Golf in Ireland? Where to start — or end? There are more than 400 courses on the bonny green isle. Many of the world’s top-rated golf venues are here, as are almost one-third of the world’s links courses — those perpetually windswept ensembles of sand dunes, pocket greens and gorse-lined fairways that are golf in its original, undiluted state.
Whether you’re embarking on a play-’til-you-drop golf odyssey or just looking for a round to spice up your Ireland vacation, here’s a sampler of classic courses (traveling counterclockwise from Dublin), any one of which will linger in your memory — and make you the envy of golfing buddies back home.
The Royal County Down Golf Club County Down, Northern Ireland
Often rated as the No. 1 course in the world outside of the United States, Royal County Down threads its way through 5,000-year-old dunes overlooking the Irish Sea. Since 1889, when Old Tom Morris expanded the route to 18 holes, several notable architects have tinkered with the design. The last was Donald Steele, who ramped up the bunkering on the finishing hole. From the back tees the course is almost 6,700 yards, which is made even more formidable by the wind. The fairways are tight serpentines lined with thick heather and gorse that can swallow any shot that strays the slightest bit. Adding to that risk, five of the first 11 holes are blind shots off the tee. The course hands out lessons in humility, but the scenery is worth the pain.
Royal Portrush Golf Club County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Golf has been played along this stunning stretch of the Giant’s Causeway (named for basalt pillars formed by an ancient volcanic eruption) since 1888, but designer Harry S. Colt gave the course its formidable layout in 1932. The championship Dunluce Course (a companion to the Valley Course) is the only Irish venue ever to host the British Open (1951). Unlike most links courses, it runs along higher ground so that views of the sea are ever present. The wind off the sea is also a constant and conspires with the rough, a flowering but unforgiving mass of vegetation. Portrush is considered one of the world’s most challenging courses, but oddly enough, bunkers are not a factor. Or blind shots. Or extremely long holes. On a rare day when the wind is light, it could be downright welcoming.
Lahinch Golf Club, County Clare
Designed by Old Tom Morris in 1892 and finessed by Alistair MacKenzie in 1927, Lahinch rambles through sand hills along Liscannor Bay, then plunges inland to holes that are, surprisingly, no less dramatic. The fifth hole begins innocently, with a valley fairway bordered by grassy dunes. Then the path is abruptly blocked by a 30-foot-high dune. The fairway continues on the other side, culminating in a green 350 yards away. Incredibly, the landing area is crossed by the 18th fairway, which puts unseen players in peril and is a bit unnerving as you wield a fairway wood for the blind shot. But then it’s on to the sixth hole, another blind shot — 145 yards to a shallow green tucked between two high, grassy mounds. A visual highlight of the back nine is the 12th hole, which tees off from the side of a cliff toward the ruins of the ancient O’Brien Castle.
Ballybunion Golf Club, County Kerry
The west coastline of Ireland is a ragged mix of rocky headlands, beaches and coves, as if the land is giving ground to the sea, but slowly, and not without a fight. Playing the infamous Old Course at Ballybunion is a bit of a battle, too, because you must match wits with the wind and be willing to constantly change your strategy. The fairways and greens are so heavily contoured that a level lie is a rarity. Grassy dunes and ridges intrude on — and often obscure — the fairways, and the greens are cruelly small targets. The 11th hole is a stunner and devilishly difficult. It tees off from atop a dune 50 feet above the beach to a stingy fairway bordered by dunes on one side and the sea on the other. Through a narrow pass, a tiny green awaits.
Waterville Golf Links, County Kerry
Ranked among the top five courses in Ireland and the top 20 links venues in the world, Waterville is 7,200 yards from the tips. Set on a windswept peninsula in the Inny Estuary, it begins with a relatively flat hole named “Last Easy.” That’s fair warning, because at the fourth hole the track finds the dunes and the shot-making tests begin in earnest. Hole 4 is a 179-yard par 3 with a mean little bunker fronting the green. Another memorable par 3 is the 12th hole, which calls for a 200-yard carry over grassy knolls and a deep bowl to an elevated green with a sheer front face. It’s called the Mass Hole because secret services were held in the bowl during the time when Britain forbade Catholicism.
