As a senior golfer, I was recently encouraged to join a group of fellow old-timers, which goes by the name of “The International Senior Amateur Golfers Society” (perhaps fittingly, better known as “ISAGS”). I does, indeed.
Like most of its members, the ISAGS group is over 55 years old, and consists of good and bad players from all over the world, and hosts two, voluntary week-long events each year. The “mid-winter” meeting of 2022, postponed by COVID for two years, was scheduled for Killarney, Ireland in early June. As a rookie ISAGS member, I was keen to sign up.
As a golf travel writer, I was even keener to use the ISAGS trip as a reason to visit the great links courses of the western coast of the Irish Republic. This desire was, of course, purely in the service of the readers of Fairways, who, I feel, have a right to know about such places. No, don’t thank me, the pleasure was entirely mine.
I’ll write a separate piece about the ISAGS adventure in due course. This one you’re now reading is about those great links courses I visited.
And let me start with the overall conclusion first. They were great, and regardless of your ability with a bag of sticks, are all well worth visiting. You could do five or six of them in a week, if you wished, or a few days more if you’re inclined to want to see some sites along the way. They’re all within a half-day’s drive of each other. Great for couples, or buddies, or if you’re a lonely, selfless scribe like me, even alone. Everywhere I played, I was paired with others, and made some fine new friends for my trouble.
I won’t go so far as to list hotels and restaurants and sites to see, here. But in addition to giving you a sense of each of the five courses I played, I’ll mention where I stayed and, if worthy of mention, where my appetite was sated. So please, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
I arrived in Dublin on a Monday morning, off an overnight flight from Toronto. I already had a starting time at Lahinch at 12:06, and when the flight was two hours late taking off from Pearson, I was already nervous that I might miss my first tee shot. Fortunately, the nice folks at Hertz upgraded me to a fine German sedan, and I arrived at Lahinch Golf Club with about five minutes to spare.
It was a chilly, very windy, intermittently rainy day – in other words, typical Irish conditions. It was an enjoyable round, although Lahinch was much hillier than I expected, with some very solid golf holes. But frankly, I found the course a bit odd and quirky, with too many blind shots for my liking (or, frankly, for my declining ability due to, gulp, age.) There’s a famous par-3 there where you can’t see the green from the tee… kinda fun, yes, but a bit odd. Nonetheless, you can’t come to southwestern Ireland and not play this course; that would be like going to Scotland and not playing, say, Royal Troon. Weather conditions certainly can affect your enjoyment of a golf course, and I suspect if I returned to Lahinch on a kinder, gentler day, I’d feel better about it.
The game at Lahinch was made special, however, as I was joined for the round by Ivan Morris. Ivan has been a very well-known and competitive Irish amateur golfer for decades, and an author of seven golf books. Through another mutual acquaintance, we became Facebook friends a few years ago, and promised we’d get together on the links one day. He’s a very witty chap, and like most grey-haired Irish gentlemen, a fountain of droll phrases for just about every occasion or story. Making me laugh in the rain is no easy feat, but Ivan managed it many times.
Typically, finding the course you’re looking for in Ireland is like trying to solve an Agatha Christie mystery. Even the famous ones. I drove down three roads before I found the right one to Lahinch. In Ballybunion, I made a sharp right turn off the main street, nearly killing an elderly gentleman, when I noticed a small sign up on a building that said simply “Golf Course” with an arrow. Without stopping and looking hard at my rental car map, I might have driven to Spain before giving up on finding Dooks. Tralee could have been in Tallahassee, for lack of signage. Given the numbers of “farriners” that visit these Meccas, I’d like to propose that the good burghers-that-be in these towns invest in a little more visible directioning. But navigating in Ireland is part of the charm.
That said, I had very high expectations for Ballybunion Golf Club, about a 90-minute drive (including car ferry) south of Lahinch. The great Tom Watson brought BB to world consciousness about forty years ago, and he’s become a hero to the locals for continual return visits, often bringing or urging his fellow pros to do the same. As a result, BB ranks in the top three for must-play in Ireland, along with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, both in Northern Ireland (technically, a separate country).
It certainly exceeded my expectations. I have now put Ballybunion in my personal Top Five of All Time Courses I’ve Played. There is no bad hole on this golf course, several great holes, and the combination of challenge, scenic views, conditioning, and sense of being in the moment that I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced, was exhilarating. Tom Watson’s favourite hole here, a long straight par-4 (the 11th), which is bordered by an expansive beach on the right, and the rest of the course on the left, may also be my favourite hole anywhere. Having the majesty of the Atlantic Ocean in view on almost every hole after the first five, and equally majestic dunes of thick grass everywhere around you, can’t help but make you rejoice that golf was invented about five hundred years ago.
The following photo was taken by Andy Leblanc, one of a group of jolly American gentlemen I had the pleasure of joining. I include it here because it shows number 11 unfolding before me.
