While it may seem strange to suggest Ireland’s capital city is “the road less traveled” and indeed the world-renowned Wild Atlantic way, as golfing destinations these regions are more noted for sightseeing than golf tourism.
There are standout courses in both the Dublin region and on the North West coast of Ireland that have bucked this trend, most notably Portmarnock and Ballyliffin. There are however so many more exceptional other courses in these regions to choose from along with the best of Irish hospitality.
With Northern Ireland practically sold out for 2022 and the Southwest nearing capacity, there has never been a better time to explore these two majestic destinations. For those not set on playing all links golf, there are also some stunning parklands and superb hotels in the midlands which would augment a truly authentic Irish golf trip. Below is a guide to some of the well-known and indeed some of the hidden gems to consider.
With so much to see and do in Dublin city and several exceptional links courses within one hour drive from the city center, it represents a superb destination for groups of golfers looking to combine their golf with some sightseeing and of course some great night-life. Let’s start with the golf courses:
Ranked the No. 1 golf course in the Republic of Ireland for six years, it is simply a superb golf course. Just 20 minutes from the city center it is universally acclaimed by some of the greatest golfers who played the game. Tom Watson (Open champion on five occasions) summed up the links during his visits by saying “There are no tricks or nasty surprises, only an honest, albeit searching test of shot-making skills.” The hosting of 19 Irish Opens, The Canada Cup, The Walker Cup, The Amateur Championship, and many Irish Amateur championships speaks volumes for the quality of the classic championship links at Portmarnock. With superb practice facilities and a beautiful clubhouse, the club has a proud reputation of being first and foremost a golf club and has produced many fine golfers throughout its esteemed history. It is also very welcoming to guests and the membership proudly shares its majestic links with golfers from around the world. Simply a must-play on any golfing visit to Dublin.
Along with the European Club, this is another more recent addition to Dublin’s Championship Links. Sitting next door to Portmarnock Golf Club , this links course was designed by Bernhard Langer and opened for play in 1995. Portmarnock Links recently hosted the Irish Links Challenge on the European Challenge Tour and has also hosted the Irish Ladies Open. This championship links plays host to the Winter Series every Tuesday throughout the winter where many of Ireland’s tour players and leading amateurs compete. In the shadow of it’s older next-door neighbour, this golf course is by any standard a superb links in it’s own right.
Another club just a stone’s throw from the city center. Royal Dublin literally has history dripping from the walls of the clubhouse at every turn. In the Halycon days of European golf in the 1980s, Ballesteros, Langer, Woosnam, Lyle, and Faldo all competed for the Irish Open here. Seve (twice), Langer and Ireland’s John O’Leary secured victory over the famed links. In subsequent years the links has hosted several Irish Amateur championships and in this writer’s opinion is probably the most demanding of all championship links. It is not for the faint-hearted and in traditional fashion pretty much has two nines that go “straight out and straight back.” The 18th is a par-4 that will test the very best with an out-of-bounds line from the tee that turns sharply toward the green and has to be negotiated with both the drive and the second shot. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Late Christy O’Connor Snr, who played in no fewer than 13 Ryder Cups, as its favorite son — Irish golf’s most endearing personality who had a welcome for everyone at Royal Dublin. He is sadly missed by all the club and indeed those involved in Irish golf.
A truly exceptional links, located just 30 minutes from the city center. The Island had the honor, alongside Portmarnock, of being the first clubs outside the UK to host the amateur championship in 2019. There is little doubt it would have hosted an Irish Open by now but for limited access to the property. The course is surrounded by the Irish Sea on three sides and is set among some of the highest sand dunes on the East Coast of Ireland. The opening tee shot presents a magnificent vista of towering dunes lining both sides of the fairway, which will have guests chomping at the bit to get the round underway. The rest of the course does not disappoint either and this is another must-play for all visiting the Dublin region. Ryder Cup star Philip Walton is its most prominent son.
