COUNTY LOUTH, Ireland -- Walking out to the first tee at County Louth Golf Club, one of the locals asks a group, "Did you bring plenty of golf balls?" That's code in most places for, "It's going to be a tough day out there. Hope you brought game." Or better yet: "It's a wonderful day to play links golf."
And so it was this particular afternoon at County Louth, known locally as Baltray. The wind was up, there was a smattering of sunshine and drizzle and the rough was deep, as it should be on a good links course.
While the fairways are ample enough in most spots, they're not easy to hit in these conditions, so managing ball flight can be critical. Yet the trick is to still swing freely without tension, a task not easily achieved after you have to hack it back into the fairway a couple of times -- if you're lucky enough to find your ball.
Still, this is a course, no matter how you play, that you can't help but appreciate. Often overlooked in the discussion of links golf in Ireland, those in the know revere it as one of the best links courses on the East Coast if not all of Ireland.
Baltray: A terrific test
The club dates back to 1892, when Thomas Gilroy (originally from Scotland) and lawyer George Henry Pentland discovered this piece of land that sits at the mouth of the River Boyne near Drogheda, north of Dublin. They had already attempted a course on the other side of the river when one day they rowed across it and proclaimed they had found one of the best pieces of land for a golf course in the world.
It wouldn't be until the 1930s that it took shape resembling its current form when architect Tom Simpson worked his magic. Over the years, the club has had its share of champions, both nationally and otherwise, and the club itself has played host to the Irish Open twice – 2004 and 2009, the latter won by a young Irishman named Shane Lowry.
If you play Baltray from the tips at more than 7,000 yards, bring a low handicap and your "A" game, especially if the wind is blowing. While the fairways aren't unfairly narrow, from the back tees, they seem like a moving target.
Still, some holes are harder than others. The best example would be the second and third holes, both par 5s. The second, which often plays downwind, is 523 yards from the tips and reachable in two, one of the best birdie opportunities on the course. The third plays the opposite direction and 20 yards longer. The kicker is the blind shot to a green over a ridge. Miss the green left and you're left with a daunting uphill pitch that can easily end up back at your feet. Miss it right, and it's in the high grass.
The course also has a wonderful collection of par 3s, all different in appearance and direction.
County Louth Golf Club: The verdict
In 1943, County Louth Golf Club bought a nearby hotel to complement the course, and golf guests can stay there to this day. The clubhouse is spacious and inviting, and it includes a new pro shop and great views of the course and a practice green in the back.
There are locker rooms for both men and women as well as a bar and restaurant that serves great sandwiches and large steaks. The course also has a grass driving range and another practice green. Lessons are also available.
In short, locals know about County Louth Golf Club, but it often escapes overseas visitors who are lured to the usual names. Any golf trip to Dublin without playing County Louth (Baltray), however, is incomplete.