I know I risk offending most Scots but is there a greater selection of wild dunesy links than in Ireland? I used to go there quite often and play in and around Dublin. It is little known but there are four classic courses within 45 minutes of the arrivals hall of Dublin Airport. I would venture that for many people it is more realistic to fly over for the day, play around and be back at home for dinner than it is to get to many of our better known links courses.
The Island; a personal favourite. Awkward to get to compared to the old boat from Malahide, [before my time] and a real treasure set amongst the wildest and most mountainous dunes you could wish to encounter. I first played it before the revamp when it was very hairy and unkempt. Very hilly for a links course and compared to it’s neighbours. I have never scored very well here but it hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for it. All the usual exposure to wind, many holes run with or against the prevailing wind, sea encroaches and the views are superb. And with all the superb food and drink at Malahide, Howth or Dublin nearby you cannot help but have a great day out. You are drinking Premier Cru here
Portmarnock; This is my idea of a classic, old fashioned links courses. Pretty flat on a wild but beautiful spit of land, the holes and bunkers have been carefully laid out to test all your patience, nerves and resolve. Lots of small pot bunkers rather than flashy new monsters which allow those with the luck of the Irish to run around. There are a few holes that run along the shore but the sea always seems closer after the shot than before. Unusually there are a few trees but you never forget you are in the most natural links setting. An aristocrat amongst the Premier Cru
Portmarnock Links; Purpose built with a fine understanding of a links course designed by Bernard Langer. It was built to accommodate the longer hitters of today which is no bad thing but there are some holes which are not so friendly to the amateur, a prime example being the 18th. Just tough, tough, tough. You feel like a junior playing with your father’s clubs and with his waterproofs on. Everything is a size too big and it doesn’t feel quite right. On the plus side it was built to accommodate spectators Too much space between holes can make a golf course lose it’s rhythm but conversely it does make many of the holes self contained amphitheatres where your own drama can be played out with only your God and your conscience the audience. A handy place to stay but Dublin it ain’t.
Royal Dublin; This is one of the famous Irish links enhanced by it's proximity to the capital and the airport. It has been adapted to the modern game and continues to offer a true test of golf. It is pancake flat so you need to get your sighting lines right or get your bearings from the chimneys! A great out and back layout pulls you into a links heaven of springy turf, dancing grasses, mounds and borrows and dells. Nothing wrong with this and a few quirks besides; a 90 degree dogleg on 18 for example.
I am very happy playing here. It is not a monster course, no tricksy layouts, no Hollywood holes. But perhaps this is the secret of success. There is no, one, over riding dominating feature of this course but it has a bit of everything. When you pull the spikes on do you really want to contend with a monster layout every time, or be contorted by serpentine labyrinths or humbled by the scenery. Or do you mainly want to trundle out with mates and enough competitive pride to stretch the back occasionally, to scramble the brain, occasionally, to enjoy the views and the chat? And you need enough drama to tell the story in the bar afterwards. There are no good stories in laying up short and playing for bogey. Hollywood knows that disaster movies sell. And I just think that this understated course has pretty much all of the right ingredients.
Tralee; I spent a very jolly weekend in Tralee with a plumber I had met at the Cheltenham Festival. He put me up, ejecting one of his daughters in my favour, and took me round Tralee golf course, and the family took me round every bar to find my Rose of Tralee, all on the understanding that we had never met before bumping into each other in a bar outside Tralee that day, and that he had never been to Cheltenham, nor owned steeplechasers. I was spoilt rotten and never found my Rose of Tralee but we put in the hours.
The golf was secondary to the weekend but it is a first rate course. Is it surprising that there are so many new links course in Ireland? As I mentioned at the top of this blog I think that Ireland has a profusion of perfect links land and, I suppose, is less heavily populated than Scotland so the wild parts have been preserved rather than turned into resorts. The railway giveth and it taketh away. Opening up areas for courses but then causing the remaining land to be consumed by houses. No coastal railway on the wild cliffs of Ireland to bring in the crowds. but it would be one of the top railway journeys of the world!
Unlike Old Head this course is designed for year round play but that is not to say it is not hazardous in the extreme. The strand below is beautiful and there are views everywhere but do not let your concentration waiver. If you can get round here without losing a ball you are not enjoying the views and playing rather well. I think it is a good mix of the old style and the new, favouring the expert and the amateur alike in most conditions and the perfect pipe opener to a tour of the area. Make time to 'smell the flowers', walk the strand, and search for the elusive Rose of Tralee.
Old Head; If you ever want to gain an Irish golfer’s attention tell him that you are holding a spare tee time at The Old Head of Kinsale. If they are of a golfing persuasion they will be there. You could spend an enjoyable evening in the bar arguing over whether it is a true links. Definitely clifftop even if your ball is oceanside, dramatic, windy, and linksy turf. There are few more dramatic courses. And you even teeter on the edge of history overlooking the Fastnet rock and the demise of the Lusitania. It would be great to play on a windless day with a sky full of sunshine but that is not it's default setting.
When I first played there I took on a caddy. Not my usual routine but you could scarcely see beyond the end of your nose and you need some one to hang on to your legs when you swing your club for fear of being blown off the top of the cliffs. As the wind scattered whatever ability I had he explained that the best round he had ever caddied was for Phil Mickelson who shot 90 in similar conditions. I managed to make the clubhouse without running out of balls but it must have been a close run thing. It was probably all that was left of me. Nerves are shredded by vertigo, never previously a complaint, and the constant chant of 'aim for New York City and the wind will do the rest!' Sometimes it is like playing on the Cliffs of Moher.
If the conditions allow it is a great golf course and should be on everyone's list but it will never be picked as the archetypical links course so it doesn't get the top rating for me, but do please let me know if you have a spare tee time!