Carne is officially only 15 years old, which makes it one of the very youngest genuine links in the world. In another sense, though, this recent addition to Ireland’s portfolio of world-class golf courses is as old as anywhere even in Scotland, let alone a country in which the game has only relatively recently flourished. It is the work of Eddie Hackett, which is to say that the Irishman’s most pressing concern during the construction was to stop the bulldozer operator from flattening out the naturally uneven contours of the land which add so much character and individuality to the course. Much of the rest of the work was actually done by unemployed locals, who were offered their dole money plus 20 per cent to give their time.
Hackett had no hesitation in declaring the piece of land the best he had ever laid eyes on and, at the grand old age of 77, entered into the project with unfailing enthusiasm. The reason Carne had laid undiscovered for so long can be attributed purely to its location. It is situated in the remote town of Belmullet, in Co Mayo, some two hours’ drive due west from Sligo town. Check a map and you will see just how far off the beaten track it lies.
But the drive through Mayo’s peat bogs is worth every last mile because here is a course the like of which you will never have seen before. It boasts some of the biggest dunes in Ireland and is so beguilingly natural that any excesses of certain holes is more than made up for by their rugged beauty.
It is clear that in many cases Hackett identified a natural site for a green then simply retraced his steps until he liked what he saw, be it a par three, four or five. If some of the holes are outrageous – and by ordinary standards they are – they should simply be enjoyed for what they are, and that is ones that are not and could never be found anywhere else in the world.
The drive through County Mayo’s peat bogs is worth every last mile because here is a course the like of which you will never have seen before.
That much is obvious from the very beginning, since anyone standing on the opening tee for the first time will be at a total loss to suggest where the green might be situated.
Played across a valley and into a hill that will help your ball around to the right, even from a crisp drive you will still not be much the wiser. Follow your golfing instinct, though, and eventually you will find a small target hidden behind a mound. The hole measures only a shade over 400 yards from the back tees and, if played, properly may require nothing more than a three wood and a mid iron. But routine it most certainly is not.
Like many holes here, it is free of bunkers. In fact, there are fewer than 20 on the whole course. This is a measure of how often protection comes from the contours of the land, with humps diverting imprecise approaches and hollows waiting to gather the results.
Highlights of the front nine come at the 5th and 8th, two par fours where the greens are situated in perfect shelters, with towering dunes on three sides. The best, though, is yet to come. The 10th is a magical par five played first uphill then down to a green that is dwarfed by a virtual mountain behind it.
Then come perhaps the two most talked-about holes at Carne. Both are short par fours, both appear claustrophobically tight from the tee, both tumble downhill initially, both dogleg sharply and both have shelf greens that appear to be cut into the hillside.
The 11th turns right and the 12th left, with the latter culminating in an unfeasibly narrow green. Little more than 300 yards each in length, they offer card-wrecking potential from one end to the other. A gorgeous par five played towards the Atlantic Ocean follows, before a short short hole with a green that can border on the impossible if you find yourself in the wrong portion of it.
Reaching the 15th tee marks the start of Carne’s sensational finishing stretch. With two tough par fours, a spectacular par three and an unforgettable par five still to come, you will want to save your best swings of the day until the end.
The first of these holes is a par four that seems to get progressively narrower the longer it goes on. Eventually, with dunes encroaching ever further, the entrance to the green is on a single-file basis. Then comes a one-shotter played from an elevated tee before the magnificent 17th, with its sinuous fairway and shelved green representing ribbons amid oceans of unspeakable rough. At over 440 yards and playing uphill, only the very best will walk away from here with a par and not too many more will be confident of finishing the hole with the ball they started it with.
A par five to finish is usually a treat but never more so than here. Just as Carne begins with a hole that defies convention so the last completes the unforgettable journey. Played towards Blacksod Bay, a perfect drive will finish on a tempting plateau from where the green, across a steep-sided valley is just about within reach. Most, though, will finish at the bottom of this typically natural hazard from where recovery is far from easy.
At a shade over 6,700 yards from the tips, Carne is not a long course by modern standards. But then it should never be judged by modern standards. It is a course that reminds us of the game’s origins, and should be played in the spirit it was intended.
Is it always fair? Probably not. Is every hole great? The same answer applies. Does it always entertain? Without a shadow of a doubt. Is it an experience to be treasured? It will never be forgotten by anyone with a golfing soul.
Enough said – recommendations do not come any higher.