Golf in Southwest Ireland: “The World’s Best Golf Course”
The world is full of good golf courses – big, sweeping swaths of land that hug coastlines, hike up rocky slopes, pierce clouds, and creep through timber.
But the world doesn’t have many great courses, the kind that grab you from the first hole, squeeze you in the middle, then unwittingly draw you in so deep that you can’t imaging playing anywhere better.
Lahinch, Ballybunion, Doonbeg, Royal County Down – Ireland is full of great golf courses.
You don’t go to Ireland to lie on a sandy beach, gamble in a casino, or dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant. You might tell yourself that you hope the weather is good, the days are warm and that the skies stay clear, but secretly, you’re hoping for that quintessential Irish experience – the blustery weather, the salt spray, the drenching rain that swells your gloves into sponges and chills you deep in your bones and can only be warmed by long sips of whiskey beside a peat fire.
Standing on the seventh tee of the Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club, with the Atlantic over my left shoulder and a brisk north wind slapping balls down into thick rough instead of fairway, you catch yourself thinking that golf must have originated here in Ireland instead of east across the Irish Sea in Scotland.
By the time my group walked off the 18th hole of this superb West Coast links, my playing partners and I had no doubt that this land was placed here for two purposes: golf, if you are a human; grazing, if you are a goat.
The course, created more than a century ago by Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews and tweaked through the years, may be famous for its grazing goats and its location a few miles south of the scenic Cliffs of Moher, but golfers usually remember Lahinch for its fifth hole, a blind, 143-yard, par-3 that plays 30 yards longer and requires flying your tee shot over a 100-foot-high dune that protects the green. (To protect the golfers, who might still be on the green but not visible from the tee box, a burly man named George but nicknamed George V – V for the fifth hole – stands on top of the dune waving a red flag when the green is clear.)
Golf courses in Ireland bear little resemblance to most of the courses in America. The courses, for example, usually take their names from the town and welcome visitors. Fairways are rarely smooth and level; often, they’re not even irrigated. And forget about first and second cuts of rough; instead, the grass gets thick and gnarly one pace off the fairway. In some places, a wrong step will cost you not just your golf ball, but sometimes your shoe as well. The wind? That’s another factor altogether.
“There’s an old Irish saying about golf,” says the innkeeper of the Vaughan Inn, a lovely place near Lahinch. “There’s no links without the sea, and no golf without the wind.”
Nowhere is that more true than at Ballybunion, a treeless, seaside links course that rewards good play and penalizes errant shots. Its fairways roll and pitch, echoing the appearance of the waves on the adjacent Atlantic. The wind is ever-present, adding two or three clubs here, taking away a few clubs there. Unlike Scottish courses, the best way to attack some greens at courses like Ballybunion is from the air, while for others, it’s from the ground. There is no squadron of golf carts at the first tee because there are no carts at all. The holes unspool naturally, skirting the cemetery on the right, the fence on the left and the dune in the center. They reveal themselves following a logic all their own, and sometimes staring down the sea, sometimes heading inland, sometimes crossing each other in haphazard ways our American judicial system would never tolerate. There’s no reason to check the weather forecast because at some point you’re going to see sun and then get wet.
The weather is no different at Tralee Golf Club, a course designed by Arnold Palmer. Tralee straddles another unprotected ribbon of coastline “just past the last house before you reach New York,” as my driver put it. Tralee sits a good distance from the center of town, a little village with its own butcher, baker, and probably its own candlestick maker.
You reach the course by driving down one bad road then another. When the tide rolls in, the last mile can become entirely submerged, which must come as quite a surprise for unsuspecting golfers. The rough is deep and treacherous, a carpet of wiry grass that encircles your ball like a nest and is magically impervious to a pitching wedge. Americans, I have observed, tend to play such lies as though they are sand shots, opening up the face and swinging hard. That often exhausts the golfer but rarely moves the ball, which remains in place while the blade whooshes underneath it. The trick, I have learned, is to square the clubface, take an abbreviated backswing, then trap the ball with a steep descending blow so that the ball pops out 40 or 50 yards back into the fairway.
