Irish Golf: The Good, The Bad, The Bold, The Beer, The Beauty

Irish Golf

When my Redwood Meadows golf buddies told me that one of their curling buddies had hooked up with Suneel Seetal of Seetal Golf Tours in Dublin who was organizing a 12-day, nine-round golf trip to Ireland, I immediately said I was “in”. Seven years since my Scotland golf trip and my bruises having disappeared, I was ready for another crack at those irksome links courses.  

My biggest decision was whether to take my own clubs or not. That’s because I decided to extend my Irish golf trip and make it a six-week European adventure. I didn’t want to haul golf clubs that whole time.

Luckily, one of my golf buddies, (“sly grey fox”) told me about ClubsToHire. Sure enough, I could rent clubs and a bag for the entire tour. The clubs would be waiting for me at the airport when I arrived and I could drop them off at the airport when I was done. How easy is that? And, the cost was reasonable - 40 to 60 Euros per week depending on the clubs you choose amongst their selection of top name brands. Just pack your balls and shoes and you are ready to play.  Bonus - I saved the extra luggage costs on the plane and the hassle of hauling a large oversized golf travel bag on trains, planes and automobiles.

I chose the RBZ TaylorMade set with graphite-shafted irons, thinking that it might be time to switch from steel to graphite.  I loved the irons; they seemed much more forgiving, longer and my back and shoulders hurt less than they did all summer, even thought I was walking more difficult terrain than my home course (sometime it seemed more like mountain climbing), carrying my clubs on my back rather than the push cart I used all summer.  Definitely ClubsToHire was a great decision.

My ClubsToHire are ready for the tour.

Now, On with the Tour…

Here is my summary of the good, the bad, the bold and the beauty of the courses in the order we played them, along with some pub fun.

Enniscrone Golf Club

Founded in 1918 as a nine-hole course, Enniscrone, located on the west coast of Ireland in the County of Sligo next to Kilala Bay at the mouth of the River Moy, became a dramatic championship course in 1974.   The 7,300 yard, par 73 course plays hard (especially if you are from Calgary and are use to playing at an altitude of 3,438 ft) with lots of long carries over the shaggy towering windswept seaside dunes and blind shots.  The last four holes along the Atlantic Ocean are challenging and stunning.  Holes 12, 13 or 14 all vie as Enniscrone’s signature holes.

The one negative - there is no driving range, very problematic for me as I really wanted a chance to test my rentals on the range before playing.

Enniscrone has been called the Ballybunion of the west coast.  The course is well maintained and the greens are as challenging as you will find anywhere, but they do putt true.  This course should be on your “must golf” list if you are going to the West Coast.

We knew this was going to get bad when we saw the grass between the first green and second tee box.

It is a long carry to the fairway, but the vista was beautiful.

The dog legs and elevated greens make for some blind and bold shot making. 

it is a bad idea to miss the green.

Carne Golf Links

If you are into off-the-beaten path golf courses, Carne Golf Links is the place for you (from some of the tee boxes, you would think you could see Newfoundland).  This wild and natural course with the largest sand dunes I have ever seen (the size of small office towers) is the swan song of the late Eddie Hackett and in his opinion “there will be no better links course in the country.”  The course looks like Hackett decided there was no need to do much design, so he just carved out the fairways and created 18 greens as the lunar landscape has barely been altered. It is hard to believe this course only opened in 1993.

The golf course wasn’t in the best of shape when we played in early fall and we also found signage to the next tee box poor, especially where there was some construction. But it did produce my most memorable shot - I sliced my drive (no surprise there) onto the side of a monster sand dune and thought I’d never find my ball, but lucky me, there it was sitting up on some tramped down grass (obviously I wasn’t the first person to hit a ball here) and so I had a shot. I had to choke down to the bottom of my grip as the ball was going to be about waist high. I hit what I thought was a perfect shot over the dune to the fairway and maybe even the green. No such luck; we never found the ball – ah, the joys and sorrows of golfing Ireland.

You have to be really into golf to come to Carne as there is nothing else there - no shops, no restaurants, no museums, just you and the course.  This 6,690-yard course is merciless with its elevation changes, wind, doglegs around the dunes, elevated greens and tees and of course those undulating greens (a three-putt being the norm).

