Ballybunion Old. Lahinch. Waterville. Old Head. Doonbeg. Portmarnock. The European Club. Adare Manor. Royal County Down. Royal Portrush. This is the Irish golf you know. These are the “bucket list” courses pinned on travel maps and plotted on most Irish golf getaways. These are the places everyone wants to play because every reputable print publication promotes them. And most are worthy of the promotion. But the glossed-up destinations merely scratch the surface of quality golf in Ireland.
Carne. The Island Club. Tralee. Dooks. Ardglass. Connemara. Enniscrone. Castlerock. Portsalon. the Cashen Course at Ballybunion. This is the Irish golf you might not know as much about, hidden in the shadows of their more lauded neighbors. These are the Top 10 Irish courses with the less-marquee names, un-plotted on most American maps and overlooked by many “trip of a lifetime” itinerants. These are the courses most don’t know they’re missing — the places you don’t think you have time to play but should be making extra time for. These are the Hidden Gems of Ireland.
Social media is changing the status of some of these lesser-known clubs. I’m famous (within my less-famous circles) for shouting about The Island Club from every available platform, and more famous media darlings like Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella (Tralee), author Tom Coyne (Carne) and radio personality Ann Liguori (Ardglass) have brought plenty of recent love and attention to their favorite clubs.
This outpouring of affection has made more golf travelers take note when heading to the United Kingdom, but so many still elect to double-up rounds on the ranked courses instead of trying something new (and in these cases equally great). So it’s time to take a small risk for great rewards on these 10 Irish tracks.
The Open Championship is returning to Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly 70 years when it comes to Royal Portrush in July 2019. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the famed Dunluce course is quite scenic, and if the wind is up it’s not outrageous to suggest that the winning score might be over par and that no American will be in the Top 10. Between Portrush (which also has the very-fun Valley links on property) and Royal County Down, golf travelers have two itinerary anchors — two must-play beacons that will demand your best game (with or without wind) and use up the battery in your mobile camera.
ARDGLASS GOLF CLUB
The fortunate and affluent will stay at the luxurious Slieve Donard Resort and Spa while playing Royal County Down (40 miles south of Belfast) and will be overwhelmed by hotel’s stunning setting on the Irish Sea (and settling into the indoor hot tub). The wise and well-informed will add a day and short car trip (22 miles) east to Ardglass Golf Club, home to the oldest clubhouse in the world (dating back to 1405). Ardglass forces you to climb a mountain, carry deep caverns and cling to the cliffs for its opening five holes, then seldom lets up in drama the rest of the way. Is it a great architectural masterpiece? Hard to say. What’s easy to say is that it is great fun from the very first tee shot, and other than one insane tee shot behind a barn-like building, I loved the entire course. When author Tom Coyne of “A Course Called Ireland” (who has played more than 900 holes across the country) unabashedly calls it one of his “Top 5 Irish golf experiences,” you might want to take note.
From Royal County Down you’ll likely head straight to Royal Portrush (90 miles north; 45 miles north of Belfast). Hopefully you’ll make time to visit the Giant’s Causeway (one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen in the 25 countries I’ve visited), and hopefully you’ve decided to make the comfortable suites at the Bushmills Inn Hotel your home for that stay. Bushmills Inn (with its superb service and great corner bar) is convenient to so many things. The Giants Causeway is 2.5 miles away. Royal Portrush: 7.5 miles. Portstewart Golf Club, with its epic front nine: 12.5 miles. And then people tend to turn back at the natural barrier known as the River Bann. Don’t do that.
CASTLEROCK GOLF CLUB
It’s a considerable detour to get across that river, so I understand the hesitation. But were you to stand on the eastern shore of the river and peer across to the west, you’d see some remarkable golf holes running up and down the steep hills and dunes on the other side. You’d contemplate taking your clubs for a cold Atlantic swim to play those holes — 27 of them — at Castlerock Golf Club. Castlerock consists of an 18-hole Mussenden Course and a wildly fun nine-hole course called The Bann. Harry Colt (who designed both of the courses at Portrush) worked on this property in the 1920s. Crosswinds have worked on it every day since. Locals like to say that there are “no easy holes at Castlerock,” and I can attest to that. I scored a legitimate 12 on the famous hole known as Leg O’ Mutton and still LOVED that hole. It’s worth noting that Martin Hawtree is wrapping up a massive renovation of the Mussenden so it might not be a hidden gem for much longer. Maybe they’ll even build a more convenient bridge over the Bann River someday.
