Yes – Ireland is for golfers. And it has castles galore. But it’s the people and their culture that are the true highlights of the Emerald Isle. Although my husband and I set out with three other couples on a 10-day excursion touted as a ‘golf’ trip – and golf we did – we also absorbed the love of life the Irish have perfected. You certainly don’t go to Ireland for the weather – although we did experience a couple of truly nice weather days with no rain, no mist, no fog and only a light wind. But you definitely need to go for the music, the beer, the music, the smiles, the music, the beautiful architecture, the music, the golf, the music, the lush green countryside, the music. Did I mention the music??
Our days, no matter how long and arduous, always ended up in a local pub listening to local Irish songs regaling us with their entertaining folklore. It was amazing how you could enjoy listening to so many songs you’ve never heard of in a style most are not accustomed to hearing. There was music everywhere – you didn’t need to search it out. Almost every pub, on almost every night had live music. And if it was a nice evening, there were street performers everywhere we turned. They were young, they were old; they were father and son, they were brother and sister; they were the wife of the pub owner; they were a random gathering of musicians.
But more on the Irish culture and people in the next post. As this was intended to be a trip focused on the amazing golf in Ireland, I’ll share our golf experiences in this post and share all the other highlights of Ireland in a follow-up post.
Golf in Ireland. A bucket list dream of mine for the 40+ years I’ve been playing golf. Check that one of the list – but not one and done – I’d head back tomorrow. We arrived on the heels of an abnormal summer drought. The courses were in tough shape, but you don’t expect pristine conditions where they use very little artificial irrigation methods. This is walking with caddies golf, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to having somebody looking over your shoulder on every shot. But ‘buggies’ a/k/a golf carts are generally only available for medical reasons. Some courses don’t have any on hand, or are only provided by a handful of members.
Many courses individually name each hole – often to coincide with a story that goes along with that hole. Which adds to the historical element of playing these amazing tracts of land that often have a lot of local influence into their success. The locals love their golf as much as the tourists. All of our caddies had single digit handicaps, so even though you really just want them to carry your clubs and give you the yardage, their local knowledge of where to aim your drives and approach shots, and read the greens, was imperative to navigating these challenging courses. Caddies ranged from a couple of college aged knuckleheads out to make a few bucks for beer, to ‘professional’ caddies who were a wealth of knowledge. Some tended to get a little too deep into your psyche – thinking by the end of the round they knew more about your game than you did. The right caddy can make your golf experience, but the wrong caddy can break your golfing spirit.
We started in Dublin and made our way along the coast of Southern Ireland until we reached Galway and then we shot straight across the country to finish in Dublin. The courses were all links courses – defined as being the ‘link’ between the land and the sea, built among the natural sand dunes and lay of the land, void of trees. Can you say WINDY!! Nothing to stop those coastal breezes as you buffet your way around these courses. We rarely golfed with less than a few layers on top, thermal pants, and kept our rain pants handy as much to cut the wind as to counter any rain. But there was no complaining about the conditions, and we were never ‘chilled to the bone’. We wanted to play in whatever the coast or Ireland could throw at us, and she didn’t hold back! We mixed up our pairings – couples and couples, just guys and just gals, mix of guys and gals.
1st round – the brainchild of one John O’Connor, Old Head Golf Links, circa 1997, Kinsale. This was to be thee golf photo-op of the trip. Driving in you come up over a rise and apparently below sits the diamond shape of one of the most amazing tracts of a golf course property ever developed. All we saw was fog so thick we did well to see the road or fairway in front of us. But we were there to play golf – and golf we did! Among the rows of thick fragrant hydrangea and wild rose bushes, 400-year-old ruins, an austere lighthouse, and 300-foot cliffs with no barriers to the sea below. We may have missed a great photo opportunity of the peninsula as a whole, but we did get some great on course shots of this very unique golf setting. We’ll be back! Signature Hole: #12 – a 564-yard par 5 – perched along the 300-foot cliffs, from tee to green. You better hope the golf Gods are on your side with this hole or you might as well put down your max.
2nd Round – the Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club, circa 1896, Killarney. No fog, nor rain, but plenty of wind. Even the inland holes were a solid 2-club wind on what the locals considered a pretty normal day. Built along an expansive beach open to the wild Atlantic Ocean, the salty sea breeze was intoxicating. The vistas are as impressive as the course is challenging, and we all battled the uniqueness of each hole while absorbing the history of the area. Signature Hole: #17 – Ryan’s Daughter – a 361-yard par 4 – where the ocean scenes from the epic movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed in 1970.
