ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – I heard an interesting factoid this summer while traveling in the UK and Ireland. My Irish host, Bernhard McMullen, said from the U.S. East Coast the trip to Ireland is about the same distance as flying to Los Angeles. (A Google search shows a slight edge to the continental trip vs. the international one.) But the point he was making is valid for those golfers so inclined to search out destinations for a worthwhile getaway. Ireland is affordable, reachable and very available.
For five straight days, courtesy of the Irish Tourist Board, this reporter had the opportunity to sample golf in the north of Ireland the week following the Open Championship at St. Andrews. While I had played and toured the south thirty years earlier, I had always wished I had taken the time to make the northern swing.
For the travel wise let me first say that the two bucket list courses in that part of the UK were not on my itinerary, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. Both are the starting point for any argument about the best golf course in Ireland. Then let me quickly add that like all 300 plus courses in Ireland, they are available to the traveling golfer with little or no advance effort. In Ireland the welcome mat is out for wherever you choose to play.
With five days and five rounds on my calendar, just a week after a couple of rounds in northern Scotland, I wondered about my durability. As golfers go, I am a walker, and as countries go Irish golf is not generally motorized. A trolley, pull cart, is the save your back option for traversing the Irish links.
I had done my homework the week prior at the Open Championship, running my course slate by my friends in the Irish media who were more than willing to give capsule assessments. Their descriptions proved to be spot on as were their cautions.
My first stop out of Belfast was Port Stewart, the northernmost course in Ireland. Like all five gems on my trip the course sits flush along the Atlantic, painting the backdrop for the impressive terrain. My Irish correspondent advisors said the first seven holes at Port Stewart are as spectacular a group of holes as anywhere in the country starting with a daunting opening tee shot. The remainder of the golf course resembles what can be accurately described as a parkland layout.
On day two it was on to Ballyiffin and the Glashedy course, one of two on the property. The course, which gets its name from a nearby island, stays mostly inland with gentle rolling terrain. It is a modern course with as much length as you want to bite off in the contemporary style of the game. Pat Ruddy is the architect de jour in Ireland for contemporary design and Glashedy is one of his most reputable. If you make the trip to Ballyiffin try to make it a double round day because the Old Links which sits beside is a classic gem with washboard fairways, small greens and sweeps out to the Atlantic. Nick Faldo, who did touch up work on the Old Links, was so taken with the facility a few years back that he tried to buy it.
If there was a group favorite among the five courses my band of media agreed on it was the charming, understated course at Port Salon. This is a no nonsense operation with a modest golf shop and restaurant. Founded in 1891, the course sits along Ballymastoker Bay and adjoins one of the longest beaches in Ireland. You have to be a hardy soul to take on the Atlantic beaches on the northwest coast and a wire-topped trench crosses the first and eighteenth fairway for beachgoers to safely reach the sands. The course hammers you early on the second hole after a gentle start but the beauty of Port Salon is the eclectic nature of its collection of holes. Ruddy’s fingerprints can be found here as well, and perhaps the most amazing piece of information was the fact this top 25 course could have been purchased for about $60,000 in the 1980’s before a member stepped in to secure its future.
Luxury is the name of the game at Rosapenna. My travel accommodations are usually on the value end when I travel, so finding bathrooms with recessed lighting in the tile floors said luxury to me. (It really makes a lot of sense for trips in the darkness of the night.) Again there are two playing options, Sandy Hills and the Old Tom Morris Course. Our assigned choice was Sandy Hills.
My Irish coaches at the Open had one bit of advice for playing Sandy Hills, “Bring a hundred balls.” They may have been a little short with their total. A player in my group was looking to ‘borrow’ balls when we reached the fifteenth. Sandy Hills wraps along Sheephaven Bay and we caught the most wind in our five days. The course, a 2003 Ruddy monster, is menacing off the tee but absolutely punitive from the fairways. It seemed likely every approach was uphill, and anything offline was another deposit in the Irish ball bank. If there is an offset to its challenge it is the beauty of its terrain. In a general sort of way, it reminded me of Ballybunion, an all time favorite of many who make the trip to Ireland.
Our final stop after working our way through County Donegal was Sligo and the County Sligo Golf Club. Some listings place Sligo in the top ten in Ireland and like Port Salon I found it to be the most fun layout among the five. (I am prejudiced because I manage to break forty on the outward nine.) Like its four predecessors, it sits along an Atlantic bay and features Benbulbin, the largest peak in Ireland in the distance. You edge close to the water in the middle of the eighteen and much of the course offers level lies and moderate punishment in the wispy rough. The approach up the steep slope at seventeen is a final challenge (I careered a three wood to less than twenty feet) before a short blind tee shot closing hole.
The western coast of Ireland has trademarked the ride as the Wild Atlantic Way and the zigzag logo can be seen roadside for more than 2000 km. If you look on a map our stretch of golf was on a straight line short hops apart but because of the huge Atlantic bays each stop is an hour or two apart by car. Food was surprisingly good at pub stops each night and the golf rivals any destination package you can put together in the U.S.
Two weeks after my return I bumped into a couple of golfers who have been doing the buddy trip to Ireland for more than 20 years annually, and I will offer you the same advice I gave them. If Ireland is in your golfing future go to Amazon and order a copy of “Hooked” by Kevin Markham. It’s a regularly updated guide to every course in Ireland.
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