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 that both the ball and the fly go farther when you move smoothly.
I've assembled several trips in the past along the golf/fly-fishing theme, but the ultimate adventure was a barnstorming tour of Ireland's 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 Estate -- 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.
If your vision of golf includes finely manicured fairways lined with stately oaks, sleek golf carts and "beverage cart 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.
After a morning of golf and 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. 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 partly for their inscrutable ways.
The river's most fecund stretches, including the Ridge Pool, rest smack in the middle of town. 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 passersby may pause to critique your casting form. 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 angler etiquette 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.
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." 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.
Over the next few days, we swung flies on several different stretches of the Moy, visited the famed links at Rosses Point, 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. 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 Irish language boosterism. Road signs feature Irish 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. 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 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 still a 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.
IF YOU GO
STAY Mount Falcon Estate, Foxford Road, Ballina, County Mayo. Rooms start at about $83 per person. The lodge can help arrange fishing and golf excursions. Info at mountfalcon.com.
FISH You can find information about leasing beats (fishing spots) on the Moy, Owenmore and other County Mayo rivers at fishinginireland.info. Leases run from about $122 to $132.