So your golf group has finally settled on a golf trip to Ireland next year.
Now the real fun begins, deciding between Ireland's top two pockets of links courses: southwest Ireland or Northern Ireland.
Both region's top five are as good as you'll find in the British Isles and Ireland. The southwest counties of Clare and Kerry boast a roster of Ballybunion Golf Club , Lahinch Golf Club , Doonbeg Golf Club , Tralee Golf Club and Waterville Golf Links - each of which present something very unique to offer.
In Northern Ireland, Royal County Down Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club often jostle position as Ireland's - if not all of the isles' - best links. Meanwhile, worthy runner-ups like Castlerock Golf Club , Portstewart Golf Club and Ardglass Golf Club round out a trip comprised of all Northern Ireland links.
I've done the tour of both now in the last couple years, and the golf experience for the visitor in each is spectacular but a bit different for a variety of reasons.
Southwest Ireland: More convenient but touristy
Southwest Ireland has become the most trafficked by North American travelers for a variety of reasons. Not only has its most acclaimed links, Ballybunion, been lauded by President Bill Clinton (to the point he has a statue in town with a golf club), Shannon Airport is an easy flight from the east coast (just five hours from Boston), and you're a short drive, just a couple hours or less, to most of the area's best links, from Lahinch to Tralee.
It's a convenient trip, and the links are all dynamite, but the main knock is that when you're here, you're often in a pub full of golfers from, you guessed it, America. That said, the staff at these hotels certainly don't have a jaded attitude towards Americans like you might find in some other pockets of heavily trafficked Europe. You'll get that Irish welcome.
The path is much less beaten in Northern Ireland, anchored by the capital of Belfast, due largely in part because it hasn't been peaceful following the "troubles" for little more than a decade. The golf, sights and castles and here are as good, arguably better, than anywhere else in the world, but it's taken a little time to draw the visitors back.
They're coming, thanks in part to a swell of tourism marketing dollars, not to mention the sheer word-of-mouth. But even still, many parts of the north - even more so if you head to the northwest to places such as Ballyliffin Golf Club and Enniscrone Golf Club - are especially Irish authentic.
South vs. North - Variety vs. History
Northern Ireland's golf clubs were all founded in succession as the railway expanded in the late 1800s from Belfast up along the coast to Newcastle, then Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock.
This means you'll be playing nothing but pure, old links courses that have been around for more than a century, and they're all of a spectacular but somewhat similar model. The exception is Ardglass, which is about a 30-minute drive from Newcastle and Royal County Down and is a clifftop links that lacks the dunes of the other four.
The Southwest's best links are all wildly different in terms of landscape and history. Ballybunion and Lahinch have been around for ages. Tralee, despite being a golf club dating back nearly as long, sits well outside of town (a rarity when seeking out links, as usually they're in the heart of town, by the railway station) on a new site that wasn't laid out with the club's links until 1984 by Arnold Palmer.
Waterville has been consistently tweaked to the point of Tom Fazio's renovations in 2006, while the links of Doonbeg and further south to Old Head have both only been around less than a decade, though possess plenty of "old world" links qualities with some speckles of modern flair.
Cost: Value in Ireland golf shifts from north to south
Other than the most obvious currency difference (Northern Ireland is on the Pound Sterling while Ireland uses the Euro), the north and south have two very different standpoints when it comes to visitor play.
"The golf clubs in the southwest have generally been more dependent on visitor play compared to the North," said Gordon Dalgleish, president of PerryGolf. "Royal County Down and Royal Portrush have revenue coming in from visitor play, but they're not reliant on it."
This means the economic downturn has caused prices to drop in the southwest more than the North, which have remained stable, and most clubs have even slightly increased their fees in recent years.
The southwest, on the other hand, has begun slashing prices and offering a wealth of specials, especially during the slower seasons.
So if you're bargain hunting, especially at the last minute, you're going to find southwest Ireland at the moment far more attractive. But you certainly won't be the only group that scored the deal.