Standing on the first tee at Carne Golf Links on a windy, overcast day that promised rain (and later delivered), I felt a kinship with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first conqueror of Mount Everest in 1953. That feeling, no doubt, was due to Carne’s massive grass-covered dunes, which looked as if they soared as high as the Himalayas.
But while Hillary sought to scale those unearthly peaks, I just wanted to steer my tee shot into the fairway between them.
“Aim at that gap,” advised Larry Mitchell, one of my three playing partners and a man who, at 73, holds the distinction of winning his home club’s Captain’s Prize twice — 51 years apart. Somehow, my ball managed to go in the proper direction. We grabbed our pull carts (“trolleys” to the Irish) and set out into the wild.
For someone raised on South Carolina courses — most of which Carne makes seem tame by comparison — this was a first: true links golf, played amid nature’s handiwork with just a gentle scraping and shaping by man.
At 6,109 yards from its back tees, this course by the late, legendary Irish architect Eddie Hackett — plus an additional nine holes by newcomer Ally McIntosh weaved into the routing — is both breath-taking and intimidating. At times, it also was too much, too demanding, for me and even regulars Mitchell, Graham Markham and Patrick McIntyre.
What was I doing here, 3,000 miles from home? Glad you asked.
A few years ago at the Masters, I became friendly with John Garrity, golf writer/correspondent for Sports Illustrated. A tall (6-foot-7) and delightfully inquisitive fellow, Garrity, 67, four years ago in his book “Ancestral Links” recounted his visit to Belmullet to track his Irish family’s journey to America — where he also discovered one of the world’s great, if nearly unknown, golf courses. He fell in love with both town and links.
Last June at the U.S. Open in San Francisco, Garrity recruited a group of golf writers for a trip to see the Carne he found.
“If you can be in Dublin on the Monday after the 2013 British Open, I’ll show you what I think is so special about the place,” he told those of us who signed on. The plan: board a bus at Dublin Airport and spend five days playing Carne and also two other courses, as well as meeting the people of Belmullet and seeing something a relative few have.
(Unknown to any of us, including Garrity, on our fifth-day visit to Royal Dublin Golf Club, we would be greeted by 88-year-old Christy O’Connor Sr., 10-time Ryder Cup player and Irish golf icon. Imagine having Arnold Palmer show up at the first tee to wish you luck and critique your swing. Wow.)
How do you turn down that offer?
So on the appointed Monday (after a trans-Atlantic flight the day before), I boarded our bus (“coach”) and we set off. That all-day, cross-country trip included a stop and world-class lunch at Mount Falcon, a 1850s-era hotel/resort an hour from Belmullet, and then a quick five holes at Carne before dark.
On Tuesday, we were teamed with our local hosts and set off on our trek through the mountain-like dunes. It would be unforgettable.
AN IDEAL SITE
For decades, Irish golf has played second fiddle to Scotland, but the Emerald Isle has nearly as many great links courses as “The Home of Golf,” at least according to any number of world rankings. The rising profiles of PGA Tour stars Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy brought more attention to Eire’s well-known courses (Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Tralee, Old Head, Lahinch), but Ireland is more than that: 350 courses in all, some — like Carne — flying below the golf world’s radar.
What makes Carne a unique place is its location and its history. Belmullet, situated on the rugged and remote northwest coast of County Mayo, is a village of perhaps 3,000 — but one with a world-class golf course, built by the town on reclaimed farmland and on a relative shoestring budget. Its first nine holes opened in 1992 and took seven years to build, funded by a 130,000-euro government grant (less than $200,000) and constructed with shovels and minimal equipment by on-the-dole farmers.
“We thought it was an ideal site for a golf links,” said Eamon Mangan, a soft-spoken businessman and community leader who has been the heart and soul of the Carne dream from day one. “Ten of us in retail, business, even a school teacher, wanted to promote tourism to Mayo. We felt a good links would improve the local economy.”
A golf architect to do the project proved no problem at all. Hackett, then 76 with several other courses to his name, fell in love with the land, taking on the job for, essentially, expenses — “which we had to force on him,” Mangan said.
“Eddie said, ‘The Lord is the best architect.’ He said all he had to do was place the greens; the golf course was already there.”
