They're something of a 1A and 1B in Ireland's popular southwest.
But closely behind stands Tralee Golf Club , which holds the distinction as a 19th-century club with a relatively new location outside of town. And it boasts as many "wow" moments as its nearby rivals, if not more.
Tralee Golf Club dates to 1896. Club officials sought a move and acquired a parcel of links land outside the town of Tralee in 1980. They commissioned Arnold Palmer's design firm to deliver a world-class links just as Ballybunion and Lahinch began to lure North American masses to the Irish coast.
Tralee unveiled its new links in 1984, marking Palmer's first design in Europe. Few ocean courses can rival its theater. In Ireland, perhaps only Old Head Golf Links tops the drama of Tralee's perch, hugging jagged cliffs high above the sea at many points.
Familiar with Arnold Palmer designs in the Myrtle Beach, Florida and more than 200 sites worldwide? It doesn't apply here. Even his parkland-style K Club near Dublin, the 2006 Ryder Cup host, is notably different.
Tralee is most well known for its spectacular back nine. Of it, Palmer said: "I may have designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine."
That said, the front nine has its share of moments. No. 2 is a 596-yard par 5 that hugs the coastline from tee to exposed green. No. 3, another seaside hole named "Castle," is a delicate par 3 with an old, stone outlook behind the green. Head under the archway and explore inside if you've got a minute.
There are a few filler holes on the front side, common for links courses. It's worth the wait, though, when you arrive at the 10th tee box and stare down a fairway that weaves through the incredible dunes.
Aside perhaps from the long and sluggish, uphill par-5 11th, the back nine is about as pretty and exciting as golf can get in the G.B. and I.
The back side also includes a handful of nerve-wracking approach shots, starting from the fairway on the par-4 12th. It demands a long carry over a deep abyss to the right, the severity of which compares to the famous "Calamity" at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
The ensuing par 3 requires a similar carry from dune to dune over a deep drop. The 16th is the last of the par threes. Known as "Shipwreck," it's not forgiving - to golf balls or the many doomed ships that once sailed near the rocky coast.
Tralee Golf Club in County Kerry: The verdict
Tralee and nearby Ballybunion jostle for position as the best Irish links course south of the Shannon Ferry. Take the ferry north to reach the County Clare links of Doonbeg and Lahinch.
While Ballybunion is an older and a classic links, Tralee includes bolder topography features. Golf in the British Isles and Ireland yield nothing more spectacular than a few Tralee holes.
This golf course isn't for the timid. Wildly penal holes exist amidst the often-present Irish winds, so bring ammo. Caddies are available, as are a limited supply of golf carts. Peak-season fees reach 180 euros, but inquire about the two-for-one specials offered lately.
Stay and play in County Kerry: Killeen House Hotel
For a charming, three-star house hotel within an easy drive of Ballybunion, Tralee, Dooks and others, check out the Killeen House Hotel (killeenhousehotel.com) in Killarney, an Edwardian-style building with 23 rooms, dating to 1838. Proprietors Michael and Geraldine Rosney certainly know how to cater to the golf-group demographic with comfortable and affordable rooms in a cozy and Irish atmosphere.
Upscale cuisine in a casual, Irish setting is available nightly in the Killeen dining room, Rozzers, or drive 10 minutes into Killarney for some pub grub. The pub at Killeen House Hotel is inviting and sometimes offers live music at night. And if you donate a logoed golf ball to display on the new wall, there's a free pint in it for you.
Be sure to save time for breakfast. The menu includes outstanding traditional Irish offerings plus pancakes, fresh fruit and more.