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Golf in Ireland

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Golf may have been invented in Scotland and exported most successfully to America but for pure raw enjoyment few destinations come close to Ireland, and its stunning collection of coastal golf links. Here the classic courses have an antiquated charm that is in direct contrast to a modern golf tourism trade that has developed throughout Ireland over recent decades and forced most green fees higher. There are more buses and more American golfers now but the links remain as enjoyable and memorable as ever.

Doonbeg in Ireland
  the incredible 14th hole at Doonbeg © Doonbeg Golf Club

I was fortunate to be invited to travel to Ireland last September to participate in a three day media challenge put on by Tourism Ireland and played over a couple of the countries lesser known modern courses. Though the tournament alone was reason to make the trip I was intent on taking full advantage of the opportunity, extending my trip to ensure I played as many of the famous Irish links as possible.

First stop was the tournament played over three rounds at the inland Glasson Country Club, the Galway Bay golf course and the stunning new Greg Norman links at Doonbeg, which was the clear standout of the three. The accommodation at Glasson was first class, and the setting a pristine parkland course designed with pleasant views over Killinure Bay. Galway Bay was an enjoyable bay side course we played on a truly horrendous day but the real treat was the raw and glorious Doonbeg site – this was the sort of golf I had come to Ireland to experience.

Doonbeg Golf Club.

Set amongst enormous coastal sand dunes, Doonbeg is one of the world’s most spectacular golf sites and stretches more than 2 kilometres along the stunning south-western shoreline or Ireland. With the ocean visible and audible from almost every hole the course has that raw, rugged feeling so prevalent on the classic links of western Ireland such as the nearby Lahinch and Ballybunion courses. The site was first identified as a potential links location more than 100 years ago but sensitive environmental concerns had prevented its development, concerns which actually forced some routing problems upon the designers who were unable to enter areas of the central beach dunes because of problems with endangered snails.

With the towering coastal sand hills dominating the landscape the design team decided to maximise the thrills by weaving in and out of the dunes, attacking them constantly and from all angles to ensure as many highlights as possible. The result is a somewhat disjointed routing that includes cross over fairways, drives over the corners of greens and cross fairway walks between greens and tees. Whether this was the best way to steer the design on this piece of land is debatable but it does ensure that Doonbeg probably features as many singularly stunning moments as any golf course on the planet – Pebble Beach, Ballybunion and Royal County Down included.

  towering dunes dominate Doonbeg's 1st green © Doonbeg Golf Club

Not surprisingly Doonbeg has polarised popular opinion, with many highly critical of its cross over, in and out routing while others laud it as one of the greatest links built in the modern era. I sit somewhere in between. I believe the links may be the easiest golf course in the world to criticize, the site is stunning but the routing dangerous, some holes too extreme and there is a bunker in the centre of one of the greens (13th), most untraditional. Closer examination however reveals a links of real quality with an emphasis on the dramatic and an individual collection of very fine golf holes. Sure the 13th green is unusual but for me the hole actually works quite well as a frontal pin can be attacked with a chasing approach that must be wary of the back bunker while a back pin can be reached by playing to either side of the trap and using the slopes to get the ball close to the hole. Unusual yes, but hardly the appalling feature some have suggested.

One thing that is now undeniable is that Doonbeg, in just two short years, has become a must-see Irish links destination – no mean feat in a country with so many great tracks. Just how good the course really is depends on your take on architecture and personal preferences – I think back to Australia and two Tony Cashmore courses close to Melbourne, The Dunes and Thirteenth Beach. Doonbeg is nothing like these courses but the question of its quality is akin to the dilemma of whether The Dunes with its 18 solid holes is a better layout than Thirteenth Beach which has grander highlights than The Dunes but also a few less inspiring moments. The choice here is personal preference, I think a couple of greens at this early stage are too extreme and a few of the routing issues will probably need to be addressed but I like the idea of Doonbeg and believe that given 10 or more years to mature and evolve this will eventually become a very highly regarded, top class Irish links.

Lahinch Golf Club – unparalleled originality.

From Doonbeg we headed to Lahinch, and a course I had wanted to play since I first played Royal Melbourne some 15 years earlier. Originally laid out by club founding members in the 1890’s, Old Tom Morris had then suggested layout changes before the great Alister Mackenzie visited the site after his Australian adventures to transfer all holes into the tumbling sand dunes and redesign the existing Tom Morris holes. The Lahinch that gradually rose to international prominence was a combination of the work of both these groundbreaking golf designers. Her most famous holes, the par 3 Dell and par 5 Klondyke holes are both Morris moments while the flowing routing and strategic driving lines are mostly a result of Mackenzie’s involvement.

