At best guess, 80%-90% of American golfers who visit Ireland are chasing the coastline, and those glittering links that dazzle in the sunshine, stir your passion in wind and rain, and reach down and touch your soul. Ireland boasts 33% of the world’s links courses, with the names of Royal County Down, Ballybunion and Portmarnock tripping off the tongue, their richness and depth as remarkable as the Cliffs of Moher and as mystical as the pouring of a pint of Guinness. Wait only a short while at any one of the following courses and someone will surely throw their eyes skywards and mutter, ‘this is heaven’. It isn’t, but it’s close.
The top 10 courses that make this list include the world-acclaimed clubs that will be on any golfer’s list, those that may raise an eyebrow and those that, try as they might, cannot barge their way on despite their credentials – Lahinch, Ballyliffin and Doonbeg spring to mind. There are no parkland courses. The most famous, the K Club, host to the 2006 Ryder Cup, has the kudos but it is not sufficiently different to many American courses to make it a ‘bucket list’ contender.
Unlike America, where some clubs are private and nigh on impossible to play, Ireland’s courses are open to everyone. You may need a handicap certificate, you may need a coat and tie, but as long as you’re happy to swing a club, you’re welcome on the fairways of Ireland.
1. Royal County Down (Established 1889)
Constantly ranked among the top 10 courses in the world, Royal County Down (RCD) promises a remarkable golf experience. It hits you the moment you step out of the car onto what is, for golfers, hallowed ground. This mighty links, with its bearded bunkers, threatening gorse and mountain companions owes its design and routing to Old Tom Morris, with a helping hand from Vardon, Braid and Sayers. It is a pure links with a front nine as explosive as it is brilliant. In the 9th hole, RCD boasts one of the toughest, blindest and greatest holes on earth. The other 17 aren’t bad either!
Green Fees: £50 – £185 Sterling
2. Carne (Established 1995)
A 27-hole course that roams the dunes of Ireland’s most north westerly peninsula with gleeful and wild abandon. Its scale is hard to grasp. Eddie Hackett, who designed the original 18, and Ally McIntosh, who crafted the newest nine, throw you into Ireland’s deepest dunes. Clearly neither read a health and safety manual for Carne’s dunes, roving fairways and natural greens will leave your head in a spin before you’ve finished the 1st hole. Carne stretches your imagination like no other, but certainly not your wallet.
Green Fees: €35 – €70 Euro
3. Ballybunion (Established 1893)
Does any more need to be said than the name of Tom Watson. The man brought Ballybunion to America… and Ballybunion has been bringing Americans back ever since. There are 36 holes here, the Old course that is so widely worshipped and the highly under-rated Cashen course which flows through the club’s biggest dunes. The Old has hosted the Irish Open, seen many of the greats roam its fairways before the Open Championship, and charmed golfers from across the globe. The start may be slow, but once you reach the 6th it is a rollercoaster of thrills.
Green Fees: €95 – €180 Euro
4. The European (Established 1987)
The story of Pat Ruddy’s quest to find this Co. Wicklow links land is the stuff of legend. What he then created, in the 1980s, is a modern links masterpiece that takes you out to the sea on the back nine… the beach is even in play. This is one of Ireland’s sternest golfing tests, where the rough can be far too captivating, the bunker sleepers intimidating and the greens big and sweeping.
Green Fees: €100 – €180 Euro
5. Royal Portrush (Established 1888)
The ‘Royal’ says much about the pedigree and history of this links in Northern Ireland, the only course on the island to have hosted The Open Championship (1951), and where a 16 year old Rory McIlroy set the course record of 61. The dunes have accommodated a rhythm of naturally curving holes, where knowing which side of the fairway to choose makes the difference between par and a whole lot worse. Holes 5 and 13 are two of the best links holes anywhere, with the par three 13th aptly named ‘Calamity’.
Green Fees: £60 – £165 Sterling
6. Waterville (Established 1889)
The Ring of Kerry draws many tourists, among them golfers who venture to this beautiful spot to play the most rhythmic and enchanting links on the island. With a rich history that is exemplified by the ‘Mass Hole’ plaque beside the 12th tee and the statue of an adored Payne Stewart by the practice green, Waterville is truly enchanting. Its views are picture-postcard stuff, every hole beautifully presented and enticing to the eye, and in 16, 17 and 18 it promises one of the most stunning finishes where the River Rinny estuary meets Ballinskelligs Bay.
Green Fees: €60 – €170 Euro
7. Old Head (Established 1997)
Old Head calls itself a links golf course… which isn’t strictly true. There are no dunes or beaches that ‘link’ land to sea, but there are 300 foot cliffs rising out of the ocean and there are golf holes that tip-toe along the precipices promising thrills that last the entire round. This is a glossy and glamorous resort where everything is immaculately maintained, from the impressive entrance gates to the blades of grass that make up every hole. It is luxurious and generous, and one of the world’s great golfing experiences.
Green Fees: €160 – €220 Euro
8. Portmarnock (Established 1894)
Set on the outskirts of Dublin City, on a low, bumpy piece of links land once owned by the Jameson (whiskey) family, Portmarnock has been drawing international golfers to the links for generations. Established in 1894, it is not pretty, like Waterville, nor does it have the big dunes of Carne or Ballybunion, but Portmarnock tests your mettle in much deeper ways. This is a strategic test – with seriously sharp teeth – that has hosted the Irish Open several times. It demands your best shot-making on every single shot and your play around the greens will dictate your final score.
Green Fees: €145 – €175 Euro
9. Tralee (Established 1896)
Tralee is Ireland’s most visually spectacular golf course, set amidst dunes where Barrow Harbour meets the Atlantic. Mountains spill across the skyline, beaches stretch into the distance, towers and castles beckon, and the ocean is always in view. Designed by Arnold Palmer (with no small help from God, Palmer admits) in 1984, the back nine is often regarded as the best in the country, although it would be in some tussle with Ballybunion and Carne for that acclaim. With chasms littering the back nine, Tralee can rightly boast to having some of the most dramatic holes anywhere.
Green Fees: €50 – €170 Euro
10. Enniscrone (Established 1918)
Perhaps a surprise choice ahead of revered links such as Lahinch, but Enniscrone has a natural drama that few can match. The 1970s Eddie Hackett design was updated in 2001, by Donald Steel, and Enniscrone is all the better for it. Big dunes greet you from the start, the 1st green tucked in deep, while the 2nd hole introduces you to the scale of the challenges that lie ahead. Killala Bay provides the backdrop and with no two holes even remotely similar, Enniscrone is an unforgettable round of golf with spectacular holes… especially on the back nine. Like Carne, it offers some of the best value golf in the country.
Green Fees: €55 – €70 Euro