And before I leave Ballybunion, I must mention the absolutely charming country hotel I stayed in – Teach de Broc – conveniently situated a pitching wedge away from the BB clubhouse. The welcome and hospitality I received from Dermot Broc and his family was as warm and welcoming as any I’ve ever experienced. I recommend it highly to any and all who put Ballybunion on their itinerary, golf or not.
Dooks Golf Club is a course that suffers because of its geographical proximity to its far better-known colleagues in Southwest Ireland… by which I refer to Ballybunion, Lahinch, Tralee, Doonbeg, and Old Head. But I enjoyed my round at Dooks as much as the big names that I played. Not as expensive (150 Euros) in prime season as the others, and not as dramatic in presentation as a Ballybunion or Waterville, Dooks still manages to provide its own visual and physical pleasure that will make any player smile from the beginning to the end of the round.
In fact, I’d rank the “wow factor” of walking up the hill to the second tee and discovering the totality of the golf course now laying out before and below you, as among the top ten of all the 341 courses I’ve played in my life. Dooks (the Gaelic word for “sand dunes”) was founded in 1889, and one gets the sense that not much has been changed on this property over the ensuing 133 years. And that’s good. Certainly, the online reviews of the course and the staff are testament to peoples’ appreciation of what it is, and what it offers. (And on a personal note, I enjoyed the thought that “Deeks played Dooks” rather charming. Deeks has also played Dukes in Scotland and was a member of the Dekes fraternity. Just so you know.)
Tralee Golf Club is certainly on the list of Must Plays in SW Ireland. Like most links courses, a good score can be had if the wind is not blowing and icicles are not forming at the end of your nose. If the wind starts blowing in off the Atlantic, as it usually does by late morning, watch out and hunker down.
The front nine here is quite wide open, and the holes are interesting, if not particularly memorable. The back nine is quite a different story. Much more up and down, beginning with a mountainous brute of a par 5 in number 11, and the certified killer hole, downhill number 12, which features a wide, open-mouthed chasm that’s just begging to grab your second shot if you mishit it. (My knees knocked as I tried to avoid the chasm. I won’t tell you the outcome.) Further on, the beautiful par 3 16th, into a west wind, may have you reaching for your metal, just to cover about 160 yards.
But what fun! A course that in many ways reflects the personality of its illustrious designer, Arnold Palmer – classy, refined, daring, but steely-eyed when it comes to a challenge.
Two nights’ accommodation in Tralee was provided by the Ballyroe Heights Hotel, about six miles away, and which I’d gladly visit again.
From Tralee, it was on to Waterville, via a flat tire that happened on a country road in the middle of nowhere. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but when my cell phone won’t take or receive calls, I tend to call it nowhere. Fortunately, a nice lady happened by and concluded I wasn’t a thug or a pervert and lent me her phone. The nice people at Hertz took over and had me on my way with a new tire installed within 90 minutes. If it had been nighttime, I’m sure I would’ve been sleeping with the sheep on the other side of the stone wall.
Waterville is a pretty little seaside town that boasts another one of the most charming small hotels I’ve ever enjoyed, The Butler Arms. The vista from most of the rooms out to Ballinskelligs Bay, and the Atlantic beyond, is stunning from dawn to dusk; and dusk takes a long time to end in early June, when I was there. There are several places to stay in this quaint town, from B&Bs to lodges with a few rooms, but none can be more comfortable than the Butler.
Waterville also boasts two outstanding golf courses. I always try to avoid the inscrutable term “world class”, but these two must surely rank in Ireland’s top 15. Because of a tournament going on at Hog’s Head, I wasn’t able to secure a starting time for the one day I had available. But from all accounts, Hog’s Head is a treat: a recently built design by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. which has attracted dozens of well-heeled Americans as members. But it’s pure links, not American parkland. Part of the attraction for members may also be that the club provides helicopter shuttles for members who want to test their skills on Ballybunion, Tralee, Old Head and other courses within a 100-mile radius.
Waterville Golf Links, three minutes from town, dates back to 1889 and has a very storied history, which you can read on the club’s website. The accolades for this course – which include ranking number 75 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 International Course list – are well deserved, especially from players who don’t want to be beaten to a pulp for the price of the greens fee. The fairways are generous from the tee, and only bad shots are punished by thick dune grasses, or balls sailing off into the estuary, but the challenge is certainly there. Of the five I’ve just described, and at my age looking for aesthetic pleasure as much as challenge, Waterville is the one that I would want to play again, and again, and again.
Unfortunately, two other courses that I didn’t have the time to play, even once, were Doonbeg and Old Head. But from the comments of many I’ve met who did, or have, they’re outstanding layouts, and each has its own merits and idiosyncrasies. Doonbeg is now under the Trump International banner, which means nothing other than you may have a problem with that.