Using income earned from the first nine holes, the second nine was completed in 1993 and the club officially opened in 1995. It was, critics said, probably Hackett’s best work, and his last. He died in 1996.
Even then, though, “we had no money to get the word out,” Mangan said. Enter Garrity, whose book helped Carne earn attention, especially among golf junkies who loved the challenges of the dunes and rolling terrain. As the rest of our golf writers group learned, Garrity today is Belmullet’s favorite adopted son — a tall, balding and low-key American “savior” as far as the town in concerned. Think a taller John Wayne in the movie “The Quiet Man” with less hair but a better golf game.
In 2004, recognizing there were more holes waiting to be carved out of the 260-acre site, Mangan and others began pushing for a third nine. McIntosh, a young Scottish architect living in Dublin, was recruited to head up the work (his first lead on a project) using a previous routing by U.S. designer Jim Engh. The 2008 economic downturn in Ireland put the project on hold for three years before McIntosh could finish it — Garrity’s return served as a grand opening — but it was worth the wait.
“Eamon and I had the same vision,” McIntosh said. “When you get land like this, you try not to mess it up. I wanted to get the most natural golf course I could, one that flows with the land. … To get this chance this early in my career is a dream come true.”
“It’s the most spectacular of the property,” Mangan said about the new nine. “Ally wasn’t able to use shovels (because) the scale was too big, with wonderful elevation changes.” McIntosh didn’t exactly blow out the budget, though, using one excavator and a small dump truck (eat your heart out, Pete Dye) to help keep costs down. The result was — that word again — spectacular.
The new nine is now holes 8-16 on a composite course, blending McIntosh’s work with Hackett’s Nos. 10-18 (the previous front nine is less dramatic, though still worth a look). Adam Lawrence, a golf writer from London and part of our group, later wrote that Carne “is on the way to becoming a real destination for adventurous golfers, especially those who love the experience of playing in dunes … because dunes, with apologies to Donald Trump, don’t come any bigger than at Carne.”
Every inch special
No question there. Whether playing between, around or in one case over the dunes, the size and scale of land formations is humbling. Even so, accurate tee shots (which can run forever on the hard, firm turf that is the norm in links golf) go a long way toward enjoying Carne.
The best Hackett holes are the daunting par-3 seventh, with its steep drop-off on the left and a tiny green, seemingly requiring a 200-yard plus tee shot just to survive — until, upon approaching it, a hidden expanse of fairway emerges as a bailout — and the long (399 meters/439 yards), uphill par-4 17th, which in his book Garrity often played six times in a row, using three balls per time and attempting to break 90. The par-5 18th has a deep chasm in front of the green, creating a blind uphill third shot for those who lay up.
McIntosh’s most interesting hole is the par-5 eighth, which after the tee shot presents a choice: play left around a massive dune to 150 yards out, or aim a blind shot over a “saddle” in the dune that might reach the green … or might not. The downhill par-3 14th green sits between two towering dunes and, while not a long tee shot, demands accuracy.
There’s also the weather. In two rounds at Carne, we saw bright sunshine, sideways chilly rain and occasionally howling winds — on the good day. A drenching downpour the next day forced even regulars to slosh to the clubhouse, waiting for a break that came late in the afternoon.
The final two days, at Enniscrone (only slightly less dramatic dunes than Carne and a more manicured look; Carne is rustic, though its new greens will get better with age) and Royal Dublin (relatively flat but with enough dunes and rough to hold one’s attention), were also delightful. It’s hard to imagine bad golf in Ireland, which reminded me of South Carolina, sort of: about the same population (4.5 million) and number of courses (350-360), rural atmosphere, simple but great food (and Guinness) and friendly, convivial people.
Still, on future trips — and there will be those — the highlight will again be Carne. Tom Coyne, in his book “A Course Called Ireland,” sums up his own visit thus:
“Eddie Hackett wasn’t a man for frills, so I’ll keep my praise as honest as his handiwork. Carne was brilliant. Simply brilliant. Front, back, first hole, last — every mound, every swale, every inch of the place was special.”
Another British mountain climber, George Mallory, once said of Mount Everest — which he never managed to ascend 30 years before Hillary did so — that he wanted to climb it “because it was there.” Having been to Carne’s “mountaintop,” I know just what he meant.