3rd round – modern era designers John Mulcahy, Eddie Hackett, Claude Harmon, Waterville Golf Links, circa 1889, Killarney. Rated as the #1 links golf course in Ireland, it was easy to see why. We hit a great weather day, and I finally got to experience the beauty of this layout my brothers and father have raved about from when they played here some 30 years ago. Each hole just feels right – nothing quirky, all magical in their own way. Mark Twain may have said, ‘Golf is a good walk wasted,’ but I think if he had ever played Waterville he would have changed his mind. And I liked it so much I can’t wait to go back. Signature Hole: #12 – The Mass hole – a 200-yard par 3 – a very low spot protected by high dunes was used by Irish Catholics to hold secretive masses during a time when British rulers disallowed the religion. When the course was being built the local Irish would not touch the sacred ground so now the tee boxes sit high atop one dune and the green on a high flat top across the untouched mass grounds.
4th round – Dooks Golf Club, circa 1889, Dingle. Dooks almost closed in the early 1960’s due to lack of funds, but the members rose up bought the land and literally, with shovel in hand, built another 9 holes, creating a championship level course that is today still owned and run by the members. Signature Hole: the members are the highlight of this club – dubbed the ‘friendliest golf club’ in Ireland – and that’s saying a lot – Dooks is the envy of golf clubs everywhere in how they treat their guests while giving them a great golf experience.
5th round – Tom Simpson designed the modern era Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course, circa 1893, Lahinch. Mother Nature was in prime form the day we came visiting and had us looking for extra layers and cement shoes to battle the elements. The course is beyond tough in the best of conditions – today we were truly humbled – ie. hitting a 3-wood to a 125-yard par 3 and coming up short. This course was hardest hit by the drought, but the lack of grass on the fairways did not diminish the experience of a full line-up of 18 challenging holes. Each hole had a unique quality that had us saying wow over and over again. So much so that I need to go back an re-experience this whole round. Signature Hole: #11 – Watsons, because Tom Watson calls this the best golf hole anywhere. Riding the ridge along the ocean, you have to be brave enough to ride the boundary line with your tee shot to have a chance of landing in the fairway. The approach shot is blind, up a narrow neck, that is all carry to the green – the only safe landing area. We earned our Guinness that day!
6th round – the Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed Lahinch Golf Club, circa 1892, Lahinch. Probably in the best condition of any of the courses following the drought, the thick grass covered giant dunes and the ocean breeze made sure Lahinch still stood as a strong test of links golf. The gals took a raincheck on golf today, and after hearing the guys rave about the condition and the layout, I absolutely have to return to Ireland so I can experience Lahinch. Signature Holes: #4 – Klondyke Hill – 475-yd par 5 – a blind approach shot over Klondyke Hill has you waiting for the flagman on the hill to give you the all clear – failing to take enough club to clear the hill will surely result in a bogey or worse; #5 – Dell – 154-yard par 3, the only indication of where to aim your tee shot is a white stone sitting atop another giant dune that blocks your view of the green.
7th round – Portmarnock Golf Club, circa 1894, Dublin. Filling the whole of a flat barren peninsula just north of Dublin, this course has hosted major amateur and professional events over its history as well as some of the games greats dating all the way back to Harry Vardon who held the course record of 69 over what was then at a full course yardage of 5800+ yards. It has been called the fairest test of links golf due all the holes laying out in front of you – no hidden shots. No wonder my husband enjoyed this course the most. Signature Hole: #15 – 204-yard par 3 – this iconic Irish style hole parallels the ocean and a straight shot is needed on this long hole and well bunkered green to have a chance at par.
8th and final round: The Island Golf Club, circa 1890, Dublin. Surrounded by water on 3 sides it looked like an island from across the bay and until the 1970’s it was only reachable by boat. Sitting on the north end of Dublin, it is a comfortably challenging links course with a few wow holes. Being so open to the water, the wind had a big influence on our ball flight, but its a fair track and one I’d definitely return to play. Signature Holes: #13 – a 197-yards par 4 – Broadmeadow– a classic short par 4 that’s all carry over a large grassy bowl and along the water; and #14 – a 333-yards part 4 – Old Clubhouse – behind the tee box is where the old clubhouse stood when the course was only reachable by water and boasts the narrowest fairway in all of Ireland with water along the whole right side.