The Wild Atlantic Way
Seven of the remaining eight “hidden gems” can be discovered along the 1,550 miles of Atlantic shoreline on Ireland’s northwest and west coasts (from Londonderry at the far north to Kinsale at the far south) known as the Wild Atlantic Way. Along that coastal marvel you’ll find highlights like the famed Cliffs of Moher (near Lahinch), the Sky Road and Salthill Promenade in Galway, the Fanad Lighthouse in Donegal, castles, beaches and epic sunset-viewing points galore.
PORTSALON GOLF CLUB
The northernmost hidden gem on the Wild Atlantic Way is in County Donegal. Because of the course’s extreme remoteness, you don’t really play Portsalon unless you’re headed to Ballyliffin (36 holes, 60 miles north near Malin Head, host of the 2018 Irish Open), Mr. Chippie in Letterkenny (21 miles south) or Rosapenna (36 holes, 13 miles west). But don’t make the mistake of skipping it, regardless of wherever else you’re visiting in the area. A Charles Thompson design modernized by Pat Ruddy in 2000, and more recently tweaked by Paul McGinley, Portsalon is a most unique and stunning links course along Ballymastocker Strand on Lough Swilly. With some double greens, wildly elevated tee shots, bridges and even a few thick swaths of trees, Portsalon is both challenging and impressive. Interesting fact: There are more than 400 golf courses in Ireland, and yet many people believe No. 2 at Portsalon to be the island nation’s toughest hole. To be fair, the second hole compensates for its difficulty by doubling as one of the most beautiful in the country. The opening three holes at Portsalon are all stunners, and you’ll continue to find yourself mesmerized by the sea views hole after beautiful hole throughout the rest of the round.
(BONUS) CRUIT ISLAND GOLF CLUB
This article is focusing on 18-hole gems, but as long as you’re at Portsalon (especially if you’re staying at the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort) you should consider the overwhelming, wild and a bit scary drive out to the nine-hole Cruit Island Golf Club. It is fair, if not a massive understatement, to say that this could be the most mind-boggling golf experience of your life. With blind tee shots, roads cutting through fairways and cliff boundaries alongside Caribbean-like blue waters (on sunny days), I find it hard to believe a golf course was ever built here. And yet, here it is. The head professional told me he didn’t think par for the course had ever been recorded, and I don’t doubt that. And the par-3 No. 6 hole over the ocean surely merits a place on the world’s 100 most beautiful golf holes.
ENNISCRONE GOLF CLUB
120 miles south of Portsalon, along the Wild Atlantic Way, Eddie Hackett’s Enniscrone manages to escape the radars of many, save for visitors staying at places like the fabulous Radisson Blu in Sligo and those playing the far more heralded Rosses Point. With daylight nearing 18 hours on my last visit, I asked the locals where else they love in the area, and Enniscrone was mentioned several times. I’d already been to Enniscrone (didn’t realize it was so close) but asked them why they love it. “The massive dunes,” one said. “Aye, those dunes,” echoed another. “It’s sheer beauty,” chimed in a third. “Aye, the beauty,” a fourth agreed. “Isn’t all of Ireland beautiful?” I asked. “Aye,” they all nodded. “That it is.” Once you get past the awkward first tee shot of the par-73 Dunes Course at Enniscrone, the rest of the round is notable for all the right reasons. The towering dunes do impose themselves on you and your game. There are some great Atlantic views as well. And there are another nine links holes on the Scurmore Course. I found the consistent challenge to be a bit much, but single-digit handicappers will love it and I respect that.
