There is generally a certain level of anticipation when one plays a course for the first time. The approach road to the links of County Louth, or Baltray as it is better known, named after the local fishing village, is especially uplifting. This is a course that has remained relatively anonymous, except to those in the know. It is one of Ireland’s secrets.
County Louth Golf Club was established in 1892 but Tom Simpson and Molly Gourlay designed the present course in 1938. In 2003, Tom Mackenzie made some minor changes to the layout, most notably the addition of new tees which has stretched the yardage beyond 7,000 yards.
Darren Clarke won the East of Ireland Championship in 1989, an amateur stroke play event held at County Louth since 1941, although it is unlikely that anybody will beat Joe Carr’s record. Joe Carr was the “East” champion 12 times between 1941 and 1969. Amazingly, Joe’s son Roddy won the 1970 “East” championship.
Baltray has no weak holes. The course is laid out in two loops, and most holes run in different directions. However, the greens are County Louth’s hallmark – they are among the very best in the whole of Ireland. If you can avoid three putting for 18 holes, then you have the right to claim you’re a great putter.
County Louth developed two of Ireland’s best lady golfers. In 1938, Clarrie Tiernan was the first Irish woman to play in the Curtis Cup but the USA beat Great Britain and Ireland 5½ 3½ at the Essex County Club in Massachusetts. It was Clarrie’s rival, Philomena Garvey, who was the most successful post war Irish player. Phil was five times a finalist in the Ladies British Amateur Championship, winning once, in 1957 at Gleneagles. Phil also won a record 15 Irish Close titles in a span of 18 years from 1946.
Although County Louth is a championship links golf course, golfers of all levels can enjoy it. The back nine is especially entertaining with a number of holes running close to the shore with distant views towards the Mountains of Mourne. County Louth hosted the Nissan Irish Open in July 2004.
Baltray Links, as it is more commonly known, succeeds massively in balancing classic links golf with enough individuality and moments of brilliance to rightly give it a place at the top table of Irish links. The playability aspect of County Louth is quite exceptional.
There are several unique holes at this fantastic layout, many of which run alongside the Irish Sea, and is located under an hour north of Dublin and very much worth the drive.
Tom Simpson can be credited for much of the current design (going back to 1938) although a new clubhouse has meant that some holes were rerouted and/or renumbered whilst further alterations were made just after the turn of the millennium.
There is a beautiful clean and crisp feel to the golf course thanks largely to the large areas of tight, closely mown grass around the greens, plenty of width to the fairways - often cresting the rolling duneland - bordered by fine playable rough and protected with sharp revetted bunkers which are re-done on a rolling 3-year basis. Add to this the beautifully crafted putting surfaces and you have a course of the highest order.
The terrain is ever changing as we encounter more dramatic moments coupled with subtler parts of the course. The key to the brilliance of Baltray is that the green complexes match their surrounds perfectly and tie everything together seamlessly.
When all the maths is done the yardage of Baltray adds up to 7,031 from the blue tees with a par of 72. The whites offer a more manageable 6,716 yards whilst a green set of blocks allows the course to be enjoyed from just over 6,300 yards.
Whichever set of tees you play from I would wholeheartedly recommend an hour in the clubhouse after your round to enjoy the delicious Clogherhead Scampi special and a rather sizeable portion of home-made lemon drizzle cake. With on-site dormy accommodation to boot Baltray gets it right both on and off the golf course.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
In my opinion, this is the hidden gem of Ireland and possibly the UK. I have a few more notable courses to play in the UK and Ireland, but it will hard to top this one as the “number one hidden gem.” I realize some might wonder why I say it is a “hidden gem” when it is ranked in the top 100 in the UK and Ireland. I do not understand why it is not rated higher. The three leading golf magazines in the UK have County Louth rate it in the second half of the top 100. For me it should be in the top 35. When I look at the courses ahead of it, I do not understand why County Louth is not rated above many of them. Is it the location of the clubhouse, or one of the putting greens being behind the clubhouse? (I found it great fun). Or is it due to two areas of the golf course having so much action – two, three, eight, nine, eleven and twelve either end or start at essentially the same point on the course and then later twelve, thirteen, fifteen and sixteen are also beginning or ending in a similar area. Yet these holes are routed in different directions.