The 13th HoleThe most ingenious of the Mackenzie holes is the superb short par four 13th (left) which features a huge pit and humps and hollows all down its right side to catch anyone trying too hard to drive the tempting target some 270 yards away that is also guarded by a dune in its front. The shape of the fairway and angle of the green makes one instinctively try to drive further right than need be almost always resulting in a doomed position or with a frightfully difficult pitch over the dune to the dipping green. The hole is one of world golf’s truly great short par fours.

The Dell , an Old Tom Morris holeThe Klondyke (4th) is a par five played from a coastal ridge into a narrow and attractive valley which then leaves you a completely blind second shot over an enormous sand dune and across the 18th fairway toward a green more than 200 yards away and with an out of bounds behind. A marshal displays a red flag when it is safe to hit and the first time you play this hole the mystery of what is beyond the dune is quite a strange sensation. Rightfully famous Klondyke and the next hole the Dell are two holes unlikely to be ever replicated. The par 3 Dell (above) is also blind only this time instead of a flag to guide you there is a famous white stone placed atop a steep frontal dune that directs the golfer toward the hidden target which is also protected behind by another steep dune. They say there are more hole-in-ones here than on any other hole in Ireland, as cheeky caddies kick the balls of unsuspecting golfers into the unseen hole. This is one of the most controversial holes in golf but again one that I fell in love with and found exhilarating to play. Easily discounted as unfair, it is rare for a poor shot to find the putting surface while a well struck and perfectly judged iron over the frontal hill is likely to be well positioned on the shallow but wide green.

I expected Lahinch to be less coherent than I found it, the famous holes are so distinct and unique that I doubted it would be possible to maintain such charm throughout the round, happily I was mistaken. The driving holes are generally exhilarating from partially blind tee shots at 3 and 6 to the fun of 13 and the thrilling beachside drive down the par five 12th. For good ball strikers Lahinch is especially great fun but a definite must-see links for anyone considering an Irish golf expedition.

Ballybunion Golf Club

From Lahinch we moved south across the Shannon estuary to the legend that is the Ballybunion Golf Club, a glowing treasure in a country full of delightful surprises. Long, flowing descriptions of Ballybunion Old Course are almost pointless as the course has received such wide spread acclaim over the past few decades that it would be an uninterested or out of touch golfer who does not yearn to play this seaside classic.

Established well over a century ago, the Old course is a constantly evolving masterpiece that has suffered misfortunate and had more changes forced upon her by Mother Nature than almost any other Irish links. The course we enjoy today is as much a testament to the club’s founding fathers and custodians as its famous designer Tom Simpson. While most of the signature holes remain largely Simpson originals, long battles with coastal erosion and technological advancements have been handled carefully by generations of sensible committees. Today’s highlight remains the stunning setting – Ballybunion stretches right to the edge of the Irish west coast and twists through a collection of towering, tumbling sand dunes.

The wild dunes are beautifully featured in the majority of the standout holes but one of the very fine front nine holes is the short par four 6th hole which takes the golfer toward the coastal cliffs for the first time. With the fairway and green set obliquely to the tee and crowned to only accept the most precise shots, the decision from the tee is whether to lay up high on the right side and pitch along the length of the green or to play long and try a delicate chip and putt for your birdie. Despite playing less than 350m most golfers would happily accept a par here every time, indeed hitting the green in regulation at my first attempt remains something I am immensely proud of such is the steepness of the green edges.

The first internationally famous hole follows, the long bunker less par four 7th which is played along the cliff tops with a slight bend to the right as the hole approaches its narrow green. The view down the coastline is glorious and the subtleties of the fairway undulation in direct contrast to the grandeur of the surrounding dunescape.

