly one can fall back into a cycle of move, golf, sleep, move, golf, and it gave me both worry and joy to think it might be my most natural rhythm.

I’d traversed a thousand clubhouse driveways, some of which took me through forest or across fairways, but Sutton Golf Club’s was the first that came with instructions and a warning from my host: I’d be driving within a few yards of two tee boxes, and golfers had the right of way.

Of all the missed courses for which I deserved admonishment, Sutton should have topped the list, but its members didn’t need to care. They were confident in their station and had plenty to celebrate; their walls couldn’t spare an inch for any more history or championship banners. At most Irish golf clubs, you’ll find a few pennants of varying colors denoting county or province victories—they are a very, very big deal—and it seemed as if Sutton had most of them. For a course that once existed on a mere 26 acres, the club punched miles above its size. It didn’t hurt that amateur legend Joe (J.B.) Carr had lived behind its second green and helped land a lot of those blows.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne
The amateur career of Sutton Golf Club’s Joe (J.B.) Carr may have no rival in golf—Irish or otherwise—and is celebrated throughout Sutton’s clubhouse. As a nine-holer of tiny acreage, Sutton relishes its role as one of Ireland’s historically dominant teams in interclub competitions.

After browsing his upstairs museum, the fact that Carr didn’t feature in A Course Called Ireland felt like a bigger embarrassment than the half-dozen times I used “I” as the object of a preposition in the first edition. The J.B. Carr Room was a small rotunda packed with his medals and pictures and trophies, with four jackets on display from what had to be golf’s greatest closet: blue coats from the Walker Cup and World Golf Hall of Fame, red from the R&A and green from…do I need to say? (The fact that his jacket left Augusta National with the club’s blessing tells you the rare respect his name commands.) He passed in 2004 after a golf life that included three wins at the British Am, low am at the Open, 11 Walker Cup appearances (two captaincies), becoming the first Irish player to compete in the Masters (and make the cut), the USGA’s highest honor (the Bobby Jones Award), an honorary PhD from Dublin University and being named captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club—as an Irishman! Along the way, he won every Irish tournament they could offer him and managed to run (or at least own) a very successful clothing business. Most importantly to the members here, he was one of them, living in view of the clubhouse and hiring their kids to shag the practice balls he hit every morning. Carr was Ireland’s greatest amateur for sure, but perhaps golf’s as well. It was a case I was ready to make as I stepped up to the first at Sutton, then paused to let a Volvo pull into the parking lot.

I would have liked to have seen the course before 1971, when all nine holes were packed into Sutton’s wee peninsula. I was told that when anyone yelled “Fore!” every head on the property ducked. They eventually purchased a lot called Connor’s Field across the railroad tracks and moved three holes there, but the course was still mischievously compact, pushing tees nearly onto the beach (on the other side of that entry road) to grab every yard.

Moving around the property with a dozen foursomes in view felt like a windy golf ballet, and as the holes dipped into hollows and edged around the sea, the land seemed as sporty as any in Ireland’s East. I had been playing with the club captain, and as we came off the final hole he pointed to the island they called Ireland’s Eye, close enough to swim to. Its green hills looked white beneath a blast of sunlight cracking through the clouds, and it caught him for a moment. He paused and said, “Sometimes we don’t see the views. Because we see them every day.”

Nobody said anything about marsupials on Ireland’s Eye; that was up the coast at Rush Golf Club, where views of Lambay Island followed you around the course. I was disappointed when my rangefinder revealed no hopping anywhere on its hills, and I also missed out on meeting the head pro. It was her day off, but I would have felt especially Irish to be able to say I knew someone named Dearbhla (Derv-la). Her assistant, Joe, did well guiding me over another snug nine-holer set against the beach with a handful of hoisted tees asking you to drop drives into crooked valleys. The course was crowded not with golfers but with spectators watching an interclub derby versus those ruffians from nearby Donabate. One of those pennants was on the line, so galleries of members mobbed the dunes, from where they could watch the handful of four-ball matches crossing the property.

Heads were low on the lads in maroon Rush sweaters. The team captain looked on, hand to his mouth, eyes heavy with concern. Joe snuck us around the empty holes, but I couldn’t help but look back to all those figures lining the hills and think, No wonder they rally for the Ryder Cup. Team golf, even at its most local level, seemed to be everything.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne
Kirkistown Castle

The matches were long over by the time we left Rush. Traveling with a photographer—in this case, my good friend Tom Shaw—guarantees you’ll be first or last or both at the golf course as they try to squeeze the last good light out of the day, jet lag be damned. Our 18-hole, two-course day finally ended 90 minutes away in the Northern Ireland town of Newcastle, where we checked into a hotel at midnight and asked for an early breakfast—more light to chase tomorrow. Only one other guest would be having his coffee with us at 6 a.m. He had the creased and copper face of a man who worked outdoors. He saw my bag and asked, “Are you golfing up the road? All a bunch of arseholes up the road.”

