Ireland – any decent golf on the West Coast?
That was the question I set out to answer this summer, although I had a nagging suspicion that it might not be much of an open issue and in fact I did close it after playing the first course. Which, as it happened, wasn't even on the West Coast, but coastal it was and far enough west from Rosslare Harbour as well. That small port town was where I first set foot on the Emerald Isle, as I was arriving on the ferry from Wales. I brought my own car over and my wife, who doesn't play golf, but thought she might like Ireland and wanted to make sure that I had more than just scorecards to show back home. First stop: Little Island.
This is not a links course and strictly not even a seaside course and yet it feels every bit like one. It is located on a peninsula near Cork on the banks of Lough Mahon, which is a widening of the River Lee, shortly before it discharges into the Celtic Sea. But what's more important than that, it's an Alister MacKenzie design and features stunning holes along the river and through a quarry, as well as some very competent inland holes that play every bit as firm and fast. I have been told that two weeks prior to my arrival the course was actually brown, which is a rarity in Ireland.
There has been some controversy over a bunker redo by the Hawtree firm, but the traps are certainly the defining element of many holes and in their bold and assertive way do provide the typical MacKenzie flair. The routing comes across as a small wonder, the site is ideal for golf, but it's also rather small and crooked, and yet every hole seems to connect perfectly to the previous. Even the final four-hole loop, that plays around the driving range, is an astounding feat of creativity. Although I'm sure that every member and half the visitors have an armchair architect's vision on how to redesign this stretch. Here's mine: let's add a fourth par three playing to the superb 16th green complex and make the final hole a par five.
Please note; this is primarily a members' course and not geared towards the four-ball, two-cart tourist group. Cork is a world-class course as yet undiscovered by the crowds.
No one misses the Ring of Kerry and neither did we. Although the Ring of Beara (hidden gem – the Uragh stone circle!) and the Ring of Dingle are every bit as nice, but Killarney certainly is the tourist centre of the region with services for every budget. And from there a leisurely and scenic two-hour drive will take you to Waterville.
At first sight the course looks fairly unassuming in the way it lies on a relatively inconspicuous tract of land. But make no mistake, this is a grown-up brute, with enough internal undulations to make things interesting. And once you're on it, the scenery changes too – it could be the only links course in the world that is surrounded by a ring of mountains. How they did that with water on three sides of the property is beyond me, but it is a mind-blowing panorama.
The previously somewhat subdued front nine has been beefed up considerably by Tom Fazio, so that holes 2 through 4 are now part of the highlight reel. More strong holes and one or two breathers follow and after the turn the mass hole (#12) marks another peak in quality (and history!). Finally, the run home from #15 is the most exciting stretch, which gives the course an almost ideal ebb and flow.
The turf has in the past been criticised as too soft and a massive fescue reclamation process has caused a few disruptions, but as of today the effort seems to have paid off – there's no chipping at Waterville anymore. The putter is the go-to club around the closely shaved green complexes and the course plays beautifully firm. Right now it is one of the best balanced links courses in Ireland.
Also on the Ring of Kerry, but much closer to Killarney, sits this previously hidden gem, which has been affected by a healthy infusion of tourist play. While still a very scenic course with a number of good holes, its charming idiosyncrasies have to stand up to a different kind of scrutiny today. The conditioning is rustic and the green surrounds often a bit too rough for putting. And the heathland holes towards the end of the round look a bit out of sorts on this seaside property. All of that is perfectly acceptable for a quirky village track, but perhaps less fitting for what Dooks is trying to represent today.
Despite its pastoral character the turf is plenty firm and the running game alive and well, which is welcome news considering that many greens are raised or even sit on their own plateau. It's certainly a fun course that profits immensely from its setting with the ocean and the Dingle peninsula on one side and MacGillycuddy's Reeks on the other.
A few of the longer holes are a bit too straightforward, but the joy of playing between sand dunes rarely gets old. A lot of the work on the course has been done by the members themselves and for that the result is quite outstanding. Starting with the Hawtree changes the course has been brought into a new era, while still having one foot in the old.
We are now leaving the Ring of Kerry, following the Wild Atlantic Way northwards to Ballybunion. The Old course is often rated a tick above the cream of Irish courses, even though it's not different in character - a links course that plays through the dunes. It's the quality of the individual holes and how they are seamlessly tied together to form one of the most exquisite routings in golf today.
