The ultimate golfer's guide to Ireland

Thursday March 16th, 2017
The earliest "structured" golf played at Waterville dates back to 1889.
Courtesy Waterville Links

No one does “green” better than the Emerald Isle. With a nod to St. Patrick’s Day, we offer an in-depth journey on where to stay, play and dine in Ireland.

With more than 300 courses in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, some that embrace seaside settings and other that occupy rolling parkland tracts, golf in Ireland has everything the serious course connoisseur could want. Toss in lively conversation in the pubs, acclaimed cuisine and superb hotels along with a plethora of cultural and sightseeing attractions and you have the makings of an unforgettable golf vacation. 

THE SOUTH AND WEST

Where to Play
Ballybunion Golf Club (Old), Ballybunion, Co. Kerry
Hall of Fame writer Herbert Warren Wind summed up his first trip around this ancient links as follows: “Ballybunion revealed itself to be nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen.” What he saw were holes such as the 473-yard, par-4 11th, its back tee wedged in between dunes on the left and beach on the right and hovering 50 to 60 feet above the sea. Its 216-yard, par-3 15th is another show-stopper, played straight at the ocean to a two-tiered green set into flanking dunes. Echoed five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, “It is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world.” With the dunes, beach and sea all in sight and in play, it’s easy to understand why Wind and Watson were so wowed. $107-$204
Lahinch Golf Club, Lahinch, Co. Clare
Ranked No. 41 in our Top 100 Courses in the World, Lahinch is known as the “St. Andrews” of Ireland,” not only because the town and golf course are so seamlessly integrated, but because its two principal designers were so importantly connected to St. Andrews, Old Tom Morris (1893) and Alister MacKenzie (1927). The famous goats (which serve as weather barometers), the sea and two of golf’s greatest blind holes, the par-5 third (“Klondyke”) and the par-3 fourth (“Dell”) elevate Lahinch. $107-$204
Waterville Golf Links, Waterville, Co. Kerry
Sam Snead called Waterville a “magnificent monster.” Raymond Floyd had a softer assessment, stating that Waterville is “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.” They’re both right. Its slithering, par-5 11th, hemmed in by dune ridges and its seaside par-3 17th, with a back tee and green isolated by dense vegetation and backdropped by MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, are two world-class stunners. Golf at Waterville dates to 1889, with the current links itself a 1973 Eddie Hackett creation, but it took a 21st century teak by Tom Fazio to elevate it to World Top 100 status. $80-$215
Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, Killarney, Co. Kerry
Legendary British writer and broadcaster Henry Longhurst uttered of Killarney, “What a lovely place to die.” Longhurst wasn’t being morbid, just truthful. Killarney’s Killeen (a frequent Irish Open venue) and its sibling, Mahony’s Point, are two of the world’s most beautiful and tranquil inland courses, amid mountains, forests, brilliant rhododendrons and the gorgeous shores and inlets of Lough Leane. $59-$118
Trump Doonbeg, Doonbeg, Ireland    
In early July 2009, Stewart Cink tweeted his half-million followers with “Played Doonbeg yesterday with the kids. Course blew away my expectations. Only eight years old and looks ancient.” It also looks awesome. This 2002 Greg Norman design was sculpted from massive sandhills at the ocean’s edge. Always a fan favorite, despite some design hiccups caused by environmental issues, Doonbeg’s flaws were fixed by architect Martin Hawtree in 2015-’16. Greens were re-contoured or repositioned and several holes were redesigned, including a new beachside par-3 14th. $91-$209
Tralee Golf Club, Ardfort, Co. Kerry
“I have never seen a more perfect place to build a golf course,” said Arnold Palmer of Tralee, his first design foray into Europe in 1984. “I may have designed the first nine, but God designed the back nine.” Regardless of who takes design credit, the course dishes out dramatic broken ground and heavenly vistas in equal measure, notably at the par-4 17th, which peers down over a beach called the Long Strand, where scenes of the 1970s movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed. $150-$204; 
Old Head Golf Links, Kinsale, Co. Cork
Some contend that Old Head is the most spectacular course in the world. What’s undeniable is that this 19-year-old cliff-top layout is jaw-dropping from start to finish. Holes on each nine drape 300-foot-high cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean and backdrops include castle ruins, a lighthouse and the spot in the sea where the Lusitania went down. $182-$279