Famously Ballybunion then heads back inland leaving the ocean for a few holes, this first introduction merely whetting the appetite for what is to come. The following inland stretch is very strong though - 8 is a gorgeous par three, 9 one of the finest holes in Ireland with its raised and sharply sloped putting surface demanding an approach of the utmost precision, and 10 a wild and rugged short par four that heads back to the water’s edge – but for me it’s the 11th hole that steals the show. Like the 7th here you are faced with a long bunker less par four that plays along the cliffs but this time there are dunes lining both sides of the fairway and a stunning entrance to the green through a shallow valley and between two hills. The setting is invigorating as the roar of the waves can be deafening and the ocean seen continuing to crash beyond the delicate putting surface. This hole rightfully makes most eclectic world 18’s, and for me only the Road Hole seems a more obvious automatic selection.

There are more thrills to follow with highlights including the brilliant long par 3 15th (left), the meandering par 5 16th and the fabulous 17th which is played down toward the ocean and then twists to the left with the second half of the hole playing alongside the beach.

Coupled with the most accommodating and amusing membership in Ireland, Ballybunion is another 5 star Irish must-play destination.

For Accommodation in Ballybunion we recommend the Cashen Course House, situated only a hundred metres from the golf club entrance & overlooking the Cashen course.

Carne Golf Links.

From Ballybunion we headed back north past Doonbeg and Lahinch toward the Belmullet Peninsula and the unheralded Carne golf links, the most remote and least known of all Ireland’s great courses.

A breathtaking new links (opened for play in 1993) designed by Ireland’s most prolific minimalist designer, Eddie Hackett, Carne is a true delight. The first nine heads out over the more low lying links land with few bunkers and a fairly basic design employed to disturb as little of the natural surrounds as possible. The 8th green is the first taste of what is to come as its entrance is narrow and set in a hollow between two large guarding dunes.

The 9th is a fabulous rising short par four, but the real joy of Carne is the back nine which is played through some of the most extreme and glorious dune land I have yet encountered. On a scale equal to the famous dunes at Ballybunion and even more impressive than the mountains at Doonbeg, though without the ocean frontage, the back nine at Carne weaves through large rising hills and mounds that eerily dwarf you as you complete each hole. The 10th green is set beneath a ring of enormous dunes, not unlike the 1st green at Doonbeg while the short par four 11th and 12th holes bend right then left around sizeable single dunes that beautifully define both the shape of the hole and the driving lines.

The remaining back nine holes are no less memorable with the par five 13th taking the golfer out toward the Belmullet sea and the remaining holes then winding back among the massive hills toward the clubhouse. 15 and 17 are grand par fours on a significant scale while the funky 18th fairway dips and rises toward a famous finishing green that rests just beyond a large chasm. For me though the closing stretch is defined by the memorable par 3 16th (right) which is a real original and sure to leave a lasting memory on golfers for decades to come. Played from atop one of Carne’s massive dunes, the tee shot here is little more than a mid to short iron across the hill and down to a green set way beneath and nestling in a gorgeous natural hollow.

The whole Carne experience is refreshingly understated; the area is remote and thinly populated, the design uncomplicated and the locals more than accommodating. Coupled with the immense and endless dunes and the soothing views over the nearby Blacksod Bay this is a special gem that may be hidden today but will eventually win the sort of rave reviews other Irish links have enjoyed for decades.

County Sligo Golf Club

From Carne we headed east to Sligo and the County Sligo Golf Club located on the Rosses Point peninsula a few kilometers from the Sligo town centre. Though the club was established back in 1894 the present course was not laid out until 1927 by famed designer Harry Colt. It’s been said his protégé Alister Mackenzie also had some involvement at Rosses point though documentation is difficult to obtain.

What is apparent is the quality of this golf links, not as rugged or dramatic as some of its neighbours, Sligo nonetheless encapsulates all that is exciting and interesting about links golf. With rumpled fairways that roll more than they plummet, the course looks much easier to the eye than in fact it really is to play. Surrounded by mountains on three sides and adjacent to a harbour that extends out into the sea, wind is an ever-present at Sligo, as are the fascinating and attractive green settings that help give the course its character and challenge. I found some of the early holes, on the higher side of the property, much less appealing than the rest of the course but the great views down the hill and out over the Drumcliff Bay helped distract from any disappointment I may have felt.

The lower holes are mostly terrific, as I said they are not as visually appealing as holes at Ballybunion, Carne or the big two in Northern Ireland but the strategic design really utilizes the positive features of the site and makes for fascinating golf. The hole that most stands out in the memory is the brilliant 17th which features a treacherous split fairway that rises and bends away to the left. To have any sight of the green the drive must be placed to the right of the lower shelf, which then leaves an all carry approach to a steep green with a deadly false front and beautifully set beneath some large sand hills. Strategic and attractive this is a top shelf Irish links hole.

