Golfing and Ireland have seldom had a higher profile in the public eye, largely due to the combined efforts of Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington. But the golfing cognoscenti have always been aware that Ireland is a golfers’ paradise, with seaside links courses offering a unique brand of golf harking back to the game’s ancient roots.
Ireland can lay claim to one third of all the genuine links courses in the world – they’re dotted like diamonds in an emerald necklace along the coast-line. Four courses – the Royal County Down, the Royal Portrush, Ballybunion and Portmarnock – are all ranked inside the world’s Top 50.
If parkland playing is more to your liking, Ireland’s courses are regularly used by the world’s top players. Of course your game may be more exacting than, say, the likes of Phil Mickelson or Lee Westwood. No problem – the real beauty of Irish golf is that there are so many courses of outstanding quality offering a wide variety of challenges.
Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry
Tel: 00353 669768205
Prices from €55 per round
They’ve been playing golf at Dooks now over three centuries – since 1889 to be exact, making it one of the oldest golf clubs in Ireland. Sandwiched as it is between Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Dingle Peninsula the one thing Dooks is not short of is views. Of course, wet weather isn’t unknown here, so the most important club in the bag could be your umbrella. This is a true links course, and incidentally home to the natterjack toad, an endangered species – so try to avoid knocking the head off one on your way to the pin.
THE K CLUB
Straffan, Co. Kildare
Tel: 00353 16017297
Having once staged the Ryder Cup, this is a club to be reckoned with. Two courses boast flawless greens and meticulous course maintenance. But just one wee word of advice. If your name is Hank and you’re reading this online from the comfort of your home in the USA, I’ve something to say to you. You see, Hank, you might be hard put to tell the K Club from any American parkland course. On the other hand the K Club is currently offering one night’s B&B, a round of golf on each of the courses, plus full access to gym etc from €220 per person. A long way to come, Hank, but the craic will be better here.
Station Road, Craigavad, Holywood, Co. Down
Tel: 028 9042 8165
Green fees: from £35 weekdays, off season.
With excellent views over Belfast Lough to Co. Antrim, this is a deceptively tricky course. It’s the oldest club in Ireland (founded in 1881), although it only moved to its present home in 1925. The course was designed by Harry Colt, also responsible for Royal Portrush, Wentworth, Sunningdale. The club tends to border on the very traditional – but these things are all relative. It’s still a lot friendlier and more casual than comparable British courses.
MOUNT JULIET GOLF CLUB
Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny
Tel: 00353 567773064
Green fees currently €60-€75
This manicured, Nicklaus-designed championship course, host of three Irish Opens, is home to some fearful bunkers – a trademark of Jack’s designs. If you’ve played any golf you’ll know the definition of a bunker – a place with just enough room for one angry man and his niblock. Never was it truer than here. Although an inland course, Thomastown is still prey to vicious crosswinds. A sign saying, “Balls for sale. Ready sliced” wouldn’t go amiss. However when the sun shines, this is one of the finest golfing experiences in the country.
ROYAL COUNTY DOWN
Newcastle, Co. Down
Green fees: £50 until March
Depending on your handicap, you’ll be restricted to certain tees here. That’s just in case Tiger Woods is in town – it’s his favourite course. It’s also a regular haunt of Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy. But then this is one of the world’s great courses, originally designed for £4 by Old Tom Morris, a name synonymous with St Andrews.
Its notoriously vicious bunkers are a test for the world’s greatest golfers. Outside of this top elite, the definition of a golfer is somebody who yells “Fore!”, takes five, and writes down three. Here you might have to double that number – it’s a big challenge.
Founded in 1889, Royal County Down is part of golf history as well as being one of the most spectacular anywhere. With the Irish Sea on one side and Slieve Donard as a backdrop, you’ll have your work cut out to concentrate on the six or seven blind tee shots.
Every hole at Royal County Down is distinctive. The 217 yard fourth hole is one of the most photographed in European golf. Gorse bushes and marram grass make it a beast, but the view across the Irish Sea from the back tee is some compensation.
BALLYBUNION GOLF CLUB
Sandhill Road, Ballybunion, Co. Kerry
Tel: 00353 6827146
Green fees €95-€180
One of the very finest links courses in the world –usually rated within the top 10 – Ballybunion is known everywhere as a challenging course. Tom Watson waxed lyrical: “Having played the Old Course many times since my first visit in 1981, I am now of the opinion it is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world.”
Few trees encroach on the links – just lots of tough grass, steep slopes and narrow fairways. They say that golf is the loneliest of all games, not excluding postal chess. The course at Ballybunion puts that to the test – even for the greatest golfers, Ballybunion can cause them dark nights of the soul.
Dunluce Road, Portrush, Co. Antrim
Tel: 028 7082 2311.
Green fees: £85 weekdays, £95 weekends.
The Dunluce Links, designed by Harry Colt in 1888, is included in every list of the world’s top 50 golf courses. Portrush is prey to vicious crosswinds and sudden squally showers. However when the sun shines – probably five minutes after the last squall, so quickly does the weather change in these parts – this is one of the greatest golfing experiences available. The 14th hole – nicknamed Calamity – is a par three, with arguably the best view in Ireland. Behind are the limestone cliffs of the White Rocks, a silvery strand far below and ahead is the green, surrounded by gorse and thick rough and steep dunes.
Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow
Tel: 00353 12873600
Rounds from €35 upwards.
Druid’s Glen is also offering a one night golf package for two people for €150 – 1 night’s B&B, unlimited golf on Druid’s Heath. Druid’s Glen offers visitors’ golf the year round on verdant parkland courses set in the heart of the Garden of Ireland, Wicklow. The course offers a veritable smorgasbord of golfing delicacies – bunkers, streams, trees, gorse, and views across the Irish Sea at every turn.
Strand Road, Portstewart, Co. Derry
Tel: 028 7083 2015.
Green fees: depending on day, and course, from £40
The object of golf is, of course, to propel a small dimpled ball across several miles of grassland to end up into a four and one quarter inch hole with no more than 14 implements that are, as Winston Churchill observed, ill-suited to the purpose. You’ll rarely feel that Winston’s observation is more appropriate than here in Derry’s northerly reaches.
This is an old club (founded in 1894), and even by North of Ireland standards, is at the mercy of the elements. Here, according to local legend, a player had already five putted during a particularly squally period. As his sixth putt was held up from entering the hole by a particularly vicious gust, the golfer turned his head towards Heaven, shook his fist at the sky and shouted furiously, “Why don’t you come down and fight like a man!”
Still, even if your game is suffering from the vagaries of the weather – or divine retribution – the scenery is more than likely to offer compensations.
THE MOUNT WOLSELEY HOTEL & SPA RESORT
Tullow, Co. Carlow
Tel: 00 353 59 9180100
Green fees from €20
The Mount Wolseley luxury four-star boasts its own 18-hole championship golf course, spa, leisure club facilities including 20-metre indoor pool. From now until April the Mount Wolseley is offering one night’s accommodation in a deluxe room with dinner on one evening in Frederick’s, plus a round of golf on the championship golf course designed by Christy O’Connor Jnr.