Golf Life: Links of Ireland throw golfers into unforgettable terrain

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Golf Life: Links of Ireland throw golfers into unforgettable terrain

British Open

Golf Life: Links of Ireland throw golfers into unforgettable terrain

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“Where’s the craic?”

“Find the craic.”

“Listen for the craic.”

“Sit back and enjoy the craic.”

“Good craic.”

With no direct American English equivalent, the Irish word craic means good times, the laughs, the music. Pronounced “crack,” it comes up in almost every conversation and is the lure for most travelers to the island in search of food, drink and fun.

Sometimes it can be a little misplaced, though.

For golfers looking for the craic, it’s not about pubs and hotels and traditional Irish music – those are all nice side benefits.

For the links-afflicted, it’s all about the sand hills. Ocean views. Ups and downs, twists and turns. Naturally wrinkled ground. Blind approaches.

Bounding fairways. Punch shots. Fifty-yard putts. Deep bunkers. Tall native grasses. Links golf at its wildest. It’s as different to American parkland golf as is driving on the left side of the road – similar in theory, but distinct enough to grab your attention and not let go.

The wildness is key. Irish golf in general has left the defined fairway edges and extreme manicuring to its American counterparts. Here there are tiny white flowers blooming in fairways, cattle and sheep watching from beside the greens and nearly vertical climbs and drops that no architect could recreate with machinery. The best Irish holes simply were found in their extreme landscapes and didn’t require much help to become beautiful.

Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland will play host to the British Open next week for the first time since 1951. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

For decades, Americans in search of such holes have flocked to the southwest coast of Ireland and famed links such as Waterville, Tralee and Ballybunion.

Players return again and again to that region, teeing it up on familiar courses with familiar tour operators. It’s relatively tidy and those courses belong on any bucket list, but players who consistently fly into Shannon Airport and head southwest are missing a lot of great holes, stunning dunes, ocean vistas and – often – less-touristy spots.

“You hear the typical story, ‘I’ve been to Ireland seven times, all to the southwest. I haven’t been north yet,’ ” said John Farren, general manager of Ballyliffin Golf Club, the northernmost links in Ireland and host to the 2018 Irish Open.

“We would be slightly different than the southwest, which would be probably 30 years farther down the road as far as tourism. They’ve had a 30-year advantage because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when this part of the world was just not a desirable place to vacation. But we’re catching up since the peace process has kicked in.”

The return of the British Open (ahem … the Open Championship in these parts) in July to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 has waved a spotlight across the links in the north and west of Ireland. Recent Irish Opens at courses such as Ballyliffin, Portstewart (2017), Royal County Down (2015), Royal Portrush (2012) and County Louth (2009) have helped shift some focus from the southwest.

“When we started out 30 years ago, the courses in our neck of the woods generally weren’t known,” said John McLaughlin, CEO of the golf-booking company North and West Coast Links Golf Ireland. “A lot of tour operators that were featuring Ireland, when you looked at their maps, they didn’t have any courses listed from Lahinch (on the western coast) to Royal Portrush (in the far north).

“We had a long few years of education to help us promote the area.”

Instead of flying into Shannon, there’s great links opportunities for those who fly into Dublin and head north, then west. That’s exactly what I did in May and June, embarking on my own for an aggressive schedule of nine courses in seven days before joining up with my family in search of the more traditional craic.

McLaughlin and his North and West staff arranged for me to see many of the most prominent links stretching from Dublin to Belmullet in the far northwestern reaches, crossing into Northern Ireland for three rounds before driving back into the Republic for more golf.

Wind that not only was felt, but was heard

Day 1 did not go as planned. The airline lost my clubs and, I learned later, broke one of my drivers. No golf shoes – both pairs were packed in the golf travel bag … dumb mistake. I blew out a tire on my rental Skoda while dodging a speeding box truck on a tiny country road.

The rain flew in sideways on wind that not only was felt, but was heard.

None of that mattered. This is Ireland. Let it blow.