There is also a new 9-hole course called Kilmore that opened in 2013 and has been called the best 9-hole course in Ireland, perhaps Britain. If you are into unique golf course adventures, add this course to your list, but if I had to pass up one course on our tour, this would probably be it.

This doesn't look too tough.

This is the hole where my bad drive ended up on the side of the hill on the right, and my bold shot over the hill to the green ended up lost. A good golfer would have hit it back on the fairway and then to the green.

The rugged landscape at Carne makes for a unique golf experience.

Lahinch Golf Club (Old Course)

Lahinch Golf Club founded in 1892, was originally with 10 holes on each side of the road.  In 1894, old Tom Morris was commissioned to create an 18-hole championship course, which was then redesigned in 1927 by Alister MacKenzie (who co-designed Augusta National Golf Club). Today, there are two 18-hole courses, the Old Course between the road and the sea and the flatter Castle Course, named after the nearby ruins.  Lahinch has been called the “St. Andrews of Ireland.”

Most people play the Old Course, which is like the Old Course at St. Andrew’s on steroids.  The giant sandhills and the rolling terrain make Lahinch a much bigger challenge than anything I experienced in Scotland, where the links courses are generally flatter.

If you are looking for authenticity, this is it!  There is even a herd of goats on the course and if they are sheltering near the clubhouse, it is a sure sign you are in for a wet round. I was somewhat disappointed by the new clubhouse. I was expecting a historic clubhouse with lots of stories and maybe even a few ghosts of championships past. There is also no driving range, which I was beginning to realize is the norm not the exception in Ireland.  

Lahinch has what might be the quirkiest hole I’ve played. The 4th hole is a short par five named Klondyke. The target off the tee is a narrow fairway located in a valley between two very large sand dunes. Then it is a blind second shot over the Klondyke (a giant sand dune) in the middle of the fairway about 200 yards away from the green. The ultimate blind shot!

What is also great about Lahinch is that the town is right there so you can mingle with the locals at the pub after your round of golf.  We stayed at the Vaughn Inn, which was very handy as you could walk to town or to the golf course. 

It is a beautiful day for golf in Ireland.

This is a par 3.  Yikes. 

Someone missed the green, that would be me.

My bold sand shot was close enough to the pin that I was able to one put and make my par. Beauty eh!

TIME FOR A BEER. We had a great time touring around the town of Galway and The Oslo pub home of the famous Galway Bay Brewery.  The Goodby Blue Monday oatmeal IPA was a tasty treat.  However we did not find a Galway girl, but not for the lack of trying as the song Galway Girl was the theme song for our tour.  

TIME FOR A BEER. We had a great time touring around the town of Galway and The Oslo pub home of the famous Galway Bay Brewery.  The Goodby Blue Monday oatmeal IPA was a tasty treat.  However we did not find a Galway girl, but not for the lack of trying as the song Galway Girl was the theme song for our tour.  

Doonbeg Golf Club

Doonbeg Golf Club a new links course designed by Greg Norman, opened in 2002.  In February 2014, the lodge and golf course was bought by Donald Trump. As one might expect it’s very much a luxury North American resort rather than a quaint small town Irish golf course.  This course was probably the least favourite of most players on our tour. The good news is there is a driving range so no excuse for a poor start.

The course is also unique in that it has five par 3s and five par 5s and will be remembered for the numerous 100+ foot high sand dunes. The signature 14th hole at 111 yards is the shortest hole I have played in decades. It is also perhaps the most difficult with the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the green; a deep valley in front so there is no room for error.  Depending on which way the wind is blowing and what tees you are playing, it can be anything from a fairway wood to a lob wedge. I missed the green, but was on the fringe.

The first hole is picturesque. 

This is one bad looking bunker daring you to try and carry it.

The ugliest bunker I have ever seen.

The ugliest bunker I have ever seen.

Who puts a bunker in the middle of a green? Bad idea!

It doesn't get more beautiful than this. You get some great views of the golf course while looking for your ball in the rough. 

Adare Manor Golf Resort

Adare Manor Golf Resort (AMGR) was our first parkland course and a welcome relief for most players on our tour – the links courses had beaten us up enough.  AMGR, established in 1900, is one of Ireland’s first and finest parkland courses.  Rich in history, set amongst the Franciscan Abbey (1300AD) and Adare Castle (1341 AD). It is also where I discovered Rebel Red, Irish red ale brewed by the Franciscan Well Brewery.  I’d give it a score of 95. Sorry, I digress.