Where to Stay
Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare (rooms from $225)
A scant eight miles from Shannon Airport, Dromoland, excels as both a castle and as a hotel. Most of the lodging component dates to the 19th Century, though there’s been a castle here for nearly 600 years. The amenity offerings include falconry, clay shooting and archery, and the on-site golf course is worth your while. dromoland.ie
Waterville House, Co. Kerry (rooms from $240)
This 18th Century Georgian Manor House holds just 12 bedrooms, but they’re superbly appointed and spectacularly situated, on a slender isthmus bracketed by the Atlantic Ocean an Lough Currane. Prime access to Waterville Golf Links is reason enough to book a stay, yet for anglers in pursuit of salmon, sea trout and brown trout, it’s equally enticing.
Malton Hotel Killarney, Co. Kerry (rooms from $143)
Superb service, a classic design and furnishings and an ideal location in the heart of Killarney makes the Malton (formerly the Great Southern) an ideal destination if you’re exploring the Ring of Kerry. The dining is excellent—fresh salmon and cod, Irish beef and the Dingle Crab Salad are not to be missed.

Where to Dine
The Smugglers Inn, Waterville, Co. Kerry
Start with an unforgettable view over Ballinskelligs Bay, add in consistently good fare with local seafood and shellfish the specialty and toss in Vegetarian and Bistro Bar menu options, and you have Waterville’s best restaurant.  
The White House, Kinsale, Co. Cork
Outstanding ambiance and pub grub makes this White House irresistible to locals and tourists alike. Situated in the heart of Kinsale, Ireland’s gourmet capital, it serves up excellent chowders, mussels and scampi.
VL Restaurant at Vaughan Lodge, Lahinch, Co. Clare
Steaks, lamb and duck are all highlights at this refined hotel restaurant that’s located steps away from the links at Lahinch, but truly world-class are the fresh fish offerings from Carrigaholt, which often include Hake, Halibut, Sole and Sea Bream. 

A man walks with his dogs along the beach at Doughmore bay, near Doonbeg, on the west coast of Ireland.
Getty Images

THE NORTHWEST AND NORTHERN IRELAND

Where to Play
Royal County Down, Newcastle, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
Perennially ranked in the World’s Top 5, “County Down,” as it’s often called, merges beauty and brawn as with few other courses in existence. The venue for the 2015 Irish Open is an 1889 Old Tom Morris design that as reworked by H.S. Colt in 1926. The unforgettable par-3 fourth and par-4 ninth, the latter with its blind drive, feature prickly yellow gorse, bewhiskered bunkers and views of the mountains and sea. $104-$270
Royal Portrush (Dunluce), Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
The only Irish course ever to host the Open Championship, in 1951, this World Top 15 layout dates to 1888. Another Open is on the way, in 2019. The present links is a 1929 H.S. Colt creation that climbs into the dunes and features one of the greatest holes in golf, the 210-yard, par-3 14th, aptly named “Calamity.” Amid winds whipping off the Irish Sea, a slice or fade off the tee will plunge into a 75-foot-deep chasm short and right of the hole. $123-$331
Portstewart (Strand), Portstewart, Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland
This somewhat schizophrenic layout boasts one of the most stirring opening holes—and opening stretches, really—followed by an older, duller, flatter back nine. Chief among the unforgettable holes is the beach and dune panorama that greets the golfer from high atop the first tee. 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell touts the front nine as among the most spectacular in golf, and the course as perhaps the most underrated in Ireland. Not for long, however, as it hosts the 2017 Irish Open in early July. $74-$184
Carne Golf Links, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, Ireland
Minimalist Irish architect Eddie Hackett and Mother Nature paired in 1993 to create 18 dramatic holes in westernmost Ireland that deliver striking ocean views, bucking-bronco terrain and elevated greens jabbed into giant sand hills. Twenty years later, the club added an equally stunning third nine, called Kilmore. For those with sturdy legs, this is the Emerald Isle’s best value. $48-$107
Lough Erne Golf Resort, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
Much of Lough Erne’s early fame stemmed from its association with its young (and successful) Touring Professional, Rory McIlroy, but today, this eight-year-old Nick Faldo creation can stand on its own merits. As well it should, thanks to a rugged, gorgeous, parkland design that juts out into its namesake lake and lodging that was good enough to host the 2013 G8 Summit. $74-$140
County Sligo, Rosses Point, Co. Sligo, Ireland
Deep in the heart of William Butler Yeats country is this Colt/Alison spread that has been updated several times since the 1920s, most recently by architect Pat Ruddy, who strengthened the layout in 2016 mostly via new championship tees and fairway bunkers. Unchanged is the stellar views of the Atlantic Ocean and of Sligo Bay, as well as the superior variety, including plateau greens, strategic par-4s and a creek running through several holes. $155-$177
Ballyliffin Golf Club, Ballyliffin, Co. Donegal, Ireland  
The Old Links sports some of the wildest fairway contours to be found on any course in Ireland, a layout recently strengthened by Nick Faldo. Pat Ruddy crafted its younger companion, the Glashedy Links and it features soaring elevations, holes that plunge from dune to valley, and also some American touches, such as ponds in play. $54-$161

