The 18 Best Courses in Ireland

August 19, 2011

1. Royal County Down

Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland (Private)
Northern Ireland’s most socially conscious golf club, and one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, is awash in doctors, lawyers, judges and industrialists, mainly from Belfast. There’s no waiting list, not that it matters: few members leave before death and membership is by invitation only.

2. Royal Portrush (Dunluce)

County Antrim, Portrush, Northern Ireland (Semi-private)
Royal Portrush hosted the first professional tournament in Ireland in 1895. In 1951, the course hosted the only Open Championship ever held in Ireland.

3. Ballybunion (Old)

Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland (Semi-private)
Located on the Shannon estuary, the Old course at Ballybunion is a seaside links with very few trees. The course is widely considered to be one of the greatest in the world and is a fixture on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World.

4. Portmarnock (Old)

Portmarnock, Ireland (Semi-private)
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. The course has three nines — Yellow, Red and Blue, with the latter two combined to make up the Championship course.

5. Lahinch

Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland (Semi-private)
Started by Old Tom Morris in 1894, English designer Martin Hawtree gave the greens more size and slope, adding bunkers and reshaping fairways. The result is a remade masterpiece that will gladden the heart of 16-handicappers and Tour pros alike. (Phil Mickelson has called it his favorite links course.)

6. European Club

Wicklow, Ireland (Semi-private)
The course sits in massive sand dunes alongside the Irish Sea, about an hour south of downtown Dublin. The European Club has slender fairways, few blind shots and a collection of superb par 4s.

7. Waterville

Ring of Kerry, Ireland (Semi-private)

8. Old Head

Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland (Semi-private)
There’s value at Old Head past the vistas, and it comes from the people who make your day unique. As a visitor, you typically get a tee time and someone to point you toward the locker room. At Old Head you get the sense that you are not only about to do something very special, but that everyone is happy for you to be doing so.

9. Tralee

Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland (Semi-private)

10. Doonbeg

County Clare, Ireland (Resort)
Doonbeg debuted in 2002 to acclaim for its beauty and criticism for its difficulty. The owners widened some fairways, yanked out the odd bunker and removed plots of ball-swallowing rough (under protest from designer Greg Norman). The result is improved playability and a faster pace of play. It’s still a beast when the wind howls, but it’s a more fun experience.

11. Belmullet (Carne)

Carne, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, Ireland (Semi-private)
Mountainous dunes collide like freight trains at this short 6,119-yard links. Only 18 bunkers were built here; the terrain is defense enough.

12. Co. Sligo (Rosses Point)

Rosses Point, Sligo, Co. Sligo, Ireland (Semi-private)
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.

13. Enniscrone

Enniscrone, County Sligo, Ireland (Semi-private)
The original course here dates to 1918 and was extended to 18 holes more than 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.

14. Mount Juliet

Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland (Semi-private)

15. Ballyliffin (Glashedy)

Ballyliffin, Inishowen, County Donegal, Ireland (Semi-private)
Named for the muffin-top rock that rises from Pollan Bay, and 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.

16. Adare Manor

Adare, County Limerick, Ireland (Resort)
The River Maigue bobs and weaves its way throughout the 7,125-yard course, which while lacking the drama, scenery and design brilliance of its links neighbors, is still an enjoyable test. There are a fistful of tight, tricky par 4s, but the best hole here might actually be the closer: a slender par 5 with a knee-knocking approach shot over the Maigue to a green that is set just below the eaves of the manor house.

17. K Club (Palmer)

Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland (Resort)
The K Club, near Dublin, illustrates 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.

18. Druid’s Glen

Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow, Ireland (Semi-private)
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 mystic glen.