County Louth offers tees over 7000 yards to 6700 to 6300+ to 5900. There are tees available for players of all ages and abilities. From any of these tees, a player will be challenged yet have fun.
This is a golf course I could play over and over and never tire of it. I would always be enthused to play it, whether humbled by it or surprised by it. I am not certain I could ever unlock the key to playing all 18 holes at a high level. I am sure there are days when the wind comes off the Irish Sea that it might feel almost unplayable, but on calmer days this is one of the most playable golf courses there is while still offering a test of one’s golfing skills. The fairways have adequate width, particularly on the longer holes. Nearly every hole offers a chance at recovery to save par.
When I meet an American who is planning a golf trip to Ireland/Northern Ireland my questions are:
- How many days?
- West coast, east coast, or north?
- Is County Louth on your list?
I realize most American want to play the “bigger name” courses such as Ballybunion Old, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Portmarnock Championship, Old Head, and Lahinch Old. But if they are playing in the Dublin area my second recommendation after Portmarnock Championship is County Louth, preceded only by The Island, and followed by Royal Dublin. While The Island is perhaps more interesting due to the uniqueness of some holes, County Louth is as challenging and offers more decision-making. In addition, I think the green complexes are better at County Louth, particularly the greens themselves. This is not to take anything away from The Island as I rate it overall slightly higher.
Amongst the notes I have taken when playing County Louth are these: the better holes are one, two, six-eight, ten and fourteen. I consider twelve and thirteen to be outstanding. This “underrated” course will test all of your game yet remains right in front of you. The back nine does not offer quite as many good holes, but much like Royal St. George’s the players compete against the course on the back nine in complete solitude. This is a course that sparks interest and joy. While primarily flat, there are some nice elevated tees and slight elevation changes on some of the holes.
Nearly every one of the “near scratch” players that I send to play County Louth say it is their favorite of their trip (excluding the two Royals in Northern Ireland). Most of the higher handicappers I have recommended play at County Louth have a good and hearty debate about County Louth and The Island as to which they prefer.
The course is very well routed, going in all directions. It is well conditioned both in the fairways, bunkers, and greens. The course is well defended with the proper placement of bunkers. The bunkers are of the right size and depth. The mounds and some gorse are scattered throughout the course and seemingly come as a “surprise” when you play them. Several of the fairways have wonderful ripples running through them leaving one with either a slightly unfriendly lie or a good lie for their next shot.
Like the best links courses, County Louth begins with a strong hole, a longer par 4 gently turning left with fairway bunkers on both sides of the corner.
The second is a mid-length par 5 that has gorse running down the entire left with the gorse on both sides for the mid or short-length hitter to consider on their second shot. There are four bunkers short of the two-tiered green. It is a challenging golf hole. This hole does offer a shorter tee of 40 yards from the white tees.
Another mid-length par five follows, a bit longer from the white tees but not as cramped due to far less gorse. It also offers an easier green if you avoid the fall off to the left.
The fourth is a short par 4 that is perhaps the weakest hole on the golf course but the lining the fairway are some rolling mounds to distract your eyes from the target. It is followed by a short par 3 that has a nice raised green with fall offs on all sides. On many courses this might be considered the best par 3.
The sixth hole starts a wonderful stretch of three holes, beginning with a mid-length par 5 with a partially hidden green that is raised with some nice undulations and fall offs, as well as the seventh, a similar length par 3 as the fifth hole, but with a much better and more difficult green complex with two deep bunkers fronting the green.
The eight has wonderful mounding down the fairway on either side and a beautifully situated green.
The ninth takes one back towards the clubhouse and offers six fairway bunkers in a collection area of the tee shot as well as three nearer the green with an especially difficult one in front of the green. It is another good hole, just not quite as visually appealing as six-eight.
The tenth hole has bitten me nearly every time as you go towards the corner of the course close to the estuary. It is a slight dogleg left with two bunkers protecting the right corner of the fairway and two at the green. I seem to always hit my approach shot into the taller grass right of the green. It is a splendid start to the back nine.
