COUNTY DONEGAL, Ireland - In the midst of my 13th trip to Ireland, it hit me.
I finally figured out the best piece of advice I could give someone planning a golf trip in Ireland for the first time. It's simple - mix it up. By that, I mean don't get fixated on playing only the 'ranked' courses and don't play only links.
The best Irish golf trips like the one I experienced in July mix it up. I played the world's newest Top 100 links, a former Irish Open venue, a parkland course that groomed one of the upcoming stars on the LPGA Tour, a DP World Tour host and a links I had never heard of, despite coming to Ireland for almost two decades. What a lineup!
Think of a golf trip to Ireland like building a fantasy baseball team. Just as different skills create a feared batting order - speed, power, a contact hitter, bunting prowess, etc. - a great golf vacation also needs a varied set of courses with different styles and price points. Tee up parkland, links, hidden-gem and bucket-list courses to stir up a tasty concoction of golf to experience. You just might end up loving the hidden gem the best, like many of the golfers did on my bus tour in July.
I started and ended the journey at the Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links, a very comfortable home base for anybody staying around Dublin. Its Bernhard Langer links starts off adjacent to a cemetery and eventually crescendos as the final 10 holes trek through dunes. In between the stays was miles of scenery and a sixsome of courses that blew away my already very high expectations.
Day 1: Slieve Russell Hotel Golf & Country Club
Like everybody else, my impressions of Irish golf get swept up in rankings by "experts". Those folks tell me that when it comes to parkland golf, there's Adare Manor, host of the 2027 Ryder Cup, and the K Club's Palmer Course, host of the 2006 Ryder Cup, and everybody else. I'm calling B.S. after playing PGA National Ireland Slieve Russell, a two-time DP World Tour venue where Leona Maguire honed her game. Maguire was the hero of the 2021 Solheim Cup for Europe. No doubt, Slieve Russell helped her prepare for the big stage. The hills and lakes of County Cavan offer a thrilling round that's just as memorable as the more famous and more expensive Ryder Cup venues. Granted, the accommodations are more lavish at the other two, but the hotel at Slieve Russell in Ballyconnell is still plenty nice and worth the stop, especially when heading toward northwest Ireland.
Day 2: North West Golf Club and Rathmullan House
I should be ashamed I've never heard of this pint-sized links on the Inishowen Peninsula dancing along the Louth Swilly. It is one of the 9 founding members of Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) dating back to 1891. It's got some design quirks due to limited land, but it's definitely a gem. Only 6,342 yards, North West boasts one of the hardest short holes in golf, the 93-yard 16th called "Fairy". Only one player in our group (me!) hit its wild, sloping green. Narrow fairways and lush rough make the links locals call "Buncrana" play much tougher than the scorecard reads. When a member told me that Amazing Grace - my favorite hymn - was inspired right here in the waters of the Lough Swilly (read more here), I knew I had found someplace special.
For the next two nights, we took shelter at the Rathmullan House, a charming four-star country house reachable by car ferry or driving around the lough. The seafood at The Cook & Gardner Restaurant was as fresh and tasty as it gets.
Day 3: St. Patrick's Links at Rosapenna
It's rare that less than a year after opening for any course to crack at least one World Top 100 ranking, but here we are with St. Patrick's Links, the long-awaited Tom Doak links at Rosapenna that debuted last year. Doak's effort transforming a massive duneland scarred with 36 fallow holes into what could be one of the world's last great links is everything it's hyped to be. There's stunning beauty, epic reveals, massive dunes and fairways as wide as football fields. Critics on social media haven't been shy about pointing out that it still needs time to mature and thin out the nasty fescue lining the fairways, and its greens can be a chore if you're constantly out of position. I, personally, loved it. The surprises are endless. There's so much hidden trouble - big slopes on greens, greens tucked behind dunes, the largest bunker in the world you never knew existed until you're in it. With so much going on, it's not a course to play once. Stay at the resort for at least three days. Enjoy the other two very good links (Sandy Hills and Old Tom Morris) and the hospitality of the Casey family and tackle St. Patrick's Links again. I promise, no matter what you shoot, it will leave a good impression.