First up, County Louth Golf Club, also known as Baltray, about an hour north of Dublin. The club’s general manager, Liam Murphy, hooked me up with a set of rental clubs, a trolley and three members: Peter, Peter and Patrick (who didn’t really want me to use their last names).

In their 60s and entirely comfortable keeping the ball beneath the wind on their home course, the Peters and Patrick began a brisk tour that showed that, at any age, the Irish tend to play fast.

Baltray was a treat, highlighted by a four-hole stretch into and alongside towering dunes on the back nine. If you played Baltray every week for a year, you might not have the exact same shot twice. My hosts kept the jokes flowing, a perfect prelude to every round in which I was paired with locals.

That’s one of the greatest differences in Ireland and the United States, where first tee boxes tend to be a bit more guarded. These Irish courses along the north and west typically see more member play than from international guests, and time and again I would wander up to the clubhouse or first tee alone, only to be paired with members who treated me as if I had grown up down the lane.

Finishing in squishy street shoes and having taken more strokes than I care to admit, I was ready for more. I was headed up the coast, with a big left turn around the top of the island.

After driving over the border into Northern Ireland and a night in the over-the-top-luxurious Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, where I moved quickly through the lobby at check-in so as not to leave a puddle of rainwater on the elegant tile, I hopped into the car for a two-hour ride through Belfast up to Royal Portrush. I had been looking forward to this round for months.

The traffic, rain and tour buses in the parking lot weren’t going to be a deterrent.

The Claret Jug will be presented to the winner of British Open, but it was not anywhere to be seen when Golfweek visited the site of the year’s final major.  (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Royal Portrush: Wow, the course

Royal Portrush is getting much of the attention this summer, as should be expected for an Open host. The covered front walkway and pro shop were full of international golfers, all trying to check the box before the major championship. The crowds weren’t a turnoff, but it certainly was different than the quaintness of Baltray.

But the course… wow, the course. Starting from the first tee to the 18th green beneath the great yellow Open scoreboard, Portrush’s Dunluce Links flowed like roiling sandy waves. Clearly the most testing of the courses I would play in Ireland, there wasn’t a dirty trick on the property. It’s all right in front of you, as Tiger Woods probably will say in July. But seeing the trouble and avoiding it in the oceanic winds are two very different things.

Thick native rough fortified by a wet spring didn’t always hide a golf ball at Portrush, but good luck trying to do anything more than hack many shots back to the fairway.

Several holes, especially the par-4 fifth alongside the Atlantic with a cliffside view of the Giants Causeway and Dunluce Castle, dare a player to take an aggressive line off the tee.

Don’t be a sucker, take the straight path – if only I had listened to my own advice. It should be great fun next week watching the world’s best navigate those challenges.

I played with a Canadian father/son duo and a South African anesthesiologist who had played every course on the Open rota, and after the rain and wind and missed putts, the fish and chips in the clubhouse never tasted better.

Portstewart’s front nine was a thrill ride for our Jason Lusk, who played 9 of Ireland’s best links courses in 7 days on a recent trip. No. 3 is pictured above. (North and West Links)

Up next, Portstewart

It was a short drive to the Adelphi Portrush, where I hit the bed like the tired old man I clearly am becoming.

At least my clubs and shoes finally arrived. Eighteen holes each day had been more than enough the first two days, and I was looking at 36 the next day with heavy rain forecasted.

But if you can’t get up the energy to tackle the front nine at Portstewart, then you probably should find another sport.

Standing on the first box of the Strand Course the next morning, I was confronted with rain drops, strong winds, ocean views, towering dunes and one of the most invigorating tee shots in Ireland – or anywhere else for that matter.

Hitting from atop a bluff where the clubhouse is perched, the fairway waits below, curving rightward into the dunes to a green unseen from the tee. Portstewart’s front nine was a thrill ride, and it didn’t hurt that I was hitting it well with my own clubs after two days to warm up – shame I was playing alone.

At the risk of sounding corny, I was inspired by the dunes on the front nine.

Nos. 2-8 were added after the club acquired property in 1981, and each hole could be a postcard.

