you surveyed one hundred golfers and asked which areas of the world are on their “Places to Play Before I Die List,” it’s a good bet that Ireland would be on many, if not most of those lists.
Long regarded within European golfing circles as one of the
finest destinations for ferociously challenging links play, the north and west coasts of The Emerald Isle are gaining appeal among Americans as well. A word of warning; if you’re looking for carts with GPS, a beer wagon front and back, all-you-can-eat crab leg restaurants, and nightly exotic entertainment then you may want to book a trip to the Carolinas. If, however, you’ve been itching to find out just how good your game is on some of the purest, wildest, most diabolical risk-reward tracks on the planet then you need to go.
And, as an aside, lest we forget, these courses are wrapped within some of the most breathtaking scenery you will ever view while wearing golf shoes. And all are within a short drive of simply charming, turn-back-the-clock villages populated by the friendliest folks with whom you’ll ever raise a pint.
There are 11 member clubs in the North and West Coast Links Golf Association and to rate, compare, or decide to play any one at the exclusion of another is a most daunting task. There are, to be sure, similarities between the courses. All are seaside links designs, meaning few, if any trees, little or no alteration of the natural topography to create holes, and rough so deep and dense that in places it is virtually impossible to find one’s ball much less hit it! The differences can be subtle but not to be missed, often being the trademark of each course.
It has been said that there appears in the Irish countryside
shades of green found nowhere else in nature. As you gaze up at the spectacular visage of Benbulbin Mountain, looming majestically over the fairways of County Sligo Golf Club, you will come to believe that this is true. Situated on Rosse’s Point Peninsula, County Sligo was designed in 1927 by Harry Colt. It was reputed that Colt was inspired by the Saint Andrews Old Course and the layouts are uncannily similar. The club has hosted most of Ireland’s major tournaments and is home to the West of Ireland Championship, the event that introduced the world to Padraig Harrington in 1994.
The beauty and sheer dangerous difficulty of the 534-yard par-five 12th, situated on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, will take your breath away. Sligo’s signature hole is the dogleg left, 455-yard 17th. This hole is regarded by many as one of the most difficult par-fours in Europe. A par here will require all the luck and shot making skill of any birdie or eagle you’ve ever carded elsewhere.
On the very westernmost tip of County Mayo, in the town of Belmullet, you will find what Keith Ging of Golf International described as “…the most astonishing, inspiring natural course you are ever likely to see.” Carne Golf Links lies in the magnificent, unspoiled dunes overlooking Blacksod Bay and was the last links course to be designed by the late Eddie Hackett. Carne is believed by many who have played it to be his greatest challenge and most monumental achievement. The scenery is awe inspiring almost to the point of distraction. The mountainous dunes and natural rolling elevation changes create an element of optical illusion rarely experienced on American tracks.
One venue truly not to be missed is the dunes course at
Enniscrone. Formally opened in 1918 and redesigned in 1974 by Hackett, Enniscrone earned the distinction in 2002 of being named one of the world’s top 100 courses. The layout of this oceanfront course has been masterfully woven into and within the ancient topography. On some of the fairways of the back nine you are playing so deep within the massive sand hills that it feels otherworldly. Sound is modulated to the point of almost utter silence.
As if to compound and confirm the feeling that you are in a place not of this earth, a giant Irish Hare, a devilish, Lewis Carroll-looking creature, built more like a kangaroo than a rabbit, will invariably sprint by at close to thirty miles an hour. Being a curious and territorial omnivore it will stop on a dime, turn and stare at you with nothing remotely resembling fright or alarm in its eyes. The dune grass rough is their home and they are everywhere. We were advised that they were harmless but something in their mischievous countenance made us believe that they were capable of much aggressive mayhem, so bring plenty of balls.
Enniscrone is one of Ireland’s premier resort towns famous not only for its golf but its beaches, surfing, deep water and river salmon fishing, and its lovely hotels and B&Bs. Given its location relative to many of the fine north and west courses, Enniscrone is a good choice as a base of operations.
The same can be said for the popular destination village of
Clifden on the coast of Connemara, County Galway. Close your eyes and think of your idea of an Irish village; cobble stoned streets, loud and friendly pubs, sod-roofed, brightly painted storefronts, Irish arts and crafts on display in warm, inviting shoppes…open your eyes…for you are in Clifden. We had the good fortune of being the guests of the Foyle family, fifth generation hosts at Foyle’s Hotel, the ultimate “olde village inn.” There is nothing ‘olde’ however, about Marconi’s, Foyle’s world class, four-star restaurant. We would go back tomorrow for no other reason than their Irish Black Mussels and Connemara Lamb.