We might have been the first golf travelers to spend a night in Newcastle and not play the course up the road, the one he wouldn’t say by name—not that it needed to be spoken. Apparently he used to caddie there, and after listening to his treatise on the snobbish, smugly British nature of the Royal next door, I had a feeling his career at said course did not end triumphantly. I was strangely pleased to be able to tell him that no, not there—we’d never go there. (I’d played it a half-dozen times and loved it.) Rather, we were heading over to Ardglass. “Aye. Ardglass. Good people there.”

I agreed. And that’s why I was taking Tom there, even though it didn’t qualify as a missed links. I’d actually golfed several rounds there since writing the book, and its pro, Paul, and former captain, Cormac, had become dear friends. But it seemed appropriate to stop there if I was reliving A Course Called Ireland—they were the first course to reach out and tell me the book was having an impact on their visitor numbers, which I found shocking and took as flattering blarney. Then they flew me over to make me an honorary member, and twice I showed up unannounced and met Americans with dog-eared copies of my book in their cars. While it had already been a special place because of its golf (wild carries over black shards of cliff top) and history (its castle of a clubhouse dates to the 12th century) and unpretentiousness (some courses in Northern Ireland offer locked doors and quiet welcomes, while a club like Ardglass will hardly let you leave), Paul and Cormac’s club had gone from a favorite in my book to a course that now occupies a place in my life, all because I stopped there for 24 hours in 2007. It was a reminder to keep stopping, especially at the places I didn’t know. And there were three more waiting up around the corner.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne
Ardglass wasn’t a new spot—I’d returned several times since first encountering it on my book trip—but when in County Down, its cliff-top tee boxes (above) and postcard views (below) are not to be missed. From there, it’s a short ferry ride across Strangford Lough to Kirkistown Castle.
No. 26 Ardglass When the End Draws Nigh

Dolphins followed our ferry on the short trip across Strangford Lough to the Ards Peninsula, where I hoped Kirkistown Castle might be my next Ardglass. When you reveal an itinerary to locals or links gurus, there’s typically a course that gets a shrug or blank look. Kirkistown was that course on my list, which meant it was either my next find or a spot I could have skipped. It turned out to be a bit of both.

In fairness to Kirkistown Castle, I arrived in a desperate mood. Five minutes from the course, my left front tire nipped a roadside boulder—and by nipped, I mean rammed it like an angry buffalo. Tom and I sat in the car for a moment, each saying quiet prayers for our Škoda, but when he cracked the door open, we could hear they’d gone unanswered. It sounded like a clown filling balloons at a birthday party. Without a spare in the trunk, we were forced to ride the rim to the club’s parking lot, where Tom called the rental agency. They said two hours—maybe. I went out and played and Tom took pictures because there was nothing else to do.

The course was said to have been designed by none other than James Braid, and the layout had its moments. Several holes played up a hill to where the remains of a round stone tower (the stump of the windmill for the nearby castle, I was told) stood guard beside a tee box. It was a solid course that used its primary hill to full advantage, but I don’t think anyone can properly evaluate shot values when playing alone on an empty course and remembering that your photographer has a flight at 6 a.m. and wondering if the repair guy is going to find your car, if tires are covered by the insurance, if your rhythm—move, golf, move, golf—has come to a flat stop. I owe it another go-around, because Kirkistown Castle became a reminder of those many days back in 2007 when I wanted to quit my Irish loop, all the wet afternoons I nearly thumbed a ride, all the Irish breakfasts I wanted to hide under my plate. But for all those hitting-the-stone-wall moments (they arrived almost daily), a hole or pub or birdie soon arrived to remind me I was walking around in a dream. Sort of like when I found the Škoda sitting on four good tires in the Kirkistown Castle parking lot. How little it took sometimes to flip grief into gratitude.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne
The book changed the direction of my career. Going back 15 years later to finish what I started was about more than ticking courses off a list. It was a chance to recall the person and golfer I was then, and an opportunity to thank Ireland’s unsung links.

I had no idea who he was, but I knew the look on his face, this man with a gray mustache staring at me from the pro-shop door. It was the sort of concern you see only on older men afraid they might miss their tee time. It was worry in its most naked form.

In defense of my tardiness, it was a Tuesday afternoon and I’d assumed the tee sheet at the Dunfanaghy links I’d never heard of until a reader told me about it two years ago would be rather bare. So I’d taken a little extra time at the Bushmills Inn that morning (best Irish breakfast in Northern Ireland) and relished the stroll at nearby Bushfoot, a nine-holer of multiple teeing grounds that shot up the list of my favorite Irish niners. Big dunes, blind drives, and a Road Hole obscured by a maintenance barn instead of a hotel (take extra care when the garage doors are open)—I wanted to go around for the full 18, but Dunfanaghy in Donegal awaited, the final round before I could say I’d finished every links in Ireland, a feat that wins you a lot of logo balls and a lifetime of explaining why Carne is your favorite of the lot.