Even before teeing off, one of the most iconic features in golf makes its presence known, the ancient graveyard, which shouldn't come into play, but somehow the club found it necessary to erect a sign that no balls may be retrieved from it. Not to be a bad sport, I made my offering. The first three holes are all strong and then perhaps the only lapse in excitement occurs with back to back par fives playing inland, before the 6th hole makes a sharp turn left towards the Atlantic. It would be too harsh to call Ballybunion a 16-hole course, the 4th and 5th are solid, but from the seaside 6th green onwards solid turns into dramatic.
In the past the occasional critic bemoaned too much rough and the poa annua greens. Both issues have been taken care of, there are now true links greens and enough room to play in the wind. Variety around the greens is incredible: a near-perfect mixture of chipping and putting, whereas being short-sided is always hell to recover from. And while I'm not generally a huge fan of par threes, I will concede that there is nothing repetitive about any of the five one-shotters on the Old course. They are exceptional holes of varying distances and directions. But to me the clincher and probably the reason for its lofty status is the vividness and memorability of the journey through the dunes.
The most spectacular dunes at Ballybunion aren't on the Old course, but on a site next to it, so it is no wonder that the club decided to build another course there. It is not your grandfather's relief course, though. The Cashen in many ways turned out to be even harder than the Old, mostly due to the severe terrain and the target golf requirements on firm and fast soil. Robert Trent Jones is a legendary parkland architect and so his take on links golf was bound to be controversial.
Like its sister course the Cashen has five one-shotters, but unlike the Old it also has five par fives, while the par fours are mostly of the “not so stout” variety. Combined with the severe and dramatic property this makes for a lot of exciting holes, but asks for a number of considerable green to tee walks in return. The flow is not quite as organic as on the Old course, which is a bit of an unfair comparison, considering that most every routing pales in comparison to that. Thus many players on the Cashen ride in carts, which alleviates some of the toil, but also detracts from experiencing the essence of the site.
At the end of the day the Cashen actually edges the Old in terms of quirk and scenery (no trailer park!), but fails to come across as a course instead of just a collection of holes. It has the qualities for being a destination of its own, but "next door" is too tough a nut to crack.
50 miles north of Ballybunion lies its perennial competitor for best in Ireland and with the recent opening of a nifty short game area Lahinch has upped the ante another notch. The pedigree from Old Tom Morris to Alister MacKenzie has always been epic anyway and the club is doing a good job preserving their original design intent. The beautifully anachronistic Klondyke and Dell holes with their blindness and crossing fairways are mitigated by professional spotters manning the dunes and directing play.
While I was especially looking forward to playing the ancient 4th and 5th, there are a number of great holes before and after, which utilise the dune land just as well. Interestingly on such varied terrain, there are a few similar holes. The side by side par fours at 14 and 15 would be great on most any course, but are merely solid here. The 3rd and 7th hole are great , but also quite similar.
Conditioning is that of a top links course, firm and fast through the green and true on it. Some of the bunkers are quite extreme, such as the upturned volcanoes on the 2nd and the pit at the bottom of a bottomless pit on the 6th. It's all fantastic stuff, but beware of the exposed location near the Cliffs of Moher. I got to experience all four Irish seasons in one round: howling wind, driving rain, repressive fog and baking sunshine. If you're queasy, watch Lahinch's weather-forecasting goats – if they stay near the clubhouse, maybe you should too! However, the forecast for the golf never changes, it's world-class in any conditions.
After so much high-end golf I decided to pay homage to the origins of the game – at a place, that is not very far removed from them! It takes some doing to get there from Lahinch, you'll have to cut off Connemara entirely and keep pushing north until you meet the coast again at Mallaranny. Nobody knows who laid out the nine holes on the links or when exactly it happened. In fact, nothing much appears to have been done at all outside of fencing off a few green sites and creating remarkably undulated putting surfaces within. Fairway lines and conditioning are determined by grazing animals, there's an honesty box for the greenfee and off you go.
Like many ancient links it is perfectly playable in high winds, no modern contraptions have been added to make fairways smaller. It's not a bunkerless course but the sand traps are so few and far between that many a player will not even remember them. There is a burn on the final two holes, but it shouldn't ordinarily come into play except perhaps in a very strong headwind. In short, it seems almost impossible to lose a ball here.
The group I played with christened the 7th tee as the “Bovine Tee”, because it was occupied by a young bull, who didn't feel he had to move for golfers. Playing amongst roaming animals on the most natural terrain imaginable with views to die for is an unforgettable experience. Any attempt at rating this course must come up short. There just isn't enough of that type of golf left. Go see it while you can.