I also enjoyed some of the flatter back nine holes as much as the 17th, with a meandering stream, the native heather and the coastal dunes all well incorporated into the design. The 13th is a cracking par 3 played across a sandy beach to a large green with the stream beyond the putting surface. Typically played downwind this is a really demanding tee shot. The next hole is another gem, a long par four that bends around the beach to the right with the scrub and sand encroaching from the right side to place an absolute premium on position off the tee.

I regret not being able to stay longer in Sligo for not only was the town a delight but this links is one I’m sure that I would enjoy even more given the time to study her every idiosyncrasy. Rosses Point in Irish terms is not a knock-out bombshell but rather a classic charmer that remains every bit as intriguing as her more famous cousins.

For Accommodation in Sligo we recommend the beautiful Riverside Hotel, situated on riverfront in the heart of Sligo and only five kilometres from Rosses Point.

From Sligo our journey took us into the hallowed golfing grounds of Northern Ireland and the much anticipated dual delights of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. What was already the golf trip of a lifetime was about to get even better, with both courses living up to the feature billing but offering much much more than I had ever imagined.

Royal Portrush Golf Club

Portrush was first and not until I’d putted out on the 18th green and taken the time to reflect on the journey and the setting did I fully appreciate the sheer beauty of this place. The approach to the town is awe-inspiring as you enter Portrush on a highway carved out of cliffs that run along the rugged Antrim coastline. As you approach the descent into the town of Portrush the sand hills of the Royal Portrush Golf Club open up before you like a vision sent from above. You see a golf course of stunning natural beauty that seems to glide all the way to the edge of the beach, nature at her finest.

Stepping onto the tee any thought of a possible let down is quickly extinguished by a front nine of rare quality. The opening hole does little more than get you away, with the real fun starting from the 2nd hole and running right through to the glorious Himalayas 8th hole – a 7 hole stretch as profound as any I’d played before. 4 and 5 are both glorious driving holes, the green on 4 particularly attractive and set in a dell that is approached between two small dunes. The 6th is a brilliant par three with a large plateau green while 8 is a rightfully famous hole that bends to the right through the hills toward a seriously slender green.
It is probably a measure of the front nine’s greatness that in some ways the back nine at Portrush is a touch disappointing. Were it on any other course the back nine here would be much lauded as there remains a stack of fine holes, including the famous Calamity par 3 14th, however one or two nondescript holes and the flatness of the finishing two holes for me keeps the finish from reaching the dizzy heights of the opening nine.

Royal Portrush - 14th
The infamous Calamity hole at Royal Portrush

I count less than a handful of courses which I have enjoyed more than Portrush and can honestly say that aside from Royal County Down and St Andrews there is no course I long to return to more than this beachside beauty. World class in every sense of the word, if you are considering an Irish golf trip and leave off the two classics in the North you are missing some serious golf.

Royal County Down Golf Club.

From Portrush we travelled through Belfast and onto Newcastle where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea and where an unparalleled golfing masterpiece called Royal County Down lay in waiting.
Having rested overnight at the majestic Slieve Donard hotel, so named after the highest peak of the surrounding mountain range, we tackled County Down on what turned out to be the purest, most breathtaking morning for golf I had ever encountered. We were the first group onto the course and played the oft-brutal layout without any hint of a breeze and with a perfect radiant glow shining from a content sky above. The mountains were covered in a hazy mist to contrast the blue of the adjacent sea and the lovely purples and yellows of the remnant heather and gorse.

Royal County Down - 9th
the incredible 9th tee at Royal County Down

It would be impossible to accurately describe the experience of playing this course on such a morning but it has duly left me with an enhanced sense of golfing perfection. Royal Melbourne West is the only course I have played which compares to County Down and never have I been so fortunate to play her on such a morning. This was one out of the box.

Long regarded as having the best front nine in golf, it was no surprise that the highlight moments came early in the round, although despite what others have said I really only found the 17th on the back nine not to my liking. The 18th has been reworked by Donald Steele beautifully to add some sting to the RCD tail, while the long par 3’s at 10 and 14 are both brilliant, one demanding a draw and one a fade, and the stretch of 11 to 13 is also terrific.

