DUBLIN, IRELAND | The wait, to say the least, had been excruciating. But after two years of the pandemic, I finally was back in Eire, enjoying a golf odyssey that began in Dublin and then took me to the north and west and to some of the finest links courses in the world. Carne and Enniscrone, for starters, with their towering dunes and holes hard on the water. Murvagh and Ballyliffin, too, pocked with pot bunkers and buffeted most days by winds off nearby water. And also the northernmost reaches of Ulster and the latest addition to the Open Championship rota, Royal Portrush, as well as Portstewart and Castlerock. I was even able to play the newly-opened and already acclaimed St. Patrick’s course that Tom Doak had routed at Rosapenna as well as the scenic seaside track at Narin & Portnoo that Gil Hanse recently remade.
It was a brilliant trip, for the golf on these layouts and also the gracious hospitality my Irish hosts bestowed upon me and my wife, Cynthia. In fact, they seemed to take their legendary warmth and welcome to a whole new level, so pleased were they that American golfers once again were venturing to their land.
Clearly, they missed us as much as we missed visiting them.
But what made this adventure even more alluring was the circuit we took. It was very much the road less traveled when compared to, say, the trail of well-known tracks in the southwest of Ireland or the area around Dublin. That meant there were fewer golfers and not nearly as many buses or crowds. Tee times were not difficult to procure, and we had no trouble finding hotel rooms. And nowhere on the Emerald Isle does it stay as light for as long, making it possible to play 36 holes a day. Or even 54, if one is feeling particularly spry.
What also was in abundance, however, were high-quality courses that compel players to hit every club in their bags – and employ every shot in their repertoire as well as some new ones.
There was also the après-golf, in cozy clubhouses and snug bars that serve pints of Guinness the color of dark chocolate and bowls of chowder brimming with freshly-caught seafood, the butter we spread on the brown bread that accompanied them as yellow as gorse flowers. The conversation, or craic as locals like to call it, seemed to improve with each glass that was raised to yet another wonderful day on the links.
Getting to and from the courses was equally as enticing an experience, especially when that entailed drives down narrow country lanes that snaked through pastureland full of black-faced sheep and Black Angus cows and past the ruins of castles, churches and tombs that dated back thousands of years.
One day, while taking a leisurely cruise from Carne to Enniscrone on a stretch of two-lane blacktop called the Wild Atlantic Way, the GPS in our auto suddenly announced we were no longer on a road. That confused me at first, because there most certainly was asphalt under our tires. Then I realized, however, that we had in many ways driven to the end of the earth. Waves broke hard on the rocky shores of the Atlantic just to our left, and there were dozens of sheep lazing by both sides of the biway, regarding us with some curiosity. I espied a few stone houses in the distance and also a barn, but there were no other people in sight. And it had been a good 20 minutes since we had last passed a car or seen a pub or petrol station.
We truly were in the middle of nowhere. And there was no other place I would rather be.
After landing at Dublin Airport we headed for Mount Falcon, a baronial castle in County Mayo that opened as a private residence in 1876 and that has more recently served as an inn. The exterior of this edifice, which has 32 rooms and is located just south of the town of Ballina, is made entirely of slate-gray stone. Inside, it features high ceilings, expansive windows and lots of luscious wood beams, ceilings and trim. Framed hunting and fishing prints hang on the walls, which makes sense given that this property served as an actual hunting lodge for much of the 20th century. At check-in, I smiled when I noticed the lobby smelled of peat, from the fireplaces that had burned the traditional fuel the night before.
The estate boasts roughly 100 acres of gardens as well as a pool, spa and several smaller lodges. A resident falconer also gives demonstrations on occasion with his birds of prey. There are hiking trails, too, and on a walk one day, Cynthia came across a Megalithic tomb, its stones covered in moss. In addition, anglers can cast for wild Atlantic salmon on a nearby stretch of the River Moy that is exclusive to hotel guests.
I had no intentions of wetting a line this time around. But we certainly made time for dinner at the Kitchen Restaurant, so named because it encompasses the original kitchen and pantry of the main house. The space is airy and comfortable, and the locally sourced food is first-rate, especially the appetizer that combined Atlantic mackerel with mussels and dill and the lamb loin entrée. To close, we opted for the plate of Irish cheese with piccalilli, crackers and sourdough bread.
What also commends Mount Falcon is its proximity to some very good links golf. And we took advantage of that in the following days, venturing first to Carne Golf Links, where a round is as much a visual experience as it is aerobic. Irishman Eddie Hackett laid out the first 18 holes here and then American Jim Engh and Ally McIntosh added a nine-holer that is called the Kilmore.
Then, it was on to Enniscrone. Designed initially by Hackett and updated some years later by Donald Steel, it is endowed with one of the most enthralling stretches of holes in all of Eire in Nos. 12-16.
As was the case with Carne, Enniscrone also exudes an intoxicating sense of calm and quiet, especially in the dunes, where the only sounds one usually hears are the distant rumble of breaking waves, the “whoosh” of wind off the water and the songs of the skylarks that flitter over the marram grass.
We headed north and east from there, to County Donegal. First on the play list in these parts was Murvagh, also known as Donegal Golf Club. Designed initially by Hackett and then tweaked by the great Irish writer, architect and raconteur Pat Ruddy, the course is routed on a peninsula full of dunes and dells. And it puts a premium on accuracy, thanks largely to its 86 bunkers and near-constant winds. Ulsterman Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, has described Murvagh as one of his favorite courses in the world, and based on conversations with several members, I learned he is not alone in that belief.
Some years ago, I had played the links at Narin and Portnoo, in a driving rain and without another soul on the course. But even in those conditions, I enjoyed the loop immensely. However, I fell even harder for the track this time around, and that had a lot to do with the way Gil Hanse and his associate Jim Wagner recently reworked it. As a result, there are a number of strong holes on the property, especially the short par-4 at No. 4, with a green tucked into a dune, and the par-3 sixth, where the tee shot must carry a gaping, grassy ravine to reach the putting surface. Another favorite is No. 8, and it is not unusual to see dolphins swimming in the inlet beyond the green.
Next up was St. Patrick’s, which is now the third 18-hole course at the Rosapenna resort at the top of the county. Old Tom Morris built the first course on these links, in the early 1890s, and it was revamped some decades later by James Braid and Harry Vardon and soon after by Harry Colt. Then Ruddy created Sandy Hills on neighboring land; it opened in 2003 and was updated not too long ago by Beau Welling, who has long served as the lead designer for Tiger Woods in his architectural endeavors. Next came Doak at St. Patrick’s, and once again, he has hit the mark. I especially relished the tee shot on the par-5 fourth, which runs along the beach. And there is something special about the 471-yard brute at No. 16, a 4-par that plays in the opposite direction.
From there, I motored over to Ballyliffin, which is located at the top of the Inishowen Peninsula, which has more heritage sites from ancient Ireland than it does golf courses. But the layouts that region possesses are special ones, especially the Glashedy Links at the Ballyliffin Golf Club. If only I had not been chased off the property by a lightning storm in the middle of my round, and with my score only a few strokes above par.
As for Royal Portrush, which I visited the following day, I promised to return there with all due haste as well after playing my first round on the Dunluce Links since the course was revamped before hosting the 2019 Open Championship. The old and rather bland 17th and 18th holes were eliminated and a par-5 added (at No. 7) along with a new 4-par (now the eighth). The result is one of the great golf courses in all of Great Britain and Ireland.
No wonder I keep coming back.