Where to Stay
Belle Isle Castle, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (from $1,200 to rent the entire castle)
With only eight bedrooms, Belle Isle Castle is hardly convention-central. Set onto an island in Lough Erne, this 17th Century abode features a banquet hall, a minstrel gallery and a cooking school, as well as a private boat to take you to Nick Faldo’s Lough Erne golf course. 
The Bushmills Inn, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland (rooms from $159)
A perfect Causeway Coast location puts you a few well-struck drives away from Royal Portrush Golf Club, the Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery and Dunluce Castle. Among the distinctive amenities is the Gas Bar, a cozy hangout for your Guinness or whisky fix that’s still lit by old-fashioned gas lamps.
Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa Hotel, Ballyliffin, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, Ireland (rooms from $107)
Ideally situated to take advantage of the attractions of the Inishowen Peninsula, the 40-room hotel is a short walk from Ballyliffin Golf Club as well as the beaches of Pollan Bay and boasts stirring views of Malin Head. 
Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, Newcastle, Co. Down, Northern Ireland (rooms from $159)
Located next door to Royal County Down Golf Club, this red-brick façade of this gothic-looking property served as the “Hotel Splendide,” a 2000 movie with Daniel Craig and Toni Collette. An excellent spa that overlooks the sea and reliably solid offerings at the Oak Restaurant make this a favorite, even if you’re not teeing it up. hastingshotels.com 

Where to Dine
The Restaurant at The Bushmills Inn, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
Amid a handsomely decorated space, with an emphasis on a regional cuisine, Bushmills serves up local classics such a prime Ulster beef, pheasant, and locally caught fish, such as the Dalriada Cullen skink. 
Jack’s Bar and Restaurant at the Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa Hotel, Ballyliffin, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Start with eye-catching views of the Donegal Inishowen coastline and cap it off with nicely varied menu, one that includes a seafood chowder starter, Braised Short Rib entrée and Artisan Irish cheeses for dessert. 
Vanilla, Newcastle, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
This contemporary eatery in the heart of Newcastle dishes out inspired cuisine, as evidenced by the steady stream of locals. The Finnebrogue Venison or the Monkfish Laksa, paired with a side of Buttermilk and Black Pepper Onion Rings and a Sticky Toffee Pudding dessert will cure any and all hunger pangs. 

The islands surrounding Belle Isle Castle, which offers a private boat to Nick Faldo's Lough Erne golf course.
Courtesy Belle Isle

