The lure of golf in Ireland was never merely its famous links courses. There was also the thrill of discovery -- stumbling upon treasure tracks few travelers had seen. Today, that thrill is increasingly rare. Most of those formerly hidden gems are on full, fluorescent display, while the paths to all the major shrines are clogged with bag-toting pilgrims. Toss in sky-high greens fees and five-hour rounds, and ennui has come to Eire.
But there is a last frontier.
Ireland's northwest corner holds some terrific seaside courses that are half as expensive and twice as much fun as better-known venues -- and you don't need to call a year in advance for a tee time. This is the Ireland that existed before Ballybunion became the Pebble Beach of Europe. In fact, the Northwest can lay claim to the finest array of links courses in the world (sorry, St. Andrews).
The first rule of Irish golf: Ignore the weather forecast. Showers are predicted every day, but I endured just one wet day in the course of a week-long trip. Otherwise the weather was as dry as the locals' humor. From Dublin I hopped a puddle-jumper to Derry over in Northern Ireland, then drove back .into the Republic of Ireland around the Inishowen Peninsula to Ballyliffin Golf Club, the island's most northerly club. (A new ferry service from Magilligan Point in Northern Ireland to Greencastle in County Donegal cuts the journey by 40 minutes.)
Ballyliffin presents two strikingly different challenges. The 6,612-yard Old Links is a rumpled rug of a course where perhaps just a few teaspoons of sand were displaced to make way for tees and greens. Nick Faldo was gobsmacked by the place when he first visited in 1993, calling it "the most natural course ever." Faldo asked members on the 1st tee, "Do you play bump-and-run here or do you just run and bump?" You'll understand when you get here -- the fairway ripples are so pronounced that you'd be seasick if you drove this quirky links in a cart.
|Facts & Contacts|
|Ballyliffin Golf Club |
011-353-74-9376119 www.ballyliffingolfclub.com Greens fees $58-$90*
|Carne Golf Links |
Greens fees $38-$64
|County Sligo Golf Club |
Greens fees $83-$102
|Enniscrone Golf Club |
Greens fees $64-$81
|Portsalon Golf Club |
Greens fees $44-$51
|Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Links |
Greens fees $58-$77
|*Rates at press time, converted from euros. |
PLUS: North & West Coast Links, a 15-year-old consortium, has broadened its base and now lists 10 clubs as members, including three facilities in Northern Ireland. 011-353-91-526737; westcoastlinks.com.
Ballyliffin's second course is Glashedy Links, named for the muffin-top rock that rises from Pollan Bay. Designed on a lunar landscape of tall dunes by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, it is a stern, wind-lashed test with fiendishly deep bunkers and nasty rough. From the 7,135-yard tips, Glashedy is a beast -- Grendel with a hangover. The 183-yard 7th hole plays so steeply downhill that you almost expect to grab an elevator to the green. The finishing holes are marked by wicked doglegs threaded through corridors of shouldering dunes. You will play courses with more charm, but few with more bite.
From Ballyliffin, drive south to loop around Lough Swilly and onto the Rosguill Peninsula. Its beacon is the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Links, designed for the fourth earl of Leitrim by Old Tom Morris and tweaked by Harry Vardon and James Braid. The 6,476-yard Old Tom Morris Course is characterized by lilting fairways and punch-bowl greens. Last summer Rosapenna opened its new Sandy Hills Links. My playing partners here were two wizened members who looked too old and infirm to walk, much less play golf. Neither lost a ball, while I spent the day ploughing through the spongy, thigh-high marram grass that blankets the dunes of this 7,155-yard links. The two elderly gents offered to carry my bag on the 18th, so worn out was I from fighting the elements.
Sandy Hills is the work of iconoclast Pat Ruddy, Ireland's answer to Pete Dye. Ruddy counters advances in equipment with the crafty use of doglegs and sunken and domed greens. Each hole is tucked in its own compartment of dunes, and those who gamble can easily go broke. Sandy Hills needs a little time to embrace the land, but its two opening par 4s (495 and 463 yards, respectively) are among the hardest in Ireland. Next year Ruddy will marry nine new holes to the original front nine of the Tom Morris track for a sterling layout, leaving a nine-hole Academy Course made up of holes by Braid and Vardon. Now that's a nice pedigree.
My most joyful discovery was Portsalon Golf Club, a short drive east of Rosapenna. The club was founded in 1891 and occupies a stunning location on the shore of Ballymastocker Bay. It survived as a funky curiosity for generations until Ruddy built 11 new holes, revised a few others and knit the whole thing together. The result will bring a smile to the lips of even the most jaded campaigner. The great opening holes cross an inlet and skirt the tawny strand. The 476-yard 6th hole is a perfect emblem of the new Portsalon, which reopened in 2002. A tiny ribbon of fairway snakes through a cleft in the dunes and curves gently left to a platform green surrounded by swales and hollows. Beyond are the Knockalla Mountains with the Atlantic Ocean glimmering to the left. When the sun hits the rock-studded hills in the east, the course literally glows.
[IMAGE "1265683" left] From Portsalon it's a 90-minute drive south to Donegal town, where you ought to set aside time to shop for heathery tweeds at Magee of Donegal, whose jackets wear like iron. Farther south, you come across Ben Bulben, the stunning flat-topped mountain that inspired William Butler Yeats, the revered poet who put into words what everyone feels about "the land of heart's desire." Pause briefly in the tree-shaded Drumcliffe churchyard to read the sobering epitaph inscribed on his gravestone: Cast a cold Eye/On life, on Death./Horseman, pass by!
