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The Portstewart links course on Ulster's Causeway Coast.
The Portstewart links course on Ulster's Causeway Coast.

A couple put their relationship to the test on Northern Ireland's golf courses Add to ...

He's a golf travel writer, she's a media executive. Together, they ventured across the ocean for their first nervous step into the world of tournament golf. Would a happy couple return?

Brian Kendall: From seaside at Scotland's Old Course to the mountain fairways of Banff, my wife and I have enjoyed countless rounds of golf together. But the invitation to play in Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast Mixed Golf Tournament last autumn made us both nervous - we feared the unaccustomed stress of partnering in tournament match play, even in an event advertised as "casual and fun," could blast a divot in our usually happy marriage.

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Sharon McAuley: My biggest concern was whether our games would hold up under the pressure. Would Brian be able to tame his wild driver and keep the ball in play? Could I rise to the challenge of making every shot count? Knowing how competitive I can be, Brian suggested that we make a pact. No harsh words or dirty looks after a flubbed shot. No recriminations later back at the hotel. Win or lose, we vowed to savour every moment of our Irish adventure.

BK: It was a dream itinerary. We'd rubberneck in Dublin for a day after landing, get in a warm-up round at renowned Portmarnock Golf Club, and then drive from the Republic to Northern Ireland's famously scenic Causeway Coast for the start of the tournament. The three-day better ball, handicap-adjusted event would be played at a trio of the world's most hallowed links, Portstewart, Castlerock and Royal Portrush.

SM: Visiting Dublin had been a fantasy of mine ever since I'd studied James Joyce's Dubliners in university. Fighting our jet lag, we explored Grafton Street, a popular shopping avenue, and the stylish Temple Bar district, both still bustling despite the headlines about Ireland's imploding economy. To celebrate our arrival, we hoisted a pint that evening at the Davy Byrnes pub on Duke Street, an old haunt of Joyce's.

BK: Eager to start swinging the clubs, we made our way early the next morning to Portmarnock, a classically designed beauty set on a wind-buffeted peninsula just north of Dublin. Like all true links, Portmarnock plays on ground uncovered when the sea receded. Humps and hollows, whin bushes, gorse, heather and sand dunes confront golfers at a constantly demanding layout created more by Mother Nature than man.

SM: Shell-shocked by Portmarnock, we weren't exactly brimming with confidence as we pointed the car toward Northern Ireland and the start of the tourney the next day. About three hours (and countless roundabouts) later, we checked into charming Bushmills Inn on the main street of Bushmills, just inland from the Antrim Coast and home to the 400-year-old whisky distillery of the same name.

BK: Tournament day dawned gloriously sunny, a gentle breeze rustling the golden fescue at nearby Portstewart Golf Club's Strand Course, set on bluffs hard by the sea in the resort town of Portstewart. Together with our opening round opponents, Liam and Rosemary, a gregarious couple from Dublin, we stared awestruck at one of the game's most glorious opening holes. Fighting down our jitters, Sharon and I managed to ignore the distraction of the crashing ocean and the blue Donegal Hills to hit solid drives off the elevated tee to the fairway flanked by massive dunes below.

SM: Brian struggled with his driver through the rest of the front nine, and I could feel the pressure to put some points on the card. When he suspected my energies were flagging, Liam, a retired Cadbury's executive, generously offered my pick from his stash of chocolate bars. By the time Brian finally caught fire on the back nine, the match was as good as lost.

BK: Hey, links golf takes getting used to. A course like Portstewart forces North American golfers to hit shots they might never play in a lifetime of parkland golf back home. Hacking it out of the fescue with a lob wedge quickly becomes your go-to shot.

SM: Still happily reliving our best shots, our group joined the 10 other couples in the tournament (a mix of Irish, Brits, Americans and Canadians) for lunch on the clubhouse deck. Most were early retirees with plenty of time to travel and work on their games. Everyone, winner or loser, clearly felt exhilarated by the setting and the golf.

BK: That afternoon, we explored the Causeway Coastal Route. Huge cliffs of red sandstone define a stunning coastline dotted with historic castles and forts. But the highlight was the Giant's Causeway, an astonishing honeycomb of thousands of six-sided basalt columns formed alongside and under the sea after a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.

SM: That's the science. But I prefer the Irish folk tale of how the lovestruck giant Finn McCool built the columns as stepping stones in an attempt to woo a beautiful giantess on the Scottish island of Staffa.

BK: Finn McCool himself would have had trouble muscling a ball out of the hairy rough the next day at Castlerock Golf Club's Mussenden Links, a short drive from Bushmills in the seaside town of Castlerock. Our round-two opponents were Herb and Henriette, another amiable Irish couple who just managed to edge us during a hard-fought battle over Castlerock's roller coaster ride of hillocks and swales.

SM: I still laugh when I remember Brian's head disappearing as he followed his ball into the largest and deepest bunker I'd ever seen. Despite the loss, our no-recriminations pact held fast. By now, we were both having too much fun to stress about our scores.

BK: Sharon and I were high from the thrill of playing one incredible links after another. But the tournament's organizers wisely saved the best for last. The next morning, we turned a corner of the Causeway Coastal Route and marvelled at the unmatched setting of Royal Portrush Golf Club's Dunluce Links. Tumbling down the hillside to seaside cliffs is an unbroken profusion of links holes as fine as any in Ireland. Some fairways are no wider than a county road, and many dogleg abruptly through dunes blanketed with whin and gorse.

SM: Herb and Henriette awaited us on the first tee for the second day in a row. Having so far posted the worst records in the tourney, we four played that day not for glory, but to avoid the embarrassment of finishing in last place.

BK: Back and forth we battled deep into the round. On the par five 17th, stunned by scoring a rare par, I walked off the green with the flagstick still clutched in my hand, finally called to my senses by the group behind. In the end, we beat Herb and Henriette on the scorecard, only to lose the match once our handicaps were reckoned in.

SM: We expected at least a little razzing from all our new friends that night during the closing dinner at Royal Portrush's clubhouse. But people seemed hardly to notice who had won or the final standings. Everyone was too busy laughing, sharing memories, exchanging e-mail addresses and vowing to come back to Northern Ireland and play it all over again next year.

Special to The Globe and Mail

TEE UP A TOURNEY

Tullamore Dew Causeway Coast Golf Tournament, June 12 to 17

Europe's largest amateur golf tournament, with up to 1,100 competitors, involves four rounds played in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, Ballycastle, Castlerock and Portstewart. It's open to amateurs with an official club handicap of 20 or less. (Entrance fee: $300 a person; causewaycoastgolf.com)

Causeway Coast Mixed Golf Tournament, Oct. 9 to 12

Three rounds are played in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, Castlerock and Portstewart. Female entrants must have an official club handicap of 36 or less; men 24 or less. (Entrance fee: $277 a person; causewaycoastandglens.com)

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