DUBLIN AND BEYOND

Where to Play
Portmarnock Golf Club (Old), Portmarnock, Co. Dublin, Ireland
This low-profile but character-filled Dublin-area links played host to the 1991 Walker Cup, where Phil Mickelson and the Yanks prevailed, despite strong efforts from Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley. Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam are among those who captured Irish Opens here. Arnold Palmer once tabbed the 15th as one of golf’s best par-3s. Deep pot bunkers and low dunes that offer little protection from the wind make Portmarnock Ireland’s sternest, yet fairest championship test. $156-$242
The European Club, Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
Johnny Miller once stated that he’d “love to see the British Open played here.” For years, Padraig Harrington tuned up his pre-Open links game here—and twice won Opens a week later. From the tips, it’s a rugged test for sure, but the aesthetics match the challenge, thanks to holes that twist through amphitheaters of giant dunes and others that edge the Irish Sea. Architect and owner Pat Ruddy is forever tinkering with his 24-year-old, south-of-Dublin creation, yet he usually gets it right. $107-$215
The K Club, Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland
Home to two of Ireland’s finest inland courses, The K Club (short for Kildare) offers the Arnold Palmer-designed Ryder Cup course that hosted the 2006 Match, and another Palmer product, called the Smurfit, built in 2004, 13 years after his first effort here. The Smurfit is actually the longer, stronger of the two, and has hosted European Tour events, but the Ryder Cup layout has more character, thanks to holes such as the par-5 16th, that tangles with the River Liffey and the par-4 17th, where more aqua-trouble awaits. $97-$258
County Louth Golf Club, Baltray, Co. Louth, Ireland
A favorite course of 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, himself an Irishman, “Baltray,” as locals call it, is an attractive, well-regarded links north of Dublin with a collection of extraordinary holes set into the dunes. Most memorable the excellent par-3s, and the stretch of par-4s at 12, 13 and 14, the latter opening with an elevated, dune-top tee box that takes in sweeping views of beach, sea and the Mountains of Mourne. $86-$172

Where to Stay
Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links, Portmarnock, Co. Dublin (rooms from $105)
Sometimes confused (even by savvy travelers) with the Portmarnock Golf Club, which sits just to the south, this similarly named establishment can and should stand on its own merits. It possesses a fine links course, designed by Bernhard Langer in 1995 and the hotel itself is outstanding. Located 15 minutes away from Dublin’s international airport, this palatial dwelling was once the home of the Jameson Distillery family. The hotel overlooks the Velvet Strand beach and features terrific dining, a spa, and the memorable, oak-paneled Jameson Bar, complete with high sash windows and original oil paintings. 
The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel, Dublin, Co. Dublin (rooms from $237) 
For nearly 200 years, Dublin’s finest hotel has been a landmark on the north edge of St. Stephen’s Green. Now a Marriott International property, The Shelbourne is the ultimate in refinement, yet it’s eminently approachable. An outstanding spa, a fitness center, beautifully appointed rooms and a great location near Grafton Street, close to many of Dublin’s top attractions, are highlights. 
The Kildare Hotel, Spa and Country Club, Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland (rooms from $257)
One of the most luxurious small hotels in all of golf, the Kildare (more popularly known as The K Club) wows with opulence from the public spaces to the bedrooms to the dining, to the activities that range from Ryder Cup golf to outstanding fishing on the River Liffey.

Where to Dine
The Quays Temple Bar, Dublin, Co. Dublin
Among earth’s best pub crawls is the Temple Bar area in central Dublin, on the south bank of the River Liffey, and while there might be more famous drinking establishments, few can match the combo of good food, service, spirited drink and lively atmosphere than Quays. Excellent live music and dancing, with the highest quality pub grub, from Wicklow Lamb Shank to cottage pie to Guinness Stew. 
The River Room Restaurant at the K Club, Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland
This aptly named restaurant peers out at gardens and the River Liffey. The room ans service is elegant, without being stuffy and the food is remarkable. The Irish Oak Smoked Salmon and Atlantic Prawn Tails are superior starters, while the loin of wild Wicklow venison is a superb entrée.
The Lady Helen at Mt. Juliet’s Manor House, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland
Named for the former proprietor at this outstanding hotel that’s located 75 miles south of Dublin, the Lady Helen has retained a Michelin star and three rosettes from AA thanks to entrees such as Black Sole, Cod and the Rabbit and Langoustine and the Vanilla Baked Custard Tart for dessert. The hotel’s Jack Nicklaus golf course has hosted three Irish Opens and two WGC-American Express Championships, but the food is the real star here. 

Portmarnock Links, Bernhard Langer's first links course, opened in 1995.
Courtesy Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links

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