The European Club, County Wicklow
In the 1980s, Irishman Pat Ruddy, a golf magazine publisher and course architect, scouted Ireland’s coast by helicopter until he found a perfect site for a new links layout. He mortgaged his home to buy the land and did much of the bulldozer work himself. The result is a no-frills golf club with no pro shop or caddies and few golf carts — but with a golf experience purists adore. Golf Digest ranks it No. 4 among the top 100 Irish courses. There are no blind shots, just vistas of ocean and generous fairways winding among grassy hillocks and thickets of gorse. Ruddy exercised a quirky streak on the 12th hole, a par 4 culminating in a green that measures 127 yards from front to back. This putting trial is followed by a par 5 stretching almost 600 yards along a fairway that sheds balls down onto the beach.
Portmarnock Golf Club, County Dublin
If you’ve been fortunate enough to circle Ireland playing these world-famous layouts, you’ll be ready for Portmarnock, the most “user-friendly” of the bunch. Its wide, level fairways grant forgiveness for errant shots, even in the perpetual wind. The greens are generous and free of gimmicks. That said, it has hosted every major Irish tournament, including many Irish Open Championships, and is arguably Ireland’s best championship course. Five-time British Open Championship winner Tom Watson says, “There are no tricks or nasty surprises, only an honest, albeit searching, test of shot-making skills.” Those skills are tested on every hole, because every hole changes direction, which alters the angle of the wind. Lying just 12 miles from Dublin, Portmarnock is, amazingly, a wildlife sanctuary with pristine beaches, oceanfront and wetlands on the Irish Sea.
Info to Go
Dublin International Airport (DUB) is a six- to seven-hour flight from New York, 11 hours from Los Angeles. Driving is by far the best way to experience Ireland. Pick up a rental car at the airport, loop the parking lot to get used to steering from the right side of the car and ease out onto the left lane of the highway. For more information, visit http://www.discoverireland.com.
It’s impossible not to fall under the spell of Ireland. There’s a Gaelic word for it — craic. After a round of golf, tell a club member it was “great craic” and you’ll earn a smile, a slap on the back and probably an invitation to have a pint of Guinness at the local pub. (It’s pronounced “crack,” so don’t try this at home.) Craic is a bit of slang that evades translation into English, but if you combine “fun,” “extraordinary” and “cool,” you’ll come close.
Great craic applies to much more than golf, including delightfully diverse attractions — the museums, art galleries and shops in the cities; and the cobblestoned villages surrounded by emerald pastures where sheep and cattle graze. There’s also some serious history under these green hills. The mysterious Newgrange tombs are 5,000 years old, which means they predate England’s Stonehenge and Egypt’s great pyramids.
Much newer — but still ancient — are the castles. Ivy-clad gray stone ruins are a part of the natural landscape, but many castles have also been restored and are open to guests. Almost every castle has a garden, and you don’t need to know ragweed from rhododendron to enjoy a stroll among the flowering plants, topiary, statues, hidden lakes and quiet gazebos that were once reserved for royalty or landed gentry.
Pubs are as much a fixture as castles and gardens. Their warm interiors, rich draft beers and friendly locals are especially welcome after a round in chilling ocean breezes. Find a pub where Irish singers perform and you’ll hear ballads that will bring tears to your eyes. As is the case in any destination, the people are at the heart of good craic.
A royal castle and 400-acre estate, turned into a 5-star resort, has its own course. It is also near Lahinch, Ballybunion, Doonbeg and Tralee. Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, tel 353 61 368 144 $$$$
Slieve Donard Resort and Spa
The 100-year-old Victorian hotel, beautifully restored, has one of the country’s finest spas; many rooms overlook Royal County Down. Downs Road, Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland, tel 44 28 4372 1066 $$$$
The 4-star, 18th-century manor house with 12 guestrooms overlooks a famous fishery and Waterville Golf Links. Waterville, County Kerry, tel 353 66 947 4102 $$$$
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