Monday, August 29, 2016

Blues on the Greens: Or how poor play is sapping the life force out of me

I love golf. I think. But it doesn’t always love me. Or so it seems.

And with that intentionally ambiguous opening salvo, I courageously aim to reboot this little blog of mine.

I am painfully aware of the silence these past two months, nearly an eternity in social media time. So for those faithful few who are still out there wondering, the least I can do is answer a few basic questions:

Are you still alive?

Yes. By all accounts, I’ve yet to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Are you still in Scotland?

Definitely yes. And, I should say, still gratefully so.

Are you still playing golf?

This is where it gets a wee bit murky. What I can say for certain is that, since my last missive in June, I have logged several rounds on some terrific links courses—such as Goswick, Crail, Machrihanish, Dunaverty and Western Gailes. But did my actions on these hallowed grounds constitute golf?  Highly debatable. A more accurate description would be futile attempts to flail away at the ball, occasionally interrupted by flashes of competence.

Thus my opening lament. And this long overdue post.

Trust me. I get it. Things have grown so quiet in this space that even the digital crickets have packed their bags and moved on. But perhaps, by jumping back in—even if I haven’t a clue of what lies below—I can regain my footing. Maybe, just maybe, I can rediscover my mojo.

The operative question, as always for me, boils down to just one word: Why? Why do I devote so much time, money and energy to what is ultimately a pointless pursuit? Why do I allow so much of my emotional wellbeing to hinge on whether my golf ball goes where I want it to go?

If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you often find yourself wrestling with the “Why?” question, too. If, like me, you struggle to come up with a satisfying answer, perhaps we can help each other out. I’m open to suggestion. At minimum, misery loves company.

Because, fact is, my poor play has me in a deep funk. And it’s not just a golf thing. The negative vibe stirred up on the course has begun to seep into my real life. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as depression. That would overstate my case and understate the fate of people who truly do struggle to function in the world. A more likely diagnosis is a bout of the blues, though it’s quite possibly the most virulent strain I’ve ever encountered.

As such, when I do play golf and things go poorly (as they inevitably do), I’m disinclined to want to bring that frustration home and wallow in it by writing about it. Yet, choosing not to process the bad juju doesn’t mean it goes away. The unresolved feelings simply get pushed under the surface, reemerging elsewhere in unhelpful ways.

Like, for example, disrupting a peaceful night’s sleep. Or restraining my embrace of each new day with joy and gratitude. Or clouding my awareness of life’s small but priceless blessings. Like a Scottish summer sunset. Or the supersized patchwork quilt that blankets the Scottish Borders at harvest time. Or the boundless energy of a Cavalier King Charles puppy (aka Winston).

It’s downright foolish if not borderline criminal to allow the inability to execute golf shots have such power over me. But the evidence would suggest that I do.

The good news? The first step toward solving a problem is to acknowledge that you have one. Hopefully, this post will check that box.

And maybe, after I press the publish button and share this confession with all who happen to stumble upon it, I can begin to heal.

Now that just might be a journey worth writing about. And, from where you sit, maybe it will make for a blog worth reading.

Hang in there with me.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Catching Up: After a little too much real life, I’m happily back on the links

Looking West -- I snapped this panoramic pic during an especially stunning sunset during my annual reunion at Machrihanish.
So, it’s been awhile.

My apologies for that. But I've had an action-packed month. And, unfortunately, not all of the festivities took place on a golf course. Real life has an annoying way of invading our little playground, even for a lucky bastard like me who now makes his home in the game's birthplace.

Time to get caught up, via what’s likely to be a wee bit of a rambling post.

Just prior to my last missive, I was preparing for my annual journey to Machrihanish to reunite with about 20 of my dearest friends who hail from both sides of the pond. That week did happen. And, for the 15th consecutive year, it was wonderful.

Playing Through -- The coos yield, begrudgingly, to our progress at Dunaverty, a one-off of a course in Southend -- not far from Machrihanish. 
It’s just that, simultaneously, my wife—in Abu Dhabi for business—contracted a severe case of food poisoning. Eventually both of us found our way back home. But, after just one night together, she spent the next five in the local hospital. Very scary stuff, to put it mildly. For the most part, that darkness has now lifted—though she has a follow-up with a specialist next week that might lead to additional treatment.

