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Ireland Travel

Ireland’s 10 Must Play Golf Courses

Ireland always has been a leading golfing destination but following the exploits of major winners, Harrington, McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke, it’s attracting even more attention. Vic Robbie selects ten of the best

Scotland may be the Home of Golf but now Ireland is very much the Home of Champions.

It is remarkable that Northern Ireland with a population of only 1.5 million has produced three different winners in the last six majors – Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open), Rory McIlroy (2011 US Open), and this year the ‘old man’ of the triumvirate at 42, Darren Clarke, adding The Open Championship to the haul. And don’t forget, the Republic’s Padraig Harrington won a treble of majors (the 2007 and 2008 Open titles and the 2008 US PGA Championship).

What Makes Golf in Ireland So Enticing?

What’s the secret, everyone wants to know. Is it in the water, certainly it rains quite a bit in Ireland? Or the impressive array of courses?

Open winner Darren Clarke has no doubt. He has moved back to live in Ulster and when at home can often be seen playing the magnificent links of Royal Portrush, which is also McDowell’s hometown. It’s the only course outside of Scotland and England to have hosted the Open and that was back in 1951.

Clarke donated his gold medal for winning the recent championship at Royal St George’s to the club and it is now on show for all visitors to enjoy, and he feels that it’s time Ireland had another chance to host golf’s oldest major.

The Royal & Ancient are not oblivious to the sentiment and have promised to take another look at the course and environs later this year although The Open rota is fixed until 2014.

With more than 450 courses from the most humble that delight the weekend golfer to the most challenging that demand the highest skills, Ireland claims to be the most popular golfing destination in Europe.

There can be few more dramatic settings. All the ingredients are here – beautiful undulating countryside, brooding mountain peaks, cascading rivers, deep lakes and romantic castles – and you can choose from the old traditional links or the outstanding parkland courses.

Here in no particular order are ten must play courses in Ireland that will give you a taste of the exceptional experience the country has to offer.

Perhaps the only reason that The Open never returned to Portrush is the lack of infrastructure and hotels needed to stage such a massive tournament; certainly it’s not the quality of the course that’s in doubt. Established in 1888, the club’s Dunluce Links can be a spectacular monster, winding along narrow fairways between dunes and severe rough and heather and demanding the most accurate of drives.

When there are holes with names such as ‘Calamity Corner’, ‘Purgatory’, ‘Himalayas’ and ‘Giant’s Grave’ it gives the golfer some indication as to the severe interrogation of their golfing ability that awaits them. This is a glorious location for a golf course, set in a particularly beautiful part of Ireland with the Giant’s Causeway, magnificent white sand beaches and lush countryside nearby.

And Royal County Down is equally breathtaking. Set along Dundrum Bay in the town of Newcastle where the Mountains of Mourne really do sweep down to the sea, the 3,000-foot high Slieve Donard towers above the course.

This is a classic links that hosted the 2007 Walker Cup. At 7,181 yards and with nine of the par-4s exceeding 400 yards and with imposing sand dunes covered in gorse and heather, narrow fairways, small undulating greens, and a unwelcome number of blind shots, this is not for the faint-hearted.

In comparison the Nick Faldo championship course on the Lough Erne Resort is a relative newcomer. It also happens to be McIlroy’s home course and the 7,167-yard track matches the excellence of golf’s newest superstar. Enjoying a spectacular setting on a private 600-acre peninsula between two lochs, the fairways are rock hard, almost links like and it has already picked up a host of accolades.

South of the border and just north of Dublin, Portmarnock’s links has hosted many major championships, including the British Amateur Championship, the Walker Cup, the Canada Cup and the Irish Open. Established in 1894 on dune land, Bernard Darwin wrote of it: “I know of no greater finish in the world than that of the last five holes at Portmarnock.”

Golf was played here as early as 1858 by a Scottish family, the Jamesons, who had founded a distillery in Dublin in 1780 and used the land as their private golf course.

Many of its holes deserve to be labelled ‘classic’ but it’s probably the 189-yard 15th with the beach and out-of-bounds on the right, which is regarded as the signature hole. Arnold Palmer, who in partnership with Sam Snead won the Canada Cup here, is reputed to have said it is the best par-3 in the world.

Located on a small peninsula, Portmarnock, now 7,645 yards off the championship tees, is bounded by water on three sides and in its early days could only be reached by a boat, or at low tide by horse-drawn carriage.

There’s plenty of water too at The K Club with 14 man-made lakes and the River Liffey to contend with. The Kildare Hotel & Country Club carved its name in the history of the game successfully hosting the 2006 Ryder Cup.

With its two championship courses and exclusive 5-star hotel, it is regarded by many as Ireland’s premier golfing establishment but it is the sweeping 7,212-yard Palmer Course that is the jewel in the crown. Opened in 1991, it is a blend of challenging parkland, which embodies all the beliefs of the great Arnold Palmer’s ‘go for broke’ attitude to the game.

The 570-yard par-5 seventh, which was the 16th for the Ryder Cup, is the perfect example. It’s a mighty double-dogleg, right then left. A good drive gives you the chance to cut the corner across the flowing waters of the River Liffey and make the green in two if you dare. If you lay up, it can be just as hazardous because the green on an island between two arms of the River Liffey is also protected by bunkers and mature trees.

