Playing golf in Ireland is always such a unique experience. Actually, it’s magical. It’s more than the golf, as glorious as that is. It’s the people… the tidy little towns… the abundance of pubs that set the social fiber of this exquisitely picturesque country.
It sometimes seems difficult to believe that this is a country that has suffered through such terrible times - wars, famine, and so much more that could stifle a people’s spirit, but in the Irish, there is no evidence of bleakness. They have such a buoyant, uplifting spirit. They seem to shine with friendliness, and treat all with a warm, real sense of hospitality.
But the more I play golf in Ireland, the more surprised I am at the astonishing similarity between Myrtle Beach and Irish golf. Masterpiece golf courses as well as simple but very playable courses, plenty of good restaurants and watering holes, and diversity of accommodations are plentiful in both destinations. The only thing that’s totally different and can’t be duplicated on our side of the pond are the links courses. A links course has been defined as, level or undulating sandy ground near a seashore, with turf and coarse grass. God blessed Ireland with these 30, 40 and 50-ft. sand dunes stretching out along the sea that, coupled with the treacherous rough and winds, make Irish links courses some of the best in the world. Proof is the appreciation the pros have for them.
I was sitting at Waterville, chatting with my friend Noel Cronin, long time secretary-manager of that fine facility. We were talking about the Payne Stewart statue as you come off the 9th hole. I was there on July 12, 2000 when the club dedicated the statue created by Jim Connolly, one of Ireland’s preeminent sculptors. I wasn’t alone, Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Jim Furyk, Paynes wife and family and most of the town were also there for the moving dedication, there wasn’t a dry eye amongst us. Payne and friends including Tiger and Mark had played Waterville before the British Open every year since 1998. Again, just by coincidence, I happened to be there that day in ‘98, playing a couple of four-balls behind their group. I never caught up to them so I couldn’t ask them why they had made their way to Ireland to play this links courses prior to British Open. But I didn’t really have to voice the question. Once you’ve played it, you would understand. Waterville is truly one of the greatest links courses any where.
According to Charles Mulqueen of The Examiner, the Waterville and Ballinskelligs area play an important part in the mythology of ancient Ireland. The Milesians settled here in 1700 BC, and their rich legends, along with the earliest memories of Kerry history, combine to form a mystical aura that visitors to the Waterville Golf Links can sense even today.
The course went through a number of transitions from sometime around 1900 to the present day, the real turn-around coming when Irish-born American John A. Mulcahy, then residing in New York, had a vision to take this rundown course situated among the sand hills on Ballinskelligs Bay, and transform it into one of the finest tests of golf in the world. With the assistance of venerable architect Eddie Hackett, he certainly fulfilled that dream. Raymond Floyd has said that it is one of the five best courses in the world. Golf Digest has it ranked in the top twenty-five internationally. Waterville has undergone some improvements, such as the recent changes to number 6 which is now a classic par three, number 7 tee box and fairway changes and number 16 with a raised tee box and a better angle to the fairway. The changes are sensational and should move Waterville up in the world rankings. But, whatever the ranking, Waterville is truly one of the greatest links golfing experiences anywhere in the world, so don’t miss it.
My brother Jack, president of On the Green magazine, along with his son Jason, my wife Judy and I watched the Open in a wonderful pub in Ennis after playing an exhilarating round at one of my true links favorites, Lahinch. We remarked about many of the pros, including Woods, play the Irish links courses as a warm up before going over to the open. The truth of the matter is, all the links courses are comparable to anything in Scotland, England and Wales…the winds and terrain are similar, and make a perfect warm-up for the British.
On this trip, we began our golf play with a round at Adare Manor, a great R.T. Jones tract, perfectly situated just 35 minutes from the airport. A magnificent parkland course, Adare features wonderful elevations, wide greens, and extra-wide fairways. The Adare River runs through the course and the 9th and 18th holes finish at the breathtaking Manor House. Adare is a charming little town with, of course, plentiful pubs and fine restaurants. If the Manor is a bit pricey for you, there are hotels and cottage rentals available.
Then, on to Old Head…..
From the minute you drive onto the peninsula from the famous little seaport town of Kinsale, you know you have arrived at some place special. I live in Myrtle Beach, have traveled the world to play golf, and have also been active in building new courses. But I have never seen anything like this piece of land. Small wonder that the world golfing press have been describing it as an other world experience. Spectacular, surreal, memorable, majestic are some of the words - all inadequate - to describe this golfing masterpiece.
Let me quote from a note I received from John B. O’Connor, club president of Old Head…..Such descriptions are hardly surprising as, throughout its history, the Old Head has always been a very special place - the stronghold of Celtic warriors, mail-clad Norman knights, and Irish war lords. Our pride of our achievement lies in the continuation of exclusivity, with the creation of one of the world’s great golfing experiences.
Old Head is a private International Members Club, however guests are always welcomed, and it ranks with some of the best in the world.
A number of years ago while at Old Head, I had an intriguing conversation with golf course designer Ron Kirby, a delightful guy who is constantly working with the management of Old Head to improve the course’s playability. He summers in Kinsale, and I envied his opportunity to work on and play Old Head. Jim O’Brien, the course manager, is another inspiration, showing me once again what Irish hospitality is all about.