We are thinking eagles today!

AMGR, as it was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., has a distinct North American look with tree-lined fairways and creative use of three lakes and the Maique River that meanders through the back nine.  It is rumored Jones thought the 18th hole could be the best par 5 in the world after he designed it.  It certainly was a challenge for our group as we were playing for day money and the final shot is over water to a large green.  You’d think that would be easy but even if you did choose the right club, you could easily be 100+ feet away from the hole and still be on the green.  This then meant you could easily three putt and not only lose the day money for best round, but also the putting competition.  One of our group made a 60 footer to save par.

I think everyone on the tour would rank AMGR as one of the top three courses we played.  Even if you don’t play well, it is like a walk in a park, a welcome relief from the wind, sand and ball searching on the seaside links courses.

Now that's big, bold and beautiful!

The bold golfer takes it over the sand trap and fades it onto the fairway so he can go for the green in two. Not me, I chickened out to the left and made par.

This is the 18th.  Doesn't look so hard, but it is.

Memories of Adare: An existential walk in the park! 

TIME FOR A BEER!  Our bus driver recommended Pat's place and it was a great spot.

It was here that I discovered my love of Rebel Red by the local Franciscan Well brewery.  

Yes it was a religious experience. 

IMG_5886.jpg

Island Golf Club

Just 15 minutes from the Dublin airport, The Island Golf Club could be your introduction to links golf in Ireland.  Founded in 1890, it is an “au natural” course with shaggy sand dunes everywhere. Sometimes you feel like you are playing alone in amphitheater, as you can’t see out. The course is also unique in that there are many small water ponds that include life preservers – luckily we didn’t have to use them.

Unluckily, this was the only course where we got rained out.  Most us got as far as the 13th hole, the 220 yard par 3 signature hole with its bail-out area short and left of the green (or you can be a hero and take on the beach and hope you have chosen the right club and hit it flush).  Unfortunately at this point, we were soaked to the skin despite our rain suits and waterproof shoes.

 I think we all agreed that we’d like to go back and take on this course again

Love the tradition at The Island.

A typical hole with elevated tee boxes, fairways guarded by sand dunes and larger undulating crowned greens where the ball rolls off the green into a collection area also called a bunker. 

Boys I don't think this is going to let up, probably a good idea if we headed to the club house NOW!

Boys I don't think this is going to let up, probably a good idea if we headed to the club house NOW!

Definitely needed a beer after being rained out.  Five Lamps Blackpitts Porter was as smooth as a Guinness, but with more bite and flavour. 

Definitely needed a beer after being rained out.  Five Lamps Blackpitts Porter was as smooth as a Guinness, but with more bite and flavour. 

Druids Glen Golf Club

Druids Glen is known as the Augusta of Ireland for good reason - it has the same tranquility, natural beauty and dramatic holes as Augusta National. I would love to go back and play it in the spring when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Certainly my favourite course, it would be a pleasure to play this course every day.  I think I had my camera out as much as my golf clubs, with its 18 signature holes.

Though the course looks like it has been there for ages, this Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock-designed course only opened in 1995.  I think I will let the photos speak for themselves.

The pretty first par 3 is just a hint of things to come.

The pretty first par 3 is just a hint of things to come.

How beautiful is this?

It looks even better looking back.

It looks even better looking back.

It just keeps getting better.

It just keeps getting better.

The bold shot is over the bush and fade it onto the fairway and not into the creek.  I was bold and successful.

The picture says it all.

As you can see I took more photo shots than golf shots.

Portmarnock Golf Club

Portmarnock situated on a two-mile long sandy peninsula covering 500 acres, makes it one of the most spectacular golf courses I have ever played. The land once belonged to the famous distiller John Jamieson (I recommend you bring a flask of his Irish whiskey with you when you play) and beginning in 1850, it was his private golf course. With the closing holes being both beautiful and brutal, for me there was a bit of a love-hate relationship. 

In the words of Bernard Darwin (grandson of Charles Darwin and World Golf Hall of Fame, British golf writer in the early 20th century), “I know of no greater finish in the world than that of the last five holes at Portmarnock.” Amen!

