COUNTY SLIGO, Ireland -- More than any other kind of golf, links golf is about using your senses.
If you're lucky enough to play during a perfect Irish day (and I had a lot of those during the week I spent in northwest Ireland), your eyes, ears and nose can't help but perk up. While you take in your surroundings, you realize quickly that you're in a magical setting.
There's the distinctive smell of a local farm, and goats grazing in a field just beyond the golf course's touch. The sight of a lonely island -- Glashedy Rock, in this case -- with crisp waves lapping against it. The feeling of your lips stinging from the salt on the chips you ate at lunch, and the freshly poured -- but not rushed -- Guinness you washed it down with.
Links golf is filled with unique moments like this, and when you play, you can't help but think of a different, timeless era of the game. There are few carts, there are golfers of all ages hitting shots that bump along rippled fairways to large, challenging green sites, and everyone is happy.
Not to say this doesn't happen in North America, but links golf is a tremendous way to reinvigorate your love for the game, and northwest Ireland is a tremendous place to do it.
While the trophy tracks of the south, or the iconic links golf courses in Northern Ireland may call to you and your group, the northwest courses -- I played six in five days -- are just as beautiful, exciting, and worth the adventure. For the most part, they are also more affordable.
Checking courses off your "bucket list" are as good a reason as any to go to Ireland, but you can easily find some new gems that will make you want to return again and again.
After a blurry-eyed flight into Dublin -- and a restful drive north -- my group had a wonderful time kicking jetlag to the curb by playing 18 holes at the Old Links of Ballyliffin.
The northern-most golf course in the entire country was sun-kissed on a gorgeous October afternoon. One member of the course, who was more than happy to speak to the group of foreigners, exclaimed that the weather was as good as it had been all summer. This was a common refrain we heard as the week pressed on.
Eddie Hackett designed the Old Links in 1973 and Nick Faldo put his touches on the course in the mid '90s.
The land goes forever, and our group enjoyed playing the ball along the ground of the rippling fairways and breathing in the crisp, fresh air – which was a welcoming feeling for all of us after a long flight.
The views are just as good as any in the country, and we were teased for 18 holes by grand sights of Ballyliffin's second course, the Glashedy Links, which we would play the following day.
After an evening of good cheer and better food -- and a hot whiskey or two –- our group traversed the sky-high dunes of the Glashedy Course.
Featuring some holes that you'd never think to see on a links course (like the par-3 seventh, a 181-yarder that dropped about 50 feet from tee-to-green, and had a small pond adjacent to the green), and some you absolutely would (the par-5 13th is one of the best holes I've ever played: a long, narrow hole that plays through large dunes on either side of the fairway, looking back towards Glashedy Rock itself), Glashedy was a perfect compliment to Ballyliffin's Old Links.
The Road to Rosapenna
As Jason Scott Deegan outlined in his piece about Rosapenna, the Sandy Hills Course at the four-star resort in County Donegal is a brute. There's no denying that. The group I traveled with -- which included four designated golf professionals -- all agreed Sandy Hills was a tough golf course.
But, they also agreed that it was a thoroughly enjoyable challenge. With views on nearly every hole of Sheephaven Bay, Sandy Hills is a beautiful beast waiting to be tamed.
Sandy Hills' appeal is in its elegant layout. Golfers are taken through dunes reminiscent of the Strand Course at Portstewart or the Dunlunce links at Royal Portrush, and the challenging holes are still fun to play.
Meanwhile, Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Course is pure fun. It, perhaps, had something to do with our group playing together as an eightsome with a bottle of Jameson's open and flowing, but the holes on the back nine lay adjacent to the bay and give golfers of all levels accessible landing areas and green sites.
We were in wonderful spirits all day –- playing two rounds on two contrasting courses on a beautiful October day will do that to anyone –- perhaps mostly thanks to the staff at Rosapenna who stayed up late while we watched Jose Bautista bat-flip his way into the history books.
We'll always remember where we were that night/morning (sorry, Texas Rangers fans).
Donegal or bust
Ninety minutes away from Rosapenna -– after traveling through beautiful Irish countryside, including a long view of Benbulbin, part of Ireland's famous Dartry Mountains and known as the "Table Mountain" formed during the Ice Age –- is Donegal Golf Club. Set along the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal –- another Hackett and Pat Ruddy design -– is a straightforward course that doesn't present much of a challenge, but it certainly was enjoyable.
Donegal's par-5 eighth is the signature hole, and may be one of the best in the country. A long, quirky par 5, the hole plays uphill, and a blind second shot approach to a well guarded green makes it play much longer than the 548 yards as marked on the card.
I spent most of this hole taking pictures of the beautiful seaside vista, and paying less attention to my ball than I should have. So goes links golf.
An evening at the wonderfully elegant Mount Falcon Estate (and a night out in town at Ballina) followed our round of golf at Donegal.
The next day the sun rose quickly, and burned off the first cloud-cover our group had experienced during the entire six days we were there. Twenty minutes from our hotel laid Enniscrone Golf Club, and the final round of our trip.
Enniscrone reminds me of an Oscar-winning film, where the viewer gets hooked by a dramatic opening sequence, gets lulled into the ongoing plot points, and then gets stunned by an epic ending.
It would be right near the top of the best courses I'd ever played if not for the pedestrian stretch of holes in the middle of the round that seem, truthfully, out of place. However, the stunning finish is what you'll remember about Enniscrone. The par-5 16th and par-3 17th are epic holes along the ocean that weave through unbelievably high dunes.
So goes northwest Ireland: wonderful golf that evokes all your emotions.
And, a panging to want to return.