About one hour North of the city center, you will find County Louth Golf Club. This is another superb links rich in the traditions of the game and indeed in hosting professional amateur championships. The annual East of Ireland has hosted all of Ireland’s major winners down through the years and indeed champion amateurs from around the world. The most famous indeed is the current Open Champion, Shane Lowry who broke on the world stage by winning the Irish Open on the European Tour as an amateur in 2009, is seen as akin to those in Portrush in 2019. The course meanders through the links land in a variety of different directions ensuring a differing wind direction for practically every other shot. The par-3s — fifth, seventh, and 15th — and the short par-4 10th are the standout holes. This golf course comfortably sits alongside the others in the region as one of the best links on the planet.
The European Club
A truly stunning piece of golf course architecture by Pat Ruddy approximately one hour south of Dublin. A relatively recent addition to regions championships links (1987), The European club will host some of the best amateurs in the world at The Irish Amateur Open in October 2021. A young Rory McIlroy won the Irish Amateur Close Championship here at just 16 years old in 2006. Indeed, it was where Padraig Harrington honed his skills as he prepared for his Open Championship victories in 2007 and 2008. From the tips, this course is a beast, and not recommended but for the most accomplished of golfers. Thankfully there is a variety of tees to suit all golfers but make sure to avoid the carnivorous bunkers.
While most definitely not “the road less traveled,” this is a superb place to visit. Sightseeing options range from historical sites to brewery and distillery tours. There is also a wide range of great hotels, bars and restaurants to choose from. If late-night revelry and golf is your thing, a week in Dublin and six great links courses will see you return home in need of a week’s rest and relaxation after an exhilarating trip. The alternative would be to combine this with another region in Ireland.
This region is simply a magnificent destination. The biggest issue here is choosing whether to go with a “North-North-West” or a “South North-West” option. Of course, if you have two weeks to spare or wish to play twice a day, then you could try to do it all.
Donegal County, in the North of this region, is awash with spectacular links. Ballyliffin (two courses), Port Salon, Rosapeen (three courses), Donegal GC, and “Nairn and Portnoo” have seven links that will match up with any other region in the UK or Ireland.
The province of Connacht can offer classic links such as County Sligo, Enniscrone, and Connemara. Galway Bay is a spectacular headland course just outside the wonderful city of Galway, which this author would consider as the top destination for any visitor to Ireland, whether golfing or not. Let’s consider some of the golf resorts and courses dotted along the Wild Atlantic Way in this region:
Ballyliffin Golf Club
It’s hard to argue with Rory Mcilroy when he states “Anyone planning a golf trip to the north of Ireland, the two courses at are must play championship links”. Another one of the club’s famous admirers is Sir Nick Faldo. The Glashedy Course, designed by Pat Ruddy (European Club) is an astonishing golf course. The Irish Open was staged here in 2018 to universal acclaim by all who competed and attended. As with the European club this is a beast of a golf course but with a range of tees available is playable by golfers of all ability. The Old Course is also stunning with undulating fairways meandering in a variety directions with spectacular scenery throughout. The courses are located just a few miles from Malin Head (Ireland’s most northerly point), along the Wild Atlantic Way and is the ideal starting or finishing point for a spectacular golf trip.
Rosapenna Golf Resort
With the Old Tom Morris Course, Sandy Hills (Pat Ruddy again) and brand new St. Patrick’s Links adjoining a superb hotel, this is nothing short of Links heaven. Situated approximately one hour west of Ballyliffin, those who travel here are never disappointed. The Sandy Hills course has hosted many Irish Amateur Championships, with Rory McIlroy winning the scratch cup here in 2007 over a field that included Shane Lowry. It is a jaw-dropping links superb holes from start to finish. Like the other Ruddy designs it is not for the faint hearted and forward tees are recommended for most. While there are many superb holes, the par-4 sixth is worth the journey on its own. The Old Tom Morris course certainly stands the test in time and indeed when any of the big amateur events or Irish Open qualifying events come here it is used alongside it’s younger sibling. The latest addition is the St. Patrick’s Links designed by the world-renowned Tom Doak, opened in June 2021. Fresh off the shelf this course has golf travel journalists drooling and is expected to go straight into the top of the established golf course rankings.
Allied to the three fantastic golf courses, the hotel and in particular it’s restaurant offer guests the best of Irish hospitality. Local scenic drives are abundant and while peace and tranquility is on offer here, there is a lively local neighborhood with some great bars and restaurants.
