I set foot in Ireland for the first time in 2003 as a newbie golf writer.
It was my introduction to links golf, a shock to the system that opened my eyes to what a golf course could - maybe the word is 'should' - be. The slightly brown fairways. The native grasses, longer than my stubby legs, waving in the breeze. Gorse more golden than the brightest sun. Bunkers with sod walls stacked like legos. It was all so foreign, and it still felt like home.
I tell people all the time that I was born on the wrong side of the pond. The golf gods gave me a game more suited to links golf - where my low and straight ball flight sends shots bounding down firm fairways. The creativity around the greens - sometimes putting or using a hybrid from 30 yards away - inspires me to focus more than America's game. Going to Ireland stirs my soul. Maybe that's why I've made more golf trips to Ireland and Northern Ireland - a dozen or so - than any other golf destination in the world.
I'm using all these rounds as research to rank the best courses on the Emerald Isle. I've played all the top courses except the European Club at least once. I've experienced them in sun, in rain, in wind, in wonderful weather. They play so different from day to day.
Nobody is going to agree with my choices, and I'm cool with that. I'm not even sure I do. I've told people I want my ashes spread at Tralee, yet the scenic Arnold Palmer design didn't even make my top five.
There are so many great places to play that I feel guilty leaving out amazing dunes-laden links like County Sligo and Carne Golf Links. A foursome of stout Irish Open hosts (Strand at Portstewart, Glashedy at Ballyliffin, County Louth, Royal Dublin) and a past Ryder Cup venue (the Palmer course at the K Club) and likely future one (Adare Manor) didn't make the cut, either. Neither did the scenic Ardglass with the oldest clubhouse in the world. I also disqualified the new Hogs Head and one of my all-time favorite golf experiences, Old Head Golf Links, since they're mostly private members clubs with only limited public access these days.
The return of The Open to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951 - the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland will host July 18-21 this summer - and the final season of Game of Thrones, filmed mostly in Northern Ireland, signal two good reasons to shine a spotlight on such a diverse destination. Before you get too upset at where your favorite course ranks in this top 10 of Ireland and Northern Ireland, remember this list is splitting hairs. No. 8 could easily move up to replace No. 3. It's that close of a call from one links to the next ...
Want to debate my selections? Let me hear your thoughts with a comment below.
Old course at Lahinch
Lahinch, to me, embodies everything you should love about links golf. It's good enough to test the best players in the world - it will host the Irish Open for the first time in June - but more importantly, it's endlessly fun and charming for the rest of us. The two blind shots - over Klondyke Hill on the par-5 fourth and the tee shot on the lovable Dell hole, the par-3 fifth - create one-of-a-kind memories. Lahinch has sea views to die for, a connection to Dr. Alister MacKenzie, ruins of a castle that provides an aiming point for a tee shot and the logo and legend of those lovable goats that still roam the course today. Does it get any better?
Royal County Down
So how could I rank Golf Digest's top-rated course in the world second here? As spectacular as Royal County Down is, I don't think it's for everyone. I'm a fan of blind shots - read this story - and even for me, having so many blind drives (five in the first 11 holes) feels overly penal. Tack on the vicious length the club keeps the rough along the fairways and most golfers will come away from their first round confused and abused, wondering why others adore the course so much. That's certainly how I felt until I returned a second time, playing a 36-hole day as memorable as I've ever had.
Dunluce at Royal Portrush
Royal County Down and Royal Portrush have a rivalry of sorts about: 'Which is better?" RCD might be more unique - its dunes and land are beyond striking - but the Dunluce course is more fun. RCD never heads to the beach as dramatically as the fifth hole on Dunluce. Adding two new holes for The Open this summer was the right decision, although I miss the original 'Nellie' bunker on the old 17th. The new 'Nellie' on the seventh created by Martin Ebert just isn't the same. The routing tweak pushed 'Calamity', the infamous uphill par 3, to become the 16th hole, a more appropriate spot near the end of the round that could determine the winner of the claret jug.
Old course at Ballybunion
Ballybunion would be ranked higher if its first five holes were like its last 12 holes. Although famous for its first hole adjacent to a cemetery, Ballybunion really starts seeping into your soul at the sixth tee, which introduces a marvelous stretch of dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. I can't think of a better pair of back-to-back par 3s than the short iron into the 14th green, followed by the long wood/driver into a gale the other direction on the 15th.
Dunes course at Enniscrone
The dunes at Enniscrone are bigger than Ballybunion. Plus, without all the American accents in the clubhouse, this is a more authentic Irish experience. I love Enniscrone's quirky blind shots, including a tee shot on no. 13 regulated by a traffic light. You wait on red and hit when the light turns green. It doesn't get any better than a round here, followed by a stay at the luxurious Mount Falcon Country House Hotel & Spa 25 minutes away in Ballina.Golf Advisor Round Trip: Ireland
Tralee Golf Links
A castle turret, a beautiful beach known for causing shipwrecks, a back nine that some believe is the best in Ireland -- These are the reasons I've fallen hard for Tralee. This links sometimes gets lost with Lahinch to the north and Ballybunion to the south. It's every bit the equal of those two. This is, without a doubt, Arnold Palmer's best design. The Palmer statue near the first tee is one of the great statues of golf, perfect for a selfie.
Waterville Golf Links
Waterville is a particular favorite of Golf Advisor's Matt Ginella, who regularly plays in the World Invitational Father & Son tournament run by Carr Golf. Tom Fazio revitalized the links in 2002, modernizing and maximizing a beautiful location on Ballinskelligs Bay. Waterville is perhaps most famous for the 'Mass Hole', the par-3 12th where Catholics held services hidden in the dunes.
Trump International Golf Links - Ireland
This special resort will always be Doonbeg to me - named by original developer Buddy Darby after the nearby seaside town. This isn't political, either. I just have fond memories from before Donald Trump bought it. Trump Ireland remains great, but I can't let go of the past. Greg Norman's original effort was deemed too tough so it has been softened over the years by Martin Hawtree at Trump's request. I miss the old bunker in the middle of the 12th green and the old par-3 14th, a bugger of a hole with a green cut on a dune shelf that was washed away by powerful storms in 2014. A more straight-forward par 3 was built the following season.
Portmarnock Golf Club
Portmarnock has so much history (19 Irish Opens). Where it lags behind the other links rated higher on my list is charisma. It's a stout test of golf, no doubt. Alas, where are the dunes, the blind shots, the lovely seaside views, the drivable par 4s? It does rule, however, in one category: convenience. It's so close to the Dublin Airport that golfers can be on the first tee in less than an hour of landing, granted all goes well with luggage, rental car and customs.
Sandy Hills at Rosapenna
Although the best nine-hole loop at Rosapenna might be the back nine of the Old Tom Morris course, Sandy Hills by Irish architect Pat Ruddy wins for best overall links at this remote golf outpost in northwest Ireland. Ruddy, who has been called Ireland's Pete Dye, has worked with the resort to soften some of its features. Towering dunes frame much of Sandy Hills. No moment is better than walking up to the highest point of the sixth fairway for the reveal of the green and the view of Sheephaven Bay .