Eleven is the longest par 4 on the golf course and can play tricky with the wind up. I did not find the green to be quite as difficult as some others but that is certainly okay given the length of the hole. In addition to the length, the hole is well defended with seven bunkers.
I love how the twelfth hole has the three pot bunkers short of the green which sits up and behind among those small mounds. For me, this was the best hole from a visual standpoint due to the mounds along the fairway and ripples in the fairway. The fairway is protected by three bunkers on the right.
Thirteen parallels the beach with higher dunes between you and the sea. This is another beautiful golf hole that has a very good green awaiting your approach shot.
The “signature” hole is the fourteenth, a short par 4 that has a fabulous site for the green raised slightly surrounded by smallish dunes and one larger one behind it. There are numerous humps and hollows fronting the green. I liked the hole a lot, but not quite as much as the two preceding it. There is a very nice view of the beach, Irish Sea and much of the golf course from the tee.
Fifteen is my favorite par 3 on the golf course. It is approximately the same length as five and seven, but is in a lovely part of the golf course playing diagonally back towards the beach. It is well bunkered by three, one front and two right. It has perhaps my favorite green on the golf course, raised with a false front and tiered. From the tee the green looks like it is on an island.
Sixteen is the final par 4 as a dogleg right with bunkers at the turn. There are no bunkers at the green but it does not need them as the hole is already demanding with the mounds near it and the green sitting up a bit.
Seventeen is the final par 3 and it is a long one at over 200 yards from the back tees. From an elevated tee hitting over rough/scrub you find a green that is slightly raised.
The finishing hole is a good one. It is longer par 5 with the tee shot having to consider terrific placement of bunkers on the left side of the fairway while trees provide defense on the right side. As you near the green, two cross bunkers come into play ending with a bunker front right and side left of the green.
This is a course that when I make my final putt, I ask myself whether I should stay to play it again.
As a William coming over from Holland to play Golf on the banks of the River Boyne, I was a little curious as to the welcome I would receive at County Louth.
This is a quality links that routes through both the flat and dunes. The green sites in particular were great - framing nice shots in and giving interest in getting up and down when I inevitably missed in regulation. The first 3 Par 3’s were excellent and the fourth potentially so (as it looked like they were building a new green next to the current one). The variety on offer at Baltray is more than sufficient, with a good short par 4 at the 3rd and various long and short fun challenges to follow. It’s obviously a good test too, as they’ve held the Irish Open at County Louth in relatively recent years (Shane Lowry won here in 2009 - as an amateur!).
The routing was a bit confusing to a first time visitor, but at least ensured the course played in all directions. The holes through the dunes nearer the sea were most exciting (12-14 I think), but the flatter holes are no less interesting due to gentle movement of the land, well positioned bunkers, and the aforementioned quality green sitings. I’d say the Tom Simpson routing made the best of the property on offer.
The course was fully open and the conditioning surprisingly good considering the snow in the area just 10 days earlier. €160 is too much for a peak season green fee - compare this to perhaps €90 at an admittedly more isolated track like St Enodoc - but €80 for County Louth up until the end of March is good value for a course that was very playable at that time.
As for the welcome we received (and considering I was also playing with a Rangers fan from Belfast) there was no cause for concern. Informal, friendly, and a “proper” club atmosphere. For me this course was a lot of fun, a solid 5 ball, and one which I look forward to coming back to for another craic at it
Our second day in Ireland would be the first of true golf, and for that we had chosen County Louth G.C., or Baltray, as it is commonly known in Ireland.
From Dublin to Baltray there is not much more than 50 kilometers, most of them by motorway, but it's better to go in plenty of time because access is complicated or at least it's easy enough to go wrong with the exact location. In addition, once we cross Drogheda, each of the small roads that lead to Baltray moved us farther and farther from any populated locality to enter into really isolated coastal landscapes.
The welcome that the club gave us could not be friendlier: we barely entered the clubhouse, they sent us to the store, where the employee, after asking us about our origin, kindly explained the essential about the course and invited us to hit some balls in the driving range. Of course, after the inevitable conversation about spanish football.
