There are very few drawbacks when it comes to golf trips to Ireland. Certainly none that have stopped me from taking every possible opportunity to cross the Irish Sea with my clubs over the years.
But it is a fact that you almost invariably have to do a certain amount of driving if you are picky about where you play.
In England and Scotland there are several established bases for a trip that allow you to sleep in the same room for several nights and never have to go very far to find a great course.
That is not so much the case in Ireland. While road trips are a great way to see the country, they can also take up valuable golfing time, and perhaps even impinge on your nightlife, which is not a factor to be underestimated.
Play at Ballybunion, for example, and you’ll be hurtling up the coast towards Lahinch. Visit Tralee and you’ll be rushing off to Waterville. No sooner have you walked off the 18th green of the Glashedy at Ballyliffin and you’ll be asking what the best way is to get to Rosapenna. And as for the likes of Old Head, Carne and Connemara, while worth every last mile of travel, they are just itinerary busters unless you have the luxury of spare time at your disposal.
And of course you have to get to the southern, northern and western extremities of Ireland in the first place.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the easiest trip you can make to Ireland with the express goal of sampling some of its finest golf courses is to fly into Dublin and never travel more than an hour away from the intoxicating capital city. Frankly, what more could you ask for from any golf trip?
The one thing you don’t want to be doing in Dublin is trying to drive a car in or out of it, especially on a golf trip.
Let’s be honest, I don’t know many capital cities that are a pleasure to navigate by road. And I am sure that Dublin, for all its myriad qualities, isn’t one of them.
Logistically, that makes Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links the perfect base. You are still close enough to be in town within half an hour via taxi. Or you can hop on the Dart, Dublin’s train system, from nearby Malahide.
It is within a mile of the airport, and also close to the M1 and M50, meaning you can be on your way without queuing to escape the Dublin traffic.
You also have Bernhard Langer’s modern links on site, as well as the facilities of a luxury hotel.
Historic Portmarnock, the host of this year’s Amateur Championship won by Ireland’s James Sugrue, is two minutes away. And if you keep going for a couple of miles you will arrive at Royal Dublin, on Bull Island.
Meanwhile in the opposite direction is The Island, Portmarnock’s co-host of the Amateur. It is almost close enough to see from the hotel, albeit it will take you half an hour to drive there because there is a strip of the Irish Sea between you and your destination.
It’s about 45 minutes north to County Louth, Seapoint and Laytown & Bettystown. The likes of Carton House and the K Club are a similar length of time away heading south and inland.
If that still isn’t enough, then you can reach Pat Ruddy’s baby, The European, in an hour and a quarter via Dublin’s orbital motorway.
So, you won’t be short of golf, that much is for sure. Let’s start with our base, which is now over 20 years old. Sometimes courses designed by famous golfers do not bear their hallmark but Portmarnock H&GL is very much in the mould of its creator. The bunkering is intelligent and plentiful, and it is apparent that Langer wants you to plot your way around.
The best land is used around the turn. Greens are tucked behind dunes, folded into gaps between dunes or raised in the air to challenge your shotmaking.
It’s a thoughtful design, with perhaps the highlight the par-4 15th, where you drive towards but just shot of an enormous cross bunker. Then you turn right and hit, quite often blindly, towards a sheltered green that has the backdrop of the sea. It’s simultaneously natural looking, challenging and highly technical in terms of its demands.
Just a mile away is Portmarnock itself. This is surely the best course in the Republic, even given some mighty competition.
There are certainly more spectacular courses elsewhere but none, for my money at least, that offer the same levels of consistency, class and quality for hole after hole.
Though it is the Red and the Blue nines that Portmarnock is best known for, the Yellow is arguably the most distinctive loop and is every bit as challenging as the other 18 holes. Together they form a 27-hole complex that offers links golf in its most natural yet sophisticated form.
Much of the layout was designed by the club’s first professional, and 1874 Open champion, Mungo Park. It is Ireland’s answer to Muirfield, the holes snaking and looping around the flat property and the wind always coming from a fresh angle from one hole to the next.
For setting alone, it is hard to beat Royal Dublin, which stands on the golf-course-sized Bull Island and is accessed by a rickety wooden bridge.
The home club of Himself (that’s Christy O’Connor Snr) dates back to 1885.
O’Connor Snr was club professional here at Ireland’s oldest club. During that time he played in 10 consecutive Ryder Cups for GB&I.
