Best Irish Greens
The wonderfully alive, challenging natural terrain is one of the things that makes Irish golf so remarkable. Of the estimated 150 top-quality links courses in the world, 39 of them are in Ireland. Most of these leading courses were designed by celebrated golf architects, such as Tom Morris, James Braid, Harry Colt, and Alister MacKenzie, who capitalized on spectacular landscapes. Others—such as Jack Nicklaus, with his new course at Killeen Castle in County Meath—will continue in their steps.
The Weather Factor
You see all kinds of weather in Ireland—driving winds, rain, sleet, and sunshine—and you may see it all in one round. There are no rain checks here. You play unless there's lightning, so pack your sweaters, waterproof shoes, and rain gear, especially if you're planning your trip between fall and spring.
The Sunday Bag Factor
If you don't have a golf bag that's light enough for you to carry for 18 holes, invest in one before your trip. Electric carts are generally available only at the leading venues, so you usually have the option of using a caddy or caddy car (pull cart)—or of carrying your own bag. Many courses have caddies but don't guarantee their availability because they're not employed by the course, so you may have to tote your bag yourself. Be prepared with a carryall or a Sunday bag.
The Northern Ireland Factor
Some of the best and most beautiful courses are in Northern Ireland, where the leading venues—like Royal County Down and Royal Portrush—are less remote than in the republic. Remember that this part of the island is under British rule, so all currency is in U.K. pounds, although many clubs and businesses will accept the euro. There are no restrictions when traveling from one part of the country to the other.
The Private Club Factor
Unlike those in America, most private golf clubs in Ireland are happy to let visitors play their courses and use their facilities. It's important to remember, however, that such clubs place members first; guests come second. In some, you'll need a letter of introduction from your club in America to secure your playing privilege. There are often preferred days for visitors; call in advance to be sure that a club can make time for you.
The Downturn Factor
The recent rapid economic downturn in Ireland has seen a few courses close and a slew of them—mostly in the republic—continue to drop their highly inflated prices to a much more reasonable rate for 2011 and 2012. Ireland is now packed with newer premium courses all competing to undercut each other pricewise—the "perfect storm" for the price-conscious visitors who still want to test themselves against the best golf courses the country has to offer.
The Perfect Links
Ballybunion Golf Club, Co. Kerry. On the Old Course, one of the country's classics, each and every hole is a pleasure. Set on the shore of the Atlantic at the southern entrance to the Shannon River, Ballybunion is famed for tough but pleasant golf, epitomized by the huge dunes—great for a stroll but hellish to play out of.
The K Club, Co. Kildare. You'd have to be a nongolfer and a hermit not to have heard of this course, one of the country's most prestigious and demanding. Arnold Palmer designed the main course, famed for its water obstacles and inland links feel. The on-site facilities are the best in Ireland.
Portmarnock Golf Club, Co. Dublin. One of the nation's "Big Four" golf clubs (along with Ballybunion, Royal County Down, and Royal Portrush), Portmarnock is a links course near Dublin. Located on a sandy peninsula, it has hosted regular Irish Opens with its 100-plus bunkers ready to trap amateur and pro alike.
Royal County Down, Northern Ireland. A lunar landscape makes this course as beautiful as it is difficult. It has recently ousted St. Andrews as Golf Digest's best course outside the United States. The sea of craterlike bunkers and long rough reward the straight and punish the proud.
Old Head, Co. Cork. Set on a spectacular peninsula jutting out into the wild Atlantic below, the Old Head is the romantic favorite of Irish golf lovers. Often compared to the Pacific sections of Pebble Beach, expect your pulse to race at the stunning views and wildlife.
Royal Portrush, Northern Ireland. This grand old course has made it into Golf Digest's top 10 non-U.S. courses. It's a sea of sand hills and curving fairways, with the White Rocks par-5 5th set on the edge of a cliff. Word has it (okay, Royal Portrush recommends) that a long carry over the mounds to the right of the white stone will be rewarded with a much shorter approach to the green.
Donegal Golf Club, Co. Donegal. This wild and wonderful course sits between the shores of beautiful Donegal Bay and the shadow of the majestic Blue Stack Mountains. From the 5th to the 9th you enter the "Valley of Tears," a fearsome challenge of four perilous holes made all the more challenging by feisty winds.
Doonbeg, Co. Clare. Doonbeg is a new, creative addition to the great tradition of Irish links. Gamblers beware at the treacherous 15th; anything long could run off the green and never be seen again. Making it to the 18th is rewarded with mighty views of the ocean.
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