Golfer of the Week -- American Craig Eisentrout, one of my cherished lifelong friends, claims the spoils in the individual competition at Machrihanish. To his left is the prestigious Ryder Spoon, retained once again by the US in its annual battle with the UK.
In the midst of that crisis, our eldest daughter also spent time—29 days in all—in a hospital in Los Angeles for a series of planned surgeries that proved quite trying. So, with my wife stabilized, I traveled there to offer her my support before continuing on to Dallas to tend to the day job. My daughter will also be OK. But she still faces a few more weeks of recovery before she can get back to something resembling normal life.

Needless to say, golf took a backseat while I was strapped to this emotional roller coaster. Still, an addict can only go so long between fixes. The good news? My two weeks in the “Big D” happened to fall on either side of Memorial Day. The bad news? My clubs were back in Scotland. So when a friend offered to let me borrow his sticks over the long weekend, I happily accepted.

Low Tech -- Here's the bag o' sticks I borrowed while in Dallas. And, yes, that is a 2-iron you're seeing there.
Check out the photo though. That very mixed bag is anchored by a set of Hogan Apex irons that, by my calculations, burst onto the scene when Jimmy Carter was president. Now, I know I used to play golf—and at a respectable level—with a set of similarly crude instruments during my pre-marriage and pre-fatherhood days. But it’s a mystery to me how I ever pulled off that trick. I sure as shootin’ don’t have the game for them now. Bottom line: That holiday round on an utterly forgettable non-links course in suburban Dallas didn’t quite fill the void.

Happily, I returned to the auld sod two weeks ago. And with my wife and daughter on the mend and my client relationships in good stead, I started to get back into the flow.

Last week, I logged one round at my home course, Goswick. And then this week, like a bolt out of the blue, I received an invitation to play a round at Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers whose origins date back to 1744. This is the same Muirfield that’s hosted the Open Championship 16 times, most recently in 2013 when Phil Michelson claimed his first Claret Jug. It’s also the same Muirfield that might fall out of the rota, unless it changes its mind about allowing women to become members. But that’s a debate for a different day.

Gray Day -- Externally, a persistent gloom hung over Muirfield the day we got to play it (in this particular moment on the par4 12th hole). But internally? We were as giddy as schoolboys.
In the here and now, the salient point is that when the gates to golf’s promised land open, you are compelled to drop everything and enter. I did just that, quickly rescheduling two conference calls and securing my wife’s blessing.

Reunited, And... -- feels so good! I toured Muirfield, including the devilish par 3 13th hole, with my own custom-fitted clubs.
The terms of this deal preclude me from divulging too many details. But what I can say is that Muirfield is, by far, the best conditioned links course I’ve ever played. And it’s among the most difficult. Its bunkers, all 100-plus of them, are especially punishing. Still, even when your scorecard is taking a hit, how can you not be at peace? You’re walking on sacred ground. With all due respect to Jack Nicklaus and the club of the same name that he created in Ohio, this is the Muirfield, for heaven’s sake!

Iconic Finish -- Our joy ride ended much too quickly, with a walk toward the Muirfield clubhouse at the par 4 18th hole.
All of which brings me to the present moment. My loved ones are out of the hospital. I’m back in Scotland. And I’m walking the links, both the well known and the lesser so. This happy journey, after an unanticipated hiatus, has resumed.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Eamonn Kennelly: My man in Ireland, the world’s other true links playground

They Do Scotland, Too! -- Eamonn Kennelly (standing on the left) enjoys a round with his Golf Vacations Ireland colleagues at Scotland's most iconic golf location, the Old Course in St. Andrews. Though the tour operator has deep travel connections on the Emerald Isle, about one third of the trips they book for their clients are to Scotland.
I first met Eamonn Kennelly in Dublin in 2000 when my three oldest and dearest friends and I were halfway though our first golf holiday in Ireland. We’d started up north at Portstewart and Royal Portrush (recently announced as the 2019 Open venue), worked our way south through Royal County Down to Portmarnock and—the next morning—would continue on to the K Club (that would go on to host the Ryder Cup in 2006), finishing up at Lahinch and Ballybunion on the west coast.

Kennelly, founder and owner of the family-run Golf Vacations Ireland based near Dublin, had organized the adventure for us. And, in keeping with the above-and-beyond hospitality of the Irish, he very graciously met up with us during our one night in Ireland’s capital and largest city. It started with a pint or two of Guinness on the ground floor of a very lively pub, and then progressed to dinner on one of the floors above. So far so good. If only we’d stopped there.

