Tuesday, June 18, 2024

An Irish entrance: Four Americans have the walk of a lifetime in the north and west of the Republic

Must read

After the first couple of days, what we felt the most was our feet. You can’t escape it – 36 holes day after day takes a toll on everything south of your knees. My No. 1 tip to Americans eager to try this kind of trip: Don’t skimp on your shoes, and don’t bring new shoes you’ve never worn in – trust me, nobody in Ireland cares if there’s a bit of wear to your footwear.

But it hardly mattered as we worked our way west along the coast. The courses and the rounds just rolled into a continuous loop of perfection, broken up only by the many incredible meals. Americans still hear about bad food in Ireland and the UK, but those notions are largely out of date – from fish pies to beef, appetizers to dessert, the Irish clubhouse chefs have upped their games to match the quality of the courses. Almost every meal was a chance for Krash to explain in detail, as he studied his entree, that this was the best thing he has had to eat in years. Even better than yesterday’s lunch. 

And it wasn’t all golf or time in the van. Stops in Derry (also known as Londonderry on the UK side of the Ireland-Northern Ireland line) and Sligo were chances to shake off the travel and golf, to stroll through the old buildings and riverfronts to sample a bit of Irish life. Both towns were full, weddings frequently pulling in people from around the surrounding countrysides to celebrate in the pubs. Tim and I were able to sneak out for a few pints amid the music scene in Sligo, getting just a small taste of what other than golf draws so many Americans to Ireland. But chasing golf balls consumed most of the days, and my guys were holding up just fine. 

So many memories piled up. Krash running after his escaping electric push cart at County Sligo, or Matt nearly running out of golf balls at Enniscrone. The caddies’ stories at Nairn & Portnoo. The all-over-everywhere scenery. The golf holes alongside the towns. The sense of isolation at Carne. Individual good shots or bad shots might be mostly forgotten, because in this part of the world the swings are not what matter most. 

The dunes, the ocean views, the wayward shots, the laughs – they all forge in the mind a sense of gratification in experiencing something so sublime. It’s not the kind of thing you could explain to anyone who isn’t a golfer, but those who have dived into days on end of links golf have surely sensed it.

We followed the first round at Ballyliffin’s Old Links by climbing the dunes the next day on the club’s Glashedy Links, where the wind and elevation changes completely complicate club selection. Tim, Krash and Matt easily could have stayed put in our accommodations at the nearby Ballyliffin House & Spa with its perfect pub, happy to play the Old and Glashedy on repeat for the entire trip. I pushed us onward. 

We rushed to Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort to tackle American designer Tom Doak’s Irish artwork on the new St. Patrick’s Links, where unforgettable vantages of water, sun and mountains almost outpace the variety of golf shots amidst a simply inconceivable landscape. St. Patrick’s offers little escape for a player not on his game, but after fatting a wedge and coming up just short of No. 1 green, I managed to rekindle a bit of my old swing – put it on my tombstone that I hit the next 17 greens in a row at Rosapenna. 

Rosapenna’s Sandy Hills Links plays high above a lovely beach, with most holes secluded among the towering dunes. (Krash Kim/Special to Golfweek)

The next day was Portsalon in the morning, where Matt truly fell in love with Irish golf on the classic links holes along one of the most photogenic crescents of beach in the world, all set among a pastoral town. That afternoon was Sandy Hills Links back at Rosapenna, almost every hole framed alone among the dunes. Krash and Tim took me to task after I challenged them to a match in which they played as a scramble team and I was left to scramble after my tired, wayward shots on my own. 

The following morning was a trek out to the nine-holer at Cruit Island, as raw and beautiful a golf course as I have ever seen. Seemingly every Irish golfer along this trip asked if we were playing Cruit, smiling as we responded in the affirmative. The holes play up and around steep dunes, with several perched atop cliffs above the Atlantic. A confessed lover of nine-hole golf, I could happily spend a month straight playing those outpost holes again and again. 