Excited and expectant, we arrived at the first tee, where we found who, at first, we thought would be the starter (in any case, they had not provided us with a ticket or any ticket) and turned out to be a local only interested in knowing if we had bet money on our foursome ... After clarifying that were playing just for the Guinness at the clubhouse, we faced the first holes, (playing from the white tees, which add up to the inconsiderable distance of 6700 yards).
County Louth is a true championship course but, to be honest, it should be said that on a sunny, windless day, it is not a particularly complicated course. To this contributes that, as some club members explained later, they have tried to reduce the length and hardness of the rough, once very penalizing. In any case, it is a magnificent golf course.
Of the first holes stands out the 3, a par 5 whose green has been placed in a punchbowl and, of course, the one shotters, the real jewel of this course. Unlike what is fashionable today, these are short holes for the modern standards, but that does not mean that they are easy; on the contrary, only a very precise shot to green will give options of birdie or even par, since any mistake can leave us an almost impossible chip.
The difficulty and beauty of these holes really surprised us, and even a few days later were the subject of a lively conversation with the owner of the County Sligo restaurant, who had been fortunate enough to play there recently.
Decidedly, the second 9 of Baltray, which runs closer to the sea and in a more abrupt terrain than the outward nine, has more attractive and the first 9, and some of them really stay in the memory, starting with the 12th and 13th.
However, the one that really stands out among all is the 14th. It is a short hole, of merely 300 meters, and that, therefore, allows different strategies: in our case, from the driver to a hybrid or a long iron to place the ball safely in the fairway. Any shot of modest distance will leave a short approach to the green, but that's where the real problems begin.
The green has no bunker to protect it, but it is not necessary either: only a perfectly adjusted shot will leave the ball near the hole, as the slghtest of errors will lead the ball to any of the depressions surrounding the green, a real magnet for balls. From there, the recovery will be almost miraculous, although it will test the imagination of the player: in our case, it was not enough, and 4 bogeys attest to it.
From this hole on, the end of the round is also fun, with two good par 3´s, 15th and 17th, and the final par 5.
In short, an extraordinary course that leaves you wanting to visit again and again, specially the four delicious par 3´s.
Co Louth: Played it this week after a long absence and enjoyed it thoroughly. Nice mix of holes – some in front of you visible and inviting a decent drive, whilst some blind –creating a golfing query but not punishing or annoying. Three par fives on the front and one on the back nine but you have to wait till the 18th hole for this gem. The par threes are a work of art and demand precise hitting as any miss hits on these can leave the player short sided and scrambling to get up and down. The back nine are enjoyable and scenic as is the overall course. Wide fairways and large greens make this playable for all abilities. The transition is a bit puzzling as it is a figure of eight rather than two loops of nine making recall and navigation a challenge. Playing the last hole one can try and relive the efforts of Shane Lowry an Irish Amateur taking on the professionals to win the Irish open after playing the final hole three times to win the tie hole. Top 10 in Ireland.
In my view, a rather prosaic start and finish marred what is nearly an outstanding course. Don’t get me wrong, Baltray is a very good links and it’s supremely challenging, but it’s a notch away from greatness.
County Louth has been on my to-play list for more than 20 years and I played it in the company of Fergal who is getting married near here on Tuesday. His delightful fiancée, Karen (and her mum), joined us on the front nine. We had an absolute blast in the sunshine and my overnight stay in the simple dormy accommodation concluded a memorable day.
The expansiveness of the Baltray property took me by surprise. The acreage here is vast and there is a genuine feeling of solitude, perhaps even isolation at the outer reaches. I agree with the previous reviewer, the golf is better the further away you are from the clubhouse in dunes and along the coastline. The routing zigzags in all compass directions, allowing the wind to conduct proceedings. Its loose figure of eight layout for both the outward and inward halves is a clever way to return the golfer to the vicinity of the clubhouse after nine holes.
There is nothing quirky about Baltray, it’s pure links golf which I adore. However it’s quirkiness that sticks in my memory and despite solid hole after solid hole, Baltray didn’t quite capture my imagination – possibly due to the fact I played Baltray directly after experiencing the thrills of The Island.