Golf courses don’t have to be old to feel classic. Tralee, which moved to its current location in 1984, is just such a design. Its boney spine was formed by centuries of wind, spray, sleet and rain, then Palmer filled in the flesh. I challenge you to find a wasted hole here, a forgettable one that simply connects two outstanding holes together. The back nine, especially, is full of drama – you play around and over monstrous dunes that coalesce to form craters deep enough to swallow entire towns.
“If you could combine the first nine holes of Lahinch with the back nine of Tralee, you’d have the world’s best golf course,” declares a golfer from Michigan whom I meet along the way. He seems to be playing the same general basket of courses favored by most visitors: Lahinch, Doonbeg, Tralee and Ballybunion. Those who have an extra day – or can spring for a helicopter ride – add Old Head, as well.
To be fair, there are a couple of courses in the region that see fewer American tourists. Spanish Point, a tiny, nine-hole municipal course a few miles from Dundee, offers a set of spectacular cliffside links that some locals feel rivals Lahinch. There’s no starter or marshal; you drop your green fee in a wooden box then head off to tackle the course.
It wasn’t much different at Dooks Golf Course, a slightly better-known links (with a pro shop and a starter) that offers low green fees and enough humps and hollows to make you wish you had a persimmon driver and a gutta-percha ball. Same with Dromoland Castle and its parkland course, which have the advantage of residing a short drive from Shannon Airport, making Dromoland an excellent place to start or end a trip. What’s not to like about holing up in a five-star castle if the weather gets dicey?
In the last couple of decades, golf in Ireland has boomed as more golfers discover its courses. But the global economic downturn – and some say the lackluster appeal of the last Ryder Cup – have hit Ireland particularly hard. The Celtic Tiger seems to have fallen into a deep slumber. Golf courses have slashed green fees, and once-full hotels have reduced prices to attract American golfers.
That seemed to delight Tom and Lori Thompson from Chicago, who were finishing their eight-day Ireland golf trip at Lahinch when I met them last month. The couple said they paid less than half the posted green fee of 165 pounds.
At Doonbeg Golf Club, a magnificent Greg Norman-designed links course that wraps around crescent-shaped Doughmore Bay, a half-hour’s drive from Lahinch and Shannon Airport, stay-and-play golf packages have recently been less expensive than those at comparable resorts in the U.S.
Doonbeg opened in 2002, but you’d swear it’s been there forever. In truth, it virtually has. Fourteen of the greens and 12 of the fairways reportedly required little more of Norman than mowing and simple shaping. You can see the ocean from 16 of the holes. Norman’s design is eminently playable, though it has been softened since it first opened. Its fairways weave around and between dunes that more properly should be called hills; some dunes are dotted with bunkers sporting tall grass eyebrows; others are trimmed with fencing to delineate environmentally protected areas. In a nod to American visitors, Doonbeg is one of the few Irish golf courses that rents golf carts. To be honest, though, walking the course and playing with a caddie remains the way to go.
Doonbeg’s American owners brought with them some American sensibilities, too: a hotel with big, multi-room suites; terrific restaurants that serve local, pastured beef and lamb, and dayboat haddock and salmon; and a full-service spa, which until recently would have been an oddity in an Irish town with one street, one church and five bars.
In fact, running into Americans no longer feels odd. Even at Killarney Golf Club, a parkland course as good as any you’ll find, my small group often stumbled upon other bands of Americans. During a week playing across southwestern Ireland, we ran into golfers from California, New York, Florida and Texas.
“North America has traditionally been Ireland’s biggest, and most lucrative golf market,” a representative of Ireland’s tourist board told me, “but Scandinavians, Germans, French and Italians are now traveling here more frequently.”
“Americans come to play the big names – Lahinch, Ballybunion, Old Head,” says Geraldine Rosney, the innkeeper of Killeen House Hotel, not far from Tralee Golf Club, “but many are further apart than they appear on the map. My advice? Leave enough for a second trip.”
Ireland is smart. The Ireland Tourist Board operates a New York-based, one-stop-shop to help you plan a golf trip to Ireland. You can get everything you need from www.discoverireland.com.