My Bucket List Courses: Ireland

In the ongoing series of courses I want to play, desperately, we turn our gaze to the Emerald Isle. I’ve been to Ireland once, for work, and while I did manage to steal away to the Temple Bar district and the Guinness Factory, I did not manage to swing a club while there. On my long list of regrets, it’s right up there with not asking Lisa Cohen out in the 10th grade when I knew she had a crush on me.

So, in an effort to redeem this grievous error, here are the courses I will play upon my return to Ireland. I’m going to attempt to outline it in a rational way to work my way through the island.

It’s worth understanding that Ireland is roughly the size of Indiana. Now, let’s be QUITE clear – I’d love to play golf for months in Ireland, where if you gave me that opportunity in Indiana, I might shorten that trip by a bit. But I say this just to point out that with a car and some hotels booked, you can easily navigate around the island without too much pain.

Like Scotland, in my dreams I’ve bitten off much more than any reasonable trip could allow for. Here’s my first pass at courses I want to play:

That’s … not feasible. So let’s cut it down to the cream of the crop. I’ve randomly forced this down to ten courses as that is a nice number to make a list from:

Now we’re talking. Flying in and out of Dublin, here’s the plan.

Portmarnock, Ireland

Located about 20 minutes from the Dublin airport, Portmarnock couldn’t be more easily located. (And yes, I’m aware that the Shannon airport is often the international one, but we’re going to get to that later. I flew in and out of Dublin from London, so that’s what I’m going with.) I became aware of Portmarnock first from Big Break: Ireland. The show was largely filmed at the K Club, which you will note is NOT on this list. That’s because as I watched the course, all I could see was water, forced carries and narrow fairways. And that’s because an American – Arnold Palmer, RIP – designed the course. As I told my buddies in Scotland playing Gleneagles Centenary (also, like the K Club, a course that hosted the Ryder Cup), why would I fly all the way over here to play a course that could easily be TPC Houston?

But then, for no good reason I could figure out, on one episode everyone left the K Club and drove a few hours to do their challenges at Portmarnock. And there was what I was looking for. A seaside links course with wind, bumpy fairways and pot bunkers. Now … I should preface that by saying this course was designed in 1995 by Bernard Langer. But it FEELS like an old links course, and pays homage to the way courses should be when they are on the seaside. If Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart can make it work in Scotland, there’s room for “new” courses to stand out on the Emerald Isle. Portmarnock makes the cut.

Royal County Down, Newcastle, Ireland

Driving up the East Coast of Ireland, the next stop is an absolute no-brainer. On many “Best Of” lists of golf courses throughout the world, Royal County Down comes in at … #1. That’s right, the best. That SHOULD be enough for this Bag Tag Barry to just put it on the list but just look at that picture above. My god.

Designed by the GOAT, Old Tom Morris (who came over from Scotland in 1889) designed this course which was truly “discovered in the dunes” as there obviously wasn’t a way to move a lot of earth back then. Over time, luminaries like James Braid and Harry Colt, among others, made suggestions for tweaks and changes that were incorporated – that’s a pretty good group of course designers. The course has hosted the Irish Open, Walker Cup, Senior Open Championships and others – but not The Open itself. Perhaps with last years locale (spoiler alert, it’s coming up fast), there will be an appetite to expand it to include this gem of a course.

Keep driving north for a bit, and we’ll stop for two rounds of golf at some pretty special places.

Royal Portrush, Portrush, Ireland

Home of the 2019 Open Championship, this course absolutely shined on TV even when players were getting eaten alive. (I truly enjoyed JB Holmes, the Human Pace Car, getting absolutely ejected on Sunday.) Folks like Justin Thomas have said it’s his favorite links course, full stop.

I will preface this by saying in no uncertain terms I will play this from the members tees. That course looked absolutely brutally long playing into the wind on most holes (which seems impossible). I’m also not going to want to play with an “internal out-of-bounds” like they did off the first tee, which I think was just for crowd safety.

But man, I can’t wait to tee it up here. It’s the only course outside of England or Scotland that has hosted The Open Championship, and it was a tremendous success. Originally designed by Harry Colt and updated recently by Martin Ebert, the Dunluce Links on the course are well suited for golfers of all stripes. The hole that stood out for me was #5, a short par 4 called “White Rocks” that sits right at the end of the cliffs below. It’s entirely possible to go too long and lose your ball over a massive cliff.

