COUNTY MAYO, Ireland -- Steering off the beaten path is such a difficult choice in Ireland.
The lure of the litany of top-100 links in southwest Ireland and the convenience of a Dublin-based stay and play keep so many golfers from exploring the outer fringes of the Emerald Isle. I'm guilty as charged. It took me 11 trips before finally finding my way to the remote Carne Golf Links, an undiscovered pot of golf gold on the other side of the rainbow.
Carne, isolated on the Belmullet Peninsula in northwest Ireland, turned out to be everything I envisioned -- sand dunes as high as grass skyscrapers, rippled fairways too natural to be contrived and a warm Irish welcome.
In other words, links golf heaven.
Carne was just one of the highlights of my recent 10-day journey across northwest Ireland with 19 disabled U.S. military veterans and two PGA Professionals, an adventure dubbed "Heroes to Ireland." I'll write more about the "Heroes" another time. This tale examines what I consider a near-perfect links itinerary, something a tour operator like Links of Ireland founder Justin Farrell (the brains behind the trip) can easily organize. I book-ended my trip with my favorite links near the Dublin and Shannon Airports to add convenience, and a little fun, to my first and final days overseas.
The decision to go north means driving, lots of driving. If you've got a comfortable coach lined up, as we did with Kerry Coaches, it's not as big an issue. I love the northwest for many reasons. Your group will see more countryside and fewer Americans. The golf costs less. And in many cases, the dunes are bigger and the links wilder.
Dublin's launching pad
Landing in Dublin a day early opened up the opportunity for a return trip to Portmarnock Golf Club, the world top-100 links just minutes from the airport. It's the perfect launching pad for an Irish golf trip -- easily walkable, challenging but not penal and if you've still got energy for later, Dublin city is yours to explore. The next morning, I awoke at the Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links to the most beautiful sunrise over the Irish Sea.
A friendlier Rosapenna
My first two visits to the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, located four hours north of Dublin in County Donegal, brought suspect weather. That gave me mixed feelings about the difficult Sandy Hills Links, its signature course.
The towering dunes and views of Sheephaven Bay from Sandy Hills Links look great in photographs. Unfortunately, Irish architect Pat Ruddy designed such a brute that many Americans teed it up once and never returned. Even tour operators began steering groups elsewhere.
The 2015 version of Sandy Hills Links still has attitude, although a more manageable one. It has grown on me. Several penal greenside bunkers are gone. Other fairway bunkers have been added to save balls from bounding into heavy rough. New tees make the 14th hole potentially drivable, depending on the wind. The reshaped approach to the 18th green accepts shots more gracefully. When the sun shines, as it finally did during my round, Sandy Hills Links compares favorably to many of Ireland's most memorable links.
Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Links delivers endless fun for everybody. The back nine remains my favorite loop on property. A bunch of strong holes follow the dune line along the bay. The front nine (featuring greens redone by Tom Doak) sports some cool holes as well, especially the par-3 seventh over a deep ravine that the military guys in our group thought was a crater from a mortar.
I've always enjoyed the hospitality from the Casey family, who own the resort. Little touches -- like the all-you-can-eat dessert cart after dinner and the warming room for your wet gear -- make the hotel one of the best links golf resorts in Scotland or Ireland.
Mount Falcon Estate
Remarkable scenery accompanied us on the three-hour journey to Ballina and the Mount Falcon Estate. Seeing Benbulbin, a rock formation that inspired the works of poet W.B. Yeats, never gets old.
Although the luxurious Mount Falcon only has a driving range, it's a perfect place to crash for a few days of links golf. Within an hour's drive are Enniscrone Golf Club, Carne and County Sligo Golf Club, a Harry Colt classic also called Rosses Point. Guests at Mount Falcon feel like they're a part of a royal family that owns acres of forest as their kingdom. The sport of falconry and fishing the banks of the Moy River are great excursions away from golf.
Enniscrone, originally crafted by Irishman Eddie Hackett in the 1970s, realized its full potential a decade ago when Donald Steel added six holes in the heavy duneland along the Atlantic Ocean and Scurmore Beach. The result is a thrilling start (the second green sits on the ocean) and an epic finish. The blind tee shots on the back-to-back par 4s at 11 and 12 might amuse you, or drive you mad. Holes 14-17 follow the shore through a maze of towering dunes. No. 16 -- one of five par 5s on the par-73 layout -- ranks among the best holes in Ireland.
I've already sung the praises of Carne. What's interesting is the new Kilmore nine, which opened in 2013, is already the most dramatic loop on property. It currently operates as a stand-alone course, a mistake if you ask me. If the club ever combined it with the current back nine, Carne would have a great chance to shoot up the rankings of Ireland's best links. We know how Americans love chasing down bucket-list courses. Rising among the top 5-8 courses in Ireland -- no small feat considering the competition -- would do wonders for Carne's hopes of attracting more visitors.
A date with Doonbeg
A rainout in Galway the final day for the "Heroes" wasn't all bad. We survived a rousing night exploring the pubs. Sadly, my scorecard at Trump International Golf Links Doonbeg did not fare as well the following day.
I was happy to see that Greg Norman's scenic links has maintained much of its original character, despite Martin Hawtree's ongoing renovation, commissioned when Donald Trump bought the resort out of bankruptcy. Old timers like me bemoan the loss of the original 14th hole, a dramatic par 3 washed away by a 2014 winter storm. Golfers who have never played Doonbeg, however, might think the new 14th is plenty perfect. The 141-yard hole plays off an elevated tee to a green against a backdrop of Doughmore beach with Trump's magnificent stone lodge in the distance.
Hawtree has already made the old Doonbeg more playable by shaving down mounds and removing the bunker from the middle of the 12th green. Plans are to alter greens and lines of sight on seven other holes this winter.
I didn't see any signs that Doonbeg has sold out to Trump's insatiable need for branding. No life-size painting of The Donald in the member's bar. No out-of-place gaudy fountain. Let's hope it stays that way. Doonbeg is too special to be Americanized much further.
I could have played a second round that day on the Old Course at Lahinch. Instead, I made the wisest decision of the week by spending a sunny afternoon at the Cliffs of Moher. Standing on a 700-foot cliff overlooking the ocean evokes such a feeling of grandeur. It's almost spiritual. I couldn't escape a simple thought on rewind in my mind: "I'd love to crush a driver over the edge." Golfers are a sick bunch, aren't we?