I guess I’m a bit of a late starter, but I’ve now played 30 official links courses in the last 10 years. I love links golf, and even though one puts the same swing on the golf ball, playing on links courses just requires so much more thinking, and skill, and precision, and patience, and good humour at wayward bounces, that a well-played round is more exhilarating, and a bad round is less frustrating, than on our lush parkland courses in North America. I still have more courses to play in Ireland… the three that I missed above, and Portmarnock, Ballyliffin, and so many others, I’ve promised myself I will do that before I can’t walk with a trolley anymore.
Within the links pantheon, I also have northern Scotland to visit, and the Sandbelt in Australia, Bandon Dunes, and the great unsung courses in Devon and Cornwall. The list will never end. But for one week in June, I got to play four of the world’s most revered links classics, and one hidden gem, and I thank the people of Ireland (and the wonderful staff at Tourism Ireland who helped pull this together for me), for appreciating the game so much as to preserve and maintain these natural treasures for all the world’s players to appreciate.
After my second week, in Killarney, I managed to spend a couple of bonus nights in Dublin, staying at the very acceptable Spencer Hotel, situated right on the north bank of the River Liffey, downtown. I took a day to walk all over the city and visiting the Guinness brewery and the breathtaking Old Library at Trinity College. It’s a lovely city, quite similar to London, but about a quarter of the size, and I’d gladly do it again. Fire, a steakhouse not far from my hotel, was highly recommended, and on my itinerary, but I sadly had to forego the experience to rest my aching (bally)bunnions. I promised the folks at Fire I’d come back one day. In fact, I promise Ireland I’ll come back.
A few travel notes before I end this epic…
Travel in Ireland is not expensive and can be very reasonable. I was surprised at the hotel room rates, which I found very acceptable for 4- and 5-star locations. Restaurant entrees were priced similarly to good restaurants in Toronto. What can be expensive is green fees at the well-known courses, especially in the “high season” of April-October. A round at Old Head, for example, is 375 Euro, or just over C$500, plus caddy (another 100 bucks, plus tip.) Playing at Lahinch is less expensive, about $350 plus caddy. The others kinda fall into the same range, so I’d budget on about $500 a day just for golf and caddy, and don’t be shocked if you feel you need to mortgage your house to pay for the trip. (The Euro is currently trading at about C$1.35.)
If you’re not used to driving in the UK, where you drive on the left-hand side of the road, I would urge you to seriously consider not driving at all in Ireland. The expressways are great, like driving on Highway 401 around 2:00am, when there’s little traffic. But secondary country roads (usually starting with ‘N’) can be very narrow and intimidating to the shy, rookie North American driver. Cars coming the other way look like they’re driving at Daytona, and whip by you at high speed, their side mirrors only inches away from yours. Cars coming up behind you, not knowing you’re a tourist, will tailgate, patiently, giving you the heebie-jeebies, until they find a stretch to pass you.
Many of the roads are twisty-turny, and uphill-downhill, adding to your apprehension, and the fear you might miss your turn. Add to that the roundabout system – which North America should have adopted 120 years ago – and it’s pretty daunting, until you get the hang of it. And inevitably, you’ll be driving with someone in the passenger seat who’ll be audibly sucking in air in fear every time you go around a turn or enter a roundabout.
So, bottom line, my suggestion is: hire a car and driver, and add it to your travel budget. A big expense, yes, but you’ll feel 100% safer, you’ll get to enjoy the scenery, and you can enjoy a pint at lunch and an extra glass of something at dinner. If you’re with other golfers, you can share the expense.
Tipping is not really expected in Ireland and seems to be somewhat of a surprise to the recipient. Tipping in restaurants is generally accepted at 10%. My policy was to tip only when I felt the person had gone out of their way to do me a service, which is what the whole point of tipping was, initially. Caddies do expect tips, however, whether they were good at their job or not.
I was on my own on this trip, but I’ve travelled with “buddies” on a bus before, and with organized groups. If there was one thing that drove me and others crazy, it was people who were chronically late. Moseying up to the van or bus after taking an extra cup of coffee slows the whole machine down. So be part of the group, not the cog in the machine.
The Irish speak English, but to us Canadians, who of course have no accent whatsoever, the Irish dialect can be a little hard to get used to. They also speak Gaelic, their ancient tongue, which is incomprehensible to the rest of us, but it truly makes them a unique people. Teach de Broc, for example, is pronounced CHOCK-de-brock.
The People of Ireland
I don’t think I’ve met a friendlier, more helpful nationality of people in all my travels, than the Irish. Cheery, charming, funny, and so happy to be of assistance. It doesn’t matter who you are, from where you are, what colour you are, what language you speak, or what flag you wear. We could all take lessons from the Irish on sharing the planet with each other.
I must admit, I never saw or heard anyone in Ireland say the following words, which are Gaelic for “Ireland Forever”, but I’ll happily end this journey with the words, and the sentiment…
Erin Go Bragh.