Golf, especially links golf, comes in no greater dramatic abundance than in Ireland, and around the coastline the courses are spread like gems - created by nature and linked together to form a necklace of beauty. All the key ingredients are here in abundance
- towering dunes, tumbling fairways, elevated greens, deep pot bunkers, slick putting surfaces, howling winds and the taste of salt in the sea air.
Some layouts such as Lahinch and Ballybunion Old are classics where golf has been played since the late 1800s, whilst others such as Doonbeg and Tralee are relatively recent creations that still look as though they have been part of the landscape since then. Finding your way to these courses is all part of the experience; travelling through a wild landscape of brooding mountains, past gurgling streams and ancient castles perched on top of windswept headlands. The roads, often twisting and narrow, can take longer than expected to navigate. You may make a few wrong turns, be stuck behind a tractor, or have to wait for a flock of sheep to cross the road, but it is time well spent in anticipation.
Adding to the golfing experience are the locals you meet at the courses, who have a tremendous gift of making you feel welcome and the wonderful 19th hole pubs to sink one or two pints of the black stuff while discussing the day’s golf. Here, now is a journey starting north of Dublin and heading around the coast for 18 of the Emerald Isle’s best courses...
Ever since the 1950s, when the first charter flights began to Widely recognised as one of Ireland’s premier golf resorts with a golf course that com- bines all the charms of a traditional links layout with the challenge of the modern game. Gently undulating luxuriously sprung fairways leading to large fast greens must be negotiated through 98 strategically placed bunkers, while hillocks, wild grasses and gorse await wayward shots. The 1st tee and 18th green are conveniently situated just a wedge shot from the hotel and clubhouse.
Only a few minutes drive from the hotel is Son Muntane.
Royal County Down
‘Royal County Down’ - the very words are enough to cause you to run back to the clubhouse shaking with fear. Laid out beneath the brooding Mountains of Mourne and enjoying a magnificent setting along the shores of Dundrum Bay, this superb track is never out the world’s top ten. Designed by Old Tom Morris for the princely sum of four guineas back in 1889, this is one tough examination for any player, and with so many blind shots, the main challenge is to find a line from the tee and then hit it straight. Miss the fairways and you are severely punished as a minefield of bunkers, gorse and rough awaits. Bring plenty of balls.
As Royal Portrush golf course first comes into view round a curve in Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast Road, it provides an unforgettable sight with green fairways hiding among shaggy-topped sand dunes with the low line of the Skerries and the sea beyond. Established in May 1888 and included in every list of the world’s top 100 golf courses, Portrush has long been regarded as a great test of a golfer’s skill, and had it been more suitable in other respects for staging a modern British Open Championship it would almost certainly have held more than the one it did in 1951, when England’s eccentric Max Faulkner lifted the trophy.
It’s a claim that’s often made - Portstewart has the best opening hole in Irish golf. Played from a high tee with topography that bucks and plunges like a raging river, you will need more than the stunning coastal views of nearby Donegal and a shot of Irish whiskey to steady your nerves. But it’s the 6th hole, aptly named Five Penny Piece with a green the size of a small tablecloth that can often prove the toughest challenge. At only 140 yards it can be anything from a rescue club to a wedge depending on the wind.
Ballyliffin is such an intriguing spot, that six-time major champion Nick Faldo used to visit it before the British Open Championship and at one time was so smitten with the place he tried to buy it, on the cheap according to locals. A remarkable 36 holes meander through the most beguiling of linksland, with rocky outcrops, perfect greens and enchanting views of the coast. The Old Links (designed by Tom Craddock) undulates in the glory of its natural terrain and the more recent Glashedy Links (designed by Pat Ruddy) is fashioned around the incred- ible dunes, and is notorious for its peat-rivetted bunkers and its opening three challenging par fours.
Way up in the north-west corner of Ireland, the hands of the golfing greats have shaped and moulded the links at Rosapenna, one of the oldest in the country.
Old Tom Morris laid out the original course in 1893, and over a century later came the 18 holes of Sandy Hills, which is as inspiring in the 21st century as the Old links were in the 19th. Designed by Pat Ruddy, it’s a course of gargantuan proportions that bobs and weaves its way through the mammoth sand dunes, with spectacular elevated tees, clearly visible landing areas and large greens.
County Sligo Golf Club
County Sligo Golf Club is one of Ireland's great golf courses located on the Rosses Point peninsula, 6km from Sligo. Established in 1894, the present Championship links were designed in 1927 by the famous golfing architect, Harry Colt. Home to the West of Ireland Championships since 1923, past winners include Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley while players such as Hagen, Locke, Watson, Faldo and Clarke have also sampled the delights of Rosses Point. The 455-yard par 4 17th has to be one of the toughest holes to par in all of Ireland - a severe dogleg sweeps uphill and to the left on the second shot, with a green that is large but slopes severely from the back.
