Irish culture’s outsize influence on America tends to inspire a romantic yearning to visit Ireland. I loved reading James Joyce’s Dubliners in high school, and Roddy Doyle’s short story “Bullfighting” is one of the best I know of. The Chieftains and The Pogues, two great Irish groups, are among my favorite musical groups. The movie Waking Ned Devine is one of my favorite comedies. Bushmills 10 (yes, I know it comes from Northern Ireland) is one of my favorite whiskeys of any provenance. I’m not remotely Irish-American, but I find a sort of comfort and joy in its contributions to American life. I’m far from the only one.
Ireland enjoys a similarly mythic stature among golfers. No, they didn’t invent the game, but links like Ballybunion, Lahinch and Royal County Down are among the world’s favorite golf courses, and many avid traveling golfers hold Ireland in similar regard as Scotland. It’s the dunes and the craic.
I recently had the chance to spend a few days in Ireland’s storied southwest, a trip that introduced me not just to a sampling of splendid golf, but to a whole new perspective on the game. I didn’t think I could love golf any more than I already did, but Ireland deepened my love.
Along with a group of fellow golf writers, most of whom were not new to Ireland, I had a chance to take in five golf courses, each with a distinct vibe and character.
First up, and the best course of the trip, was Lahinch Golf Club, which immediately jumped onto the shortlist of courses I would consider the best I have ever played. It dates back to the 1890s and enjoys a storied history that includes design efforts by Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie and, most recently, Martin Hawtree.
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Golf just doesn’t get much better than Lahinch. A perfect intro to links golf in Ireland. Three good looks: - The one-of-a-kind up-and-over second shot at the short par-5 4th, “Klondyke” - Looking back from above the par-3 eighth green - Heading back toward town at the par-3 16th
The yardage book states it plainly: “A world top 50 course.” No matter your tastes in golf courses, it’s hard to imagine 50 more engaging golf courses on the planet than Lahinch. I could scarcely have imagined a better introduction to Irish golf: periods of mist, clouds and constant one- to two-club breezes, plus the green-and-tan firm fairways from this summer’s dryness and heat made it look and play its authentic best. “The South” - *the* amateur tournament for this province of Ireland, started in two days so the course was rounding into tournament-type shape. The pro asked us to please stay off the back tee boxes on the par threes, which underscored the amount the club cares about the event, which it hosts every year. In addition, you can see photos of the winners of The South dating back decades, as well as club trophies and memorabilia. Few golf courses I have visited are so outwardly affectionate for the competitive player.
Lahinch might have the strongest seven-hole stretch I’ve ever played in the third through the ninth. Anchoring this course-within-a-course are the short par-5 fourth, “Klondyke,” and the totally blind (except for a white-painted aiming rock on a hillside in front of the green) “Dell” par-3 fifth, two holes you will not find anywhere else. “Klondyke” is the apotheosis of golf quirk: a hilariously narrow fairway in a winding valley between dunes, followed by a shot up and over a 20-foot dune and down to a wide, elevated green. You’ll know it’s safe to hit when the marshal posted atop the dune (he has his own wooden shack for cover) changes the flag from red to green. Oh, and the 18th crosses over from the left as you walk around the hill toward the green, so look out. Finally, there’s a sod-covered stone wall behind the green, shielding approaches that come in a bit hot from going OB. It is the type of rustic, cheeky fun that too few golf courses possess.
For the first time ever, Lahinch will host the European Tour’s Irish Open next year. I don’t think you can set your DVR this far ahead of time, but set some sort of calendar reminder because it is going to be must-see TV for any golf fan. Some of the quirky features at Lahinch are exactly the sort of thing that often fragile pro golfers love to whine about. Especially if the wind blows, it should be a riot to see them play 4 and 5, as well as a number of holes on the back where the difference between an excellent shot and abject disaster can be razor-thin. A player with a great mind and strong backbone will win.
My second-favorite course from the trip: Dooks Golf Links, set a couple hours south of Lahinch, deep in the heart of rugged County Kerry. The natterjack toad (complete with Mona Lisa smile) that serves as the club logo is an indicator of the good humor that it takes to fully enjoy a round, especially on the day our group played.
In short, the course at Dooks was biscuit colored - the firmest surface I’ve ever played golf on. And it was awesome. The line from the traditional Irish blessing - “May the wind be ever at your back” had to be thrown out on that day. Landing approach shots on greens was completely out of the question, except on the holes that played into the wind, due to the near-concrete fairway and greens conditions, owing to a significant drought enveloping the region since May.
Nevertheless, the course was eminently playable; you just had to adjust your style of play and take what the sometimes odd bounces gave you. One member of the group was unwilling to adjust and grumbled about the firmness of the turf for most of the round, writing it off as unfair rather than a fun challenge to be embraced. Spoilsport. Meanwhile, my other playing partner and I had an absolute blast hitting low running shots, cackling maniacally when something unexpected - good or bad - happened. In spite of one wet blanket, it was one of the most hysterically fun days I have ever had on a golf course.
The glorious turf made every hole a strategic challenge, but my favorite single test was the short par-4 second, simply one of the best short par fours I’ve ever played. It’s relatively easy/sensible to play out wide to the right and settle for a short iron or wedge up to the undulating skyline green, but then again, two bunkers sit directly in line with the green, If you can carry them and have favorable conditions (firm ground and a helping wind), you can reach the green from the tee. The anticipation as you climb toward the green and then look back down toward the beach and mountains beyond is a moment of true golfing bliss.