Never before have I seen so much bracken flanking links fairways, the club has even taken the decision to place marker posts in the rough to help with wayward ball spotting. These deep green swathes of ferns create a feeling of lushness that a links course doesn’t need.
These small gripes aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Baltray and felt the first three of the four par threes to be excellent and the par fours, except perhaps for the 1st, to be very strong. Not quite an icon in my opinion, but a true classic links that thoroughly deserves its high ranking.
The farther away from the clubhouse you are at Baltray, the better the golf. The first two holes are quite ordinary, but things get much better at the 3rd, a par five to a left-sloping punchbowl green. Holes 4-8 are set among the dunes and take fine advantage of the terrain. Getting closer to the flat land that surrounds the clubhouse makes for three holes of duller golf, but the 11th returns to the dunes and features a brilliant green site set behind a doorway in the dunes, not unlike the 2nd at Newcastle. The fun continues until one reaches the 17th, a flat par 3 with no distinguishing features. The 18th takes one home on more flat land, though it’s made interesting by the fairway bunkers that can threaten the second shot. County Louth’s greens have a reputation for difficulty, but they have fewer interesting contours than one finds up at Portrush or just down the road at The Island.
The routing is not the out and back type often found on links courses. Rather the holes run in all directions, forcing the golfer to combat the ever-present wind in a variety of ways. But it’s not at all intuitive and includes a number of lengthy walks from the green—including the 18th which finishes a full long iron from the clubhouse. There seems to be more duneland that sits vacant and could have been used to replace some that sit on flatter terrain. The result is eleven holes of 6 ball rated golf and seven of 4 ball.
Fellow golfers told me to enjoy the view from the 14th tee and playing a true links course. I can say that I did enjoy the view from the 14th tee and the challenge of playing every shot on this perfect day. I am glad I made the trip along the River Boyne to get to the links that just seems to be a natural fit between the River and the Sea. I can appreciate the original founders of the links crossing the River Boyne in a boat and declaring this property, "one of the best pieces of golfing ground in the world".
The front nine has 3 par 5s that are all in different directions and got to experience the holes with the wind (number 3), against the wind (number 2), and a cross wind (number 6). Nice routing of the holes with birdie opportunities presented here with well played shots. On this day the par 5 3rd was the easiest to reach in 2 but you must be accurate and avoid going to the right of the green. There is a little more room left of the green and a relatively easy recovery shot. Three of the four par 4s on the front measured over 400 yards. The 344 yard 4th was the one breather hole but on this day played directly into the wind. The 433 yard first played with the wind coming from the right and has well placed bunkers off the tee. The 409 yard ninth played downwind on this day with the green protected by a large bunker in front and bunkers on both sides of the green. I thought the drive on the 407 yard eighth was the most visually appealing of the nine. From the tee it looked like the fairway ended after the fairway bunker on the right but upon getting near the bunker could see a narrow strip of fairway to the left of the bunker. Just a nice golf hole. The two par threes on the front measured 158 and 153 yards. On this day I thought the 153 yard 7th played more difficult. The elevated firm green is protected by 2 bunkers in the front and the wind was coming from the left on this day with the pin in the front.
The back nine only has one par 5, the 541 yard 18th, which has many well placed bunkers the entire length of the hole. The two par threes on the back measure 152 and 179 yards. Number 15 played into the wind and number 17 played with the wind. Both were solid short hole challenges. The six par 4 yardages ranged from the short 322 yard 14th to the long 464 yard 11th. I thought the 11th was the most difficult par 4 on either nine. The view from the 14th was magnificent and even though the hole is short the putting can be very difficult and chip shots require creativity. On this day the 10th played into the wind and was a nice challenge. The wind was coming from the right side on the 12th and 13th holes and both holes were excellent tests of shot making. The 16th was a nice 401 yard dogleg right hole with well placed fairway bunkers and a wide narrow green with a large slope in front of the green.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to play County Louth and would highly recommend it to any golfer that enjoys the challenge of a true links course. Click here to see a YouTube slideshow of some pictures taken during my visit. Jim Brady