Only a handful of locations in the world offer the firm turf, stiff ocean breezes, wicked weather, gnarly fescue and funny bounces that make links golf so maddening yet so endearing. Many of the world's best links courses and destinations call the British Isles home -- but not all of them.
This handy guide will send links lovers in the right direction all around the globe. Here are the best 15 worldwide:
Rugged dune cover keeps Ballybunion, Lahinch and Waterville firmly entrenched in the world's top 100. Martin Hawtree is done renovating the Trump International Golf Links Ireland (the old Doonbeg) after the winter storm in 2014 wiped out its signature par-3 14th hole. Dooks Golf Club and Dingle Golf Links don't feel like secondary choices.
Tip: The Southwest tends to be wetter, so pack the waterproofs and a couple pairs of shoes.
The Irish Open of the European Tour has had some magical moments at County Louth, Portmarnock and Royal Dublin. The dunes are flatter but the history longer at Portmarnock and Royal Dublin. They rise more majestically at The Island and The European Club by Pat Ruddy. The shorter Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club, Portmarnock Golf Links and Seapoint Golf Links can serve as substitutes if necessary.
Tip:: Dublin's nightlife and international airport are great reasons to stay around east Ireland.
A loop around the north and west coast of Ireland will reveal some of the best values in links golf. Harry S. Colt fans flock to County Sligo (also called Rosses Point). Enniscrone showcases some of the most awe-inspiring dunes anywhere. Nick Faldo loved 36-hole Ballyliffin so much that he tried to buy the club but had to settle for renovating the Old Course. Rosapenna's four-star hotel and restaurant complements 36 strong holes. There's more to discover along the way, 27 holes at Carne Golf Links and Connemara Golf Links, and the delightful Portsalon Golf Club.
Tip: It's best to hire a driver for this trek across remote back roads.
The success of the 2012 Irish Open ushered the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush back onto the British Open rota for the first time since 1951. Blind shots and stifling rough will drive first-timers nuts at Royal County Down, home to the 2015 Irish Open. Spectators, though, will bask in the beautiful setting with the Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop. Portstewart's Strand Course would be more highly regarded if it finished a little stronger. Ardglass Golf Club is more of a cliff-top course than a links, but with splendid views, winds off the water and a haunted castle clubhouse reputed to be the oldest in the world, it's worth a stop.
Tip: The "Troubles" have subsided and Belfast is now a world class and extremely interesting city to visit, full of both modern and ancient sights, plus great nightlife. Its smaller size also makes it a breeze to see compared to Dublin.
St. Andrews, Scotland
The Home of Golf overflows with charm and quality choices, from two Open Championship stalwarts, the lovable Old Course and the cantankerous Carnoustie, to more affordable options like the Crail Golfing Society's Balcomie and Craighead links. For modern comforts to go with spectacular seaside scenery, the 36-hole Fairmont St. Andrews sits on the outskirts of town.
Tip: Don't fret about a guaranteed Old Course tee time too much. Worst case, walk the course when it's closed on Sunday and becomes a public park.
East Lothian, Scotland
East Lothian, situated across the Firth of Forth from St. Andrews, is just a half-hour’s drive from Edinburgh. History is its allure. Muirfield, host of the Open 16 times, only accepts outside play Tuesdays and Thursdays. Pack a nice jacket and tie to wear in the clubhouse. Musselburgh Links, The Old Golf Course, a scruffy nine-holer inside a horse racing track in the middle of town, holds the distinction of being the oldest course in the world still in existence. The West Links features some of the wildest surprises in links golf, including the original Redan Hole. Gullane, home to three courses (No. 1 is best), will host the 2015 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open prior to the Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Tip: No visit is complete with a meal, a drink and putt off a barstool at Duck's Kilspindie House in Aberlady, and inquire about a tour of the Heritage of Golf Museum while at Gullane Golf Club.
Ayrshire Coast, Scotland
Decades ago, holiday golfers from Glasgow and Edinburgh rode the train down Scotland's west coast to enjoy its links. A slight makeover and haircut (the trimming back of gorse) allowed Phil Mickelson and eventual champion Henrik Stenson to put on a show at Royal Troon for the 2016 Open Championship, its ninth major. Take a caddie or a member to better understand the quirks of Prestwick, the original home of the Open, holding the tournament a record 24 times from 1860 to 1924. Turnberry's luxurious hotel and two links - the famous Ailsa and renamed King Robert the Bruce courses - have evolved under new owner Donald Trump's watch.
