6 Irish Modern Classics: Embrace the new on a visit to the Old Country
There's a standard menu of great courses that draws golfers to Ireland, places like Ballybunion, Lahinch and Royal County Down. But not every great Irish course was in existence when your ancestors hopped on the boat to the New World. Here's a closer look at six courses that are younger than your kids, each worthy of a spot on the roster when you're planning your next trip.
Carne, the local golfers will tell you, is "at the end of the rainbow." That can be literally trueits mighty dunes dominate a peninsula where Atlantic squalls compete with brilliant sunshine but it's also valid in the pot-of-gold sense. The last great links course laid out by the legendary Eddie Hackett, Carne is raw, rugged, and totally devoid of pretense. ("It took nature thousands of years to create this," Hackett said when he first walked the site. "We must not let the bulldozers destroy it.") The front nine, overlooking the bayside village of Belmullet, builds like the first movement of a symphony, but it's the climb from an amphitheater green to the 11th tee that melts the golfer's heart. Carne's back nine is an unforgettable meld of sparkling ocean, terraced dunes, shadowy gorges and green sites that waited eons for a Hackett to come along. A couple of his holes are quirky first-timers preparing to play their approaches to the par-4 12th need help finding the green, high on a ledge but all are memorable. To my mind, Carne is the purest expression of links golf to be found anywhere.
The inland courses that have sprouted in the Irish countryside over the past two decades have been a fairly mixed bag, ranging from decent (Adare Manor, Mount Juliet) to dire (take your pick of either course at the K Club). So expectations were not high for Lough Erne Golf Resort's new Nick Faldo-designed course when it opened in 2009. But in short order the course came in at No. 3 on Golf Magazine's Best New International Courses ranking, and it stands above all of its aforementioned rivals.
Granted, much of its charm has to do with location, jutting out into Lough Erne in one of Northern Ireland's most scenic areas. The rest has to do with holes that are just fun to tackle, like the 396-yard 7th, which sweeps downhill and to the right with the green perched on the water's edge and buffeted by the whipping winds. But few holes will get your attention more than the 10th, a tiny par 4 that is just 351 yards from the tips but reachable for even shorter hitters from the sensible tees. Known as "Emerald Isle," the green is surrounded on three sides by the Lough, and even short pitch-shot approaches are turned into knee-knockers here. Those are just two of the 14 holes where Lough Erne threatens to shatter your scorecard.
Lough Erne Golf Resort has much going for it: great service (the crew here ran the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews), superb rooms (especially the Loughside Lodges), a quality Thai spa and terrific food in the Catalina restaurant. But what makes its course special location might also hamper it, since the only worthwhile courses within easy range, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, are both about a 90-minute drive away. So don't treat it as a base for touring other venues, but as a stop in itself. It is well worth your time.
Last summer Stewart Cink "Tweeted" this message to his million followers: "Played Doonbeg yesterday with the kids. Their first links. Course blew away my expectations. Only eight years old and looks ancient." A week later he won the British Open. Doonbeg can have that effect on you.
Greg Norman sculpted Doonbeg from massive sand-hills at the ocean's edge, just 30 minutes south of Lahinch. It won much early praise when it opened in 2002, and plenty of heckles for its inordinate difficulty. The course has since been softened, so criticism these days focuses on the fiercely sloping greens, the goofy bunker in the 12th green and the handful of plain "pasture" holes that were compromised due to environmental restrictions. However, overlook these flaws and you've got the raw stuff of greatness. There are plenty of holes here that serve up breathtaking scenery and demand heroic shotmaking in equal measure, none more than the par-3 14th, a tiny terror of 111 yards with a green cut into the side of a dune. Doonbeg is also among the rare links courses that offer great accommodations on-site. It's worth coming here for the Lodge alone. It's also a great base for Lahinch and Ballybunion. Better yet, bring the family and tweet to your heart's content.
Almost a dozen years ago, I boldly (perhaps foolishly) proclaimed the new Old Head Golf Links to be the world's most spectacular course. It took me a decade to return, but I stand by what I said. Among the most jaw-dropping courses on earth, Old Head reigns supreme. That said, I hasten to remind devoted readers that I also noted that it's not even Ireland's best course, much less the world's.
The individual holes lack any design sophistication, the greens are bland, and the bunkering almost amateurish, and the rocky, heavy ground precludes the true links experience that springy turf can yield. Oh, and when the wind howls a round is rendered almost meaningless. But when the sun shines, Old Head is a fantasy calendar come to life, with holes draped atop 300-foot-high cliffs, and with backdrops that include a lighthouse, castle ruins and the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean where the Lusitania went down in 1915, an act that spurred the U.S. to enter the Great War.
Throw in some terrific new accommodations at the clubhouse and the charms of Kinsale the gourmet capital of Ireland and this ranks among the top attractions in Irish golf. I'd be a fool to wait another 10 years to return.
Tralee Golf Club
Ardfort, Co. Kerry, Ireland
6,975 yards, par 72
"I have never seen a more perfect place to build a golf course," Arnold Palmer said in 1984 of Tralee, his first design foray in Europe. With uncharacteristic humility for a course architect, Arnie even shared design credit for the back nine with the Almighty. Whoever gets credit, Tralee gets my vote as Ireland's most underrated course.
Tralee's problem is that it's overshadowed by its near neighbors, Ballybunion and Waterville. Also, both nines conclude with disappointingly dull uphill par-5s, and the anointed back nine is too wild and woolly to be genuine rolling links terrain. To all of this, I say, "So what?" If the defining measure of a course's greatness is its number of enticing, memorable holes, then Tralee soars. There are a handful of standouts on the front nine, and the stretch from 11 to 17 is among the most exciting you'll ever play. The Tralee experience is crystallized at the 361-yard, par-4 17th, which peers down over the beach where the movie Ryan's Daughter was filmed. Love it or not, Tralee's back nine is utterly unforgettable.
For the past three years Padraig Harrington has used the Irish PGA Championship at the European Club as a warm-up for the Open Championship. He has won the event all three times, and has hoisted two Claret Jugs in that span. Pat Ruddy's design is perfect preparation for the oldest major, so much so that former Open champ Johnny Miller says he would love to see the event played over these windswept dunes south of Dublin.
Of course, I have a soft spot for Ruddy, who's probably the most genial host at any course in Ireland (he owns the place and is ever-ready to greet visitors). But even as the hype that surrounded the course's 1993 opening has subsided, critics still rank it among the world's 100 best tracks, thanks to its beguiling variety of holes and challenges. Some folks argue that the European Club has too many water hazards and plays too long and is at times too narrow, given the gusts that sweep the course. Ruddy answered those criticisms thusly: "The shotmaker and the thinking person will thrive on coming to terms with a primeval piece of ground. The less adept should enjoy the odd flash of brilliance and the sheer beauty of nature in the raw. But the unthinking golfer may suffer."