Top 10 Golf Courses in Ireland
Ten must play courses in one of Golf’s must visit countries!
When devising any list of Ireland’s top 10 golf courses it is difficult to look beyond our fabled links. Despite there being so many wonderful Irish parklands (Adare, Concra Wood, Mount Juliet) it is the links which draw such universal praise. Here are my top 10… and I happily acknowledge that some of the ‘greats’ do not make my list (see below).
Carne boasts 27 brilliant links holes on the north western tip of Co. Mayo. This is probably the biggest links landscape on the planet as dunes rise almost 500 feet above sea level in random, chaotic explosions. It ripples with muscle, intrigue and entertainment, with tees and greens perched up high or sitting low at the foot of giant dunes. The original 18 were designed by the legendary Irish architect, Eddie Hackett, whose genius was to let the natural landscape dictate the design. At Carne, that means some truly breath-taking holes. In 2013, a further nine holes (the Kilmore nine) were opened.
- Royal County Down
As one of the greatest golf experiences on earth this links has the design pedigree (Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt, chief among them), it has the stunning location set on Dundrum Bay and below the mighty Mourne Mountains, and it has an aura beyond words. A links this good, with so many blind shots and bearded bunkers, will always bewilder and enthrall.
Jack Nicklaus dislikes the many blind shots but this is how links were laid out in the early days. Dunes were left alone and holes were routed around and over them. Royal County Down embraces that willingly and the signature par three 4th is one of the most dramatic holes anywhere.
- Ballybunion (Old)
Ballybunion sits high on the Co. Kerry coastline, with 36 remarkable links holes. The Old course is magical but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when it so enchanted Tom Watson, that the world took notice.
This is links golf in its purest, most natural form. There is variety too, as a calm start builds to a crescendo, with the exceptional back nine ducking and diving through the biggest dunes. Greens sit on high plateaus and down in dells, fairways glide between muscular shoulders and dunes jealously embrace greens. And then there are five nerve-wracking par threes.
Enniscrone is big dune country, tucked up against a beach that stretches for miles. The fairways reflect the rhythm of the shaggy dunes, presenting some major swells as they see-saw towards the greens, often through deep valleys. It is hypnotic in places, but this is a stern challenge involving some remarkable blind shots… and the plateau greens require the deftest of touches.
You’ll encounter unbelievable holes (2, 12 and 13 most notably) and the stretch from 12 to 17 is utterly captivating. You might just be tossed around by the constant swell of the landscape to the point you feel dizzy. And remember… it is always a mistake to go through the green.
Waterville sits at the far end of the Ring of Kerry, in a picture-perfect setting of mountains and ocean. Holes flow in a sensuous rhythm through the rumpled dunes and, if it wasn’t so rugged, you’d think this landscape had been created just to host a golf course. That’s how perfect it is.
The raised tee boxes show off this course’s true beauty as well as helping you assess what lies ahead. Your biggest challenges will be wrapped around the greens where bump and run should always be considered.
Holes 16 to 18 above the sea are exceptional but you’ll never forget the par five 11th (Tranquility) and the par three 12th (Mass Hole).
- The Island
For a Dublin links course, The Island’s big, glorious dunes are an anomaly and create holes of constant drama and variety. The opening run of eight consecutive par fours makes this abundantly apparent, combining long and short holes with blind shots, big dunes, ridges, hollows and the unexpected. It is absorbing stuff and requires intelligent golf.
The back nine are even better as you’re drawn back out to the sea. This is where history enhances the experience… nowhere more so than on the 14th tee box, which was the foundation for the original clubhouse, on the edge of the Malahide Estuary. The hole has one of the narrowest fairways you’ll ever encounter.
- County Sligo
This timeless Harry Colt classic sits outside Sligo town. The views over Drumcliff, Sligo’s bays and the distant mountains are mesmerizing, but it is the flat-topped Benbulbin that is the most impressive sight of them all.
The setting is as magnificent as the links. Routed over a dunescape of contrasting rhythms, holes fall into one of three categories, testing your mettle from start to finish. In places it is almost flat, in others it is unpredictable and bumpy, and in still more it is steep and practically mountainous. And yet it all feels open so that the challenges are instantly visible from the tee. It makes it a pleasure to play, especially with four exceptional par threes and perfect greens.
- Narin & Portnoo
For many golfers, Narin & Portnoo is Ireland’s undiscovered links. It is rarely talked about and much of that comes down to its Co. Donegal remoteness.
No other course in Ireland gets you as close to the ocean with holes wrapping around a ridge of tall dunes at the heart of the links. Stand on the 9th tee and you can dip your toe in the Atlantic. Stand on the high 8th tee and there is no more beautiful place in Ireland. This is fresh, raw and beautiful.
The stretch from the 6th to 11th is mesmerizing; it may well be the best run of holes in Ireland.
- Druid’s Glen
When it comes to color, variety and pure intrigue no Irish parkland matches Druid’s Glen. Indeed, it is the only one which makes this list. This is exhilarating golf in a glorious old estate setting, and the club possesses the best collection of par threes on the island (three drenched in water).
Much of the back nine is laced with water but, despite the challenges that it entails, this is never anything but an adventure… over a suspension bridge, alongside ancient stone walls and past a druid’s altar. The 18th is a tough but magnificent closing par four, which climbs all the way to the stunning 1770s Woodstock House (now the clubhouse).
Tralee is home to some of Ireland’s most stunning holes as well as dazzling scenery. The clubhouse sits at the highest point, showing off the course below. From here it is easy to see why course designer Arnold Palmer quipped, “surely God designed the back nine.” This is breath-taking stuff above beaches and azure waters.
The landscape of towering dunes and deep hollows presented a perfect setting for fairways and greens alike, and you can expect some steep putting surfaces to test your short game prowess. Anything askew will slip away off these velvet surfaces.
These 10 courses give me the greatest satisfaction and best golfing experiences, time and time again. Yes, it is almost impossible to leave out Lahinch, The European, Portmarnock, Old Head and Royal Portrush – and you might call me mad for doing so – but, at the end of the day, lists come down to personal preferences.
Ireland is not all about links golf by any means, especially when it is blessed with parkland courses to the quality of Druid’s Gen, Lough Erne and The K club. However it is fair to say that it’s a mecca for golfers worldwide; every year thousands of golfers flock to the Emerald Isle to experience the striking landscapes, huge dunes, world class courses and famed hospitality. If you’ve not yet made that pilgrimage, then check your diary and schedule in a trip to Ireland… soon!
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