I’m in. Let’s pack our bags.

Portstewart Golf Club, Portstewart, Ireland

Almost next door to Royal Portrush is Portstewart. Host of the 2017 Irish Open, winner Jon Rahm said it might be the most beautiful course he’d ever played. Now, he said that after he won, but I think “The Thumb” is onto something.

You really start to see the elevation and hills here that we’ll see even more of on the West Coast of Ireland. (We call that a teaser, folks.)

There’s nothing like playing a course that feels like nowhere you’ve been before. I look at the photo below and just wonder what it would be like to fire at this green.

It’s worth noting there are three courses on property and two at Royal Portrush, so you could easily spend quite some time just at these two places. But, we have more work to do.

Carne Golf Links, Belmullet, Ireland

One of the longest drives we have on this trip is from Portstewart to Carne, which takes one across the northern coast of Ireland. I’m quite sure it’s gorgeous (note that you will have passed through the Giant’s Causeway on your way from Royal County Down to Royal Portrush), so buckle in. Because when you get to Carne, it’s a whole new ballgame.

I first discovered Carne via No Laying Up, and it immediately went onto my list of courses I needed to play. It’s also one of Tom Coyne’s favorites and he literally has played every links course in Ireland. All of them.

Remember those hills from Portstewart? Yeah, they’re here too but on steroids.

Built by Eddie Hackett in the 1980s, when there was the ability to bulldoze your way into any course you wanted, this course used NONE of that. Designed in a few days, it’s clearly and obviously just using the land that existed there and figuring out a way to play 18 (actually, 27) holes of quality golf. And quality golf it is.

It’s the hardest course to get to on this list, but with the exception of perhaps the NEXT course, it’s otherwise atop the list. These days, a lot of American tourists are drawn here from the book Tom Coyne wrote that featured this, A Course Called Ireland. It’s a tremendous book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t credit that book AND the NLU videos linked here (which include Mr. Coyne) as major inspiration for the trip. And I certainly can’t sum up why Carne looks so enticing any better than Coyne writes it here:

We got lost in Carne, wonderfully so, and for all its blind shots and vanishing fairways, I never felt tricked. I had never played a golf course that felt as wild but played as fair as Carne. There were volumes of characteristics and specs by which I might grade a golf course, but fun and fair pretty much set the curve for me.

Tom Coyne, “A Course Called Ireland: A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint, and the Next Tee

Also, in addition to the course shown above, Carne has opened up an additional nine holes that is located in the middle of the existing 18, called The Kilmore Nine. In the video I linked above, the NLU crew play it and it looks absolutely incredible. If you’re going to make the trek to get to Carne, you’re playing all 27 holes.

Let’s drive south down the West Coast, and in a short while, we’ll get to the host of the 2019 Irish Open.

Lahinch Golf Club, County Clare, Ireland

Take a pure links and dunes course that was originally designed by Old Tom Morris and touched up by Sir Alistair Mackenzie and … honestly, I barely have to hear anything more, I want in. But there’s so much more. Have you been intrigued by the large dunes in Carne and Portstewart? Get ready for even more.

There are blind shots galore and on the par-5 4th hole (Klondyke) and par-3 5th hole (The Dell), which force you to hit directly OVER one of these dunes as part of the hole. While that’s hard to see not on video or in person, look at this photo and realize that from the tee you can’t see the green whatsoever:

This is The Dell, a par-3 that is completely blind.

But this isn’t a gimmicky course, it’s just the way it’s designed and built back in the day. To be sure there are plenty of more traditional holes, and they look gorgeous as well.

Lahinch isn’t just on the coast, but it’s also a surfing town (which as a Californian, seems quaint but I’m still intrigued) — the whole vibe of the town seems incredibly fun and easygoing and the course is so odd and challenging – and at a championship level – that I’d love to stay there and play a few rounds. I watched the 2019 Irish Open with my jaw agape at times because it looked so unlike almost any course I’ve seen, and I want in.

Ballybunion Golf Club, Kerry, Ireland

Just a short drive down from Lahinch (about two hours), you come across another course that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. I’m talking about The Old Course at Ballybunion. Folks consider this (and Lahinch, and Carne) as being really out of the way, and it’s certainly not close to Dublin or Belfast, or even smaller cities like Limerick or Cork. But again, the whole country is fairly small. It’s worth the drive! It’s legendary and you’ve probably heard of it – and there’s a good reason why.

