PORTSTEWART, Northern Ireland — What a difference a day makes as our merry band of golfers used our “rest day” to hit the Turkish Barber Shop, shop for gifts and then play a light round of golf at Gracehill Golf Club.
A rest day was much needed after our second round of competition on Tuesday in the Causeway Coast Amateur on the Old Links at Ballyliffin Golf Club, the farthest northern course in Ireland. The closely mown terrain at Ballyliffin resembles a moonscape with humps and bumps and as our Randy King of Texarkana said, “I never had a level lie all day.”
Ballyliffin is a golfing mecca today with 36 holes of pure links golf. The Old Course that we played with its bumpy fairways was built in 1947 without the benefit of advanced earth moving equipment used when the newer Gashedy Links was opened in 1995 and hosted the 2018 Irish Open. That tournament was won by Scotland’s Russell Knox, who now lives in Florida and was coached for many years by the late Mike Flemming of Tyler.
Our scores were more encouraging on Tuesday. And while I am sure the others — King, George Rowe and Howie Alexander — have their stories to tell, my round was nothing if not bizarre. For most of the day, I was baffled at Ballyliffin!
It was the return of the pulled duck hook that had me stomping in the hay much too often. The errant shots resulted in a run of “open frames” in the Stableford competition. The open frame means you scored no points even when using a stroke from your handicap. All of us are playing off of 10 or 11 handicaps meaning our best scores are usually 10 over par or low 80s.
My swing tip from Alexander that worked so well in round one proved not to be a panacea on day two. Trying to stay calm and upbeat but not seeing the results I needed finally led me to desperation. I was out of ideas, or so I thought as I gazed at beauty of the North Atlantic Ocean bordering the course with a large and solitary rock island in the distance. I began to relax and thought of one more thing to try.
Hold the angle of the club on all shots like you do on pitch shots and see what happens, I thought to myself. Perhaps that will prevent the “flipping” of the club that produces the dreaded pull hook.
So on the par-5 14th hole, I drove it into the fairway and then hit a hybrid into light rough on the right. By this point a steady but light rain had begun so I hit a wedge from about 120 yards, downwind, and managed to find the green with a nice 20-foot birdie putt. Deciding to go cross-handed or left-hand low as some prefer to day, a la Jordan Spieth, I drained the putt for a birdie and with a stroke, produced a net eagle for 4 points. I parred the next two holes for net birdies and then holed a bomb on the par-3 17th for a birdie. I accumulated 14 of my 29 points total in the four-hole span. Naturally I reverted to form with a double bogey on the last hole but embarrassment was avoided and now I find myself moderately encouraged for the final two rounds.
The meal in the clubhouse afterwards was great fun since Rowe had 28, King 30 and Alexander 31 points. We were joined by our new friends from Ireland and Wales. The Wales group is who we have been paired with throughout the tournament and my companions, Paul Day and Andy Bower, are both gritty competitors. They are pleasant and friendly but often we are challenged by speaking the same language in such different ways. I realized this when Andy asked if I wanted the flagstick left in or pulled when I had a 30-foot putt.
“I’ll shoot at it,” I said.
Andy wore this puzzled look and I said, “You must be having as hard a time understanding me as I do you. Please leave it in.”
We both laughed then and even more later in the clubhouse but it’s a perfect illustration of what makes the tournament such a great cultural experience.
Soaking up the culture was a big part of our rest day on Wednesday. The tournament is 72-holes but spread over five days and thus allowing for one day of rest unless you choose to play four days in a row by using your rest day on Monday or Friday. We definitely needed the rest but since you are far away on a golf trip, you want to play golf even on the rest day.
Gracehill was the perfect tonic. It is a gorgeous parkland course similar to those we play at home but incredibly lush. It is now a part of the Dark Hedges Estate that has become world famous because of the “Game of Thrones” television show. The Dark Hedges road is close to the course and closed to car traffic as “Thronies” make their pilgrimage here to soak up the ambiance or whatever. We had the course to ourselves but for a few players and the rains had it sparkling green with rushing waters in its streams and flowers blooming similar to East Texas in late March or early April.
The daily walking is taxing physically but the pleasant temperatures make it safe and enjoyable and the perfect prelude to fish and chips later.
Speaking of the cultural differences, we visited the Turkish Barbers for some expert grooming as my barber used a straight razor to trim the edges of my scalp before shearing my eyebrows and then uses the jiggling flame of fire to tidy my ears.
“You were flinching a little when he took that torch to your ears,” Rowe said
Then we stopped at R&J Hillis department store where Alexander bought a hat to make him “look more local,” and the golf shop at Royal Portrush where the 148th Open Championship will be played in just over a month. King did some serious damage to his credit card there buying gifts for his wife and friends in Texarkana.
King has been our keen cultural observer, noting we have not seen one pick-up truck. That’s odd, we all agreed.
“It must be because it rains here all the time,” Alexander opined.
Indeed it does as we enjoy our time in beautiful and green Ireland.