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Golfing in Ireland: So Much to See
By Tom Doak

Renaissance Golf Design, Inc.

There is no better golfing destination in the world than Ireland.

The only problem is that there's too much to see. Five Irish links -- Portmarnock, Lahinch, and Ballybunion, plus County Down and Portrush in the North -- rank among the world's top 40. You can do them in a week, but you'll be exhausted at the end. All but Lahinch are numbingly difficult tests of golf, and the drive from one to the next is almost as taxing. When you're done, you'll decide you need to go back again, and enjoy them at a more leisurely pace.

Why try to cram all the great ones into one monster trip the first time? Divide Ireland into four quadrants, and limit yourself to no more than two quadrants on any one trip. That way, you'll enjoy the countryside instead of speeding through it, and make friends with a whole country full of golfers who know how to bear down on the 18th hole and are even more formidable at the 19th.


For many Americans, the port of arrival is Shannon Airport in the west. Here you are just an hour's drive away from two of the most celebrated links in the game -- Ballybunion and Lahinch -- but they lie in opposite directions.

Try Lahinch first. The present version of the course dates from 1926, when Dr. Alister MacKenzie came over from England. MacKenzie left two famous blind holes intact -- the par-5 "Klondyke" with its second shot over a looming sand dune, and the par-3 "Dell" with its green hiding in a narrow valley between two more dunes. Even if you dislike the genre, the scale of these two may win you over. Later, the thoughtful golfer will be examined at the par-4 ninth, and the daring player lured to his destruction in the magnetic abyss just to the right of the short par-4 13th.

Many tourists turn right around and head back through Limerick toward Ballybunion, but the west offers several gorgeous venues of its own. There is County Sligo Golf Club, a panorama of harbor and mountains from the beautiful vantage of Rosses Point; Carne Golf Club, a trek through near-vertical dunes built with European Community support to promote tourism in remote County Mayo; and Connemara Golf Club, in Ballyconneely, where rock outcroppings among the dunes may provide an odd bounce. Be sure to ask about Doonbeg, Greg Norman's new links project near Lahinch -- if the permits ever come through, you'll want to be one of the first to play it.


Ballybunion is the most lilting name in Irish golf, and the most well-known destination, thanks to Tom Watson's much-publicized annual visits during the 1980s. The Old Course just appeared out of the mists in the mid-1930s. Four of its holes play right along the cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean - so close that the green of the seventh hole fell off the edge a few years ago and had to be rebuilt! Robert Trent Jones' adjacent Cashen course is an even more severe test.

Further south is the Ring of Kerry, with the quirky Dooks Golf Club and its beautiful views of the Dingle Peninsula, the long and strong Waterville Golf Links at the very tip of the Kerry Peninsula, and beautiful Killarney set on the lake at the head, overlooking the mountains of Killarney National Park. Finally, down near Cork is Old Head Golf Links, a brand-new course set on a Gibraltar-like rock rising two hundred feet from the sea.


Just minutes from Dublin airport is Portmarnock Golf Club, the oldest Irish links and the most frequent site of the Irish Open. Set on a low-lying spit of dunes, the course is more in keeping with spartan Scottish links like Troon, where the wind, the firmness of the ground, and cruelly placed pot bunkers make every hole a test of the golfer's fortitude. Close by, the new Portmarnock Hotel Links is cut from the same cloth.

Just to the north is The Island Golf Club, whose founders rowed across from Malahide to start play from what is now the 14th tee. To the west of the city is the "K Club" in Kildare, a parkland course along the River Liffey [designed by Arnold Palmer] which has been selected to host the 2005 Ryder Cup. An hour south of Dublin is The European Club, a modern links which has garnered rave reviews.


The tumultuous political tension in Ulster has never been allowed to interfere with tourism, a key source of revenue for the natives on both sides of the conflict. The two main golfing attractions, Portrush and Newcastle [County Down], are popular tourist retreats an hour to either side of the epicenter of conflict in Belfast.

Royal County Down is just two hours north of Dublin, but a world apart. The first three holes run out along the shore to the north, with great banks of gorse to either side; then you turn around to face the most spectacular view in golf, with the course stretching back toward the steeples of town, and the Mountains of Mourne looming beyond. It's plenty difficult, too -- Tiger Woods shot 78 here last summer, just a few days before dominating the world's best at St. Andrews.

Two hours further north, straight through Belfast, is the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush. The sea comes into play immediately behind the fifth green, but the 210-yard 14th is more spectacular, with an 80-foot drop to the right of the green inspiring its nickname, "Calamity." The Valley course, one of the North's best links in its own right, lies in the hollow below; the majestic first tee at Portstewart Golf Club is just a few minutesā drive away.

If you are going in the peak tourist season, the courses in the North are generally less crowded. But a golfer really can't make a wrong turn in Ireland. There are rainbows everywhere, and pots of golfing gold at the end of every one of them.

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