The eighth plays downhill to a semi-blind fairway that doglegs hard left around a dune before dropping to a flat spot below, daring players to take the aggressive line. After a few big numbers at Portrush, I opted to play it safe
down the middle.

Then I perfectly pull-hooked my driver, caught a hidden slope into the lower fairway and shaved 50 yards off my approach shot. Always better to be lucky than good – this was one of my favorite holes of the trip.

Castlerock’s Mussenden course was ‘totally playable,’ even in the rain. (Golfweek Photo)

Castlerock: The only American out in the rain

Then I was off to Castlerock, where I had the front nine to myself as the weather chased off the members. With fewer vertical liftoffs but plenty of wrinkled ground and native grasses, Castlerock’s Mussenden course started strong in the dunes before descending into less extreme terrain for several holes, then returning to the dunes for Nos. 7 onward.

The Mussenden course was totally playable, which is often golf-speak for being able to find a ball in the rough. And that’s not a knock – a course doesn’t have to be punishing to be fun. At 6,506 yards from the middle tees, the course didn’t require big drives but it sure invited them. Despite the heavy rain, the closing holes were a joy as I tried (and somehow succeeded, despite having to practically drag myself up the evil, blind hill on No. 15) to keep my afternoon score short of 80 whacks. 

As with Baltray and Portstewart, I might have been the only American out there in the rain, and there’s a special feeling in that realization. These northern courses away from Portrush had an unrushed feel, presenting a chance to discover something new. I live near Orlando, for God’s sake, so any chance to visit a spot with a less-touristy vibe is welcome. 

Ballyliffin Golf Club Glashedy Links. (North and West Links)

Ballyliffin offers 2 courses, incredible views

After a drive south to the Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Londonderry followed by another hour in the car north to Ballyliffin the next day, I was confronted with an incredible ocean view and two courses on opposite ends of the modern/classic spectrum.

The club’s Old Links lives up to billing, playing across rollicking links ground that is anything but flat but that doesn’t climb into the mountainous dunes.

The club’s newer Glashedy Course, meanwhile, looked like a moonscape. 

A co-worker had told me he preferred the Old Links. That day the older 18 was open only to members, so I can’t provide an opinion on which layout is best.

But if the Old Links is better than Glashedy, it must indeed be truly special, because Glashedy was an incredible march into and out of the dunes. Up, down, round and round we went. These are the types of dunes that nature constructed as if the goal was to attract roving golfers looking for modern links thrills. Especially after Ballyliffin’s turn hosting the Irish Open, the tour-bus crowds frequent the two courses, which are more than ready to provide a can’t-miss experience.

“We’ve seen about a 25-, 30-percent uplift in visitor bookings since the Irish Open,” said Farren, Ballyliffin’s GM. “When you look at the aerial pictures, it’s a bit of a lunar landscape that we have here. … Because of the constantly changing climate and the constantly changing light, you never get tired of being out there. No two days are the same.”

After a night in the picture-book Ballyliffin TownHouse, it was on to Portsalon and Donegal. It would be a day that covered more than 100 miles by car and more than 12 miles on foot, starting in the rain before the sun broke free, only to finish in what might best be described as a monsoon. 

Of all nine courses played in Ireland during our visit, none had holes as intimate with the shoreline as Portsalon. (North and West Links)

An old-school stop in Portsalon

Portsalon is decidedly old school and sits alongside one of the most idyllic crescent beaches in the world. The ground rumbles without ever going vertical, with parallel holes that slowly rise into the back nine. The sun appeared just in time for my tee shot on No. 2, where players must drive across a tidal stream alongside the beach – one of the prettiest shots in the north.

Of the eight other courses I played in Ireland, none had holes as intimate with the shoreline as Portsalon. And none played tighter with tall grasses so close to the fairways, whispering to stubborn players to leave driver in the bag.