Instead, we adjourned to the bar where shots of Jameson were added to the mix as well as some ill-advised cigars. Then more Guinness. And more whiskey. Perhaps a second cigar. It all gets a wee bit fuzzy at this point. The net effect? Little sleep. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth. And massive hangovers the morning after as we made our way, gingerly, along our proscribed path.

It’s amid such shared carnage—though the wounds be entirely self-inflicted—that enduring friendships can take root. And I am pleased to say that Eamonn and I have remained in touch over the 15 years since. When the stars align, we even meet up to play some golf and down some beverages, though wisely never approaching the quantity of that first meeting.

As such, bright-eyed and clear-headed, I can heartily vouch for the man. And, by extension, I strongly endorse his firm’s services should you, too, long to experience the Emerald Isle’s many first-rate links courses. Scotland might be the home of golf. But Ireland is a more than worthy outpost in the game’s centuries-old migration. You owe it to yourself to add it to your bucket list.

Recently, over the virtual table known as a Skype connection, we conversed at length about the game we love and Ireland’s unique expression of it—which is always deeply satisfying if not bordering on the spiritual, with our without the alcohol.

Wee Egg Mon: In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never asked how you got started playing golf. Did you begin as a wee lad, under the tutelage of an older and wiser relative?

Eamonn Kennelly: Not at all. I was almost 30 before I started playing golf. A misspent youth, I guess. And I grew up only 10 miles from Ballybunion, on a small cattle and dairy farm. There was always plenty to be done. Golf was far from a priority.

WEM: So when did that change?

EK: Like many people of my generation who grew up in rural Ireland, as soon as we finished high school, we either went away to college or emigrated to another country. Many left their homes in Ireland and never returned full-time. I went to university in Dublin, where I studied horticulture science. I worked in that field for 11 years after I graduated.

WEM: Still no golf in this picture.

EK: In the mid 1990’s I studied part-time for an MBA. Through that experience, I fell in with a group of students who became friends. After we earned our degrees, we stayed in touch and agreed to get together every year for a golf trip. The year it came to my turn to organize the tip I chose Ballybunion, as I grew up close to there. One night we were in the clubhouse and there was a group from New York at the next table. We got chatting. They asked how we had organized our trip. And they told us how difficult it was for them, with the time difference, to get everything coordinated.

That’s when a thought popped into my head: With email, it would be very easy for me to put trips like this together for people overseas. The Internet was still very new then—
Google wasn’t even about then! But I could put up a website and people could send me their requirements. And when they turned on their email the next morning, I could have a solution waiting for them. That’s how Golf Vacations Ireland came about.

It was a relatively quick decision. Once I had my MBA, I was eager to start a business for myself. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I evaluated a few other ideas, but this is the one I went with. I officially opened for business on April 15, 1999 and haven’t looked back since!

WEM: So that would have been just a year or so before we contacted you.

EK: Yes. And, in retrospect, it wasn’t the ideal time to start at golf holiday business. By then, most of the people who were looking to come to Ireland that summer had already booked their trips. And it was too early for those who had their eye on the following year. So the first six months were relatively slow. I focused primarily on building up my contacts with the golf clubs, hotels and B&Bs. But by August it started to become a viable business. And by September I was convinced I could make a go of it.

WEM: Was there much competition back then?

EK: Yes, but I was able to carve out a niche for myself. The big tour operators were just starting to build websites, but mostly because someone sold them this was the new thing and they ought to do it. But they didn’t focus on the online opportunity like I did. I knew I had to get the website just right if I was going to get myself established. So I invested a lot in the site as well as the search engines so people could find it.

I think my other big advantage was that I was committed to understanding and catering to my clients’ requirements. Listening to them was first and foremost. I knew that if I gave them what they want—even if they didn’t know exactly what that was at first—the more likely they’d be satisfied and go with me again. And that’s proven to be true. Today, 75 percent of our business is due to repeat and referral clients.

It also didn’t hurt that, at the start, I was the only employee and I worked out of my house. So I was able to keep the overheads low.

WEM: Your personal touch was certainly the difference maker for us on our trip in 2000. My friend found your site in a search, as well as one of the big tour operators. He sent the same inquiry email to both, detailing how much time we had and the courses we wanted to play. At the time, we made the assumption that this could be our only trip to Ireland, so we had a rather lengthy wish list. But you responded right away, with something to the effect of, “You guys are crazy! But I think it can be done and here’s what I recommend.”

