Friday, February 16, 2007

Of course you've been to Ireland. After all, what golfer's education is complete without experiencing the Emerald Isle? The wild, unhinged landscapes, the spidery roads parting hills of green, the pubs that are more than just a place to have a pint. You've gotten out the map and traced your finger along the coast, where the great links are. You've been blitzkrieged at Ballybunion, whiplashed at Waterville, pelted at Portmarnock.

Great as they are, there is an alternative to the brawling links of Ireland. Quietly, a number of first-class parkland spreads has sprung up south and west of Dublin. Oh, there's enough rain to keep everything green, but County Kildare and County Wicklow are two of the sunniest places in Eire. Indeed, the Dublin area's refined layouts offer a pleasant respite from the salty chill of a seaside links. And when the round is done, you're convenient to one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, home of James Joyce, Guinness, and U2.

Where to Play

Carton House Golf Club . Tucked into a storybook setting -- a walled, 1,000-acre estate, the ancestral home of the Earls of Kildare -- the club's Mark O'Meara Course opened last year. This gorgeous parkland

O'Meara CoursePlayers walk the plank to reach the 15th green on the O'Meara Course at Carton House. L.C. Lambrecht

spread (7,006 yards, par 72) makes splendid use of the historic demesne's rolling hills and specimen trees. Holes 13, 14, and 15 -- a pair of par 3s wrapped around a heroic par 5 -- cross the lazy loops of the River Rye. This lush course, with its velvety bentgrass greens, is plenty tough from the tips, but it was designed to give pleasure from the regular tees.

The Colin Montgomerie Course, slated to debut this summer, is altogether different. Flatter and nearly treeless, its contoured fairways weaving through fields of tall fescue, the layout has deep, recessed pot bunkers to gobble off-line shots. At full stretch -- 7,310 yards -- Monty's links-style creation, which offers nice views of Rye Water Lake, is championship stuff. Green fee: 110 EUR ($126). www.carton.ie.

K ClubThe K Club's hotel is real and opulent.

The K Club . Kildare Hotel & Country Club, a.k.a. The K Club, will host the 2006 Ryder Cup, Ireland's first. The original course, an Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay design now called K Club North, skirts the River Liffey and winds around Straffan House, which dates to the year 550 and today is one of Ireland's most luxurious hotels. The course, home of the Smurfit European Open, has been reworked dozens of times since opening in 1991. The 7,178-yard, par-72 layout reflects Palmer's go-for-broke personality, with several watery risk-reward scenarios.

The well-groomed course, boasting one of the steepest green fees in Ireland, will be joined this summer by a second Palmer effort routed on a flat, treeless pasture on the opposite side of the Liffey. The brawny, 7,300-yard layout, marked by rolling manmade berms and large cloverleaf bunkers, has water in play at nearly every hole, including an island green at the par-5 18th. Rumor has it that K Club South, as it's known, may host the hotly anticipated matches in 2006. Green fee: 265 EUR ($305). www.kclub.ie.

Powerscourt Golf Club . On an exquisite estate that dates to the 16th century and is now owned by the Slazenger family, a budding 36-hole golf resort has taken shape in Enniskerry. The club's 7,051-yard East Course, laid out by Peter McAvoy in 1996, has a good mix of parkland and links-style holes. Deep bunkers and small, multitiered greens provide plenty of challenge, but all the par 3s play downhill.

Scheduled to open this summer is the West Course, a grand-scale design by Scotsman David McLay Kidd (of Bandon Dunes fame) routed on hillier ground with shallower bunkers and larger greens than the East. With its tall pines and 80-foot elevation change, the fledgling layout could pass for a rugged course in the Scottish Highlands. Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Irish Sea can be spied from the topmost holes. A Georgian-style clubhouse serves both courses. Green fee: 100 EUR ($115). www.powerscourt.ie.

Druids Glen Golf Club . The site of the Murphy's Irish Open from 1996 to 1999, this strategic design by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock rewards shotmakers who can maneuver the ball. Subtle earthworks, beautiful topiaries, and unusual suspension bridges mark the layout. The first seven holes occupy rolling, wooded land; the middle stretch descends into a

Druides GlenThe par-3 12th at Druids Glen mirrors the 12th at Augusta National.

Ruddy has returned to build Druids Heath, which is located near the new Druids Glen Marriott Hotel & Country Club and may have a soft opening later this summer. A multitheme spread routed among billowing hills, with fantastic views of the Irish Sea and distant mountains, the layout rambles around old farm ponds and descends into spent rock quarries. At full stretch, Druids Heath will present one of Europe's strongest tests of golf. Green fee: 140 EUR ($161). www.druidsglen.ie.

Where to Stay

A Dublin Primer
What James Joyce referred to as "dear, dirty Dublin" has been transformed by the thriving "Celtic Tiger" economy and a younger generation -- half the population is under 30 -- into a lively metropolis. Grafton Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare with St. Stephen's Green at one end and Trinity College (1592) at the other, is a prime shopping and people-watching zone. For many, no trip to Dublin is complete without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse at St. James's Gate. The story of the famous stout begins over 250 years ago and ends in Gravity (a bar in the sky) with a complimentary pint and a panoramic view of the city. Temple Bar, Dublin's cultural and nightlife quarter, is a pulsing enclave of pubs, cafes, shops, and art galleries. Simply follow the cobbled lanes between Dame Street and the River Liffey.

Accommodations and seasonal golf packages are available at The K Club (rooms from 395 EUR, $454) as well as the Druids Glen Marriott Hotel (one-night golf packages for two golfers, including full Irish breakfast and green fees at Druids Glen, start at 390 EUR, $448; www.marriotthotels.com/dubgs). Visitors also can stay in Dublin, making day trips to the aforementioned courses.

Arguably the finest hotel in town is the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin. Located in the embassy district of Ballsbridge, this 259-room, Georgian-style property is set within the Royal Dublin Society's 42-acre show grounds. The concierge can arrange tee times and self-drive or chauffeured transportation. Rooms with breakfast included start at 275 EUR ($316) per night. www.fourseasons.com.

Another option is Jurys Ballsbridge Hotel, a lively 300-room property with excellent restaurants and a traditional pub lounge. Rooms start at 187 EUR ($215); www.jurysdoyle.com.

For more information, contact Tourism Ireland at 800-223-6470; www.irelandvacations.com. At press time, $1 U.S.=0.87 euros.

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