The scenic drive up from Mulranny through the Ballycroy National Park is over way too soon, but Belmullet awaits with another very natural course – the Carne golf links. Although it does look positively ancient (and the dunesland certainly is), this is actually a fairly new development. The late Eddie Hackett's final design consists of 14 roller-coasting holes and perhaps four on the front nine that are merely undulating, but great links golf all the same. The connections between the holes are impeccable and conditioning strikes a perfect balance between natural and playable.
The par threes alone are worth the greenfee, although you will either love or hate the drop shot 16th. The stretch from 11 to 14 is the most exhilarating, as it winds its way towards the ocean to reach a spot of timeless beauty at the 14th tee. When the evening sun is out, I dare you to sit down there and not forget time.
There are some caveats at Carne, of course, but they seem a bit petty in the face of the magnificence provided in turn – getting into the dunes is easy and getting out is hard, if the ball can be found at all. Due to the twisted terrain, wayward shots can disappear very quickly, leaving behind a group of players without any idea where to look. So keep in mind that this is one of the world's most exciting courses and enjoy it for that.
Another nine holes have been added recently and christened the Kilmore loop. These are routed through some of the wildest terrain imaginable and are on the brink of playability in places. The towering dunes on the 5th hole could be the highest in all of golf – for sure they trump the ones on the Hackett course.
Some of those Kilmore holes have never been seen before. The approach to the 1st, the semi-blind right pin on the 2nd (a par three protected by a towering dune), the 3rd (steep as steep can be), the snaking 5th and the 7th (looks a lot harder than it plays) are all unique design concepts.
However, it's not all sunshine and roses. Conditioning is not up to the standard of the Hackett course, mowing lines need to be established (some of the architect's marker posts are in the deep hay) and there is quite a bit of walking between holes. I felt especially uncomfortable having to cross the 17th fairway of the Hackett course some 100 yards in front of the tee box and more or less out of view. I'd call this a work in progress, but definitely worth seeing.
There is nothing but water north, south and west of Carne, so if you want to play some more golf, you need to go east. After an hour of that I arrived in Enniscrone, the last, but by no means the least course on my trip along the Wild Atlantic Way. If you play in the afternoon like I did, I can wholeheartedly recommend visiting the Rosserk and Moyne Friaries in the morning. Small roads and limited parking means no crowds!
Enniscrone Golf Club on the other hand has ample parking and needs all of it, ever since the completion of a significant upgrade in 2001. Donald Steel was retained to build six new holes in the dunes and combine them with twelve older Eddie Hackett holes to create today's “Dunes” course. It is now a first tier layout with an especially sublime routing.
The opening par four is a great example, as it provides a stupendously wide and inviting fairway to ease the player into the round, but then the approach is to a wild greensite nestled in the dunes. That is the terrain for the next three holes, before the 5th and 6th gradually leave the dunes and approach the Moy estuary. After a flatter, but undeniably linksy stretch with some really good holes, the 9th plays along the estuary and the 10th turns back into the dunes for the rest of the round. The quirk builds up through 11, 12 and 13, which is the highlight for every average hitter wanting to for once drive a par four green. Watch the Blinkenlights! Adrenalin levels then subside a bit through 14, where most players will be able to get a score, before the round concludes with a number of tough holes running along the ocean and back to the clubhouse.
The greatest routings find a natural path through terrain that is not only diverse in appearance, but also in character. Enniscrone does this exceptionally well, while not skimping on fairway width. Of course, when the wind is up, all bets are off – such is life on the links!
There's a lot of great golf on Ireland's West Coast and I didn't even get to play Tralee, Doonbeg, Dingle, Connemara, Rosses Point and especially Strandhill. Neither did I venture past Sligo or even into Northern Ireland, but I certainly feel that I have seen some of Ireland's best (and worst – they do have midges!).
As they say, it's hard to build a bad golf course in the dunes, but to get a world-class one still requires talent and meticulous work. A lot of that has been provided by the legendary Eddie Hackett, but I found the modern amendments surprisingly agreeable as well.
The food and lodging have improved to a standard, where non-golfing spouses will feel comfortable too. The only downside is the costly greenfees, which are probably necessary to subsidise membership rates. My guess is that all those sparsely populated villages have no way of supporting their world-class golf course other than making local membership affordable for everyone. Be that as it may, because you can always go round the hidden gems like Mulranny and have a blast without breaking the bank!
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