Golf Guide to South West Ireland

Take a bow to golfing royalty and welcome to a true golf Mecca!

 

The story goes that Tom Watson ‘discovered’ Ballybunion back in 1981. His admiration for the club directed a spotlight on this south west corner of Ireland… but in truth it was Herbert Warren Wind who started that gold rush in the 1970s, when he wrote that it was among the ten best courses in the world. Regardless, this south west trail has flourished to such an extent that it now comprises nine remarkable links courses, from Doonbeg down to the farthest reaches of the Ring of Kerry, where Waterville awaits. 

But, on this southern half of the Wild Atlantic Way, that is not where the story ends, for golfers must cross the mountains and into Co. Cork to reach the magical Old Head of Kinsale.

How beautiful is this region? When Golf Channel picked their Top Ten Ocean Courses in the world, three of them were on Ireland’s south west coastline: Ballybunion, Tralee and Old Head.

There are fine parklands too – Adare, Killarney (Killeen), and Dromoland Castle are among Ireland’s best – but it is the links which draw most American golfers.

Shannon Airport is in the heart of the south west, making this area highly accessible. There are several golf resorts scattered across the region, ensuring accommodation is rarely an issue, while Killarney town and Limerick city offer central locations for those golfers looking to take in as many courses as possible.

To the north, Doonbeg is being revised (2015/2016) by Martin Hawtree. The original Greg Norman design had some beautifully idiosyncratic traits that divided opinion (the bunker in the green, for example), but the landscape of rolling dunes on the edge of Doughmore Bay is spectacular… even with the biggest dunes being off limits due to a rare and protected snail. The five star resort sits above the beach and close to the renowned village of Doolin. This small village is famous for its traditional live music sessions which draw locals and tourists from all around. Many a golfer has vanished inside a Doolin pub, reappearing just in time to tee off the following day.

Doonbeg

From Doonbeg the next course south is the magical Lahinch… but you are unlikely to reach this Alister MacKenzie masterpiece without stopping off to see the Cliffs of Moher. Stretching for five miles, these sandstone cliffs rise 700 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, and are Ireland’s most visited natural attraction.

Golfers will be similarly inspired by the golf course at Lahinch. Never mind the weather-forecasting goats, this is links golf at its rhythmic best and a superb example of MacKenzie’s philosophy on course design. It also shows that the great designers knew a great hole when they saw it, which is why MacKenzie left Old Tom Morris’s legendary Klondyke and Dell holes completely untouched.

lahinch

To the south lies Spanish Point, so named because of the Spanish Armada galleons which sank here in 1588. A nine hole course of the same name may not have the allure of a Lahinch or a Tralee, but the course has some startling links holes.

Beyond Spanish Point, the road to Ballybunion can take one of two routes: the most direct line involves a ferry across the Shannon, to Tarbert… but that would be to miss the drive east to Limerick (passed Shannon Airport), with Dromoland Castle to the north and Adare to the south. These two major five star parkland resorts are accommodated in a 16th century castle and an 18th century neo-Gothic Manor, respectively. It adds luxury and history to two quality golf courses. (Adare is closed until 2017 as a $30 million refurbishment programme is underway, including an upgrade to the golf course by Tom Fazio.)

And then on to Ballybunion and its 36 holes. The Old course is the one everyone knows and adores, the dunes getting bigger and bigger as the round progresses. Standing on the high 2nd green every golfer should look back to the clubhouse and the myriad of dunes you still have to overcome (including the Cashen course). And, in those dunes, waits the par four 11th, regarded as one of the best holes in the world.

old course

The Cashen does not have the same reputation but it charges through even bigger dunes than its sibling. It’s a stunning hybrid and well worth your time.

cashen

The film Ryan’s Daughter won John Mills an Oscar in 1970. Much of it was filmed on the Kerry coastline, including the magnificent Banna Strand beach, which runs alongside Tralee Golf Club. This course had two designers: Arnold Palmer… and God… or so said Arnold Palmer of the turbulent back nine that has some of the best holes on the island. You’ll appreciate why Tralee was voted a Top Ten Ocean Course from the moment you arrive, for Ireland’s beauty lies in every direction.

tralee

In one of those directions is the Dingle Peninsula – home to a fine 18 hole links and a dolphin named Fungi. He turned up in Dingle Harbour 33 years ago and he is one of this pretty town’s main tourist attractions. 

The Dingle Peninsula is one of the great drives on the Wild Atlantic Way, but so too is the 110 mile loop around the Ring of Kerry, which is the next peninsula to the south. Along the route you will pass Skellig Michael, used in the most recent Star Wars film. It is a striking rock, slicing out of the ocean. The Ring is also home to two of the oldest links in Ireland: both Dooks and Waterville were established in 1889. They have more than that it common for if there was a top five ranking of most beautiful Irish golf settings, each would be on the list. Waterville flows like velvet, a perfect rhythm of 18 holes which builds to a stunning finish beside the sea. Dooks, closer to Killarney town, is a more rambunctious, idiosyncratic affair… but just as thrilling.

Killarney is the big town in these parts, home to a host of five star and all star hotels. It’s a bustling place and its beautiful setting by Lough Leane and at the foot of the mountains has drawn artists and photographers in their thousands. Many never left and their studios line the streets.

The 36 hole golf club in Killarney shares that same beauty, with several holes running along the lakeshore. It offers a break from links golf as you play over pristine parkland fairways and between herds of deer.

killarney

It is now time to leave Co. Kerry and head into Ireland’s most southern county. Co. Cork is famed for its artisan food producers, from smokeries to chocolatiers, and that love of food comes together in Kinsale, a small fishing town boasting a world famous food festival. Of course, golfers will know that this is also the home of the Old Head of Kinsale. This peninsula is as dramatic a location as any golf course on the planet, with half of the course’s holes clinging to 300 foot cliff tops, where verticle drops fall away from tee boxes and greens. This is no place to discover you have a fear of heights or you won’t get past the 2nd tee.

old head kinsale

Ireland’s second city, Cork, is just 20 miles away, with a host of golf courses spread around it. Of these, the two with the biggest reputations are the Fota Island Resort – host to the Irish Open three times – and Cork Golf Club, designed by the aforementioned Alister MacKenzie, of Augusta, Cypress Point… and Lahinch fame.​

deerpark

Little more has to be said about South West Ireland to persuade golfers to come here. It is on a par with St Andrews as a golfing Mecca, and all of us know it’s a pilgrimage that we need to make. Golfing heritage, local culture and world class golf make for one of the best golfing destinations in the World, if not the best!

Please request a quote if you are interested in playing any of these courses as part of your vacation with the golf travel experts at Golfbreaks.com.

Kevin Markham

I am an Irish golf writer, blogger and photographer. In 2008, I traveled around Ireland in an RV playing every 18-hole golf course for a book entitled 'Hooked: An Amateur's Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland'. Now in its 3rd edition the book introduces all 340 golf courses and rates the experience awaiting golfers. A second book, 'Driving the Green', is a light-hearted story of my travels. I loves golf… but just not all the way from the back tees. My blog can be found at TheIrishGolfBlog.com.