When the Ryder Cup is contested this September at the K Club near Dublin, it will illustrate the difference between a great golf course and a great venue. The plush retreat is without equal as a tournament site it's easily accessible and neither players nor officials will ever have to step outside the walls of the estate but the course is more Port St. Lucie than Portmarnock.
Let your trip to Ireland be a mix of reality and fantasy. Sure, play the course where the Ryder Cup will be fought. But start your journey at the course where it should be played, 75 miles north of the K Club at the finest links Ireland has to offer.
Royal County Down
Newcastle, Northern Ireland
Championship Course: 7,181 yards, par 71
Greens fees: $190-$240
If Ryder Cup venues were decided less on economics and more on merits, we'd all be getting a lot more familiar with Royal County Down this summer.
Sitting at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, a 30-minute drive south of Belfast in Northern Ireland, County Down is the highest-ranked Irish track on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 Courses in the World at No. 9.
The routing switches direction so frequently that the entire course seems to swirl in the breeze, and at every turn you're presented with a battery of shot options. There is only one constant: miss the fairway and par flutters away on that ever-present wind.
The ninth is usually cited as County Down's signature hole, which is like picking a beautiful woman from Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue on what grounds do you rule out the others? No. 16, a 337-yard par 4, is often mocked as a misfit, but with the distractions of the tee shot (the driving line is Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest peak), some perilous bunkering and a tricky green, it is representative of County Down's charms and challenges. Visitors welcome every day except Wednesday and Saturday.
Portmarnock Golf Club
Portmarnock, County Dublin
7,321 yards, par 72
Greens fee: $195-$225
Curving along a stretch of coastline on the Howth peninsula just 12 miles from downtown Dublin, Portmarnock has played host to a dozen Irish Opens and is No. 43 on our list of the Top 100 Courses in the World. If Dublin's traffic wasn't so bad you could make it from the airport tarmac to the first tee in 15 minutes. There are three nines Yellow, Red and Blue, with the latter two combined to make up the Championship course. The bite is in the pot bunkers that swallow inaccurate approach shots and the wind that whips off the Irish Sea. Arnold Palmer says that No. 15, a 174-yarder along the sea, is his favorite par 3. The only surprise is that Arnie could pick just one great hole here.
County Louth Golf Club
Drogheda, County Louth
6,936 yards, par 72
Greens fee: $135-$160
County Louth- also known as Baltray is Ireland's most underappreciated links, though it received some overdue attention in 2004 when it hosted the Irish Open. Less wildly contoured than most Irish links, it is still an understatedly brutal test. There are three par 5s in the opening six holes, a stretch where the variety of shots required is matched only by the punishment inflicted when you fail to execute. Locals will tell you Baltray has the best bunkering on the island. You can only hope that you are able to take their word for it.
The K Club
Straffan, County Kildare
Palmer Course: 7,337 yards, par 72
Greens fee: $417
The K Club has plenty of things going for it: guest service that is second to none, immaculate conditioning, fine food, proximity to the airport... Are the positives stretching a little thin?
This is not to say the Palmer Course (yes, that Palmer designed it) is without merit. There are a handful of fine match-play holes that will be a great stage for drama at the Ryder Cup, most notably the 606-yard, par-5 seventh (often played as No. 16 in tournaments, the hole is a doubledogleg with a green fronted by the River Liffey) and the 537-yard, par-5 18th, where the green juts into a lake.
But playing here gives you the same feeling as leaving the movie theater after watching a Harrison Ford flick you've seen it all before, years ago and at half the price.
The Palmer Course has a smattering of challenging holes and the ubiquitous water hazards place a premium on accuracy, but the only thing that exceeds expectations is the greens fee: more than $400, for the equivalent of a Florida resort course, without the weather.
Based purely on the panache of hosting the Ryder Cup, it is the most expensive round of golf in Ireland, equal to the fee at Pebble Beach. But at least Pebble can claim great architecture and history. Not so the K Club. However pleasant a visit here may be, you could throw a stone and hit a better course that costs a fraction of the price. And you wouldn't even have to aim carefully.
Where To Stay
[LIST "The hotel at the K Club ranks as one of the finest in Ireland. The Ryder Cup Package includes two nights' accommodations (double occupancy), breakfast, dinner and two rounds of golf per person on the resort's two courses. The cost is $1,056 per person. For reservations, call 0113531-6017200. kclub.ie"]
[LIST "There are few more impressive buildings in Northern Ireland than the Slieve Donard Hotel, which sits at the front gate of Royal County Down. Rooms start at $287 per night. Call 0114428-43721066 or visit hastingshotels.com."]
Where To Eat
[LIST "The Byerley Turk at the K Club offers superb French cuisine with an Irish flair. The roasted rack of Wicklow lamb and the seafood starters are enough to make you forget the greens fee."]
[LIST "Just off the main highway between Belfast and Dublin, seven miles north of Dundalk, is Fitzpatricks. The quaint, comfortable inn has a welldeserved reputation for serving up some of the finest food in the area. 01135342-9376193, fitzpatricks-restaurant.com."]
What To See
[LIST "It's a short drive from Royal County Down up into the Mourne Mountains, one of the most scenic locales on the island."]
[LIST "One of Ireland's top visitor attractions is between County Down and the K Club. Newgrange is a megalithic tomb built around 3200 B.C. The one-acre mound is flanked by 97 decorated stones and the inner passage leads to a chamber that is perfectly lit for 17 minutes by the sun on the winter solstice. Historians believe it took 300 men 20 years to build."]
[LIST "Find out how Ireland's greatest export is made and sample some of it at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Tours cost $16. 0113531-4084800, guinness-storehouse.com."]
[LIST "Continental Airlines offers direct flights from Newark International Airport in New Jersey to both Belfast and Dublin airports. Royal County Down is a 30-minute drive southeast of Belfast International Airport. You can reach The K Club in about 40 minutes from the airport in Dublin."]
The Card Wrecker
The K Club, No. 16, 395 yards, par 4
It's the shortest par 4 on the course, but according to Ryder Cup hero Paul McGinley it has the most potential to have you reaching for the Jameson whiskey. The Dublin native tells you how to survive it.
Paul McGinley on how to play it
"The toughest hole at the K-Club is No. 16, though it's going to be the seventh hole in the Ryder Cup. It has an island fairway and an island green. How to play it? Well, keep your ball dry. It's the most visually intimidating hole, so beware of driver off the tee hit something that can get you in the fairway. With an island green, you have to commit to your approach shot and really go after it, or you're all wet."