However, away from the big names (and big green fees) the country is home to a host of other superb tracks, varying from rugged links on the wild coastline to a new breed of modern inland courses built amidst Ireland’s lush countryside.
Your host for this tour around some of the less well known (and in some cases less easy to find) courses is Golf Monthly reader Tim Browne. A member of Royal County Down and Belvoir Park, Tim is also a senior assessor for our Top 100 Course Rankings and, since taking up the game aged just eight years old, has played more than 150 Irish courses.
Carne Links (Belmullet Golf Club)
There are remote spots on the west coast of Ireland and there are even more remote spots – and then there is Carne Links. Golfers relishing the challenge of top golf on the west coast play County Sligo and Enniscrone but few travel the extra mile to the wonderful course at Belmullet, Carne Links. This layout is a tribute to the talented Eddie Hackett, that most prolific of Irish golf course architects. The front nine has some excellent golf holes, such as the tough 220-yard 2nd and the short but strategic par-4 6th. The standout feature of the first nine though is the fabulous green site at the 8th, a wonderful natural amphitheatre lodged in the sand hills and known as “Fairy Hollow”. The back nine is even more stunning and the views will certainly take your breath away. If you are anywhere near here, do not miss this course as it’s an experience that all golfers would truly appreciate.
Royal Portrush (Valley)
The Dunluce links at Royal Portrush vies, quite rightly, for the number one spot in Ireland and is a truly world-class test. But hidden by its shadow is the Valley Course, also designed by Harry Colt. This links lies on much flatter ground, sitting in a huge hollow between the ridge on which Dunluce is played and the enormous sand dune that keeps the sea at bay, large parts of which may well be below sea level. The 237-yard par-3 6th holds special memories for me as it was where I first witnessed a hole-in-one, a 3-wood hit by my brother Johnny practising for the North of Ireland Championship in 1973. If you visit this part of the North-East you will surely head for the Dunluce Course at Portrush and probably Castlerock and Portstewart, two very fine links, but you’d be amiss to leave out the Valley Course.
Christy O’Connor Jnr has designed many layouts in Ireland but this is the best. It is a wonderful natural site for a golf course. The intensely wooded countryside has the river Blackwater running through it, creating natural lakes and large islands that allowed O’Connor to design many holes incorporating water features. The layout is a nice balance of holes, with short and long par 4s, challenging par 5s and excellent par 3s. There are no bad holes on this course, while most are very good and as a bonus the setting is magnificent. The club is very welcoming to visitors and has a terrific website.
Powerscourt is relatively new, the development having opened in 1996 with the Peter McEvoy-designed East Course. Recently, the West Course, designed by David McClay Kidd, was opened to complement the East. The setting is awe-inspiring, nestled in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, close to Sugarloaf and right beside Powerscourt House with its world-famous gardens. Both courses have many excellent holes using the wonderful natural trees of the estate to full effect. The best holes on the West are the tough par-4 4th, the tricky par-3 6th and the wonderful short par-4 10th. The East also has some terrific holes including the par-5 17th played from a high tee down a tree-lined fairway to a small green that’s well guarded by a scary lake.
Narin & Portnoo
This course is one of the more difficult to get to in Ireland. It is found in a remote setting on the west coast of central Donegal. The course was constructed on a relatively narrow strip of dunes land. The opening nine plays away from the clubhouse to the 8th green and 9th tee, both of which are virtually in the Atlantic Ocean. From the 9th to the 16th the holes hug the coastline along a magnificent sandy beach. The course has recently undergone a major redevelopment that has toughened it from a par 69 to a par 73. The end result is a terrific links track that has absolutely breath-taking scenery, some great holes and is a really good test of golf. Portnoo has always had charm and a touch of romance but now there’s more. Previously it had six par 3s; now there are four. The two that remain untouched are certainly two of the best short holes in Irish golf. With a few minor changes, this course will rank in the very top grouping of Irish links courses. It is well worth the journey to play here. Don’t miss it!
This is a little-known course that is hard to find down twisty, slow country roads that seem to last forever. It is worth the wait though. Ardglass is a fishing village not too far from Newcastle (County Down) as the crow flies. The layout follows the shoreline and many tee boxes overlook and nearly fall into the sea. The turf is not classic links turf but a tight wiry grass that mostly plays like links and, as on most seaside courses, the wind plays a major role.
Rarely will you find a more dramatic first tee-shot than from the back tee on this course. You stand at sea level but drive across a rocky outcrop to a high fairway and from there you play uphill again to a very narrow green perched on the cliffs. Recently the course has been considerably improved by the addition of extra land on which three new holes have been laid out, two par 5s and a par 3. The last of these is the dramatic par-5 11th, played right along the shore in a right-to-left boomerang shape. It’s narrow to play and wonderful to look back at from the next tee box. Ardglass is an entertaining and enjoyable course with some quirks but many very fine holes. By the way, the clubhouse is a castle and reputed to be the oldest clubhouse building in the world, and I can highly recommend the freshly caught fish.
As a member I know that I may stand accused of being biased, but Belvoir Park, set in Belfast just outside the old city boundary wall and within four miles of the city’s centre, is a delightful parkland course. It was designed by Harry Colt in 1926 and opened for play in 1927. It has five great par 3s varying in length from 140 yards to 210 yards. Belvoir (pronounced “Beaver”) is known for its tough finish and the last four holes have seen the destruction of many good cards as par on each can be an excellent score. The four par 5s are short by modern-day standards, but the course is being lengthened and toughened up by the inclusion of more fairway bunkers and trees, under the guidance of Martin Hawtree. Belvoir Park is just one of those pleasurable courses to play that all can enjoy as there are no hidden dangers, no unnatural water, just an abundance of mature trees and subtle Colt bunkering testing you at every hole.
County Cavan is not renowned for its golf courses, but if you are in the area or holidaying at Lough Erne in the fabulous Fermanagh lake lands, then call in at Slieve Russell, stay in their top-class hotel and play this course. Designed by Paddy Merrigan who has laid out many interesting courses in Ireland such as Woodenbridge and Tulfarris and who recently worked with Darren Clarke on the excellent new Castledargan course near Sligo Slieve Russell is a lovely, roomy parkland track. It has the classic layout of modern courses, four par 3s, four par 5s and the remainder par 4s. Differing challenges face you as one quality golf hole after another appears. This is a first-rate parkland course with no tricks, just a fair, genuine test of golf. The facilities are excellent and the staff are most welcoming. This may be a bit out of the way but add it to your list.
You only have to travel a few miles to escape the city hustle and bustle and arrive at Roganstown, that is how close you are to Swords, Dublin airport and even Dublin city centre. Roganstown has been developed and is run by the McGuinness family. The hotel here is very comfortable and well-equipped and offers excellent food.
The course was laid out in quite open farmland by Christy O’Connor Jnr who has utilised the gentle hills, mature trees and natural water to good effect. I particularly like the par-5 5th with a lake on the right for the big blocked drive. The second shot has to be guided into a gap between the trees to allow a short approach over a stream to a fiercely sloping green. Only heroes hit this green in two shots!
By contrast, the short par-4 8th tees off right beside the river, which then flanks the right side of the hole. You must avoid a group of fairway bunkers and then play an accurate approach to a small green.
On the back nine the 11th (401 yards off the white tees) requires a drive between bunkers then a good second to a lovely green situated over a lake on a big slope and set at a slight angle to the fairway.
This classic par-72 track features four par 3s and four par 5s and with the shortest of the par 4s at 388 yards, this can be tough off the back sticks. But there are several tees to choose from to suit your game.
As this is a young course – it opened in 2004 – it has been created with sand-based tees and greens. The tee boxes are in excellent condition and the greens are generally large, with quite marked slopes and severe undulations.
I played here twice in mid-winter and the greens were really fantastic to putt on, running fast and true. Roganstown is an enjoyable course to play, not too demanding from the tee, but the approach shots are challenging and played into what are often extremely testing greens.
“In Dublin’s fair city there’s a course that?s so pretty” – well pretty hard to find, but worth it! Castle Golf Club really is a hidden Harry Colt gem. The three hallmarks of a Colt course are the clever routing, the wonderful par 3s and strategic, often subtle bunkering. This course, as with many Colt designs, has five par 3s and they are all excellent, varying in length and character. Two are played across a wide chasm which makes them spectacular pitch holes – great use of ground that would be difficult to incorporate otherwise. There are some demanding par 4s, such as the 5th, 6th and 9th on the front nine and 11th 14th and 18th on the back nine. The club took the bold step of upgrading its greens and greenside bunkering, using architect Jeff Howes in conjunction with its members and the professional. The greens are now a real feature of the course and a top test.
T: 00 353 97 82292
Royal Portrush (Valley)
T: 028 7082 2311
T: 00 353 46 924 0146
T: 00 353 1 204 6031
Narin & Portnoo
T: 00 353 74 9545107
T: 028 4484 1022
T: 028 9064 6714
T: 00 353 49 952 6444
T: 00 353 1 8433118
T: 00 353 1 490 4207