Golf in Ireland is the epitome of the game as it should be played — on links land, in the company of joyous, hearty companions who relish the interplay of a seriously struck golf ball with fast, hard turf and unremitting elements. A true golfer comes alive while picking a target in the fairway from atop a wind-raked dune next to the ominous gray sea. It’s not a walk in the park; it’s golf.
The Emerald Isle is chock full of excellent golf courses, but the northern coast is blessed with some of the finest in the world. If you’ve always wanted to give Ireland a try — or are looking for an itinerary where you can check off several key boxes on your bucket list — consider this lineup arranged by Carr Golf Travel that takes you from Portmarnock near Dublin, up the northern coast, along the Irish Sea to Royal County Down, through Belfast, to Royal Portrush and Portstewart, west to Rosapenna, ending at Enniscrone on the Atlantic. You’ll play in both countries, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and there’s a bit of driving involved, but each must-play course is just a short stretch from the former, and there are numerous entertaining stops (think historic distilleries and breweries) to break up the trip along the way.
Many clubs in Ireland drip with history but few more than Portmarnock, founded in 1894. Arnold Palmer teamed up with Sam Snead to win the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960. Seve Ballesteros captured the 1986 Irish Open trophy at the course, and Phil Mickelson starred on the victorious US Walker Cup team there in 1991.
The course has 27 holes, with the Red and Blue nines making up the championship course at 7,466 yards. Three other tees are available (and advisable), with the green tees measuring a stout 6,705. It’s classic links golf, with wind as your first opponent and dodgy bounces in the fairway as your second. The first three holes on the Red course play dead into the prevailing wind, which typically measures 25 mph (take an extra club — or two or three). Here’s another hint: Don’t just play the contours of the green; allow for the wind to knock the ball offline when putting, too.
Royal County Down is simply the best golf course in the world, at least according to Golf Digest, where these seaside links top the list of the World 100. They may be right.
RCD dates from 1889, but this old man is neither doddering nor toothless. The venerable course stands tough between the Mountains of Mourne and Dundrum Bay on the Irish Sea. Its growling bunkers, edged with wiry marram grass, muscular dunes, and thorny gorse, make the course a brutal opponent — and that’s before the wind turns it into a savage one. At 7,186 yards from the tips, RCD is rather short for modern pro championships, but the 6,675-yard yellow tees are more than capable of beating the blarney out of run-of-the-mill duffers.
Every hole on Royal County Down is a mental challenge, a puzzle of wind, sand, terrain, and more wind. The stout breeze generally blasts from the Irish Sea, but the Mountains of Mourne often catch it and bounce it back, adding one more level of difficulty. How strongly do the winds blow? Strong enough to require a driver off the tee on a medium-length par 3. Numerous blind shots up and over the dunes, small, shaved-edge greens, and wicked pot bunkers everywhere — including in the middle of several fairways — reward precise ball striking and trajectory control.
Only one course in Ireland has ever hosted the British Open: Royal Portrush in 1951. In a testament to the excellence of the venue, the championship will return to the club in 2019.
The Dunluce Links, the club’s championship course, has hosted more than 50 Irish and British championships over the years. It features unimaginable rough and a routing through the dunes that constantly varies the direction of the wind’s attack, as well as greens that are considered among the best in the world. The spectacular location on a peninsula extending into the Atlantic offers incredible views — including some that fans of Game of Thrones will recognize.
Perhaps the most memorable hole on the course is Calamity Corner, a 210-yard, perfectly named par 3. The only direct route to the green is a heart-stopping shot over a menacing chasm. The wind seems to both pick up force and swirl from different directions as you stand on the tee, trying to decide if you’re golfer enough to take dead aim at the pin. The exhilaration of this hole alone makes your entire trip worthwhile.
Royal Portrush Golf Club
The Strand Course, one of three 18s at Portstewart, is a wonderful mix of old and new, dunes and flatland. The opening nine holes are among the best you’ll ever play as you thread your way through simply huge dunes, taking in the panoramic views across the Atlantic mouth of Lough Foyle to the Inishowen peninsula on the other side. The par 3s on both the front and back are loads of fun; each one faces a different wind direction. The caddies, by the way, are mostly members of the club (not unusual in Ireland) and make visiting golfers feel like members themselves.
Old Tom Morris laid out one of the two excellent links courses at Rosapenna in 1893. The course that bears his name — and wonderfully contoured greens — was enhanced with a new front nine that plays through low-lying dunes with views of Mulroy Bay in 2009. It’s a perfect complement to the back nine that runs along Tramore beach, overlooking Sheephaven Bay. Like on any good links course, the short par 4s can be as big a challenge as the longest par 5. Depending on the wind conditions, the 13th hole is a world-class drivable par four at 322 yards. The brave-of-heart can aim for the barber pole and hope their drive carries the long grass on its way to the tiny green. Reasonable golfers aim for the center of the fairway and leave themselves a short pitch.
Rosapenna Golf Course
Perhaps the most dramatic dunes in this part of the world form the backbone of the aptly named Dunes course at Enniscrone Golf Club. The course sits on a promontory jutting into Killala Bay while the Ox Mountains provide a suitably stormy backdrop. The roller-coaster course requires solid play off the tee and careful attention to your caddie’s recommended line for approach shots. The finishing holes are true delights, especially the par-three 17th, aka “149 yards of terror.”
Slieve Donard Hotel
Newcastle, County Down
Bushmills, County Antrim
Downings, County Donegal
Mount Falcon Estate
Ballina, County Mayo
Portmarnock, County Dublin
The Giants Causeway
A natural pavement of huge basalt rocks, which, legend says, were part of a causeway between Ireland and Scotland created by giant Finn MacCool. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in County Antrim.
Bushmills Whiskey Distillery
Ireland’s oldest working distillery, in an area originally granted a license by King James I in 1608. Guided tours and tastings at the distillery in County Antrim.
Malahide Castle and Gardens
Now a national park, the 12th century castle and surrounding gardens and parkland (not to mention a fabulous shop full of locally sourced products) are a restful way to spend a few hours not far from Dublin Airport.
Kilcullens Seaweed Baths
What can only be described as a unique spa experience awaits your weary body in the Kilcullen Bathhouse in Enniscrone, which opened its doors in 1912, the same year passengers on the Titanic took a much less restful bath.
The Falconry Experience
A master falconer teaches you to fly a hawk to and from your gauntleted arm, one of many classic outdoor experiences at Mount Falcon Estate in County Mayo.
The story of Guinness Stout started over 250 years ago, and you can explore it yourself through a building — in the shape of a giant pint of Guinness — in Dublin. One of the highlights of your visit is learning how to pour your own perfect pint of the world-famous beverage.
Walls of Derry
Walk along the walls of Ireland’s only remaining completely walled city, built 1613-18, and see not only a fascinating collection of historic artillery but also Bogside, the scene of the 1969 riot often cited as the first major confrontation of the “Troubles.”