Where golfers and an­glers are in for good craic

Swing a club in the morn­ing, cast a fly line in the af­ter­noon and grab a Guin­ness at night in Ire­land’s County Mayo

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS SAN­TELLA Spe­cial to The Washington Post

Some years back, a fish­ing guide ac­quain­tance of mine led pro golfers Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara out on Ore­gon’s Deschutes River for a day of fly-fish­ing for steel­head. As my friend re­counted this spe­cial day, it struck me that many golfers I know fly-fish — and vice versa. Per­haps it’s the out­door set­ting, pit­ting man against ob­sta­cles (be they finicky trout or gap­ing bunkers). Per­haps it’s the simil­i­tude of the swing­ing/cast­ing mo­tion, and the fact that the ball and the fly go far­ther when you move smoothly.

Or per­haps it’s the fact that in your av­er­age round of golf, the time you spend ac­tu­ally swing­ing a club amounts to about three min­utes. The rest of the time you’re gaug­ing dis­tances, check­ing the wind, se­lect­ing clubs and read­ing greens. When fly-fish­ing a river, even the best day in­volves min­utes — not hours — of ac­tu­ally fight­ing fish. The rest of the time is spent gaug­ing cur­rents, check­ing for rises, se­lect­ing flies and read­ing the wa­ter. For both sports, it’s what hap­pens “be­tween the ears” that sep­a­rates rela tive suc­cess and fail­ure.

I’ve as­sem­bled sev­eral trips in the past along the golf/fly-fish­ing theme, mostly around my stomp­ing grounds in the Pa­cific North­west. The ul­ti­mate ad­ven­ture, how­ever, lay fur­ther afield. Back in the old coun­try, on the west coast of Ire­land. Where wild and woolly links cour­ses lie on penin­su­las formed by rivers brim­ming with At­lantic salmon and sea trout.

So I em­barked on what might be the ul­ti­mate golf and fish­ing ad­ven­ture: a barn­storm­ing tour of County Mayo that in­cluded ses­sions on famed links cour­ses, world-renowned salmon wa­ters and a few pints of Guin­ness along the way.

Af­ter check­ing in at Mount Fal­con Es-

tate — a castle­like ho­tel just out­side the town of Bal­lina — I made my way to En­nis­crone Golf Club. Dat­ing to 1918, En­nis­crone rests on a spit of land that juts into Kil­lala Bay, near where the River Moy meets the At­lantic. It is on true links land, de­fined by En­nis­crone Gen­eral Man­ager Pat Sweeney as the land that con­nects or links pas­ture land to the beach; in other words, land that’s too sandy to grow any­thing, mar­ginal for graz­ing sheep, and not much good for any­thing else . . . ex­cept a golf course. If your vi­sion of golf in­cludes finely man­i­cured fair­ways lined with stately oaks, sleek golf carts and bev­er­age girls sling­ing over­priced Coors Lights, you might not rec­og­nize En­nis­crone – or many of Ire­land’s other links – as golf cour­ses. The links are marked by im­mense dunes, gap­ing waste bunkers and knee-deep rough; at times your aim­ing point is a small white stone, as the green is not vis­i­ble; there are no golf carts in sight, be­cause you’re ex­pected to walk. It’s a style of golf that en­cour­ages cre­ative shot­mak­ing, as the wild un­du­la­tions of the fair­ways and green of­ten ren­der an A-to-B ap­proach in­ef­fec­tive, if not im­pos­si­ble.

Sweeney’s style of play cap­tured the spirit of links golf’s bump-and run phi­los­o­phy (to keep the ball out of the wind) to its log­i­cal end: He likes to putt . . . pretty much from any­where within 150 yards of the green. “A bad putt is bet­ter than a bad chip,” is one of many bon mots he of­fered in the course of our round, as he wound up his put­ter to waist height to un­leash another 100-yard ap­proach putt along the hard, rolling fair­way. To prove a point, he played the par-5, 514-yard 16th with a driver and a put­ter. Af­ter hit­ting his drive 225 yards down the left side of the fair­way, he putt, then putt, then putt again. His fourth and fi­nal putt dropped into the cup for par. Play­ing withmy fair­way wood and irons, I lost a ball in the rough and man­aged a dou­ble-bo­gey.