Day 4: Portstewart Golf Club
Even though I've played it a time or two, the view never gets old from the first two tee boxes of Portstewart's Strand Course in Northern Ireland. The first overlooks the water; the second towering dunes. The host of the 2017 Irish Open is often overshadowed by Northern Ireland's two royals, Royal County Down and the nearby Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush, although every year I've come back, it seems to get better. It's a premier links not just in Ireland but the world. The final nine isn't as inspiring visually as the starting holes, but strategically it's every bit as good. Remember, everything's in pounds now that you've crossed the invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Savvy golfers should take advantage of the fish and chips at Harry's Shack right on the beach across the street before golf and dinner at the excellent Eighteen Ninety Four Restaurant inside the clubhouse afterward.
Day 5: Galgorm Castle
Located in Ballymena 30 minutes from Belfast, Galgorm Castle is without a doubt the best golf resort in Northern Ireland. Its parkland course is delightful. It's loaded with water and tough enough to host the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and two ISPS HANDA World Invitationals in 2021 and 2022, a unique DP World Tour event showcasing both men and women. A 17th-century Jacobean castle that's now a widely acclaimed wedding and events venue sits at the center of the 245-acre estate and its gorgeous gardens. After a long run of bus rides, some rain-soaked and wind-whipped rounds, it was nice to feel like you're being pampered. Too bad we didn't stay long enough to try the indoor-outdoor experience at the Thermal Spa Village.
After the long journey back to the Dublin area, our last supper was the best of the week. Bon Appetit Malahide is run by a talented chef who transitioned a fine-dining Michelin-starred restaurant into a more casual menu of delicious monkfish, gnocchi, pork belly and more. It's a prime example of just how far Ireland's culinary scene has come since I first visited in 2003.
Day 6: The Island Golf Club
I couldn't leave the Emerald Isle without playing The Island Golf Club again. It's been a personal favorite for more than a decade, and I was curious how a rerouting of the front nine looked. The old layout started out with eight straight par 4s, ending the front nine on a par 3. The new look created by the firm of Mackenzie & Ebert debuted in 2020. The third hole has now stretched to a par 5 and the par-3 fourth hole - which had been built by Martin Hawtree as an extra hole years ago - was incorporated into the everyday layout to add more variety. After a few short, blind holes buried in the dunes, the new par 4s at no. 8 and 9 introduce a more championship feel. The ride on the back nine gets bumpy so hang on! There's gorgeous views of the Malahide Marina, more blind shots and one of the skinniest fairways in golf. If it's quirk you love in your links, The Island still has it.
I have been over twice in the past year and played the following: Portstewart, Castlerock, Donegal, Ballyliffin, Narin & Portnoo, County Louth, Carne, County Sligo and Enniscrone. It's hard to rank them because they all have amazing aspects. If I had to go back and play one, it would likely be Portstewart, but County Sligo is extremely underrated as well. Narin & Portnoo is also a hidden gem and overwhelmingly beautiful and scenic. I have an amazing contact over there if you ever want to plan a bucket list golf trip at a reasonable price. Please email me: email@example.com
I play North West GC back in July. My daughter was crew on the Clipper RtW race and they had docked in Londonderry from where I caught the bus to NWGC - the driver Shaun dropped me at the gate and picked me up on return. I finished around 1pm and fancied a beer and some lunch, but it was a Monday and "the girl doesn't come on Monday", two lads painting the fence told me. One said wait a second I'll get my car and drop you at the pub. He was the Secretary. I said I'd return the next day, but I had Covid. I'll be back though!!
I loved this story and your description of the courses that I have actually played (Portmatnack, Portstewart and The island Course) on this list are spot on. It makes me want to go back and play the courses you mentioned that i have not yet played.
In Northern Ireland I think Portstewart's first 8 holes are the most stunning links courses I've seen and I have played all the courses in the British Open rotation except Royal St George.
Next time you are up in Donegal, give Narin and Portnoo a try. A really fine course and one of my favorites in and around County Donegal that most have not heard of. Truth is i haven't found a course in Ireland that i wouldn't play a second time.
Yes Jason indeed, indeed! I have also had the opportunity to play golf in Ireland over the past ten years since my son moved to Ireland, and there is no better golfing experience. I have played a few of the courses that you have mentioned. Slieve Russel and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. We also were to Portrush for the open. What a venue! Played Trump's Doonpeg last fall. Nice tract. The next time you are over. Check out County Louth (Beltray). Sea point which next door, Laytown &Bettystown and a parkland course Farnham Estate.