One night, while sitting around a table full of pints at E.J. King’s 1830 Pub, a few in our group issued a challenge; play the following day’s round at Donegal with only five clubs. This seemed like a good idea at the time, what with our thought processes well oiled by Smithwicks’s and Bushmill’s. The next morning, however, we conceded that this was most probably a foolhardy endeavor. At nearly 7,400 yards, Donegal is one of the longest courses in Ireland and is rife with numerous, meandering burns; deep vertical sided irrigation streams, and well placed, steep pot bunkers, some so steep they are fitted out with ladders for easy access and egress. It can be a formidable challenge for the best of golfers armed with a full contingent of weaponry. But strip down to four plus putter we did.
Two of us proceeded to post our best scores of the week. You see, seaside links golf, with its ever-changing wind, unrelenting rough, and tight fairways is a thinking man’s game. This is not the target golf we Yanks are used to. The route from tee to green can be negotiated as much, sometimes more, on the ground than in the air. Laying up, bumping and running, under clubbing, giving up one stroke to possibly save three or more, are considerations that come into play on nearly every hole including some of the par threes!
Time in Ireland is more than special. It is invigorating, rejuvenating, defining. It is not a matter of your last name or the ancestral home of your forebears. To golf is a wonderful reason to come, but so is a visit to Kilkullen’s seaweed baths, a stay at Mount Falcon or Harvey’s Point, a tour through Manorhamilton Castle, a daybreak walk along the River Moy.
As Thomas Mann once wrote, “I had never been there, but I had been there before.” One need not be of Irish descent to fully appreciate, and be affected by the lore and mystery of this wild and timeless land.
At Enniscrone you will stand atop cliffside fairways high above shores where invading Norsemen beached their longboats. At Connemara you will gaze out at islands in Galway Bay where life is lived as it was centuries ago, where the ancient Irish tongue is still spoken. At Carne you may sense the presence of a long dead Druid priest helping you to find your lost ball.
As the gathering mists of dusk swirl about you on your twilight walk up the 18th at Sligo your attention may be drawn in the direction of Miosgan Meadhbah, the tomb of Maeve, the legendary Celtic warrior queen. You may hear the ghostly clash of sword and battleaxe, the angry shouts of her tribe through the shroud of time. Out of the corner of your eye you may momentarily glimpse the apparition of soldiers locked in combat. Your ears may detect the faint, plaintive wail of bagpipes whispered on sea breezes across the millennia.
Ireland is under your skin, it is in your blood. You have come here to play golf. You leave touched by an ancient and magical place.There are a number of factors to consider
when preparing for your trip and certainly one of the most important is, quite frankly, the shape you’re in. Irish golf is not played out of a cart, or buggy as they are called. Most courses have only a dozen or so in their stable and they need to be reserved far in advance. Pull carts, however (trolleys in the local vernacular) are readily available and are the popular and accepted mode of transport.
You’re probably going to be playing four, five or more courses in as many days and your level of enjoyment will be greatly affected by your physical conditioning. Be honest with yourself, get in shape!
With this said leave your clunky cart bag in the garage and opt for your carry/stand bag. If you don’t own one, get a good one. We tested out BagBoy’s new NXO with Clip-Lok technology to keep your clubs from knocking around, and Sun Mountain’s new H2O Tech waterproof 3.5 lb. stand bag. Both bags are lightweight, solid winners.Most airlines have a baggage weight restriction
and will assess you a surcharge for your golf bag. Choose clothing of lightweight material, but bear in mind that the weather in the northwest of Ireland can turn on a dime with twenty degree Fahrenheit (or more) temperature swings occurring daily. Wind shirts are a must; you’ll find them indispensable on and off the course.Weight limitations and golf shoes
don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Check out Bite Shoes new GT line of Hybrid travelers. They are designed with a lugged Vibram sole which provides as much traction and grip as any spiked shoe and can be worn off the course as well. Do NOT forget your rain suit.
It rains nearly every day along the northwest coast; sometimes just a passing shower, sometimes a whole lot more, (the upside of this is that you find yourself playing under a rainbow nearly every day!). You don’t want to be caught out on the links without the right gear. If you don’t own a foul weather get-up, invest in a good one. The Nike Storm Fit performed admirably. Bring plenty of balls…
you will probably leave a good many in the dune grass, gorse, and hemlock flower and with the exchange rate being what it is we saw sleeves of Pro V’s going for 13 Euros, approximately eighteen U.S. dollars!
A good rule of thumb is a half dozen balls for every 18 hole round you intend to play.Fairway irrigation
is unnecessary and nonexistent, thus, no sprinkler heads on which to mark yardage. Add to this the confusion of stakes and scorecards being figured in meters rather than yards and it becomes real easy to mis-club. At the very least bring a pocket meters-to-yards conversion chart or invest in a laser range finder.
Because of the severity of the rough you will undoubtedly discover yourself in the maddening situation of finding your ball only to lose it again when you go back to your bag to select a club! Don’t bother to mark the spot with your cap, the sea breeze will kick up and blow it away and you’ll be without ball AND hat! Roll up a small flag or bright piece of cloth attached to a stick and stow it in your bag. We guarantee it’ll come in handy early and often!For more information
on Ireland visit www.shamrock.org
or or www.northandwestcoastlinks.com