Donegal, also known as Murvaugh, took a little while longer to stretch its legs into the dunes, with several parkland-style holes on the front as the course unfurls across a peninsula. But it’s worth the walk to the par-3 fifth, which kicks off a stretch of heaving dunes. The wider fairways adjacent to the sandy hills challenge players to take a rip with driver – great fun. Not even the 40-mph winds and stinging rains over the final three holes chased us in.

At Enniscrone, another classic that has reworked its routing to take advantage of towering dunesland, the thrill ride started with the uphill approach to No. 1, with holes darting among sandy hills tall enough to cast long shadows across the fairways.

The back nine, with its ocean views, was a blast with several blind shots over dunes to cut serious yardage off approach shots. Playing alongside two members, a father/son duo, I was advised where to hit it amid a chorus of laughs and stories. 

The 530-yard, par-5, 13th awaits at Carne Golf Links. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

Simply put, Carne is like nothing else.

From Enniscrone it was a half-hour drive to Mount Falcon Estate and its immaculate grounds, where I would unpack for two nights in an immersive country environment that makes it difficult to leave in search of more golf. My feet were shot after so many miles – my iPhone registered as many as 100 flights of stairs climbed into and out of the dunes some days. But it would have been irresponsible to stay put and miss Belmullet Golf Club, also known as Carne. 

Simply put, Carne is like nothing else. The last course ever built by famed Irish designer Eddie Hackett, who also was responsible for several other links on this trip, Carne is a daredevil trip into some of the tallest, steepest dunes on the island. And unlike other courses, Carne never really leaves the extreme terrain for long.

The place knocked me off balance in the best possible way, the thoughts of “Can you believe this hole?” starting early and stretching all the way to the 18th green perched above a fairway that dips, dives and rolls to the conclusion.  

Carne is all natural, with holes carved through terrain that nobody would dare create with a bulldozer. Every hole deserves a spot on a calendar, especially those on the back nine that offer lofty views down to the Atlantic.

Carne is way out west, off the beaten track of most itineraries, and doesn’t attract the numbers of vagabond golfers seen at more popular spots farther south down the coast. It’s a shame that anybody would fly across the ocean to play golf and miss this place. 

Carne has an additional nine-hole trek through crazy dunes, and there are plans to incorporate this loop, built by Jim Engh, with the original back nine to create a new optional routing called the Wild Atlantic Dunes Course. The more holes here, the merrier.

If all of Irish links golf is a chance to experience the wild side of the
game, then Carne is that approach incarnate.  Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the July 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

Ireland’s Links: 9 Courses In 7 Days

Royal Portrush Dunluce Links

Course designer: Harry Colt (1929); Martin Ebert (2016)
Buzz: Big and bold, the Dunluce Links is a worthy home to this year’s British Open. Largely devoid of the blind shots found at many links, Dunluce presents penal rough and deep, revetted bunkers. The course winds through the dunes and wonderfully uneven terrain, and there isn’t a pushover hole or respite for struggling players. The contours of the greens are not extreme for a major-championship course. No. 16 (236-yard, uphill par 3 with a steep chasm short-right of the green) and No. 17 (408-yard
par 4 that falls left off the fairway into some of the toughest terrain)
could very well decide the British Open.
Par/length: 72; 7,317 yards (71; 7,344 yards for the open)


(Courtesy of North and West Links//L.C. Lambrecht)

County Louth Golf Club (Baltray)

Course designer: Tom Simpson (1938)
Buzz: This course is a fantastic example of old-school links filled with interesting shots over wrinkled terrain that is less extreme and a bit more forgiving tee-to-green than several other courses on this trip. The firm ground rolls and pitches, requiring thought on how best to approach the well-contoured greens. The dunes grasses are not overly punitive. Nos. 12-15 dive into 40-foot shoreline dunes and are the most stimulating holes on the course.
Par/length: 72; 7,031 yards