CARNE GOLF LINKS
Fifty miles west of Enniscrone on the Wild Atlantic Way in County Mayo, Carne only barely qualifies as “hidden” anymore.“Carne was brilliant. Simply brilliant,” says author Tom Coyne. “Front, back, first hole, last — every mound, every swale, every inch of the place was special.” It comes across as hyperbole to those who haven’t seen this place firsthand. It’s truth to those of us who have. This was brilliant golf architect Eddie Hackett’s last project, and most deem it to be his best work. Lined by walls of dunes and built on even more of them, overlooking Blacksod Bay near Belmullet, Carne now has 27 links holes with the recent addition of the Kilmore Nine, and is a course you simply can’t play enough. I’m quite certain I hit a cow on the 13th hole and followed that up by hitting a birdie on the bayside 14th. The birdie on that par 3 was impressive. The cow was less than impressed. The Talbot Hotel in Belmullet is well worth at least a one-night stand, and take a stroll across the street while you’re there for a pint of draft Guinness with the locals.
CONNEMARA GOLF CLUB
One-hundred miles south of Carne, 50 miles past Matt Molloy’s pub and the fabulous An Port Mor Restaurant in Westport, Connemara Golf Club is nearly as far west as you can drive in Ireland. Self-proclaimed as “Galway’s Only True Links,” one must drive past miles and miles of brick-wall-lined sheep farms, colorful houses and even a castle on a hill (Grainne O’Malley’s Castle) to reach this place, and your travels are rewarded with another 27 holes of epic Irish golf. Bordered on one side by the Atlantic and on the other by the 12 Bens Mountains, Connemara puts the “Wild” in Wild Atlantic Way. A dramatic improvement on the original pitch-and-putt course built next to the Slyne Head Lighthouse, I can’t say I loved the entire experience (the front nine is a bit underwhelming), but the views and mandatory golf shots on Eddie Hackett’s back nine at Connemara are astonishing, and the bonus nine built by Hackett and Tom Craddock in 2000 might be the best nine on the property. There are two great hotels only six miles from the course if you’re looking for a stay and play: The Abbeyglen Castle Hotel and The Ardagh Hotel.
CASHEN COURSE AT BALLYBUNION
Jack Roy, otherwise known as Rodney Dangerfield, famously said he “couldn’t get no respect.” Robert Trent Jones Jr. knows the feeling — both at Chambers Bay in Washington and with The Cashen Course at Ballybunion. It astonishes me how many people drive all the way over to Ballybunion and only play the Old Course. Don’t you find yourself wondering about those spectacular seaside holes you can see from the clubhouse? When you don’t play them on your Old Course round aren’t you curious how great that other course is? Well, let me tell you this: It is great and built on the same topsy-turvy landscape as the Old. Sacrilegious as this may be, I, personally, like it even more than Ballybunion Old. Then again, I’m always more impressed by natural beauty and holes that don’t crisscross over each other than I am by the rankings of others. Don’t get me wrong, the Old Course at Ballybunion has nine fantastic holes, many of which photographer Evan Schiller has nailed perfectly with his drone, but the Cashen Course has just as many great holes with bigger dunes, deeper valleys, more drama and wilder greens — and absolutely deserves more play and respect than it gets. It is common for golf groups to hit Ballybunion Old, Lahinch (60 miles north) and Doonbeg (35 miles north) on the same trip. It needs to become MORE common for those golf groups to add the Cashen Course (and the next course on our Hidden Gems list). NOTE: Should you happen to drive through Limerick at any point on an Ireland visit, do yourself a favor and sample the epic fish and chips at Donkey Ford’s.
TRALEE GOLF CLUB
Only 22 miles south of Ballybunion, it defies ALL logic that Arnold Palmer’s “greatest global design” (in my opinion) flies so far under the radar in Ireland. The part of me that enjoys the open tee sheet and fast rounds there doesn’t want that to change. But the bigger part of me that wants more people to visit one of my 20 favorite courses on Earth is trying to make this as clear as possible: “Tralee just might be the most beautiful round of golf I’ve ever played.” The diversity in the design is fantastic. The plethora of holes along the water couldn’t be more dramatic. There are tough holes and easy holes, uphill and downhill holes. The beauty is splintered into categories of beach, sand, cliffs, ocean and wavy grass — with stone walls and ruins thrown in for good measure. This round in the United States would be granted the prestige and rack rates of Pebble Beach, and someone would have turned it into a major resort by now. In Ireland, it remains pure and semi-affordable for all to play. Globally it stands vastly underrated, but locally, it couldn’t be more appreciated. I second Matt Ginella when he emphasizes that every golf traveler heading to Ireland needs to play Tralee at least twice. Once is simply not enough.