That afternoon it was on to Narin & Portnoo, revised by the American team of Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, its classic edges a little sharper than several of the Irish layouts we sampled, its conditioning a bit tidier than some others. The trek out to a point on the front and the water views along the hills of the back nine were among the best of the trip. The width of many fairways gave Matt plenty of room to blast tee balls on lines the caddies almost had to dare him to take. This was the only round on the whole trip we took caddies, though we carried or pushed our own bags this day as on others, the caddies steering us along with a mix of jokes and encouragement.

Ireland 2023
Donegal Golf Club, also sometimes known as Murvagh, starts on flat land before climbing incredible dunes alongside the ocean.
Each of the players in our group said they had the same thought before we ever teed off: This is a club I would be thrilled to join. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

The final 36-hole day started at Donegal Golf Club, where Matt, Tim and Krash started asking about international memberships before we even teed off – the place just has a perfect vibe where you want to linger day after day. The first several holes are a bit flat, but from No. 5 onward this links blasts off among the dunes, offering fun shot after fun shot. It’s the type of club where any golfer should be thrilled to be a member. 

After piling into the van for an hour, we tackled Strandhill as the sun and the rain battled for attention, nearby Knocknarea Mountain playing hide-and-seek among the storm clouds. It was out to the bay, up the hills, down the dunes toward the ocean, blasting balls into sometimes blind valleys and hoping for the best. The layout and its membership perfectly reflect nearby Sligo, a real Irish town full of real Irish accents where you want to linger for the party. 

The 18-hole days kicked off with Enniscrone’s Dunes Championship Links offering several of the prettiest and most fun holes to play in the world. Enniscrone is not to be missed by any American who plans to go all the way to Ireland. Our back nine began with an epic squall, leaving me a downhill, 100-yard approach with a 5-iron into simply silly winds on No. 13 to set up my favorite birdie of the trip. By the time we reached 16, one of the best par 5s on this island, the sun was shining.

Ireland 2023
Benbulbin, a flat-topped mountain of Irish lore, tries to break free of the clouds on a day that alternated between pelting rain and moments of brilliant sunshine at County Sligo Golf Club. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

County Sligo’s Colt Championship Links was the second of three 18-hole days, all four of us anticipating a bit of respite for our aching feet until we climbed the mountainous but thankfully short par-4 second hole. From there a delightful panorama stretched from a sailboat race to the beachside golf holes and beyond to Benbulbin, a flat-topped mountain that dominates the northward views and a fair bit of Irish lore.

And finally, one of my favorites, Carne. American author Tom Coyne helped put the place on the map in his book, “A Course Called Ireland,” after the club’s operators fought through some lean years to keep golf alive way out on the edge of County Mayo. To not play Carne is an unforgivable sin, and I had talked up the place so much to my cohort that I was afraid it might disappoint. As if that could be possible among this incredible meeting of sand, sea and scenery, all with a rugged, green, 27-hole patch of perfection planted among the dunes. 

Every day, somebody would call that day’s course their favorite, sparking some debate but mostly agreement. And the next day, a new course would take the top spot, proving not so much that we could actually pick a favorite as the fact we could not. 

Ireland 2023
Golfweek editor Tim Schmitt takes a quick break from the rain in a shelter at County Sligo Golf Club. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

“I thought I would be able to rank them as I went, but as I reflected on some of them and played other ones, all these courses are fantastic,” Matt said before we set off east across the island on our return to the Dublin airport. “The ones that stood out in my mind were Enniscrone, Carne, Portsalon, Strandhill, Donegal – I’m starting to name them all. I don’t know if I could put them in order.”

Tim had the same problem. 

“To try and rank the 12 golf courses that we played, I mean, we talked about this in the van as we were driving from course to course, it’s almost impossible,” he said. “Every one seems to be your favorite. There are a few that seem to stand out a smidge over others, but the total experience is everything I could have ever imagined and more.”

As a courtroom attorney, Krash was even more accustomed to cutting right to the point. 

“Dude, I’d be thrilled to play any of them again,” he said. 

Members of the jury: We rest our case.

Latest article