Links golf at its twisting, turning, torturous best along the northern coast of Ireland

Céad Míle Fáilte" -- a hundred thousand welcomes -- is the Gaelic greeting that visiting golfers warmly receive when they set foot on Ireland's auld sod. For a distinctive, weeklong, links vacation that you would welcome, I recommend you tee it up on the auld sod that lies along the northernmost coast of the Republic of Ireland, and then follow that coast into Northern Ireland.

Fly into Belfast International, and drive northwest into the Republic (get out your Euros) to the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort, a 36-hole affair. The Old Links , originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891 and renovated by Harry Vardon and James Braid, places the front nine on the inland side of the clubhouse and undulates its way around the high dunes. The back side returns to the beach and is more open and more level.

The Sandy Hills Course , designed by Pat Ruddy of European Club fame, opened in 2002 to rave reviews. Sandy Hills goes straight through the high dunes and features elevated tees and greens and bowl-like ribbon fairways. Both courses have fast and true greens and are picturesque and difficult.

The next venue is Ballyliffin's Glashedy Course , another essential Pat Ruddy. This course has wide, relatively flat fairways and large, receptive greens, but the rough is penal. Ruddy has routed his holes from the tops of hilly dunes and to the depths of deep valleys as dictated by the topography. The panoramic vistas are gorgeous. Ballyliffin also has the Old Links Course , basically designed by Mother Nature, and is an old-style, unadorned layout. Play it if you have the time.

The next stop is Royal Portrush and Portstewart back in Northern Ireland (get out your pounds sterling). Royal Portrush's Dunluce Course , designed by Harry Colt, is among the top 10 in the world and rightfully so. As the course works in a gentle slope toward the North Channel, the holes end abruptly at the cliff's edge above the beach. Flat lies are minimal, the rough is torturous, the undulating greens encourage three putts and the ocean breeze is always a factor.

Forget about shooting your handicap and just enjoy one of Nature's most splendid works. The Royal Portrush Valley Links is shorter, on lower land and more sheltered. It is still a true links test and would serve as a proper warm up for the Dunluce challenge.

Portstewart's Strand Course , just down the road from Royal Portrush, is as fair and as fascinating a links design as you could ever want to play. Again, changes in elevation distinguish the layout and make club selection paramount. The large, accommodating fairways and greens tend to keep the ball in play, a good idea since the impenetrable rough swallows up errant hits. The Portstewart Riverside Course is more of a parkland course, although pleasant enough to play.

The next stop is Newcastle, home of one of the most celebrated golf courses in the world, Royal County Down . The front nine runs along the Irish Sea and makes use of the elevation. The back nine returns more inland and flatter, but every hole has the twists and turns and undulations that delineate a links layout. A number of shots are blind, and many of the bounces are unpredictable, with balls sometimes, almost inexplicably, ending up in bunkers or worse. The forward tees, by the way, are 6,249 yards and extremely hard for most women golfers. Like Royal Portrush, this experience is unforgettable.

Ardglass Golf Club is the hidden gem of the County Down coast. All 18 holes are within sight of the craggy coastline, and the first five holes extend along the cliff, giving both spectacular views and par-defying obstacles. Several holes descend to the shoreline, and the 18th tee provides a commanding view of the Irish Sea and the imposing clubhouse -- actually, more like a club "castle" -- built on the remains of 15th Century fortifications. Ardglass is as entertaining as it is demanding.

Then, the week is over, but another Gaelic expression can return home with you: "Go dtaga do liathróid a bheidh i féarach glas agus ní in uiscí fós."

May thy ball lie in green pastures and not in still waters.

Leigh MacKay is a freelance golf writer who specializes in features and travel reviews. A member of Golf Writers Association of America, Golf Travel Writers, and International Network of Golf, he writes a monthly column, "Celebrity Golfer," for New England Golf Monthly and splits his time between Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Plymouth, Mass.
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Links golf at its twisting, turning, torturous best along the northern coast of Ireland
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