DOOKS GOLF CLUB
Thirty miles south of Tralee, still on the Wild Atlantic Way, near the famed links of Waterville, Dooks is the cool course with a kooky name that almost every American misspells (but correctly pronounces) as “Dukes.” Dooks was founded in 1889 by the Royal Horse Artillery (no joke) and is one of the 10 oldest clubs in Ireland. That said, it plays like it was built last year, with so many modern touches and nearly flawless conditioning to go with stunning panoramic views over Dingle Bay in County Kerry. As I recall, you can see the Atlantic from pretty much everywhere on the course, and if you’re not struck by that, you might otherwise fancy the majesty of the McGillycuddy Reeks (Ireland’s highest mountains) towering around you. Dooks was converted from a nine-hole course to 18 holes in 1970, with the members themselves (no famous architects) building the final nine. Then, once they’d saved enough money to upgrade, they brought in Martin Hawtree in 2003 — and by 2006 they had the existing modern marvel. It has always been paramount to the members that Dooks be a “club friendly to all,” so much so to the point that journalists around the world have experienced the camaraderie and labeled it “Friendly Dooks” accordingly. That’s no contrived expression. That IS Dooks — the friendly Hidden Gem of southwest Ireland.
Other than the facts that you drive on the left (“wrong”) side of the road in Ireland (making roundabouts insane), that their country roads are scarcely as wide as suburban sidewalks, that disintegrated rock walls are hard to see in the dark, and that sheep and cows can cause hourlong rural delays, all of Ireland is easily accessible out of Dublin. You can fly into other regional airports, of course, but skipping Dublin is such an egregious cultural error. You must walk the cobblestone streets along the River Liffey, sample the food and (of course) the beverages at Temple Bar, Irish Whiskey Museum, Jameson Distillery and Guinness Storehouse. You need to check out the incredible Trinity College Library and consider a museum tour. You need to do a little more than golf in Ireland, to do your visit justice. But if you’re in Dublin, you need to make sure you don’t miss my favorite Irish golf experience, just nine miles from the airport, adjacent the far more famous links at Portmarnock.
THE ISLAND GOLF CLUB
I caught The Island on a magical evening my first time, no question. I had the course essentially to myself and witnessed the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in all of my Irish visits. I was able to spend an hour with the head professional, play nine holes (using hickory clubs) with a member and his 6-year-old daughter and then get in another 18 with my own clubs. I marveled at the magnificent beauty surrounding the course, with the sea stunning me from three different directions. The Island Golf Club is not easy to find or even easy to reach, but man alive is it worth the drive from … well … anywhere. Idyllically set in the peaceful Estuary of Donabate and Malahide, I would make this round my “going away present” to myself on every visit if I could, as nothing captures the Irish serenity, beauty and genuine welcome better than what I’ve experienced at The Island Club.
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While the tourism boards of Ireland and Northern Ireland had no input into nor influence over this list, it would be a major oversight for me to exclude their general awesomeness. Brand ambassadors like Rory Mathews and Bernard Mcmullan perfectly represent the best of Irish hospitality, a reflection of the many courteous and genuine Irish people you’ll encounter on a trip to Ireland. I’ve been invited to sit at so many tables and offered so many complimentary drinks in clubs and pubs, I often find myself wishing we were more like that on this side of the pond. Many of these clubs appreciate greatly that we Americans travel so far to discover them, and they want us to have the best possible experience.
If you’re planning an Ireland golf trip or vacation, you’re certainly welcome to email me at Info(at)StaysAndPlays.com for suggestions or with questions, or you can start your planning at Failte Ireland’s website and find plenty of information on popular search subjects like the Giant’s Causeway, the Wild Atlantic Way, Game of Thrones filming sites, the Cliffs of Moher and the Titanic Museum. However you do it, my ultimate advice to you is: Do it. Go to Ireland. Go watch Rory McIlroy win the Open Championship. Or go now. Just … Go already!