Scottish Highlands/Northeast Scotland
Golfers up to putting on a few miles on their road trip should look no further than a scenic jaunt from the Scottish Highlands down the northeast coast towards Aberdeen. Charming villages and pure water make this Scotland's whisky capital, too. Make Inverness or Dornoch your base for a few nights and enjoy a rich roster of standouts highlighted by Royal Dornoch, Nairn and newcomer Castle Stuart. Then, make your way down the coast towards Scotland's most stunning dunes set beside the North Sea and home to Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, Murcar and the new Trump International Golf Links.
Tip: Dornoch is home to two excellent hotels right off the first tee of Royal Dornoch: the Royal Golf Hotel and Links House.
Links golf is alive and well in America. This compound four hours south of Portland continues to evolve into the ultimate buddies destination. What Bandon lacks in history, it makes up for it and then some with cliff-top views of the Pacific Ocean and towering sand dunes. Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes feature the majority of the oceanfront eye candy, while Old MacDonald and Bandon Preserve (a 13-hole par-3 course) still deliver authentic and thrilling links tests.
Tip: The turf is as firm, if not firmer, than most Irish courses. Your feet are going to feel it. Save time in your itinerary for hot tubs, massages and ice buckets between rounds.
The "Regal Five" links are within 45 miles of one another just 80 miles from London. Their views stretch over the iconic White Cliffs of Kent and across the English Channel towards France. Prince's (1932) and Royal Cinque Ports (1909, 1920) haven't hosted an Open in years, while Royal St. George's (host of 14 Opens) hopes to land its next major after voting in women members into the all-male club in 2015. Two other lesser known links, North Foreland and Littlestone, have hosted Open Final Qualifying in the past.
Tip: Golfers can stay at the Lodge at Prince's or in Sandwich. Even a quick day trip from London by car or by fast train is possible.
This temperate and sunny microclimate has been enjoyed by vacationing Londoners for centuries, though it's rural and out-of-the-way enough to remain mostly undiscovered by North American links-seekers. Shame, too, because the collection of six courses are wonderfully diverse -- from rugged, sheep-filled fairways of Royal North Devon (known locally as "Westward Ho") to the ever-charming St. Enodoc, while Trevose and Saunton make for worthy championship-caliber links.
Tip: Few old golf links have their own hotels, but you can stay on site at Trevose (and soak in glorious sunsets) as well as the Dormy House at Burnham & Berrow.
Nine of the 12 courses of "England's Golf Coast" run almost uninterrupted along more than 20 miles of pristine linksland north of Liverpool. The Open at Royal Liverpool in 2014 was the 12th at Hoylake. Royal Birkdale, host to the 2014 Ricoh British Women's Open, will stage its 10th Open Championship along the Irish Sea in 2017. Royal Lytham & St. Annes hosted the tournament for the 11th time in 2012. In total, this royal trio has hosted a whopping 33 Opens. Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club held Ryder Cups in 1933 and 1937.
Tip:: Eleven of the clubs are more than 100 years old.
It's too bad the 2010 Ryder Cup was played on a parkland course at Celtic Manor. Wales would have been better off showcasing its links, which are better equipped to fend off the wet weather that plagued the event. Porthcawl, site of the 1995 Walker Cup lost by Tiger Woods and Co., and Pyle & Kenfig are neighboring clubs east of Swansea and west of Cardiff near the Bristol Channel. The medieval Harlech Castle stands guard above Royal St. David's. Pennard, the "links in the sky," sits on a rugged cliff-top site. Other links options are aplenty.
Tip:: You can access the quirky and fun links golf courses of North Wales easily when combining them with the Northwest English medal links. Or, couple the southern standouts with a trip to London about two hour's east.
The 2011 President's Cup at Royal Melbourne reintroduced the Sandbelt to a broader audience. Its magical links run along Melbourne's southeastern flank within a mile or two of the sea. Alister MacKenzie spent only three months in Australia during a visit in 1926, but his impact was profound, shaping the future of the famed West Course at Royal Melbourne and creating a lasting legacy of pure links golf that continues today at a dozen or more clubs, including Huntingdale Golf Club, Commonwealth Golf Club, Yarra Yarra Golf Club and the Peninsula Kingswood Country Golf Club.
Tip:: You've come this far, what's an extra plane ride to chase down Tasmania's legendary links duo, The Dunes and Lost Farm at Barnbougle Links Golf Resort?
Cape Breton island
Canada is now a bonafide links golf destination thanks to the 36-hole combo on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs are wonderfully scenic seaside links on bouncy fescue turf. The original Links anchors the resort hub, while the newer Coore-Crenshaw Cliffs design is just a short shuttle drive away.
Brandon Tucker contributed to this article.