Af­ter lunch at the club­house, I swapped golf shoes and club for waders and a fly rod and headed to the River Moy to cast for At­lantic salmon. The River Moy rises in the Ox Moun­tains of County Sligo, in north­west Ire­land, and flows 62 miles be­fore en­ter­ing the At­lantic. Its per­pet­u­ally tea-col­ored wa­ters — thanks to the pres­ence of peat de­posits along much of its course — host im­pres­sive num­bers of re­turn­ing At­lantic salmon each spring and sum­mer. On a good year, fish­eries man­agers es­ti­mate, 75,000 salmon re­turn to the Moy, mak­ing it one of Ire­land’s most pro­lific salmon rivers. At­lantic salmon have long had a strong pull for an­glers, in part for their beauty and fine ta­ble pre­sen­ta­tion, in part for their pro­cliv­ity for long, leap­ing bat­tles and in part for their in­scrutable ways. Some­times they will take a fly, some­times they won’t; this un­pre­dictable be­hav­ior has a per­verse ap­peal for fly-fish­ers who like a chal­lenge . . . although the num­ber of fish in the Moy im­prove one’s odds. (At­lantic salmon on some rivers can reach over 50 pounds; on the Moy, fish av­er­age closer to eight.)

Most At­lantic salmon rivers — be they in north­ern Nor­way, Ice­land or the Cana­dian province of New­found­land and Labrador — are si­t­u­ated far from pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, of­ten in the wilder­ness. The River Moy is an ex­cep­tion to this rule; the river’s most fe­cund stretches, in­clud­ing the Ridge Pool, rest smack in the mid­dle of town. In­stead of granitic canyons or deep bo­real forests, the right bank of the Moy backs up to a stone wall, above which is Ridge Pool Road, with as­sorted store­fronts (in­clud­ing two tackle shops) and a prom­e­nade where passers-by may pause to cri­tique your cast­ing form. The left bank is skirted by a neatly cob­bled side­walk, the of­fice of In­land Fish­eries Ire­land (where lo­cal ghillies — fish­ing guides— might grab a cup of cof­fee as they as­sess your tackle), the Bal­lina Manor Ho­tel and, fi­nally, V. J. Do­herty’s Ridge Pool Bar by Up­per Bridge, which bears cars and pedes­tri­ans across the river. I asked De­clan Cooke, who man­ages the River Moy for In­land Fish­eries Ire­land, about the odd­est ur­ban ac­tiv­ity he’d ever wit­nessed in the en­vi­rons sur­round­ing the Ridge Pool. “Sex, vi­o­lence, triathlons, street car­ni­vals — take your pick,” he replied.

Fish­ing the Ridge Pool is not for the an­gler who craves soli­tude. Be­tween the five other an­glers spaced out along the pool, the ghillie on the bank and on­look­ers from Up­per Bridge and the prom­e­nade, step­ping into the Ridge Pool is not un­like step­ping onto the first tee at Au­gusta Na­tional dur­ing the Mas­ters. It’s proper eti­quette for each an­gler to cast, let the fly swing in the cur­rent un­til it’s di­rectly be­low you, take two steps, cast, let the fly swing be­low you, take two steps, etc. — un­til you’ve reached the bot­tom of the pool. Then you re­turn to the top and do it again. Salmon swirled nearmy line, oc­ca­sion­ally clear­ing the wa­ter com­pletely as I marched through the Ridge Pool once, and then again. None was in­ter­ested in my Hairy Mary, a fly tied with brown squir­rel tail and dou­ble hooks whose name sum­moned al­ter­nat­ing im­ages of a rav­ish­ing Ir­ish lass with long red curls and a stout bearded lady. As I stepped out of the wa­ter near the foot of Up­per Bridge, the sun dipped be­hind the Fish­eries build­ing. Glanc­ing up­stream at my fel­low an­glers, I de­cided that ad­journ­ing to V. J. Do­herty’s (es­tab­lished in 1913 by the cur­rent owner’s great grand­fa­ther) for a pint of Guin­ness would be prefer­able to another re­buff by the Moy’s salmon.