Donegal Golf Club
Having recently competed in our National finals at “Murvagh” as it is affectionately known in Irish Golf circles, this author can certainly attest to its place as one of Ireland’s great links. Another links that meanders it’s way in a variety of directions, this a championship test that has a variety of options for golfers of all abilities. Holes 1-9 are especially good, while the back nine will keep you honest all the way home with a most difficult finishing hole. Donegal Golf Club’s geographical location means it can be added to a “nort-north-west” or “south-north-west” itinerary.
County Sligo Golf Club
Located at Rosses Point just north of Sligo town, for many this is the spiritual home of Irish Golf. Home to the famed West of Ireland Amateur Golf Championship, won by Rory McIlroy in 2005 and 2006 and by Shane Lowry in 2008, the event lists other major winners such as Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington on its roll of honor. County Sligo is a simple and stunning links with vistas of the North Atlantic and the towering Ben Bulben, this Harry Colt Design is widely acclaimed in Irish Golf as one of the best courses on the island. That man again Pat Ruddy has recently overseen changes to the existing course, but the layout has largely been left untouched. There are so many good holes here to single out one, but the 17th hole is probably the most difficult par four any golfer will encounter when trying to close out a match. In this writer’s opinion, a must-play.
Enniscrone Golf Club
This is another must play. Host to many National Championships, Enniscrone was designed by Eddie Hackett with input from Donald Steel in 2000 the newly routed course opened in 2001. It is simply a masterpiece set among towering dunes. Holes 11 through 16 are among the most spectacular stretch of links holes in the UK and Ireland. While the undulations and dunes mean there are quite a few blind shots, a caddie, strokesaver or maybe even a second round will maximize enjoyment on a stunning golf course.
Another Hackett design situated on the very North West tip of the province of Connacht, this is about an hour west of Enniscrone. Renowned author Tom Coyne describes Carne far better than I could ever hope to “In any string of words I might pen over the rest of my life, I might never write a more true sentence than this: Carne is absolutely brilliant. Front nine, back nine, every hole, every hill, every inch of the place is simply special.” To add to this the course has recently been upgraded to widespread acclaim. This is most certainly the road less travelled due to its remoteness but we have yet to hear of anyone who has regretted making this journey. Carne is as authentic as it gets and while it does not have the frills of any of the marquee courses, it has built a reputation as a must play.
Connemara Championship Links
Another remote destination on the Wild Atlantic Way with 27 holes set along the rugged shores of the Connemara coastline. The course is located in one of Ireland’s most scenic regions and traveling to and from the course itself is an exhilarating experience. This championship links has also hosted many Irish National Championships and has its fair share of famous admirers. The late great Peter Aliss sums it up well, “if there were a course like this on the West Coast of England, it would surely host the British Open.” The back nine of the championship course has a string of spectacular golf holes and while like others, the back tees are very demanding, there is a variety of tees for all golfers to enjoy their round.
While not a traditional links, Galway Bay is a magnificent headland course situated just outside Galway City. A Christy O’Connor Jr. design, the course is a European Tour venue and indeed is where Padraig Harrington first secured his qualification for the European Ryder Cup team. The course is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on three sides and on a sunny day is simply a piece of golfing heaven. The course played host to the prestigious Carey Cup, a biennial match between the best amateurs in Ireland and New York in May 2018 and received universal acclaim by all.
Places to stay
When considering a golf trip to North West Ireland, the Rosapenna Golf Resort is truly spectacular. It is the ideal location to base for a week’s golf in Donegal. The accommodation and food is superb, and with three superb golf courses on site and several more links including Ballyliffin, Port Salon, Donegal and Nairn and Portnoo within driving distance it is perfect.
For those planning a trip to the Connacht region, Sligo and Galway offer lots of great accommodations options. Both cities are steeped in Irish History with lots to see and do. Great hotels, restaurants and bars will satisfy the night owls while the golf courses will not disappoint.
The roads less traveled by golfers, will be busier in 2022 as pent-up demand for golf travel cannot solely be facilitated by the marque clubs in the South West, Northern Ireland and Scotland. For many this will be an opportunity to explore those great courses and towns they have never had a chance to visit.
Ireland is definitely a bucket-list golf destination, and one that can be enjoyed in a plethora of different ways.
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