It was the morning of the Fourth of July, hot enough to set off fireworks without a match along the South Carolina coast, and there was the enchanting Lahinch Golf Club on Ireland’s west coast glimmering in sun-splashed glory on the television.
For a day anyway, there was no need for windshirts and rain gear over there, just the enticing image of the game in an almost primal setting, the dunes and sea creating a siren’s song to anyone who has known the thrill of a properly struck tee shot.
A few minutes later, a series of texts started hitting my phone from friends that I toured Ireland and Northern Ireland with last spring, bringing the trip back to life, right down to the late-afternoon loop we played at Lahinch’s famous Klondyke and Dell holes and who didn’t order a Guinness after one particular round.
All of this is a long-winded way of recognizing the joy of road trips in golf. Whether it’s across the ocean to finally stand on the first tee at the Old Course and feel the ghosts on your shoulder or just a few miles down the road with some friends to play a place you’ve not been in a while, it’s the same tie that binds us to the game and its destinations.
Tennis courts all look the same. Golf courses are like people. Everyone is different and golfers will make the effort to go to places like Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin.
Most of us probably play the same course over and over, whether we’re members of a club or we have a favorite and convenient place to tee it up. Those places, whether it’s a club that takes itself a little too seriously or a spot where there’s no such thing as a practice range and there’s more dirt than grass on par-3 tees, are the bedrocks of each golfer’s story.
Home courses are like home cooking, familiar, reassuring and filling. They’re comforting (well, except those one or two spots on everyone’s home course where, to borrow a phrase from Hannibal Lecter, you can hear the lambs screaming in your head), and it’s there that your expectations and handicap are grounded.
The best golf trips aren’t just about the destination. It’s what happens around the golf that often lingers the longest.
It’s when you hit the road that the game’s horizons expand. Whether it’s stuffing everything into the back of an SUV (or if you still have a van, then go for it) or cramming a travel bag full of clubs and shoes to go someplace exotic, it’s the experience that excites and endures.
It’s discovering a pie shop on the way to Bandon Dunes and stopping there coming and going for a slice of coconut cream pie. It’s a late afternoon nine at Pinehurst’s short course, the Cradle – where there’s music in the air and a pine-cone shaped whisky wagon near one of the tees – and setting the payoff for anyone who makes an ace.
It’s making a sunset visit after golf to the ruins of Slains Castle in Scotland, the ancient skeleton that understandably inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, and feeling the shivers run up your spine. It’s feeling the wind rush up from below at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
It’s seeing the seventh hole at Pebble Beach for the first time or finally hitting the tee shot on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course.
Those are big-ticket trips, like landing an invitation to play Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links on the tip of Long Island, but the best golf trips aren’t just about the destination. It’s what happens around the golf that often lingers the longest.
Who snapped the side-view mirror off the rental car driving in Scotland? Who wore the ugliest shorts on the beach trip? Who thought they could jump a creek and didn’t?
Who developed the shanks? Who holed the 7-iron from the fairway on the first hole? Who hit the greatest 4-iron ever struck from a sidehill lie as it was sleeting at a place called Whitekirk in Scotland? (Hint, that last one was me).
In the simplest sense, every day at the golf course is like a miniature road trip, though there are some people who truly seem to live at wherever they play their golf. As familiar as the place may be, you can’t help but arrive there wondering what might happen.
Ultimately, that’s the joy of golf road trips, wondering where the laughs, the thrills and the stories will unfold along the way.
While it’s great to see famous courses or stuff five rounds into three days with breakfast in the morning and a good steak at night, it’s what you take home that matters. The scorecards from a special place, the stories that stay alive, the photographs that can you take back to the spot right down to how it felt and smelled.
Maybe you remember what you shot, maybe you don’t. Maybe that’s not what matters.
Maybe one morning you wake up and see Lahinch on television and remember the five-hour drive from Northern Ireland to get there, the cup of coffee from a tiny, overheated shop in the village and what it felt like being there with friends.
Then a photo from the trip shows up on your phone and the stories start all over again.
Until the next time.
The good fortune of playing Irish golf, and links golf in general, exemplified by a rainbow over the green on the sixth hole on the Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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