On the front side it would be much quicker to point out the weaknesses than describe its every pleasure for this is some of the most invigorating golf imaginable. The course starts with a superb three shot hole played along the shoreline but separated from the water by a series of large jumbled dunes. The second is a fabulous links hole and demands the first of the many blind shots for which this course is so famous. The next is an exhilarating moment in any golfer’s life, a hole so attractive and so dramatic that good judges have labelled it the best of its type in the world. The par three 4th is a long iron played over a sea of gorse to a narrow green while another stirring blind tee shot awaits on the fantastic 5th hole. Despite another blind drive the 6th does play shorter than the other par four, it’s no breather however and can bite the lazy golfer who approaches the upturned saucer green carelessly.

The short one shot 7th is a personal favourite of mine primarily because it shows off County Down’s subtle side. A gorgeous setting for a hole, the green here is much larger than it appears from the tee as its left side falls away behind a deep frontal bunker, while a knuckle eats into the right side hiding the back right portion of the green. Visually this is quite a sight with the mountain backdrop and the combination of slope and sand placing a huge premium on an accurate short iron.

Royal County Down - 8th

The 8th (left) is a classic links two shotter that bends slightly and rises gently toward a lovely front to back sloping green. The final hole on the front nine is one of golf’s most revered and features arguably the most exhilarating blind tee shot in the world as it demands a long and precise drive over and across a massive dune to a distant fairway set well below the level of the tee. With the mountains in the background and heather and gorse covered dunes lining the length of the hole this stretch of land is a beautiful setting for any recreation activity, as golfers we are truly blessed that it is ours to enjoy.

There is no course on earth I long to return too more than RCD, for although I have witnessed its incredible beauty I know that I have not yet seen the real County Down.

For Accommodation in Newcastle we recommend the Slieve Donard Hotel, located just a few metres from Royal County Down and commanding stirring ocean or golf course views.

Portmarnock Golf Club

The final stop on our Irish adventure was Portmarnock which is situated on a small peninsula only minutes from the centre of Dublin. Extending into the relative calm of the Irish Sea, the peninsula’s landform is subsequently less dramatic than some of Ireland’s other top links but here the real attraction is in the clever routing and the constantly changing directions of play. Walking the course and recalling wind directions, previous holes played or assessing wind direction can become slighting dizzying as the trick to Portmarnock is that none of its successive holes play in the same direction. Whether it’s an about turn or a subtle shift a few degrees, the course constantly forces you to think about the shots you need to play and how best to pull them off. Without the sheer exhilaration of a County Down or Ballybunion, Portmarnock instead relies on its subtle and sophisticated challenge to excite the golfer.

The course is surrounded on three sides by water with wind your constant adversary. To my great disappointment a back injury prevented me playing Portmarnock but I did manage to spend several hours walking the site trying to understand this famed links. It wasn’t nearly enough as this is a player’s course, one where you need to be constantly playing the shots demanded of you to fully appreciate the challenge.

Of those holes I did see it was the finishing few, particularly 14, 15 and 18, that most grabbed my attention as well as the short par four 10th hole with its green falling away to both sides and the par three 12th. The most notorious of the finishing holes is the par three 15th which looked great from where I stood although the small target seemed almost impossible to hold down wind. The opening hole is also fantastic with the tee placed directly between clubhouse and the water's edge.
A classic examination of all the clubs in your bag, Portmarnock visually is less striking and intimidating than the northern or western Irish links, yet its subtle design, complete with partially obscured targets, penal revetted pot bunkers and intricate green shapes make it a demanding and thoroughly enjoyable test of golf.

For Accommodation near Portmarnock we recommend the Deer Park Hotel and Golf Courses. With four courses and only minutes from Portmarnock and the center of Dublin.

Although I was constantly warned of the perils associated with road travel through Ireland, I found the driving experience and exploration a pleasure and encountered few hassles getting to any of the courses we visited. Most Irish enthusiasts will tell you to take your time and visit fewer courses to spend longer appreciating them and soaking up the ambiance of the charming golfing towns. While I support the principle of getting to know the courses, clubs, towns and surrounds as much as possible for me this first trip was all about cramming as much in as possible so that next time I made it over to Ireland I would know where to play and what to miss. I can recommend this method for any first time visitor to the country, the problem however, as I have discovered, is that when planning subsequent trips you will invariably end up planning to stay weeks and not days in this magical country.

For Car Hire in Ireland we recommend County Car Rentals.

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