Talking about other links courses - Tralee, Arnold Palmer’s creation, has some of the most exciting holes in golf and, to be honest with you, the natural beauty of this course stands alone.
The Cuilin, the 2nd at Tralee, is a favorite of Arnie’s. This long par 5 winds its way around the beautiful Cuilin Swink out to the cliffs over the far strand. The second shot has to be negotiated through a narrow passage until the hole opens up again, demanding a medium long third shot to the green. From my personal point of view, it is one of the most spectacular golf holes in the world. One of the the more demanding holes and certainly one of the prettiest, is appropriately named Ryan’s Daughter. It was actually the landscape used for David Lean’s film of the same name. Arnold has said, “I have never come across a piece of land so ideally suited for building a golf course.” I totally agree with his appraisal. This course shows no mercy to golfers lacking in courage and fortitude.
Ballybunion Old, of course, ranks among everyone’s top golf course choices in the world, and it is certainly one of the most popular golf courses in Ireland. It is truly a masterpiece in every sense of the word and is also always in great condition - remarkable, considering the amount of play it gets. You will never forget its holes, particularly #6 and #8, the par-4 11th, and the tricky 15th. Do not, and I repeat, do not miss the Cashen (new) course at Ballybunion. It’s not really new, it’s been around for years. Famous course designer Robert Trent Jones took this amazing piece of land and created one of the most interesting and challenging links courses in the world, I played it years ago for the first time with my dad Joe and my father-in-law Charlie. They’re both gone now but the experience of playing Ballybunion Cashen with them always brings back great memories and I’ve played it every year since. This year my brother Jack and his son Jason played it for the first time and loved it. Make your reservations early (you could have a problem getting on in July and August). Special thanks to our host and long time managing director Jim McKenna he is always informative and gracious, I truly appreciate his hospitality. We stayed across the street at the Cashen House a lovely new B&B facility that overlooks the Cashen Course.
One of the wonders of Ireland is that there are still discoveries to be claimed. I found a number of years ago - a little parkland gem called Bantry, where I made some great new friends and bought a tidy little Irish cottage out on Goats Path overlooking Bantry Bay. Twenty or so golf members come over to Myrtle Beach every year headed up by former Captain and great friend Steve Couhglin. It always amazes me how many fine member clubs there are in Ireland. Bantry is an exceptional one, a Christy O’Connor Jr. gem always in great condition with spectacular views of the Bantry Bay. They accommodate non-members and have carts, so put them on your must play list.
I would never visit Ireland without scheduling a round at Dooks in Glenbeigh, where golf has been played since 1889. A truly wonderful links course, it stretches out on the sand dunes of Dingle Bay and the famed MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, and, while it may not be the most difficult Links course, it is certainly among the most picturesque. I truly love the Dooks experience, I will always miss the hospitality of one of the most charming and knowledgeable secretary-managers in the business, Michael Shanahan. He died a couple of years ago and will always be missed. Be sure to put Dooks on your must-play Ireland golf list. You won’t regret it.
Then there is Lahinch. What is it about Lahinch that attracts me so much? Whenever I’m there, I play my best round and relish the experience. Frequently referred to as the St. Andrews of Ireland, Lahinch looks out over the ever-changing Atlantic Ocean and is subject to all of her mood swings. The original layout for the course was the brainchild of Old Tom Morris himself, the four-time British Open Champ and legendary resident of St. Andrews. Later changes were made by the very capable Alistair MacKenzie of Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and Cypress Point fame. The course has just recently gone through some fantastic new changes that have made this links gem even better, if that is indeed possible. This golf course is a challenge to all golfers, even the gifted ones. I can assure you that the notorious par-5 Klondyke, which forces the golfer to hit the ball over this mountainous dune to a blind green, is quite an experience! I quote from Mr. MacKenzie: “Lahinch will make the finest and most popular course that I or, I believe, anyone else, ever constructed.” Who would argue with the master? Club manager Alan Reardon has always made me welcome there and I appreciate his hospitality.
Then there’s the new guy on the block, Doonbeg. It was selected as best new International course of the year by Golf Digest in 2002. I visited the site before it opened and Greg Norman was working feverishly to transform this amazing dunes encompassed piece of land into what is today a truly great links golf course. This is the third time I’ve played Doonbeg and every time I play it I have more respect for its beauty, conditioning and playability. This year I was there after the much heralded opening of the new clubhouse and Lodge at Doonbeg. This 150 million euro facility is something to behold. The magnificent Lodge building which is the centerpiece of the entire development looks out over the first tee and the eighteenth green. It contains 15 luxury suites, dining and bar facilities and a state-of-the-art spa, White Horses. The Doonbeg project started life as an initiative by the local community to encourage tourism for the area. They were assisted by Shannon Development which brought the project to the world market where it was embraced by Kiawah Development Partners, a South Carolina company already involved in luxury development and golf related projects. This is a unparalleled facilities. It is tastefully done in the Irish manor tradition. It is perhaps the grandest facility of It’s kind in the world, I personally have never seen anything finer.
So get your passport in order, pack your clubs, don’t forget your wind shirts and rain gear, even though odds are you won’t need it. Then get ready to play some of the greatest golf in the world - on the west coast of Ireland!