Golfers know their names even if they haven't played them.
They are the titans of golf in Ireland, the links that every American hack wants a crack at -- Ballybunion, Lahinch, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and to a lesser extent, the European Club, Waterville, Doonbeg and Portmarnock. Obviously, Old Head and the K Club aren't links, but they belong on the Irish bucket list. I've played all of them, and most of them live up to the hype.
They are not the be-all, end-all reasons to come to Ireland for golf. You could plan a world-class links experience without playing any of the courses listed above.
"Venturing off the beaten track may bring a welcome surprise. Courses including Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, Donegal, Carne and Enniscrone, while once hidden gems, are now beginning to receive just recognition," said tour operator Justin Farrell, the general manager of the Links of Ireland. "While each have unique characteristics, a true links experience is guaranteed with undulating fairways, firm greens, towering dunes, ever-changing conditions and breathtaking views. But whatever your round may bring, a warm Irish welcome is always assured in the 19th hole."
These 10 clubs have links courses that aren't necessarily household names in America yet, but they should be.
I've made half-joking statements that I want my ashes spread at Tralee, the finest Arnold Palmer course you'll ever see. That's how much I love its cliffs, castles and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean in County Clare. The back nine offers up one epic hole after another. Too many golfers skip Tralee racing from Ballybunion to Waterville. Big mistake.
This remote destination in northwest Ireland is a pilgrimage for aspiring writers and legions of H.S. Colt fans. I consider myself both. Its backdrop of Benbulben Mountain and Drumcliffe Bay inspired the great works of poet W.B. Yeats. Golfers can see five Irish counties and kite surfers on a clear day from several elevated tees on the front nine. Just to avoid confusion, County Sligo is also called Rosses Point.
Donald Steel finished the Irish masterpiece that Eddie Hackett started an hour's drive west of Rosses Point in County Sligo. In 2001, Steel added six new holes through the large dunes Hackett couldn't touch back in the early 1970s. The dramatic setting skirts Scurmore Beach and the Killala Bay. Losing balls in a maze of dunes never felt so good.
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort
This four-star retreat in County Donegal -- one of the oldest golf resorts in the world circa 1893 -- overlooks Sheephaven Bay, with luxuries such as a warming room, where golfers put their wet gear to dry, a 15-meter pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna. Its 45 holes of links golf are a contrast of old and new. Rosapenna's Sandy Hills Links Course, by Irishman Pat Ruddy, cuts through severe dunes. The back nine of the Old Tom Morris Course sits in the flatter valley next to the bay. It's infinitely enjoyable to walk and play.
Ballyliffin Golf Club
Golfers can drive to the remote tip of the Inishowen Peninsula or take ferries across the Lough Swilly (from the west) or the Lough Foyle (from Northern Ireland in the east) to reach the magical links of Ballyliffin. The modern Glashedy Links by Ruddy and Tom Craddock gets the slight nod over the Old Links by Hackett (with a few new holes from Nick Faldo added in 2006) as the club's best course. I like the elevation changes and bigger dunes of Glashedy, although the wild fairways of the Old Links are quite unique. They ripple like waves.
It's a memorable entrance to Donegal, called Murvagh by locals. A one-lane road through the forest reveals the 6,760-meter course, a rare par 73 that stretches to roughly 7,400 yards. It occupies a finger of land on the Murvagh Peninsula an hour northwest of County Sligo Golf Club. Ruddy has altered eight holes on this Hackett original (built in 1976) by deepening bunkers and making greenside runoffs steeper. The dunes of the front nine and the burns of the back nine add to the difficulty of the day.
County Louth Golf Club, called Baltray by the locals, was established in 1892 at the mouth of the River Boyne near Drogheda north of Dublin. It wasn't until 1938 that architect Tom Simpson perfected its routing. Tinkering by Steel in 1983 and Tom MacKenzie in 2003-04 has left Baltray with three par 5s on the front nine. County Louth hosted the 2004 and 2009 Irish Opens, but it won't pummel lesser golfers like you and me.
I'd love to go back in time and experience the journey to the Island the way they did decades ago by taking a rowboat across the Malahide Estuary from the city center. What a grand way to a great links. A quirky layout stretches out 6,312 meters (roughly 6,902 yards) across the biggest dunes of Dublin. Plans call to eventually alter the front nine, home to eight straight par 4s and a finishing par 3. The par-3 13th hole overlooks the picturesque estuary. The fairway of the par-4 14th hole, where the old clubhouse once stood, is a mere 12 yards wide with the water up the entire right side. The round climaxes at the 15th green in an amphitheater of dunes.
Overseas golfers regularly confuse the top-100 Portmarnock with its newer neighbor, the Portmarnock Golf Links designed in 1995 by Bernhard Langer. Both sit just minutes from the Dublin International Airport, making them great options on arrival or departure day. Portmarnock Golf Links starts off a little slow. From the eighth hole on, the 6,444-meter course (roughly 7,050 yards) perks up considerably by turning into the dunes. Langer probably dug out too many penal pot bunkers (somewhere around 100), although it still plays a couple shots easier than most links.
The opening shot from an elevated tee starts a rousing front nine. In 1992 the club added new holes from nos. 2-8 through some of the Causeway Coast's most stunning dunes. A lackluster finishing stretch of back-and-forth holes outside the dunes holds Portstewart back from true greatness. Its location in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is just five miles from the famed Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush.