One of my most memorable matches took place on a sunny morning in the spring of 2005, at Lahinch Golf Club in the west of Ireland. I landed at Shannon Airport on the red-eye from JFK, collected my rental car and made the easy forty-five minute drive to the links where, after check-in and a quick bowl of soup, I found myself on the first tee greeting my playing partners and setting up the terms of our fourball.
At first glance they appeared to be just three ordinary golfers, middle-aged Irishmen with unlovely but effective swings. I learned in the first fairway, however, that they were anything but ordinary—they were monks from Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in neighboring Co. Limerick that also houses perhaps the most prestigious boys' school in Ireland. When I heard the word “monk” my mind immediately filled with questions, which my partner, Fr. Simon Sleeman, patiently explained as we went along.
Vow of silence? No, though it's frequently observed.
Robes? Off-campus, so to speak, civilian attire is permitted.
Chanting? Oh yeah. Remember the inexplicable craze in the '90s for that CD “Chant”? Those dudes were Benedictines
....Golf??? Sure, on occasion. Fr. Simon was, in fact, a Lahinch member.
I breezed along for the first few holes on the gee-whizziness of it all (“Hey, ma, I'm playing Lahinch with a bunch of monks!”), hardly concentrating on the course or even my own game, really. On the par-five 4th, my second shot was an infield fly rule pop up onto the Klondyke dune, that towering hazard which has given golfers fits for over a century. Giving search, I discovered at the summit a weathered fella in a hidden shelter, smoking a cigarette. I would not have been any more surprised to have found a hobbit in such a setting, and I'm quite sure my jaw dropped. To this day I regret that I hadn't been ready with a quip of some kind. As it happened, the moment passed without words, the dune ranger turning his head to drag in the gloom.
We arrived at the par-three fifth one down in the match. The Dell hole at Lahinch is sui generis—a slice of Old Tom Morris funk that despite its simplicity—high dune, aiming stone, invisible green—has proven to be nearly impossible to reproduce. (Not that most modern architects even try, given the perceived safety concerns of a totally blind one-shotter.) Fr. Simon pulled his tee shot off into oblivion, while I played straight over the rock but slightly heavy, leaving an awkward chip from the windward rump of the dune. I somehow managed to both find my ball in the heavy rough and knock it to about five feet.
With our opponents down in three I needed to convert this little knee-knocker. True to general form, I cravenly left it a turn short. Fr. Simon's expression didn't change—he simply turned and made his way toward the next tee. After we'd all hit our drives, he paused. As our opponents left us behind he said, in his gentle, ultra-mellow brogue, “You must be tired from your travels. Would you like something to eat?” He reached into the side pocket of his golf bag and produced two bananas. One of them was the platonic ideal of the cultivar, ripe and perfect. The other...well, let's just say it had probably been riding in that side pocket for at least a couple of weeks.
Fr. Simon held the two bananas, one in each hand. He gave each of them a one-second inspection and, after the slightest of hesitations, handed me the inferior one. I stared at the necrotic fruit as the monk shouldered his bag and headed off down the fairway. For some unfathomable reason I then began to peel it, frowning as a mass of black glop fell to the turf. Maybe it was just the jet lag talking, but in the moment this all felt so heavy, so freighted with meaning. Was he trying to tell me something? Had he given me a hint of a smile there? Was he...was he “taking the piss?”
Architecturally, Lahinch, like many of the great courses of the British Isles, is somewhat “bits and bobs”—Old Tom Morris's aforementioned quirk mixes effectively, though perhaps not seamlessly, with the genius of Alister MacKenzie and the modern contributions of Martin Hawtree. I was impressed by the beauty of Hawtree's dramatic beachside green at the par-three 11th, but also found myself wondering what the hole would have been like had we instead tackled Dr. MacKenzie's version. (That older green still exists, off to the right and a bit further inland, and the club sometimes uses it for winter play.)
One can't even call this a complaint—Hawtree's new hole is a good one—but it will have to do, as there's really not much to complain about at Lahinch. The course profits from an exceptionally natural links site. Beginning with the daunting blind, uphill drive on the par-four third, the course vaults players into one of the boldest dunescapes in the world, and while the terrain settles down a bit later in the round, fairways and greens still feature plenty of undulation and interest, as well as terrific variety—the charming, humpy-bumpy, drivable par-four thirteeth is immediately followed by a pair of bears. As is often the case with homeward links nines, the views turn away from the beach and toward the town and its surrounding hills.
I don't remember how our match got to be close, but I know it did because of the trash talk that continued to escalate deep into the back nine. These monks were absolutely killing each other. Anything less than the player's best effort drew a volley of quiet, yet brutal sarcasm—this was high-level jaw-jacking, minus the profanity. I felt thankful that, as a visitor, I was spared most of the commentary. It's hard to explain, but the best I can say is that this psychological warfare felt especially powerful because it was coming from people who in their vocation hold such an unusual (and frequently profound) relationship with the spoken word. Fr. Simon's voice, in particular, seemed to hint at such deep reservoirs of tranquility, of advanced spiritual progress, that it was bizarre to hear him debating his opponent's claim for a stroke on a particular hole. I must have looked stunned at the conclusion of the match because shortly after closing us out, one of our opponents sidled over to me, shook my hand, and offered this by way of explanation: “We may be monks, but we're still Irishmen.”
Visiting Lahinch-the-town was the first time in my travels (other than St. Andrews, of course) where I felt like ditching the rest of my multi-course itinerary and hunkering down there for a week. It's perhaps the best all-around golf town in Ireland, boasting a great location between Shannon Airport and the bustling city of Galway, and it's just a Finn MacCool pitching wedge from both the famed Cliffs of Moher and the rocky wilds of The Burren. Just past the Cliffs is the village of Doolin, long considered to be one of Ireland's finest havens for traditional music and a must if you're in the area. Finally, Lahinch also doubles as a fairly major surfing destination, which lends the town a kind of youthful vibrancy that you won't find in Ballybunion or Portrush. The gentle breaks in town are perfect for beginners, while bigguns can be found out by the Cliffs. John McCarthy's Lahinch Surf School (lahinchsurfschool.com) is one of the best-known places to learn how to ride the waves. In short, Lahinch is more than just an essential Irish links—the town's deep portfolio of off-course activities make it a legitimately strong stand-alone destination.