Enniscrone Golf Club
Mondays at Enniscrone Golf Club are no ordinary Mondays. Believe it or not, they are reserved for Priests’ Day, with priests coming from all over Mayo and Sligo to compete. Once the men of God have gone out, you’ll have the opportunity to worship the course yourself. One hole that will etch itself in the memory is the mountainous 350-yard par 4 13th, called The Burrows, which is like teeing off the summit of Everest, with a green nestled down at base camp below. If you’re a golfer who is religious about pure links, make sure to include it on your Ireland golf adventure.
Lahinch Golf Club
A legend among links courses this tough west coast gem boasts a character all of its own. It’s a wonderfully quirky mix of dunes, rollercoaster greens and blind shots perfectly illustrated by the short par-3 6th, known as the 'The Dell', where the green is wedged between two hills. It’s only 140 yards, but it requires a blind tee shot over one of the hills to the putting surface hidden on the other side.
Carne Golf Links
The special charm of Carne comes from its remote lo- cation and the journey required to get there. Out on the course there’s a wonderful sense of isolation because of the distinctly divided fairways that twist and turn through the hilly landscape and it really feels like you have the whole golf course to yourself. Another spe- cial feature is the way the greens reveal themselves at the very last minute, sitting like emerald islands nestling among the dunes. The signature hole is the par-3 16th that drops steeply from an elevated tee to a green encir- cled by dunes. The tough par-4 17th, and the par-5 18th are a memorable finale to this wild and rugged layout that makes a lasting impression on all that play it.
Standing on the elevated tee of the 567-yard par 5 1st, eyes are drawn down a rumpled fairway leading to a large green protected on three sides by soaring dunes. It’s a stunning opener to this classic Greg Norman designed links (2002) that looks and plays like it’s been part of the landscape for a hundred years. There’s several standout holes, none more so than Doonbeg’s spectacular 98-yard par-3 14th, arguably the best one- shotter in Irish golf.
Ballybunion Golf Club
“Ballybunion is a course on which many golf architects should live and play before they, build courses,” says links aficionado Tom Watson who warmed up on Tom Simpson’s venerable design for each of his five British Open victories. The Old course is a classic and has remained virtually unchanged since 1893 and is complemented by the excellent Cashen course designed by Robert Trent Jones Senior. Forget the lob wedge here and think the bump-and-run and creative shot making.
Dooks Golf Club
Founded in 1889, this is one of the five oldest courses in Ireland – a wonderful natural links, full of humps and hollows, full of quirks and full of atmosphere. Wonderfully situated with stunning views across to the Dingle Peninsula, Dooks may not be as well known as some other Irish courses, but its full of character and offers a golf experience difficult to beat. "One of the best kept secrets in Irish Golf." Ronan Rafferty, Sky Sports Commentator and European Golfer of the Year 1989.
Waterville Golf Links
Golf here is a special experience – the beauty of classic links land, surrounded by the sea, yet forever challenged and shaped by the elements. Over 100 years old, Waterville is rated among the top 5 courses in Ireland and the top 20 links courses in the world. Over the years, many great champions have made the pilgrimage to these mystical links including Els, Furyk, Duval, O’Meara, Stewart and Woods, to prepare for the British Open. “Everything about Waterville is truly spectacular,” said internationally acclaimed golf architect Tom Fazio, who was commissioned to update the memorable Eddie Hackett masterpiece. “The setting is one of the best I have seen for golf.”
Old Head Golf links
Built on a 220-acre diamond of land, jutting out over two miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Old Head has developed into one of the planet’s must plays. With the ever-changing sea breezes, and over 7,200 yards in length from the tips, the course provides a challenge for players of all levels. Nine of the holes play along the cliff tops, and all eighteen holes provide stunning ocean views.
The European Club
Crafted out of tumbling dunes by Pat Ruddy, this is seaside golf at its very best with monstrous dunes, fast-running fairways, greens that invite the pitch-and-run approach and dramatic views of the Irish Sea. Look out for the par-4 7th, voted one of the world’s greatest 100 golf holes. Tiger Woods still holds the course record of 67, shot on July 12, 2002. On the tees of several of the par-4s he said: “Is this a par-5? Wow...what great optical illusions!”
Situated in a scenic location 30-minutes south of Dublin, this double-header venue boats two championship courses to test your golfing skills. Holder of the Irish Open four times in a row between 96 and 99, Druids Glen, often referred to as the ‘Augusta of Europe’, is a challenging parkland layout that can be tough to negotiate with water being a threat on several holes. Elevation changes, historical landmarks, mature trees and vibrant floral displays add to the interest. The other course, Druids Heath runs through undulating and mainly open terrain with the mountains, sea and rolling Irish countryside providing stunning vistas throughout.
About the Authors
Andrew and Paul Marshall have been playing golf and writing for the last 25 years. Their book Golf Journeys can be purchased online by clicking here.