By Erik Matuszewski
As I walked off the 18th green at the famed Waterville Links along one of the most westernmost parts of Ireland, a mist in the gray sky and a brisk breeze coming off Ballinskelligs Bay just beyond the tall dunes, an inescapable thought ran through my mind: how could I have possibly waited so long to embrace a golf adventure to the Emerald Isle?
Playing golf in Ireland (primarily of the links variety) is a rite-of-passage for many American golfers, especially those with a bucket list. For those who haven’t yet made the journey, it got me thinking about what best comprises that dream first trip.
Given the parameters of a full week and a fairly healthy budget, where should one go, play, and stay?
Ireland and Northern Ireland together are roughly the size of U.S. states such as Indiana or Maine, so it’s simply not feasible to travel around the whole country in a single week. That said, be prepared to spend ample time on the roads in between rounds.
To reduce this travel time and cast the widest net for great golf, the southwest region of Ireland emerges as the best option for a first-time visitor.
Sure, there are incredible destinations for those that fly into Dublin on Ireland’s east coast, including neighboring Portmarnock and stops further north at highly acclaimed courses like Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Rosapenna, and Carne. Yet that northerly loop would require time behind the wheel that adds up to three or four full rounds of golf.
I instead opted for a southwest swing, which is a goldmine for Irish links golf with layouts such as Lahinch, Ballybunion, Tralee, and the aforementioned Waterville. The good folks at Carr Golf, which has been specializing in golf travel to Ireland and Scotland for almost 30 years, said the top four most popular Irish courses among their guests in 2017 were all in the southwest part of the country. Count me in that group.
My journey started with a flight into Shannon Airport and a stay at the luxurious Dromoland Castle, which has been welcoming guests since the 16th century. There is a parkland-style course on the 450-acre property, but it’s also a good jumping off spot for trips to the nearby County Clare courses such as Lahinch and Doonbeg, as well as a don’t-miss side trip to the Cliffs of Moher. Lahinch is Phil Mickelson’s favorite links course, with a design lineage that began with Old Tom Morris in the 1890’s and in later years involved renowned architects like Alister MacKenzie and Martin Hawtree.
From there it’s on to the Ring of Kerry, a panoramic drive that loops through the Iveragh Peninsula and is one of Ireland’s most famous visitor attractions. Having a professional driver is highly recommended and a staple of many of the trips organized by tour companies such as Carr and PerryGolf. Not only does having a driver allow you to fully appreciate the sights of the Irish countryside, but in many cases they also serve as a historical tour guide, concierge, and confidant while providing a unique local flavor.
The seaside links of Ballybunion boasts two courses, including the majestic Old Course featuring contoured fairways that tumble through grassy dunes. Less than 25 miles down the coast sits Tralee, the first European golf course designed by Arnold Palmer and perhaps the King’s finest work. Surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Tralee has stunning views, an unforgettable back nine on the cliffs and a clubhouse that’s the perfect spot for a 19th hole Guinness.
There are a host of places to stay in and around Killarney, though none may have more history than the 164-year-old Great Southern Killarney Hotel, which is surrounded by six acres of gardens in the town center and is within walking distance of Killarney National Park. It also makes a convenient base for rounds at courses such as Tralee, the oft-overlooked Dooks Golf Club and the beautiful, challenging, and traditional layout at Waterville, which has been ranked as Ireland’s top links course.
Southeast of Killarney is one of the most visually arresting golf courses in the world. Old Head Golf Links was seemingly made for drone photography, with a routing along a stunning diamond-shaped headland that reaches more than two miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The course is a relative newcomer, opened in 1997 after being used for grazing cattle and sheep for almost two centuries.
For those looking to squeeze in a final round before returning home, the Adare Manor castle hotel makes for a lavish stop on the way back toward Shannon Airport. After a week of playing some of the finest links courses in the world, the Golf Course at Adare Manor offers a lush, gently rolling Tom Fazio parkland paradise to help ease the transition back to North American golf.
Ultimately, the beauty of that first great golf trip to Ireland is that for some it turns into an annual pilgrimage.
Are you one of those dyed-in-the-wool golfers who’s now experienced multiple trips to the Emerald Isle? If so, what would you consider to be the perfect first golf trip to Ireland? Let us know in the comments below!