An Irish links road trip - starring Lahinch and Tralee
I have a list from which is missing some Irish links. It is well researched and draws from the work of others to make what I think is the definitive Top 100 courses these shores have to offer.
Eighty-ish are ticked off, and I had highlighted a trip that would make significant inroads into the remainder: The great Irish links of the south-west.
Impenetrable, remote and too much ground to cover in a weekend? Not so. The counties of Clare and Kerry are well served by low-cost airlines with frequent flights.
Our flight gets us into Shannon by mid-morning and an hour later we are nudging balls around the putting green at Lahinch.
Irish Links: Lahinch
Originally laid out in 1894 by Old Tom Morris, Dr Alister MacKenzie significantly revised the layout in 1927 and it was broadly untouched until the esteemed modern architect Martin Hawtree modernised Lahinch in 1999.
Two of the original Old Tom holes remain. The par-5 4th, Klondyke, and the short 5th, The Dell, are both as they were over 100 years ago.
Blind shots abound and this pair of holes engenders significant post-round debate among visitors and members alike.
Personally, if they are good enough for Morris, Mackenzie and Hawtree then they are good enough for me.
Lahinch is a theme-park rollercoaster of a golf course and those who dare to ride it will leave exhilarated. As with any theme park, exiting via the gift shop always leads to unavoidable expenditure and as you leave the golf course and are tipped on to Lahinch high street, there is a welcome inevitability about the Guinness on offer in this fabulous seaside town.
Irish Links: Trump International
Restorative sleep comes in The Lodge at Doonbeg (now officially Trump International Golf Links and Hotel Ireland). With suites bigger than most London flats, and with the highest of specifications, this is world-class accommodation.
The Greg Norman-designed course has a u-shaped routing and an extensive dune network that
places it high on any list of modern layouts.
The giant dune that forms the backdrop to the par-5 1st is a teaser for what is to follow.
It is a layout set up for the travelling golfer, meaning it is more manageable, but no less interesting or spectacular, than Lahinch. Variety comes through novel design, including a bunker in the centre of the 15th green, and a feeling of being somewhere special.
Irish Links: Tralee
We eat well in the clubhouse and then we are on the road again – destination Tralee.
Our route involves a ferry across the Shannon estuary from Killimer, in Clare, to Tarbert, in Kerry. We are on the tee by 4pm.
Foreboding: Noun. Def: A feeling that something bad is going to happen.
That is how we feel standing on the 1st tee on a gloomy, blustery, gathering evening at Tralee.
What unfolds is far from bad. This Irish links is epic.
Tralee is one of those pieces of golfing terrain where it is impossible not to build great holes.
Twelve of the holes here are world class. The genius is perhaps that the holes that tie these classics together do not let standards slip too far.
The King himself, Arnold Palmer, designed the front nine and God created the rest – so the saying goes. Regardless of what you attribute to whom, the vista from the clifftops of Tralee is magical.
It’s exposed and it’s not an easy walk, but those who get over that 1st tee anxiety are in for a rare treat. A two-pint Pebble Beach if you will.
Speaking of which, the quality of the Guinness is half the reason for any trip to Ireland and our overnight stay at Ballygarry House in Tralee does not let us down. Bed arrives eventually but not before four middle-aged men have passionately discussed the hypothetical merits of a) swinging and b) gate-crashing the next-door wedding reception.
Irish Links: Waterville
Neither, of course, came to anything more than thick heads, soon mended by the beauty of the Ring of Kerry that defines our passage to Waterville, the sometime pre-Open hangout of Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara and the sadly departed Payne Stewart.
Noel Cronin, the general manager and an Irish story teller with a deep knowledge of the game, is the perfect host.
The starter holds you back from the 1st tee until the group in front is clear, leaving you to step out alone on to this mythical sliver of land. The feeling of isolation and privilege is a happy combination.
Looping around a peninsula, this Irish links is, put simply, one great hole after another. Laid out in the amphitheatre of a massive sky, there are flat championship-style holes, there are holes wound between spectacular dunes, there are short and quirky holes and there is a grandstand finish.
And what a finish. The 16th is the dictionary definition of a risk/reward, genius, quirky, short 4. The 17th is a testing, spectacular 3.
Finally, the 18th; a hole which perhaps best sums up the golf course, a signature hole in the truest sense of the word – beautiful to look at, all results possible, and a fair test of golf.
Irish Links: Ballybunion
You leave with the feeling you have visited a world-class venue on the edge of the world. Our last stop is Ballybunion. We start with a night out that is spit and sawdust writ large.
Welcomed to within an inch of our lives at the Promenade Boutique Hotel, we are furnished with Guinness, expected to join the singalong and made to feel like part of the furniture before we’ve even sat on it.
This is the battered old cliche of Irish hospitality being lived out for real in downtown Ballybunion. It is a night that goes on for too long and ends all too soon. An alarm call starting with ‘five’ is never pleasant, but the plan is to play not one but two great Irish links, the Cashen, the ‘second’ course here, before breakfast and then tackle the Old.
It may have been the afterglow of the evening’s entertainment but as I tumbled down, climbed up, ran round and peeked over the rolling dunes that form this crumpled landscape, I wondered how on earth the Old would surpass this land of golfing Mousetrap.
And so to the Old. I am supposed to write now that the 1st five holes are a big disappointment. In comparison to the other 31 holes on this property, I guess they are.
I feel sorry for those five holes, the 13 that follow would put most to shame. It is a beautiful, blustery links day. We play the par 4 11th, that Tom Watson says is his favourite in the world.
We agree a property deal to buy a local hotel with our caddy. There is an eagle on the 16th. We share jokes about our landlady and we all have a shy at the short par-4 last. Between us, we eat enough lunch for 10, and we guess the populations of European countries. It is that sort of day. Ballybunion makes you enjoy not doubt; it makes you appreciate not question.
Irish Links: Conclusion
I went on this Irish links trip to tick some boxes, to get my tally from 78 to 83. Somewhere along the way I realised that is not what this is about. Visiting these golf courses in one go is a challenge – there is much driving to do and the golf is testing. But what a weekend. I’ll be back.