Down In Wicklow Druids Glen has often been called the ‘Augusta of Europe’, nestling between the Irish Sea and the Wicklow Mountains in the Garden of Ireland. It was named after the Druids Altar – a stone religious altar dating back before Christianity – which overlooks the amphitheatre-like par-3 12th hole. But my favourite hole is the 450-yard 18th, which has water cascading down through three ponds towards you as you climb to the green and the clubhouse, a 1770 manor house.

Druids is a thinking men’s course where power alone won’t get you round. Drives demand technique, approach shots have to employ careful thought and the greens are fast. It’s got the lot. It finishes as it starts, testing the golfer to the limits.

Where would golf be without its humour?  When owner Pat Ruddy designed his European links he believed that you can’t have too much of a good thing, so he made it a 20-hole course, adding holes 7a and 12a because “we like the game enough to play a little extra”. And he also made the green on the 12th 127 yards long “to see the great three-putt restored to the game”.

But traditionalists can still play only the 18 holes if they insist.

Further south in Cork is one of the most spectacular courses in the world. Old Head of Kinsale can match the rugged beauty of Pebble Beach and if the price of the green fees doesn’t take your breath away then the location on a promontory jutting two miles out into the Atlantic certainly will. It’s not for those with vertigo with sheer drops from the tees 200 feet to the breakers below.

So exposed is it to the elements that it has to be closed during the winter, and reportedly once a buggy was blown off the cliffs. It has more than its fair share of dramatic holes running along the coastline, especially the par-3s, which are daunting challenges for players of any ability. Off the championship tees it’s 7,215 yards but there are a variety of tees to make it manageable and there are plenty of birdies around – cormorants, peregrine falcons, and guillemots.

You are never far from an outstanding links in Ireland. And Waterville on the Kerry coast is exactly that. As the locals says: “It’s so far south and so far west that you can see Boston on a clear day.”

Waterville is quite simply the ‘beautiful monster’ – so called by its designer Eddie Hackett – without a weak hole. The fairways undulate gently as they wind through valleys between elevated tees and massive sand dunes. But there is a saying that “Whoever can conquer Waterville can play on any golf course in the world”

Ask any American golfers to name an Irish golf course and it’s odds-on they will mention the Old Course links of Ballybunion, set amidst towering sand hills, alongside the Atlantic Ocean in beautiful County Kerry. For many years Ballybunion has enjoyed the patronage of Americans, who can fly directly into Shannon airport only an hour’s drive away.

Tom Watson has done more than anyone to promote the course. He made a habit of warming up for the Open – and he won five of them and almost a sixth at Turnberry – at Ballybunion and was the club captain in the millennium year.

He says: “There is a wild look to the place; the long grass covering the dunes that pitch and roll, make it very intimidating. But the contours on the fairways and the greens are what make it a great course. You must play accurate approach shots, usually to a small target with not a lot of room to miss. It is the best in the world.”

Doonbeg on the beautifully rugged Atlantic coast of County Clare is one of the new breed of links having opened in 2002, but so at one is it with its environment that it feels as if it has been there forever. Greg Norman has built a giant of a course set along the golden sands of Doughmore Bay. It’s not long – 6,870 yards off the blue tees – yet it is a consummate test of even the best’s golfing skills, with massive dunes, deep pot bunkers, tall marram grasses, blind shots, brooks, burns and great sweeping greens and always a capricious wind.

With Doonbeg most holes are memorable and a great many spectacular. None more so than the signature hole (our cover picture), the par-3 14th which clings so precariously to the side of a cliff that it gives the impression of being in danger of sliding into the ocean.

So there’s ten must play courses but there are so many others worthy of a mention that if you asked me tomorrow to name them I’d probably give you a very different answer.

* Vic Robbie is author of Ireland’s Golf Courses: The Complete Guide (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, £20. To order: call +44 (0)1206 255600).



Old Course: 18 holes links, 6,551 yards, par 71 (SSS 72)

Ladies 5,274 yards, par 73 (SSS 72). Also Cashen course.


18 holes parkland, 7,026 yards, par 71 (SSS 73). Ladies 5,541

yards, par 73 (SSS 73). Also Druids Heath course.


18 holes links, 7,355 yards, par 71 (SSS 74) or 20 holes,

7,726 yards, par 7. Ladies 5,560 yards for 18 holes, par 71;

5,788 yards for 20 holes par 77.


18 holes parkland, 7,212 yards, par 72 (SSS 76). Ladies 5,459

yards, par 73 (SSS 74).

Also the Smurfit Course.


18 holes, 7,167 yards, par 72. Ladies 5,015 yards, par 72.

Also Castle Hume course.

18 holes links, 7215 yards, par 72 (SSS 74). Ladies 5,132

yards, par 72 (SSS 72).


Championship course: 18 holes links, 7,365 yards, par 72

(SSS 74). Ladies 6,684 yards, par 72 (SSS 71). Also 9-hole course.


Championship course: 18 holes links, 7,181 yards, par 71

(SSS 74). Ladies 6,243 yards, par 75 (SSS 76). Also Annesley Links course.


Dunluce Links: 18 holes, 6.845 yards, par 72 (SSS 73). Ladies

6,123 yards, par 75 (SSS 75). Also Valley links course.