On a crumpled neck of land nearby is County Sligo Golf Club, an H.S. Colt design more commonly called Rosses Point. This fantastic 6,609-yard layout from 1927 is the equal of Ireland's big four: Portmarnock, Ballybunion, and the two Royals, County Down and Portrush. The opening holes play hard uphill, eventually offering a top-of-the-world view of Ben Bulben, the Ox Mountains and the whitewashed homes of Sligo town. This is sublime links terrain where shotmakers will prevail -- if they avoid the narrow, meandering brook, called a "drain" over here. The most famous hole is the 421-yard 17th, the Gallery, which calls for a bold approach over the shoulder of a hill to a narrow tongue of green. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts at Rosses Point. The greens are flawless, perhaps the truest, most velvety in Ireland.
At most Irish courses, the 19th hole options are plentiful. In Sligo town, seafood houses line the quay on the peninsula, notably the Waterfront restaurant. Just north of town, Yeats Tavern is a local favorite for tippling, though Hardagan's on O'Connell Street has private snugs and a marble bar.
Watch civilization disappear in the rearview mirror when you head west out of Sligo town toward the remote Enniscrone Golf Club. The original course here dates to 1918 and was extended to 18 holes 30 years ago. It was known as a solid test dulled by a mediocre start. In 2001, Donald Steel crafted several stunning new holes among skyscraper dunes, their sheer alpine faces rising 80 feet above the fairways. The elevated tees on these new holes serve up views of Killala Bay and distant peaks.
The most beguiling pre-Steel holes are the 12th and 13th, both short par 4s, and the long 7th beside the River Moy estuary. Four of Steel's six holes are par 5s, but the most striking is the 15th (called "The Strand"), a 421-yarder that curves along the shore and leads to a three-tiered green defended in front by a grassy knob. In a stiff wind, this 6,884-yard links is utterly fearsome.
Farther west, the Mullet is a talon-shaped peninsula thrust into the Atlantic. It would be a godforsaken place were it not for Carne Golf Links, designed on the shores of Blacksod Bay by the late Eddie Hackett and opened in 1993. (He pocketed a minimal fee plus train fare for his troubles; it wasn't about money for Hackett.) Mountainous dunes collide like freight trains at this short 6,119-yard links. Only 18 bunkers were built here; the terrain is defense enough. Hackett's green sites are natural plateaus and amphitheaters. The front nine scales the dunes, swings past farm land and then doubles back to the shaggy pyramidal hills. The world-class back nine can be forgiven the kooky, hairpin-shaped par 4s at the 11th and 12th holes. Hackett chose eccentric holes over disturbing dunes to create a textbook course, and the payoff is superb.
The 15th and 17th holes (366 and 299 yards, respectively) are majestic par 4s on rising land and are among the finest natural two-shotters you will find anywhere. The par-5 18th has surely been the cause of a donnybrook or two. A deep valley that could hide a brontosaurus herd lies between the driving area and the green. "A conundrum" is how Hackett described this odd feature before deciding not to fill it in. Still, like John Daly, Carne is lovable for its imperfections. The Mullet itself is a place apart, Ireland's Patagonia, and it's hard to believe that a course this spectacular is so far from anywhere. For those who have been, Carne is and always will be the most remote great course beyond the ken of Middle Earth.
Driving through the wilds of Connemara on the final day of the trip, I bypassed Galway and made for Lahinch Golf Club in County Clare, one of Ireland's finest courses, which last year added several new holes and removed a few ordinary ones. It's Saturday afternoon, cloudy and cool. There is no place to park. Tour buses and rental cars occupy every space. I see Americans in khaki shorts and Teva sandals smoking cigars. Yeats's immortal description of Ireland -- "great hatred, little room" -- might be altered to "great golf, little room." I contemplate a U-turn.
While You're There...
From Ballyliffin it's a winding half-hour drive past groves of palm trees and hillsides of sheep to Malin Head, the tip of the beautiful Inishowen Peninsula and the most northerly point in Ireland. Why go? For the simple pleasure of gazing out to North Atlantic shipping lanes, to see the simple white rocks spelling eire that guided World War II aviators, and to hear the ocean roar below the cliff. It is a stirring spectacle at land's end. Take a few long draughts of what is reputed to be the freshest and purest air on earth.
Five miles west of Ballycastle on the road leading to Carne are the Ceide Fields, an extensive Neolithic landscape of stone walls preserved under a 5,000-year-old bog. This oldest enclosed landscape in Europe is thought to have been deserted even before the first stone was laid at the pyramids in Egypt. Guided tours let you walk the bog and probe for a buried wall. museumsofmayo.com.
Now on the Tee
The wild and wooly links of Ireland's Northwest have been complemented by two new courses close to Dublin. Thirty minutes west of downtown, the K Club (www.Kclub.ie) debuted the new Arnold Palmer-designed South Course (known as "K2" to locals) last summer. The 7,277-yard track will host this year's Smurfit European Open while the established North Course readies itself for the 2006 Ryder Cup. The signature hole on the South is the 600-yard 7th with a man-made quarry guarding the entire right side and, appropriately enough, a tombstone-like rock rising in the fairway.
This month also sees the official opening of the Heritage Golf and Country Club (www.theheritagegolf.com) in Killenard, County Laois, 40 miles southwest of Dublin. Seve Ballesteros and Jeff Howes co-designed this 7,345-yard test on prime farmland. Ballesteros also has a golf academy on site.