Irish eyes are smiling as World No. 1 Rory McIlroy returns home to host the Irish Open at Royal County Down this week. Scotland may be the Home of Golf, but the best seaside links in the Emerald Isle are simply the finest in the land. Here are the LINKS top 10 courses in Ireland.
10. County Sligo
Situated in the heart of Yeats country on the northwest coast, this superlative links was expertly remodeled by H.S. Colt in 1922. The opening holes, played straight uphill, offer stirring views of flat-topped Ben Bulben (a vast table mountain), the sparkling waters of Drumcliff Bay, and white-washed homes in Sligo Town. The holes, subtle and cunning and splayed in all directions, call for all the shots and require players to avoid a narrow stream (called a “drain”) that flanks or crosses the fairways.
9. County Louth
Located an hour’s drive north of Dublin, this secluded club, called Baltray from the name of the local village, is set on the estuary of the River Boyne near the ancient market town of Drogheda. The club’s splendid links, masterfully revised by Tom Simpson in the mid-1930s, presents a peerless test on 200 acres that calls for accurate drives and a tidy short game. The holes are stitched into gently rolling linksland set back from a range of high sand hills along the Irish Sea. The collection of par threes at Baltray is considered among the finest in Ireland. The clubhouse offers lodgings for visiting players.
On a glorious coastal site in the southwest where David Lean filmed Ryan’s Daughter, Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay laid out a stunningly beautiful course 30 years ago that features an admirable variety of holes to complement the jaw-dropping scenery. The front nine, routed on gently rolling linksland near the wave-tossed shore, offers panoramic views of the Barrow Strand, Tralee Bay, and the ocean. The back nine, tunneled into skyscraper sand dunes, calls for daunting carries over deep ravines to plateau greens that drop off on all sides.
7. The European Club
On a virgin parcel of duneland hard by shimmering Brittas Bay 30 miles south of Dublin, journalist-turned-designer Pat Ruddy built 20 holes set in bearded sand hills high above the Irish Sea. Opened in 1993 but revised many times since, this brawling, windswept links is a counter-puncher that rewards good shots but punishes inept efforts. The bunkers are deep, the rough is thick, and some of the greens, notably the 127-yard-long putting surface at the 12th are cartoonish. A genuine original cherished by purists, this immodestly titled club proudly claims one of the most exhilarating (and exasperating) links in Eire.
Sited at the far tip of a rugged peninsula known as the Ring of Kerry 90 minutes west of Killarney, this remote, colossal links by Eddie Hackett, laid out 40 years ago on magnificent duneland swept by heavy sea winds off Ballinskelligs Bay, benefitted greatly from a recent makeover by Tom Fazio. The front nine gets off to a mild start, though the River Inny, an estuary of the sea, flows near three holes. The back nine showcases a wild sequence of spectacular holes routed through huge shaggy dunes. The finale is the dramatic par-five 18th, which hugs a sandy beach within earshot of the roaring Atlantic.
5. Portmarnock (Championship)
Understated and entirely natural, Portmarnock, the Muirfield of Ireland, is straightforward in its presentation of targets and dangers. Pockmarked with 120 bunkers and cosseted by the thickest rough imaginable, the links, splayed across a sandy peninsula bounded on three sides by water just north of downtown Dublin, may be the purest expression of links golf in Ireland. With its dimpled fairways tucked into shallow valleys, expansive yet subtle plateau greens, and constant shifts in direction (to invite the wind from all quarters), the links, recently fine-tuned by Martin Hawtree, presents a firm but fair test with no blind shots.
4. Lahinch (Old)
Named for the modest seaside town of its location an hour’s drive from Shannon, the invigorating, historic links at Lahinch bear the mark of Old Tom Morris (1894), Alister MacKenzie (1927), and more recently Martin Hawtree, who reintroduced contour to the greens, built a couple of new holes in the dunes, and ensured that the layout’s quirky charm and sense of adventure remained intact. Klondyke, the quirky par-five 5th, and Dell, the blind par-three 6th that plays to a green tucked between two enormous dunes, are genuine curiosities from a bygone era. The views from the higher holes across Liscannor Bay, one of Ireland’s top surfing spots, are outstanding.
3. Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
Portrush, Northern Ireland
Reworked from an earlier Old Tom Morris design into a strategic masterpiece by H.S. Colt in 1929, this goliath of the Antrim Coast is a majestic, spine-tingling links that surges through prodigious dunes high above the sea. The par-four 5th plays across tumbling ground to the brink of a cliff, where the glistening “White Rocks” and ruins of Dunluce Castle loom into view. The dangerous par-three 14th, called “Calamity,” skirts the rim of a yawning chasm as it proceeds 210 yards uphill to a slippery tilted green. Recently updated by Martin Hawtree, Royal Portrush remains the only course outside Great Britain to host the Open Championship, which it did in 1951. It will finally get the chance again in 2019.
2. Ballybunion (Old)
Universally acknowledged as one of the game’s treasures, Ballybunion’s Old Course, buffeted by fierce Atlantic winds, is a force of nature that weaves through massive sand hills on bluffs high above the Shannon Estuary. “The beauty of the terrain surpasses that of any course we know,” designer Tom Simpson told the club when he and Molly Gourlay arrived to refine the layout in 1936. While the inland start is fairly mild, the links swings to the brink of a sea cliff at No. 7. From then on, the game is played on tumbling fairways parted through huge shouldering dunes, the slippery terraced greens embraced by grassy hollows and deep bunkers.
1. Royal County Down
Newcastle, Northern Ireland
The 2015 Irish Open host, this epic, elemental links reduces the game to man vs. nature. Little changed from the original 1889 Old Tom Morris design, this pre-Victorian antique calls for several blind shots over sandy ridges to narrow, twisting fairways that snake through towering, gorse-covered dunes set back from Dundrum Bay. Giant whiskered bunkers and coarse marram grasses swallow stray shots. The tiny domed greens are hard to find. Beyond the town’s medieval steeples and spires, the majestic Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. Simply one of the most inspiring and enchanting settings for golf on earth.