Portstewart Golf Club Strand Course

Course designer: A.G. Gow (1907); Willie Park (1920); Des Griffin (1990)
Buzz: The Strand offers an incredible early stretch. The opening par 4, with the North Atlantic just to the right but not in play, shoots downhill and doglegs right among towering dunes. No. 2 requires a tee shot through massive, jagged dunes to reach a partially obscured fairway. The rest of the front nine cavorts up, down and around the dunes. The back nine along the River Bann is flatter and less dramatic, but still a great challenge in the breezes across more traditional linksland.
Par/length: 72; 7,118 yards


Ballyliffin Golf Club Glashedy Links

Designers: Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock (1995)
Buzz: With the club already operating what’s now known as the Old Course, the Glashedy Links was built atop a stunning 80-foot dune and offers frequent views of the ocean. The middle of the front is a frequently cited favorite stretch for players who love extreme dunes golf, playing up and down the hills, dropping back to standard grade at the ninth. The back begins through tall native grasses before again ascending the dune
for several holes. Glashedy features some of the most severe revetted bunkers of this trip.
Par/length: 72; 7,462 yards


The 9th green at Castlerock Golf Club. (Golfweek File Photo)

Castlerock Golf Club Mussenden Course

Course designers: Ben Sayers (1908); Harry Colt (consultant, 1930); Martin Hawtree (2018)
Buzz: This classic links starts in the town and flows out to the River Bann on the front nine, leaving the dunes for a few holes before returning to steeper terrain on the back. Quirky with several blind shots – especially the uphill tee shot to an unseen fairway on the par-5 15th – the Mussenden Links presents a variety of interesting shots. The course seems entirely comfortable on the rolling land, offering a lovely stroll.
Par/length: 73; 6,805 yards


Belmullet Golf Club (Carne)

Designer: Eddie Hackett (1992)
Buzz: On the far northwestern coast of the island, Carne is one of the most dramatic landscapes for golf found anywhere. The dunes climb more than 150 feet above the nearby Atlantic, offering a roller-coaster ride for all 18 with frequent ocean views and invigorating challenges. The height of the dunes creates a sense of seclusion for most holes, with greens peeking out from steep and sandy hills. The club also features a stunning nine-hole course built by Jim Engh in 2013, and the club plans to sometimes combine those holes with the original back nine in what will be called the Wild Atlantic Dunes Course. It’s a fitting name, as the entire property is nothing if not a wildly fun day of impossibly creative golf holes.
Par/length: 72; 6,706 yards


Portsalon Golf Club

Designers: Charles Thompson (1891); Pat Ruddy (2000)
Buzz: The opening tee shot offers a beautiful view of the crescent beach on Lough Swilly, and from there the holes dive into the dunes with hardly a flat spot to be found. The front nine plays tight along the beach with some of the most unforgiving rough of this trip, while the more-forgiving back nine is farther from the water with great panoramas as the routing zigs and zags slightly up a hill.
Par/length: 72; 7.038 yards


(Courtesy of North and West Links)

Donegal Golf Club (Murvaugh)

Designers: Eddie Hackett (1973); Pat Ruddy (various years)
Buzz: Situated on a peninsula overlooking the Atlantic and an estuary, this links features an outward loop for the front nine that encircles the inward loop of the back nine. The course builds slowly with flatter holes before reaching its apex at Nos. 5-8, which play alongside the tallest dunes on the property. With wider fairways than many other Irish links courses, it’s a great test for players who want to hit driver over rolling fairways. The beachside dunes create a dramatic landscape without
the severe climbs of several other courses.
Par/length: 73; 7,456 yards


(Courtesy of North and West Links)

Enniscrone Golf Club Dunes Course

Designers: Eddie Hackett (1974); Donald Steel (2001)
Buzz: Evolving for a century, Enniscrone’s 18-hole course (there also is a nine-holer that incorporates six of Hackett’s original holes on flatter ground) climbs into the giant dunes on the opener. The course offers several tremendous views of the Atlantic from tee boxes and greens perched atop the steep hills. The front nine closes alongside an estuary and the back begins there before climbing back into the dunes. Several sharp doglegs race up, down and around the dunes with blind shots that offer possible shortcuts to adventurous players.
Par/yardage: 73; 7,033

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