DUBLIN, Ireland — He was glowing. You could see it in his eyes.
Ireland was the one country where he had always wanted to play. It had taken him 25 years to find the time to do it, and there he was, alone in a chauffeur-driven limousine with a little American flag fluttering up front and a motorcycle escort leading the way, arriving at the Royal Dublin Golf Club.
Stepping out on the course for a special exhibition match in July with the Spanish golf star Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus was greeted by the cheers of thousands of Irish fans while a band played "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Although no such hoopla is apt to attend your first game in Ireland, be glad that you are you, and not Jack. For he, with his heavy commitments, had to fly back to the United States immediately after his first (and only) game, whereas pleasure golfers have the freedom to dally over discoveries of many delightful Irish courses.
Follow the Signs
Ireland has 250 golf courses, every one of them open to traveling golfers. Road signs routinely point the direction for the nearest "Gold Chumann." That means club in Gaelic, pronounced "come in."
A booklet available free from the Irish Tourist Board, 757 3rd Ave., New York 10017, describes 191 of these courses--complete to the days of the week when visitors are most welcome, phone numbers, descriptions and directions. (For the 59 more in Northern Ireland, you must do your own detective work.)
Royal Dublin is as good a choice as any for a first try at golf, Irish-style. The cost is about $22 at the current rate of exchange (half that if you're lucky enough to be a guest of a member). Only four miles north of Dublin, on a tiny island called North Bull, it is a meandering seaside links, par 73, the second-oldest course in Ireland (dating to 1891).
It is set among grassy dunes from which rabbits bound in terror as errant balls land nearby, intended for fairways called Feather Bed and Alps. The course does double duty as a bird sanctuary. From the upstairs porch of the clubhouse, quaff a beer and enjoy the panoramic view.
Wild, Woolly, Windy
Six miles farther north, on the mainland, is the famous Pontmarnock Golf Club. Three years younger than Royal Dublin and costing the same to play, it is even more wild, woolly and windy and is generally considered Ireland's toughest. Go early and loosen up on its nine-hole course; no extra charge. A greens fee in Ireland is good for all day, not just one round.
You have to walk, for only at the Waterville links in southwestern Ireland are riding carts available. So pack a light bag, as caddies and caddie carts are not always available. Take your own pencils, too (not supplied in Ireland), plus wooden tees if you don't like plastic. Colored balls are also recommended, showing up better in the thick Irish rough.
Distance on the score cards is given in meters. This is good practice for Americans--just think 10% more.
Counties Clare and Kerry, in the south, are where most of the golf action is. There the Irish are banking on American course architects to help lure golf tourists away from the hallowed links of Scotland.
No Pampered Grass
At Ballybunion, Robert Trent Jones Sr. is newly represented and, at Tralee, Arnold Palmer. But Americans will find no similarity to the lush Trent Jones and Palmer courses of home. Not for Ireland the pampered wall-to-wall grass with sleekly manicured fairways. Nor the usually gorgeous greens of America, thick as a carpet and billiards-table slick.
Instead, both men were captivated by the scenery they found and chose to let nature dominate.
Starting off placidly enough as an easygoing seaside ramble, Ballybunion New, opened a year ago, soon tears off into high grassy dunes, each seemingly more mountainous than the last. Golfers find themselves shooting over, under or through one dune to the next.
It's target golf all the way, with pinched fairways, yawning traps and deep, tangled rough. "This is the toughest course I've ever played," my Irish companion, an 11-handicapper, sighed. Par is 72 men, 75 women.
By contrast, Ballybunion Old, in play since 1896, enchants and intrigues with an air romantic and mysterious. Of course, its terraced dunes have been well trampled by 90 years of erosion (and golfers).
Overnight at Marine
Both courses can be played the same day for about $28. I can't imagine anyone capable of that, however. Better to tackle each well rested.
A charming place to stay in Ballybunion town is the 10-room Marine Hotel. Flower boxes bloom at every guest-room window. It is also the best place to eat, a favorite of golfer Tom Watson on his annual visits here to warm up for the British Open. Room rates about $16 to $22. Write to Marine Hotel, Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland. Phone 068-2713.