Meanwhile, the bigger operator took several days to get back to us and basically ignored our preferences. Their offer was more along the lines of, “You can choose between Package A or Package B.”

We had no idea who you were, except for your email. But we said, “What the heck. Let’s go with him.” So we sent you our credit card numbers. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off…for all of us.

EK: Yeah, I remember that. We came up with a very ambitious itinerary. But there are ways of making these things work. That’s something we really pride ourselves on. Our local knowledge, not only of the golf courses but of the accommodations and transportation options, can make a huge difference. Often, we suggest opportunities—such as a course the client’s never heard or locations for touring and sightseeing—that can make the difference between a good holiday and a great one.

WEM: Do you have a typical customer?

EK: Most of our clients come from the U.S. and Canada. Average group size is eight people, though we can organize trips for all types. I’d say about 50 percent of our clients come first and foremost for the golf. If they could, they’d play two rounds every day. But for the other half, including couples, 18 holes is enough. They might play a round in the morning and then leave the afternoon open for sightseeing and touring.

Some people like to do the driving, but most prefer to leave that to a professional. That can make for a much more leisurely and enjoyable trip, especially if it’s their first visit to Ireland and they don’t know the geography. Many of our clients tell us that their driver is the best friend they never knew they had. A friendly face comes along in the morning and picks them up at their hotel and knows right where to go. After you finish your golf, you can relax and have a beer or a glass of wine. Our drivers live in the areas where they work, so they can answer all kinds of questions—not just about golf. They’re much more than just transportation. They’re really your friend and concierge for the duration of your trip.

WEM: Back when we first met, golf seemed to be really hitting its stride. You had the Tiger effect. Equipment was leveraging new technology. And the world economy was booming. Then we hit 2008. How has golf travel and your business changed since then?

EK: Travel can be a very fickle business. It can be subject to political, economic and even environmental pressures—like that volcano that erupted in Iceland a few years ago. That had a big impact on our business that year. The stretch between 2008 and 2010 was very challenging for us. I had to cut back on staff. But we kept going and now, while business isn’t quite back to what it was, things are much better. I don’t see as many people chartering helicopters to hop from course to course. But the people who travel by car or bus are definitely back.

WEM: I’m now living in Scotland, but still have a very special place in my heart for Ireland. Fortunately, it’s just a short plane ride away—and I plan to take full advantage of that geographic proximity. You plan itineraries to both countries. From your perspective, how do these two links golf destinations compare?

EK: Yes, about a third of the trips we put together for our clients are based in Scotland. And we do a little bit in England as well. Scotland has done a good job of branding itself as the home of golf. And then you have all of the Scottish courses on the Open rota that get a tremendous amount of exposure. So a lot of people see Scotland as a must-go destination. One of our clients, who alternates between the two, perhaps summed it up best: “We go to Scotland because we feel we have to,” he’s told us. “But we go to Ireland because we want to.”

What sets Ireland apart? First and foremost is the welcome of the Irish people. There’s none better in the world. And it doesn’t hurt that many of our clients have Irish ancestry. That makes for a natural draw.

As for the golf, the courses here are often built on bigger dunes than those in Scotland, so you see more variation in the holes. They tend to be more dramatic with better views of the ocean.

And, generally speaking, Ireland offers better overall value. That’s especially true at the moment when you compare the exchange rage for the euro vs. the dollar and the pound vs. the dollar.

WEM: I would add that, generally speaking, the food in Ireland is at a higher standard than that in Scotland. I love fish and chips and have even developed a liking for haggis. consistently at a higher level than that in Scotland. Even in many of the small towns, you can find a really good meal.

But enough about the food. What nourishes me and, I have a hunch, the folks who stumble upon this blog, is the golf. Are you getting your share of that nourishment, amid the day-to-day demands of a service-oriented business like Golf Vacations Ireland?

EK: Over the course of the year, I average about one round a week. Sometimes, if the temperature falls below freezing, the courses will close. But generally we can play through the winter. And I take advantage of that. Admittedly, I got off to a late start in golf. But I’ve definitely developed an affection for the game.

WEM: In a place like Ireland, how could you not?

EK: Indeed!