The club moved to its current location in 1889, with the links designed by the peerless Harry Colt after the war in 1920. In recent years, Martin Hawtree has provided a modernising input.
It’s almost 7,300 yards from the tips. The front nine, normally played downwind, is considerably longer, on the scorecard at least, than the back nine.
You wouldn’t think it, though, because the challenge really begins on the 10th tee, the first of a collection of brutishly testing par 4s on the run for home.
The most memorable hole on the course is surely the last. You can see the green from the tee on this long par 4. But the problem is that the large practice ground lies between you and the target.
There are shades of Hoylake about the resultant right-angle dogleg. It ensures you must tiptoe your way home with an internal out-of-bounds to your right for the duration of the hole. It’s a nerve-shredding way to finish.
If you are playing in Dublin’s shadow here, it is a very different story up at The Island. You look across the bay to Malahide on the far side, but otherwise are far removed from any signs of civilisation.
Two pure links courses, but very different playing experiences. The Island has more variety and charm but both are among the best in the country.
After that you may be ready for a change. Where better to sample some inland Irish golf than Carton House, the former Irish Open host. It boasts the pleasingly contrasting O’Meara and Montgomerie courses.
The former is pure parkland and considerably more flattering. That isn’t to say it’s easy but it does give you some latitude from the tee. Or at least it does until you arrive at the 14th tee. A three-hole stretch confronts you on which it is possible to find the River Rye with every single shot that doesn’t involve a putter and perhaps even some that do.
You play a par 3 over water from an elevated tee to what is close to being an island green before tackling a par 5 with the Rye to the left all the way down the fairway until you have to cross it to find the green. Finally the short 16th is over water all the way. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is possible to run up any number on these holes.
The Montgomerie is a very different beast, with its incredibly demanding bunkering. Not only are there lots of them, and not only are they challenging you on pretty much every tee shot, lay up and approach but they are horribly deep.
This is not a golf course for the modest player, even from the forward tees.
What it is, on the other hand, is a very well designed test of your strategy and execution. Like Portmarnock Hotel, it clearly belongs to its eponymous designer.
Colin Montgomerie built the kind of course he loved competing on. Namely, one where his legendary accuracy and consistency would help him to outlast the competition.
I enjoyed the challenge immensely, even if the O’Meara is a more attractive course in terms of its surroundings.
It’s time to get back to the coast. A trip north brings us to Des Smyth’s Seapoint, which finds itself in a stretch of prime golfing land that also includes Laytown & Bettystown and County Louth.
After a slow start, Seapoint finds its range as the front nine goes on. It is never less than worthy thereafter.
There are some fine holes, with strong two-shotters a notable feature, and a particularly entertaining finishing stretch on the land that is closest to the idyllic beach.
The run for home begins with arguably the best par 4 on the course, the 14th. It doglegs right and demands a fine tee shot to bring the green into both range and view.
Two classic seaside par 3s flank a sporty short 4 played through links terrain. Then the closing hole is a par 5 that certainly offers the chance of a closing birdie. However, the raised green is awkward to find and to chip to. It’s the kind of hole where much can happen.
When you stand on the 16th tee you can look across the links at County Louth, or Baltray as it is better known.
It is a seaside course of rare consistency, beautifully draped across its landscape, only lightly bunkered and never forced.
The opening holes are exactly what you would want – on a big scale, with generous fairways and welcoming greens – until you reach the par-5 3rd. Suddenly you are suddenly asked to play into oblivion only to find a green with a significant run-off to the left, followed by a short par 4 to a rolling fairway.
There are pleasant surprises around every corner. A satisfying blend of honest-as-the-day-is-long testers on the flatter territory, plus forays into the dunes, a couple of sharp doglegs and some changes in elevation.
The short holes here are especially good, in a subtle and unshowy kind of way. You won’t find any of them on the front of a glossy book or magazine but they ask demanding questions with some intriguing contours on and around the greens.
County Louth is a fine course, and surely among the top 10 in the land.
Within an hour of reluctantly departing the scene, we are back at base and wandering into the delightful wooden surrounds of the Jameson Bar. The Velvet Strand is just a few yards away. We have a pint of the black of stuff in hand. And we are contemplating a slab of prime Irish beef.
Weary but happy, there can’t be many better golf trips than this.
Dublin golf trip factfile
Learn more on Ireland’s golf courses on the Ireland website.
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Dubin golf trip: Where we stayed
Dublin golf trip: Where we played