I exited Northern Ireland at the opposite side from which I’d entered it and made for Dunfanaghy, where nobody told me I had been entered into that day’s open competition and where another Tom was waiting for me so someone could mark his card. The tee sheet was jammed, so I hustled to get my clubs, blew one into a neighboring fairway and off we went. I apologized to Tom and explained my day’s itinerary, aware that nothing will impress an Irishman more than telling him you traveled a great distance to get here. The notion that we Americans drive two and three hours between Irish courses every day is generally met with awe by locals. It also can be met with judgment: Why, they wonder, do we play 36 a day and hop from here to there to here without hardly catching our breath? Is it really any fun? Is it any way to spend a holiday?

I understand the thinking behind the question, but I’m the wrong person to ask about what constitutes too much golf. Whenever someone does inquire about why I’m playing 36 or sometimes 54 a day, I keep it simple. I have two rules when playing golf in Ireland, Scotland or England: 1) If it’s not raining, take advantage and play on. 2) If sticky toffee pudding is on the menu, get it. Your trip need not be more complicated.

When the End Draws Nigh A Course Called Ireland Tom Coyne

Tom asked about my stops on this journey and journeys past, and we were soon a chummy twosome. We had wandered a lot of the same courses, a list that now included Dunfanaghy, a cracker of a links with sneaky carries over hidden streams and doglegs bending around cattle fields and tees that literally touched the beach; drop your surfboard and have a lash. The course was overlooked by a hillside of new homes with dark windows, and Tom said they were holiday spots for wealthy folks from Belfast and Derry. He’d moved up here from Dublin, he explained, to where his wife had grown up.

“We’ve got a church and the pub and the golf course,” he said. “What else do you need?” As a sober, lapsed Catholic, I thought, I could get by on even less.

I lost a ball in the tall stuff on three, and then the taller stuff on six, and a card with two blanks wasn’t going to win me anything in that day’s Stableford. But no matter—Tom was in it and playing well. When he left a putt short, he barked at himself, “The hole won’t come to ya, boy!” And while golf is an international language, I enjoyed the moments when Philadelphia didn’t translate well to Dublin. On a reachable par 5, I hit a pop-up into a headwind and remarked, “Well, it’s a par 5 today.” Tom looked at me, thought for a moment and said with sincerity, “It’s a par 5 every day.” And after chipping up to the hole, I picked up my bag and asked, “Where are we headed, Tom?” As in, where’s the next hole? Again, he paused with confusion, then lifted his putter and pointed to the pin directly in front of him, as if to say, “Right here, you fuckin’ eejit.”

As we dropped our bags at the end of the next fairway and walked back to the tee box, Tom explained how they held these open competitions every week—most clubs did—so he didn’t understand why they’d changed the handicap system to include casual rounds (or “bounce rounds,” as they called them). I was telling him how most golfers back home only played bounce rounds and could go a season without having to sign a card, and how that likely made our handicaps less competitive, when he suddenly turned and ran back toward our bags, waving his driver. A crow had managed to unzip his bag, and its head was buried in one of the pockets. It emerged with a banana in its beak, but got away with only half of it, the rest falling to the ground. Tom broke some off and ate the rest, which seemed strangely hardcore to me. The rooks were apparently a regular hazard at Dunfanaghy, where a fabled brown crow once bossed the fairways and, according to an ode that hung in the clubhouse, He’s after your sandwich/ Or even your bars/ And he’s not one bit fussy/ If it’s Snickers or Mars.

I’d hoped there would be some brown-crow merchandise in the pro shop—They’d sell the hell out of that on Instagram, I thought—but there wasn’t much of a pro shop at Dunfanaghy. They had a counter that sold tee times and bottled drinks and balls without logos, no brown-crow putter covers or hoodies, no Dunfanaghy truckers to show off at home so onlookers could see all the places I’d been. No embossed pencils to collect—not even a ball marker—and I wondered: Without the merch to prove it, had I even really been here? I realized this merch problem was mine—not Dunfanaghy’s.

There was a time, and not terribly long ago, when I was happy to be playing anywhere. Forget the pro shop; I didn’t have enough cash for a hat anyway. Then some people read A Course Called Ireland and some invitations followed, and my closet grew more crowded, and I started looking at the rankings, noticing places I’d seen and daydreaming angles to see a few more. And I angled like a champion, crossing off one coveted course after another. But as I left Donegal with nothing but a scorecard to remember my tournament with Tom, I felt curiously content. Somewhere along the line I’d become a golf bucket-lister, but a week of Dunfanaghy and Bushfoot and Rush and Arklow and even Kirkistown Castle was a chance to shake that snobbery and recall that chasing names and rankings was just chasing someone else’s experiences and impressions. We can’t take that bucket with us, and if I was only telling stories of courses tread so many times before, I’d be missing out—as a golfer, and as a writer who’d otherwise never have the chance to sit down and make a stolen line his own: The crow, he thinks. The crow’s a concern.

Featured image: Rush GC, north of Dublin, where views of Lambay Island and the Irish Sea follow visitors around the links