Portmarnock is well known for its lightening fast and true greens, many of being saucer-shaped or crowned greens, known for rejecting all but the best shots. I believe one of our group five-putted one green. It is definitely at the top of my “must play” list of golf courses in the Dublin area.

Portmarnock from the air.

The course feels very much like the link courses in Scotland - flatter with lots of pot bunkers.

There were several of these small lily-filled ponds. 

A slicer's nightmare.

These bunkers are just daring you to try and carry them.

County Louth (Baltray) Golf Club

When we drove up I really thought this was going to be a cow pasture but when we got our balls and saw the driving range, I wondered what the hell are we doing here. I have better buckets of balls in my garage than the dirty old balls we got from the dispensing machine and the driving range was more mud than grass - the first time I have every wished a driving range had mats.

However, what County Louth lacks in amenities it makes up for as a traditional, no gimmicks links golf course. Subtle rather than spectacular, I am OK with that. Established in 1892, the course has been tweaked several times, keeping it challenging for the low handicappers and fair to the high ones. Make sure you choose the right tee box. 

County Louth is best known for its par 3s, perhaps the best in Ireland. They are not long but they are challenging, depending on the wind.  From the green tees (6,338 yards), the par 3s are 143, 148, 131, 169 yards respectfully. However, you will have to use everything from a sand wedge to a fairway wood on any given day. To me, it is the par 3s that separate the great golf courses from the good ones.

The practice green is flat as a pancake, nothing like the greens, what's with that?  

You know its going to be a bad day when they have markers in the rough to help you locate approximately where your ball might be!

You know its going to be a bad day when they have markers in the rough to help you locate approximately where your ball might be!

Yep middle of the fairway off the tee, now the big decision do you hit short and try and roll up on the green or take your chances and hit is on the green. Just hit it!  Still loving my Clubs for Hire.

Yep middle of the fairway off the tee, now the big decision do you hit short and try and roll up on the green or take your chances and hit is on the green. Just hit it!  Still loving my Clubs for Hire.

Accommodations

Suneel with Dunbar tours strategically organized the tour so that we only stayed in three different hotels, making for a bit more driving each day to the golf course, but less packing and unpacking.  It also meant we had great accommodation and got to experience the buzz of Dublin with the small town charm of Westport, Lahinch and Galway.  

Stephen’s Green Hotel is perfectly situated across from the famous St. Stephen’s Green Park and just minutes away from Trinity College, Temple Bar and all of Dublin’s historic attractions.  It also included a hearty breakfast every morning.

Castlecourt Hotel in Westport, was a charming hotel with an animated bar where we all learned about the Irish sport of hurling (a combination of rugby, lacrosse and field hockey). If you think Canadians are passionate about their ice hockey, you should experience the Irish watching a hurling match at a pub.

Vaughan Lodge Hotel in Lahinch offered very comfortable rooms and we even had a special dinner prepared for us one night and the breakfasts were superb. We also made good use of the cozy bar for our nightly story time.

The Corner Stone was the official bar of our tour while in Lahinch.

The Corner Stone was the official bar of our tour while in Lahinch.

Guinness Time! It was music to our ears when we heard the fresh kegs of Guinness being delivered. 

Guinness Time! It was music to our ears when we heard the fresh kegs of Guinness being delivered. 

Last Word

If I had to golf seaside links golf courses everyday (I like to golf about 75 to 100 times a year from mid-April to mid-October, Calgary’s golf season), I would quit golfing.  Golfing in Ireland is totally different than golfing in Scotland or North America - the courses are more challenging due to more and larger sand dunes, more wind and the front of the greens are not designed to allow you to roll onto them.

I always thought link-style courses allowed you to roll the ball up onto the green, but in Ireland the front of the greens often have bunkers creating a very narrow opening to roll your ball onto the green.  The greens are also designed so that any ball with enough speed to roll onto the green usually has too much speed to stay on the green. 

Though it was great to be exposed to so many courses and some of the Irish country side, I think it would have been best to play fewer courses so you could play the same course two or three times to get a good feel for the nuances of the holes and the greens.  There are enough good courses in and around Dublin you could literally just use the city as our home base.  Contact Suneel and he will set you and your buddies up with a custom tour. 

By Richard White, January 17, 2015