The view from the 11th hole is fairly jaw dropping.

This course has been around for about 140 years or so, but hasn’t hosted too many major events. It’s also not as public as some other courses, so you have to plan your trip there around when there are tee times available for non-members. But you should absolutely do that.

There’s another 18-hole course designed by RTJ called The Cashen Course, and it also looks really nice. But The Old Course is the one on my Irish Bucket List.

Tralee Golf Club, Kerry, Ireland

Just a hop, skip and a jump from Ballybunion is Tralee. In fact, the rest of the courses on the list are all in County Kerry, so you can settle in and cross off a bunch of great courses from one spot. Tralee belongs on that list. A links course, it’s actually one of the newer ones, designed by Mr. Palmer himself. Note that I disparaged the K Club for being a Palmer course and suggested I wouldn’t play an American style course while in Ireland. Trust me, this is NOT an American style course. Though, in terms of course design, as the course states on its homepage, Arnold Mr. Palmer doesn’t take all the credit:

I may have designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine.

Arnold Palmer on Tralee Golf Club, apparently. Not sure if this is super humble or the exact opposite.

What’s cool about the above statement (which again, I’m fairly sure is Mr. Palmer boasting pretty hard) is that it points out that the front and back nine are quite different from each other. The back nine is much rougher and natural.

I will say this – going to the Tralee Golf Club gallery of holes, it’s hard to decide which holes to show off. It’s flipping GORGEOUS. And the NLU video of them playing got me fairly hyped. The front nine plays towards this old fort that is a ruin and provides an amazing backdrop.

On the back, there are a lot of carries to small greens, but they’re legit and good uses of the land. This par-3 13th, “Brocks Hollow” is a massive carry and there are dunes as a massive backdrop, and you tell me if you’ve ever played a hole like this:

Take enough club – but not too much!

The other thing about Tralee is that – and this might sound like a bug, not a feature – it looks like a hell of a walk. That can make parts of the round tough, especially the 11th hole, a par-5 that is straight up hill and just sounds utterly taxing from a physical and mental perspective. But the end, reaching the 18th green and laughing about the walk and the round … that’s what golf is about.

The next – and last – two courses are ones that I’m excited about a lot. And not just because they might compete for the two best logos in golf, both founded in 1889:

Toad or Hare?

Dooks Golf Links, Kerry, Ireland

Dooks – which my keyboard is absolutely insisting should be spelled Looks – appears to be almost comically picturesque. Located on the water, there’s also views of mountains in the background, and of course the gorgeous greens, fairways and dunes.

From everything I can see, Dooks SHOULD be a must-visit for anyone who even gets close to Ballybunion as it looks stunning, fun and memorable. Every golf trip like this has some of the name brand courses, and another one or two that end up being a pleasant surprise. Dooks feels absolutely like the course on this itinerary to fill this role. Plus, there’s that toad. Who doesn’t want some golf gear with that guy on it?

Waterville Golf Links, Kerry, Ireland

First we covered the toad, now we visit the hare, the logo of Waterville. It’s the last stop on this bucket list course trip and it’s not a bad place to stop. It’s at the end of the “Ring of Kerry” which means afterwards we have a long drive either to Shannon Airport (2 1/2 hours) or Dublin Airport (4 hours or so). Let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on what appears to be one of the more fun courses in all of Ireland. Located on the tip, there’s actually water on three sides of the course, which is fantastic.

Built in 1889, it was heavily redesigned by Tom Fazio, but most think that the soul of the course was kept in tact. (This is not always the case with The Faz, who isn’t always atop my list of designers I’m excited about.) There’s a statue of Payne Stewart here, who was made an honorary captain of the club here because he loved the course so much (note that this happened just prior to his untimely death).

A special thing about Waterville is the par-3 12th, which is named Mass-hole, and has nothing to do with this guy:

No, instead the Mass-Hole is named that because below the green, there’s a protected area where Catholics used to go to pray where they wouldn’t be seen by others, so they could pray in secrecy. I’m not a big religion guy, but I appreciate folks having the freedom to do what they want and this adds a cool backstory to a neatly designed hole. In fact, they still hold Mass there at times.

That kind of history and importance makes it even more interesting. The course overall just looks like so much fun that a bit extra like this takes it over the top. All in all, a fantastic capper to what will – yes, WILL – be an amazing trip.

Some day.

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