Mount Fal­con Es­tate pro­vides a sump­tu­ous re­treat af­ter a day of putting and cast­ing. The 100-acre es­tate in­cludes a sec­tion of the Moy with sev­eral beats (stretches of river set aside for fish­ing) for guest use and lav­ish suites that would not seem out of place on Down­ton Abbey. (A non-golf­ing/non-fish­ing friend would not be dis­ap­pointed if in­vited to County Mayo with a room booked at Mount Fal­con!) There are also fa­cil­i­ties for trap shoot­ing and archery, a trout fish­ing pond and a res­i­dent fal­coner, should you wish to learn about this an­cient form of hunt­ing. Ir­ish food has come a long way since my inau­gu­ral trip in 1989, when I sub­sisted on ever-more-mys­te­ri­ous ren­di­tions of shep­herd’s pie. The Kitchen Res­tau­rant (which oc­cu­pies the orig­i­nal kitchen of the es­tate) ex­plores farm-to-ta­ble themes with a va­ri­ety of lo­cal meats, pro­duce and seafood.

Some­thing else that’s served up at Mount Fal­con (and through­out County Mayo, for that mat­ter) is good “craic” — Gaelic for good times, good fel­low­ship and good ca­ma­raderie. It can (and of­ten does) in­volve a pint, but it’s more about peo­ple get­ting to­gether and en­joy­ing mu­sic or at all tale. Ire­land is a rather poor coun­try, and the Ir­ish peo­ple have learned over many gen­er­a­tions to make their fun with what they have. . . whichis one another. The Ir­ish seem hard­wired for hos­pi­tal­ity and fun, ev­er­ready to con­verse and sing a song . . . that is, have some good craic.

Over the next few days, we swung flies on sev­eral dif­fer­ent stretches of the Moy, vis­ited the famed links at Rosses Point (which rest be­low the Ben Bul­ben Moun­tains, im­mor­tal­ized by Wil­liam But­ler Yeats), fished (but did not catch) on a lovely lit­tle river called the Owen­more and sam­pled Guin­ness Stout at more than a few club­houses and coun­try pubs. (Ir­ish bar­tenders, I ob­served, un­der­stand that the good­ness of Guin­ness can­not be rushed. The av­er­age pour takes longer than two min­utes.) On my last morn­ing, I vis­ited Carne Golf Links, in the town of Bel­mul­let. Alan Maloney, the pro­pri­etor of Mount Fal­con, was driv­ing, and he could not lo­cate the course de­spite hav­ing spent a good part of his life in the re­gion.

Bel­mul­let is a hot­bed of Gaelic lan­guage boos­t­er­ism. Road signs fea­ture Gaelic names in large, bold fonts and English names in more mod­est type be­low; in many cases, the English had been painted over. Af­ter sev­eral wrong turns, a mass of hilly dunes ap­peared on one of Ire­land’s most west­erly spits of land— next stop, New­found­land! It was a cloud­less sky and the wind was barely per­cep­ti­ble— not a com­mon weather day. Yet Alan’s Range Rover was the only car in the park­ing lot. “Peo­ple here like to play a lit­tle later in the day,” the young man in the pro shop had ex­plained. As we pre­pared to tee off to a broad land­ing area be­tween two im­mense hummocks, a bor­der col­lie ran across the fair­way. By the time we reached our drives, we could hear the gen­tle bleat­ing of sheep from a nearby pas­ture, blocked from view by the hills.

For me, Carne (or Galf Chursa Chairn in Gaelic) cap­tures the spirit of Ir­ish golf. It has the blind drives, the con­vo­luted ap­proach shots and the greens that are nes­tled im­prob­a­bly onto tiny dune side ter­races that typ­ify Ir­ish links. But it also has groups of lo­cal ladies and chil­dren en­joy­ing a quick round. At Carne, golf is stilla com­mu­nity game, and the course — though in­cluded on many “must play lists” — ex­ists first and fore­most to serve the com­mu­nity. Vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans with swollen bill­folds are warmly wel­comed, but the course is re­ally there for the McIl­roys of the fu­ture.

MOUNT FAL­CON ES­TATE

AtMount Fal­con Es­tate near the town of Bal­lina, Coun­tyMayo, a golfer prac­tices be­fore head­ing for links cour­ses. Ire­land’s west coast is also a fish­er­man’s heaven.

PHOTOS FROM MOUNT FAL­CON ES­TATE

An an­gler, above, plays an At­lantic salmon on the per­pet­u­ally tea-hued RiverMoy. Carne, top, rest­ing on one of north­west Ire­land’s most west­erly spits of land in the town of Bel­mul­let, is an un­sung links course of Ire­land, but it cap­tures the spirit of Ir­ish golf.

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