DOONBEG, Ireland - Ireland's tourism office aggressively promotes the country's golf courses, probably more than any destination.
But its best endorsement, perhaps, in a long while was purely viral: Stewart Cink visited Ireland the week before his 2009 British Open Championship triumph over Tom Watson at Turnberry.
Cink made a similar visit to Ireland before the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, at which he finished in a tie for sixth. After missing the cut at Royal Birkdale in 2008, Cink ventured back to southwest Ireland a year later, settling at Doonbeg Golf Club to prep for the Open.
In hindsight, it was a remarkably wise decision.
Much to Irish delight, Cink was one of golf's biggest "tweeters" at the time, posting pictures and information throughout his family trip. His hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers learned that he took his kids to their first links experience at Doonbeg. Cink even posted a picture from aboard the Shannon Ferry, the method of transportation for nearly every touring golfer between southwest Ireland's golf-rich counties, Clare and Kerry.
And after his victory, Cink posted a photo of the Claret Jug filled with Guinness, perhaps the nectar used to provide the luck of the Irish the following week.
It's a popular combination for British Open spectators - a week on the links somewhere in the British Isles or Ireland, followed by time behind the ropes as the pros play. For the pros, though, it's not so easy.
The European Tour's Scottish Open, usually held the week before the British Open, is staged at Loch Lomond Golf Club, a parkland course. It's become a source of contention in recent years. Many assume if it were held on a links, top-ranked players would fill the field as they prepare for the major the following week.
Cink's mastery of Turnberry may well convince more pros in 2010 to skip the Scottish Open and the John Deere Open in favor of their own links tour in southwest Ireland or elsewhere in the isles.
"I think next year, I will be going to play links golf before the Open Championship again," Cink said in 2009. "And hopefully if my kids and my wife will accompany me like they did this year, I'll invite them along, too, and we'll have another good time."
At Doonbeg, they certainly hope Cink is superstitious come this summer.
Americans receive a warm welcome in Ireland, especially in the southwest, whether it's Bill Clinton or Watson on the tee at Ballybunion Golf Club, or a dozen hacks from Boston in for a long weekend.
It's just a five-hour flight to Shannon Airport from Boston Logan, shorter than the travel time from Boston to Phoenix.
Despite the lack of top events in southwest Ireland, their courses remain a challenge - arguably more difficult in some ways than in Scotland. Cink admitted he didn't break par in Eire before winning at Turnberry with a cumulative score of 2-under.
The Greg Norman-designed Doonbeg represents a new addition to southwest Ireland, though it's tough to see much in the form of modern design.
"The place is eight years old, but it looks like its been there 108," Cink said.
The golf resort features lodge and cottage accommodations, both of which can fit a family. They're luxurious enough for any top-ranked player used to the red-carpet treatment. And it's all right next to the golf course and practice facility, allowing for practice of all the shots required by the links.
A short drive away sits Lahinch's Old Course, one of Ireland's most prestigious links, dating to the 19th century. Laid out by the hands of several famous names, from Old Tom Morris to Alister Mackenzie, the course shines brighter than ever after extensive renovations in the past several years.
Cink also headed across the Shannon River in County Kerry to Ballybunion. A fitting stop, since it's the most visited of all the Irish links by Americans, the result of its convenient location and prolific history of famous visitors.
Next time, Cink shouldn't miss Tralee Golf Club. Despite its founding late in the 19th century, the current golf course was laid out in 1984 among some of Ireland's most incredible dunesland. Both nines hug the water at points, and the back side ranks among the world's most spectacular coastal collections.
Other courses of note include Waterville and the spectacular Old Head to the east.
The abundance of links golf courses in Ireland provides all the more reason for Cink - and other British Open participants - to spend a week here in 2010 in preparation for St. Andrews.
February 22, 2010