Whether you target the familiar and wondrous names
of Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville and Killarney, prefer
to play in and around the fair city of Dublin on the east
coast, or take a daring tour of the wild (north) west,
Ireland boasts some of the finest links golf the world
has to offer. Jim Frank kicks off our double-header on
the best of the Emerald Isle (see also On the Wild Side)
According to Wikipedia, Ireland was discovered around
8000 BC by hunter-gatherers who came from the east,
what is now Great Britain. But for another tribe of nomadic
zealots – American golfers – Ireland was founded in
August 1971, when Herbert Warren Wind, writing in The
New Yorker magazine, introduced them to a remote golf
course in County Kerry.
“Ballybunion revealed itself to be nothing less than the
finest seaside course I had ever seen,” Wind wrote, adding,
“no other links…presents such a satisfying adventure in
That was more than 40 years ago, and Ballybunion Old
(as it is now called to distinguish it from the next-door
Cashen course, built in 1984) has undergone significant
change since Wind first extolled its virtues. But it’s hard to
argue with his message: Ballybunion is not to be missed
It’s no stretch to say that’s how most Americans, particularly
the golfers, feel about all of Ireland. We come back
from Irish golf trips raving about the courses, retelling
funny stories, and with a list of favourite pubs and the new
best friends made in them. Even if our ancestry is more
Kiev than Kerry, after returning home our blood flows
green. We can’t help it.
But having been to Ireland at least half a dozen times, I
have no idea if golfers on your side of the Atlantic feel the
same way. I’ve yet to meet any club-toting Brits in the
Emerald Isle. In Scotland, I regularly run into Englishmen,
even a few women, playing the great courses. But in
Ireland, I meet only locals – and other Americans.
You guys should get out more. Follow the example of
the earliest tourists and start hunting and gathering the
courses of Ireland. I’ll make it easy for you with a few suggestions, starting (where it wall began for me) with Ballybunion.
I’ve played it twice. Well, actually one-and-a-half times. I was
there about 15 years ago, in drenching rain and unable to finish
the round largely because I had to continually stop and
wipe my glasses. (This was the final straw – upon returning
home I had eye surgery so I could play golf spectacle-free.) But
even through the sheets of rain – and please don’t call it “Irish
mist”; that’s no longer funny – I could see that the layout was
incredibly exciting, especially beginning at number 7 when the
holes are close to the sea and move over and through massively
There’s little point describing individual holes, good as they
are. Ballybunion is about the atmosphere: the wonder, childish
glee, and sense of awe at what nature created – dunes, ocean,
and wind. When I returned a few months ago, my round was in a howling gale that made it difficult to stand let alone
swing. But despite the conditions, and the horrible shots
that ensued, it was delightful.
One more Ballybunion memory. Slogging into the locker
room to peel off my insufficient “waterproofs” 15 years
ago, I ran into Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson. They, too,
were trying to extricate themselves from soaked apparel,
but they were all smiles and laughter, having had a marvelous
time despite the conditions. Along with Wind,
Watson deserves credit for steering Americans to
Ballybunion: He first played it in 1981 and has been lavish
and vocal in his praise. In 1995, he helped renovate it; further
tweaks were made last year by Martin Hawtree. It has
There’s more wonderful golf in lower-left Ireland,
notably Lahinch, Waterville, and Tralee, which I’ve played,
and Dooks, Killarney, and Old Head, which I’ve not (but I’m
inclined to believe their proponents).
Lahinch is the quintessence of Irish golf, perhaps not as
gasp-inducing as Ballybunion but every bit as good a
course with similar dunes-and-seaside landscape. Hawtree
modernized the course about 10 years ago while restoring
much of the Alister MacKenzie design from the 1920s,
itself a reworking of Old Tom Morris’ design circa 1892.
There are many unforgettable holes, such as the
short “Dell” that demands a totally blind shot over a
tall mound. I’m hardly the first to note that it’s a hole
one either loves or hates, but I can’t figure out what
there is to hate about it.
My memories of Waterville are distant, but what’s
great about Irish golf is that a decade and a half later,
they are all good. The links is a series of dunes and
drops, spectacular views, wild weather: During one
July round, my foursome experienced every possible
climatic condition except snow (that includes hail). I
also remember being able to stand on a few tee
boxes with perfectly possible, and pleasurable, shots
at a a number of different fairways and greens.
The deities heard their names mentioned, often
loudly, at The Island Golf Club. Not nearly as well
known as Royal Dublin or Portmarnock, The Island is
also north of the capital but harder to find down
windy wee roads in the village of Donabate. Between
the sea and a series of estuaries, the land here is more
rugged: Tall dunes run north to south with holes
tucked amongst them and lined by Marram grass and
other vegetation, including bright spring flowers. Golf
has been played over this exciting terrain since 1890,
with golfers arriving by rowboat until the 1970s.
Even without much wind, The Island would be tough,
plenty of blind shots and some of the narrowest fairways I’ve ever missed. With the wind? It was treacherous,
the holes angling in every direction, the sparse bunkering
more than compensated for by the claustrophobia-inducing
tightness and never-flat landscape. Back home, I’ve
told other golfers that The Island is the hardest little (par
71) course they’ve never heard of. I trust it’s better known
in the UK. It certainly should be.
Last but not least is The European Club, Pat Ruddy’s
modern links about an hour south of central Dublin.
Ruddy, who went from golf writer to architect (a progression
the rest of us can only dream of), is also
responsible for terrific courses at Ballyliffin and
Rosapenna in Northern Ireland (which is a subject for
another time) and other designs.
The 20-year-old course starts inland, rolling over
authentic linksland before playing along the Irish Sea.
It’s a thrilling golf experience as well as a textbook on
what makes links golf unique in its integration of landscape
and strategy. If you’re lucky, Ruddy will be on
property: He is the stereotypical Irishman – warm,
witty, and happy to talk.
Like Ireland and its courses, he’ll be thrilled to see you.
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine