For golfers headed to Ireland, choosing which course to play can be more challenging than making par on a links course with towering dunes and a stiff sea breeze. Ireland has nearly 450 golf courses, including a third of the world’s seaside links courses (over 50), plus a variety of parkland and heathland courses.
Exterior of Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa Hotel
We asked two professional Irish golfers and two leading golf tour operators to share their top picks for Irish golf experiences.
County Louth Golf Club
Pro golfer and Dublin native Paul McGinley says the diversity of famous links and parkland courses make Ireland stand out in the world of golf. He speaks from experience— currently the Allianz-sponsored golfer is ranked 22nd on the European Tour and is one of the top 100 golfers of the world. McGinley represented Europe in three Ryder Cups, sinking the winning putt in 2002.
McGinley’s preferred Irish course is County Louth Golf Club known as “Baltray,” a 7,031-yard links course designed in 1938 and updated in 2003 by Tom MacKenzie. McGinley has been playing the par-72 course since he was 16 years old. “County Louth is a traditional course that doesn’t rely on length to make it difficult,” explains McGinley. “The par 3s are as good as you’ll see anywhere in the world.”
The seventh hole, Shepards Bank, is McGinley’s favorite—a par 3 that demands an absolutely accurate iron shot across the 163 yards to the green in order to avoid the runoff areas, he says.
McGinley is also partial to Macreddin Golf Club, his first golf-course design project, which opened a few months ago. Located in County Wicklow, McGinley says the challenge of this 7,173-yard parkland course is in the variety of shots required to play it.
Druids Glen Golf Club
Irish golfer Eamonn Darcy has won 20 world titles, represented Ireland in seven World Cup championships and played in four Ryder Cups with two team victories. Now on the European Senior Tour, he enjoys playing top parkland courses, as well as the links courses in his native land.
Druids Glen Golf Club in County Wicklow is Darcy’s first choice among parkland courses. Designed by Irishman Pat Ruddy, the 7,046-yard, par-71 course hosted the Irish Open four times. “Colorful azaleas and rhododendrons line the course, and the wildlife is magnificent,” he explains.
The 13th hole, named The Snakes, is one of Darcy’s favorites. This 491-yarder is ranked the most difficult par 4 in European golf. “You must hit a long tee shot with a fade at the end around a side cliff, across a river and onto a narrow fairway. Then you have a beautiful shot over a big lake to a tricky green. If you make par, you come off the course really happy,” he says.
The golf club also features a second course (Druids Heath), a golf academy, a covered a driving range and Georgian clubhouse built in 1770.
The Old Links at Ballyliffin Golf Club
David Brice has enjoyed golf for nearly 50 years. He opened New York-based Golf International 20 years ago, offering customized and escorted golf tours in Europe for individuals and groups. The company has an office at Shannon Airport and a 24-hour concierge service.
An ocean view from the Ballyliffin golf course
Brice recommends Donegal due to the region’s authenticity and affordability. The Old Links at Ballyliffin Golf Club is his favorite course. “It offers a thinking golfer’s layout, with different challenges on every hole,” says Brice. “The rugged coastline and the feeling of isolation is an inspiring, almost holy experience.” This 6,910-yard, par-71 course opened in 1947 and was recently upgraded by Nick Faldo. It hosted this year’s Irish Seniors Open, a European Senior Tour event.
The fifth hole is Brice’s favorite, a short, intimidating par 3 that plays uphill to a green protected on both sides by sand dunes towering a few hundred feet high. “Chances of making par are slim at best,” he says, noting the tricky winds. He adds that the 18th hole is the best closing hole on the Emerald Isle, a par-5, 580-yard layout through the dunes with cunningly placed bunkers.
The newer Glashedy Links opened at Ballyliffin Golf Club in 1995. Designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, the 7,217-yard, par-72 course features raised tees and panoramic views. Both courses are ranked in the top 20 in Ireland. Ballyliffin is a two-hour drive from Belfast.
An elegant Heritage Parkview Suite at the Shelbourne Dublin
Doonbeg Golf Club
“Ireland is our number-one golf destination,” says Jerry Quinlan, owner of Jerry Quinlan’s Celtic Golf, based in New Jersey. This European golf tour company was launched 19 years ago, and now takes 2,000 golfers a year to the Emerald Isle. It offers chauffeured group tours on customized coaches and self-drive itineraries.
Doonbeg Golf Club is Quinlan’s favorite golf resort in Ireland. This 6,911-yard, par-72 links course was designed by Greg Norman and opened in 2002. It has views of the Atlantic Ocean from 16 of the 18 holes, and dunes over 100 feet high. “The course seems created by God, not machinery,” says Quinlan, adding that sharing jokes with your caddy and pints at the 19th hole are part of the golf experience. There is also a driving range and an excellent caddy program.
The 14th hole, a short par 3, is outstanding, according to Quinlan. “When you step up to the tee, there is a vast drop-off beyond the kidney-shaped green with a view of the ocean and people riding horses on the beach,” he says.