We also sampled two much newer links on the trip. Of the two, I quite liked Tralee Golf Links, an Arnold Palmer design rightly regarded as one of the King’s best. The 30-year-old course might have had the most breathtaking views of the trip (though that point is debatable), and the dunes we encountered on the back nine were surreal in their size and sharpness. Especially when the wind blows, a few shots become all-or-nothing propositions, so I would strongly suggest you worry less about stringing together a score here than about having an entertaining match with your group. Worth noting is that even though they’re not along the water, the closing holes on each nine at Tralee really tie the experience together nicely. Tralee’s clubhouse is terrific as well, and the heavenly rainfall-type showers in the locker room really come in handy after a chilly, damp round like the one my group experienced.
We also visited Trump International Golf Links, which most refer to by its original name, Doonbeg. Though it’s only 16 years old, Doonbeg has something of a tumultuous history. It was built as a high-end links resort much more in an American style than the other courses I played in SW Ireland. The original course was designed by Greg Norman, but a big winter storm in 2013 caused severe damage to the coastline and, by extension, the course. The much-photographed, coast-hugging par-3 14th was completely wiped out, and Donald Trump, who bought Doonbeg in 2014 from its original owners, brought in Martin Hawtree to renovate the course. Much of Norman’s routing is intact, but Hawtree changed the internal design of many holes, including the deep pot bunkering. He actually shrunk many of the greens, some of which can be almost impossible to hit in regulation in more than light winds due to their tricky contouring and some severe false fronts. At holes like the par-5 eighth and the par-3 11th, successfully playing the hole comes down more to missing the green in the proper spot than actually hitting a solid shot onto the green, because the forced carry to that green just doesn’t mix with the firm ground conditions. Nevertheless, the views, conditioning, hospitality and accommodations at Doonbeg are of a high standard, making it a worthy addition to an Ireland itinerary. Just be aware that it is a rather “Americanized” setup and experience. The clubhouse and restaurant setup reminded me of Whistling Straits here in the States.
We did play one non-links in Ireland: the Killeen Course at Killarney Golf Club. Another Hawtree-influenced layout, Killeen was a pleasant surprise. With its clubhouse and a handful of holes set along the beautiful Lough Leane, it offered its own unique setting and a fun golf experience, including yet more tremendous hospitality (are you sensing a theme here?). Killarney is a hub for tourists, as it is a jumping-off point for the Ring of Kerry, a spectacular couple-hours’ drive that showcases County Kerry’s seaside and mountain scenery. It makes sense as a place to stay for golfers, too, who can get to several top area links – Tralee, Dooks, Ballybunion, Waterville and even Old Head – in a reasonable amount of time.
Other notes and tips
- The dunes - and therefore the terrain at large - on Irish links tend to be severe, which means that these courses have some truly unique holes. With that uniqueness comes some blind and semi-blind shots. The first time you play these courses, you’re likely to look back and say, “Man, I wish I had played some shots differently.” But the vast majority of golfers adopt a checklist mentality when visiting destinations like Ireland and Scotland. It’s fun, of course, to experience a range of different courses, but it’s rewarding in a whole different way to stay put for a couple days and really get to know one or two courses, because that’s where the brilliance lies. I envy the golfers who ended up playing five, six or more rounds at Lahinch in the South, as well as the members who get to play Dooks dozens of times a year. They are exposed to different winds and hole locations, which enables them to test and refine their strategies on every hole. Since strategy is an important part of links golf, you might consider hanging in one spot and really getting to know a course like Lahinch or Dooks over a couple days before moving on to another.
- The courses we played were very dry (and a ton of fun) as a result of this year’s particularly dry summer. Cormac Flannery, the GM of Killarney Golf Club, told me that in general, if Ireland experiences a wet winter, a dry summer tends to follow. So as you consider a trip, keep an eye on winter weather reports and if they’re rough, it should mean your summer weather will be particularly good (i.e. dry).
- If you find yourself in Killarney, make a point of having dinner (you’d better make a reservation) at Rozzer’s, the restaurant in the boutique Killeen House Hotel. Veteran American golf travelers will love the hotel, restaurant and especially the bar, which has thousands of club-logoed golf balls and bag tags all over the walls. If you bring one from your home club, your first drink is on the house. It is Ireland’s answer to Pinehurst’s venerated Pinecrest Inn.
- If you’re visiting Ireland’s Southwest, you’ll enjoy flying in and out of Shannon Airport (SNN), a spiffy space geared toward getting travelers in and out efficiently.
- Odd scorecard quirk: the four links courses I played all display their hole distances in yards, but Killarney still uses meters. The easy approximate conversion is to take the distance in meters and add 10% to turn it into yards, e.g. 150 meters becomes about 165 yards.
- Ireland has historically gotten mixed reviews for food, but I felt I ate very well, especially at the golf courses. Each restaurant seems to have its own fish chowder recipe, and fish and chips are on every menu as well. I was also amused at what appears to be a slight obsession with Cajun seasoning; there was some sort of Cajun chicken sandwich or wrap on nearly every menu.
Six days and five rounds of golf in Ireland were not enough. I can't wait to go back.
Have you been to Ireland to play golf? What are your favorite courses and experiences? Tell us about your Irish golf travels below!