A golf trip to Ireland must include exploring the cities, towns and villages that surround the links. Here are one writer's 10 favorite golf towns on the Emerald Isle.
A golf trip to Ireland requires exploring the pubs ... err, I mean ... cities, towns and villages that surround its treasured links.
Some of my favorite Irish golf destinations are more determined by the vibe and charm of their communities than the actual courses themselves. International cities like Dublin and Cork have wildly different personalities and offerings than quaint little villages like Lahinch and Doonbeg. Both, however, can be equally adept at giving golfers a good time. With apologies to Galway, where I had a roaring good time at a college bar during my first trip to Ireland in 2003, these are my 10 favorite golf towns on the Emerald Isle:
Big cities: Dublin
I got lucky my only night out in Dublin, a historic city on the River Liffey. The Temple Bar area, a nightspot where bars and restaurants line narrow cobblestone streets, was packed with revelers celebrating Dublin's win in the 2011 All-Ireland Gaelic football championship game for the first time in 16 years. It might have been bigger party than St. Patrick's Day. I ended up joining a group of American golfers for dinner, and we shared a few pints and some tales of chasing around a little white ball.
Normally, tours and museums aren't my style, but I do recommend the Guinness Storehouse -- and not just for the free pint in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour. The bar, at the "head" of the pint-shaped building, provides panoramic views of the city.
Courses of note: While Royal Dublin Golf Club lies in the heart of Dublin, Portmarnock Golf Club, Portmarnock Golf Links, The Island Golf Club and County Louth Golf Club stack up in a row north of the city.
Staying at the Europa Hotel -- which was bombed 28 times during "The Troubles" -- during the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down introduced me to the paradoxes of this fascinating city. I should have been basking in the luxury of a four-star hotel that has hosted presidents and prime ministers. Instead, I couldn't help but wonder, "How safe is this place?"
A bus tour of the murals and the peace walls separating the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods were reminders of a violent past. All the nearby pubs, however, were filled with friendly folks ready to party and dance, not fight over religion and politics.
Courses of note: Royal Belfast Golf Club, Belvoir Park Golf Club, Malone Golf Club and Holywood Golf Club (where Rory McIlroy learned the game) are a great collection of parkland courses near downtown. The links of Royal County Down Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club are both within an hour's drive.
This industrial hub in southeast Ireland feels very European and cosmopolitan. I overheard someone daringly compare Ireland's second-largest city to a mini-Paris, probably because of its many bridges over the ocean-fed River Lee and its reputation as the "food capital of Ireland." Pubs line St. Patrick's Street. One night, the lines to the clubs and discos were packed with youngsters baring plenty of skin. It almost made me feel young again.
Medium-sized towns: Malahide
I've stayed at the four-star Grand Hotel Malahide on multiple trips, simply because of its incredible location on the Malahide Estuary minutes from the Dublin International Airport and a half-dozen quality links.
The village casts an irresistible Irish spell. Duffy's Pub delivers good food. For some craic, crash the Gibney's Pub, a popular watering hole dating to 1937. Take the D.A.R.T. (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) into downtown Dublin to avoid the hassles of traffic and parking.
Courses of note: Portmarnock, Portmarnock Links and The Island are all within a 15-minute drive.
Killarney feels like the quintessential Irish town, big enough to have what any tourist needs, yet small enough to not overwhelm the first-timer. It's an ideal home base to tackle day trips throughout the southern half of Ireland, such as driving the Ring of Kerry or touring the Dingle Peninsula or even taking a helicopter to Old Head. While dining and drinking downtown is always wise, I highly recommend a side trip for a meal at Rozzers Restaurant at Killeen House Hotel. Bring a logo ball from your club, and if it's unique enough, hotel owners Michael and Geraldine Rosney might glue it to the wall inside their tiny bar.
Situated in a remote and beautiful section of northwest Ireland, Sligo has the usual collection of pubs and restaurants as entertainment. Its essence, though, revolves around poet W.B. Yeats, who immortalized the region in his writings. Yeats chose a peaceful churchyard at Drumcliffe at the foot of Benbulben mountain as his final resting place. The Glasshouse, downtown's only four-star hotel, overlooks the Garravogue River.
This major fishing port sits isolated at the tip of the scenic Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland, hemmed in by a sheltered harbor off the Atlantic Ocean and the mountains that provide an exhilarating drive in from Tralee. Hilly streets and brightly painted houses and shops create a colorful backdrop. A diverse collection of more than 50 pubs ensures none of its 1,200 residents go thirsty. That alone makes Dingle worth the detour. Make no mistake, this is off the beaten path for most golfers.
Courses of note: Dingle Golf Links sits on the outskirts of town. Dooks and Tralee serve as the southern and northern gateways to the peninsula.
In my 11 years exploring Ireland, I've yet to experience a better day than dining in Kinsale -- the "gourmet capital of Ireland" -- after playing Old Head. Martin Shanahan's famous Fishy Fishy Restaurant and Cafe might be the best seafood haunt on the island. The boats that bring his catch float right across the street in the harbor. This beautiful seaside town, home to the Kinsale Yacht Club, exudes endless charm. "If you want three days (of relaxation), you can golf and sail and chill out in the town," said Shanahan, who hosts "Martin's Mad About Fish," an Irish TV show. "We've got 62 places to eat for a town of 3,000 people."
Course of note: Old Head.
There's not much in Doonbeg, but what's there will extend a warm Irish welcome. My memorable night started with dinner at Morrissey's Seafood Bar & Grill, followed by shenanigans at Comerford's Bar, where "Buddy" Darby -- an original founder of Doonbeg Resort (now owned by Donald Trump) -- played spoons to traditional Irish music. The next act was even more surreal, a young teenage girl wearing a "Lady Gaga" T-shirt who belted out some killer karaoke. That's the beauty of these tiny outposts. You never know what's gonna happen next.
Courses of note: There's talk of Martin Hawtree completely revamping Greg Norman's old Doonbeg Golf Club, now called Trump International Golf Links & Hotel, Ireland. The Castle Course and Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club aren't far, either.
Fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight, a four-hour drive from Dublin and a round on the Old Course at Ballybunion, I didn't have much energy to explore Ballybunion. What a shame. The small taste I got staying at the Ballybunion Golf Hotel and dining at Rocks at the Promenade, the sister hotel around the corner, left me aching for a couple more days. Tourists, ranging from golf groups seeking a few pints to packs of local teens munching on ice cream, crowded the streets, soaking up a perfectly sunny day.