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By David Gorman
Described by Lonely Planet as “untamed and utterly divine”, the Wild Atlantic Way is a sensational journey of soaring cliffs, buzzing towns and cities, hidden beaches and epic bays.
From the wind-whipped tip of Malin Head to the safe haven of Kinsale Harbour, it is home to many of the world’s best links courses from 2018 Irish Open venue Ballyliffin on the north coast to the beautiful Ballybunion in County Kerry.
The 12th at Old Head
Filled with courses that are on every golfer’s bucket list, none moreso than the magnificent Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale. One of the most dramatic, it sites for golf in the world, it will leave memories that you will never forget. One of the most dramatic sites for golf in the world, you are at the edge of the world at Old Head, three hundred feet up, looking over the edge of a cliff, with Atlantic waves crashing onto the rocks. With an iconic lighthouse in view, it protrudes more than 3km into the heaving Atlantic Ocean.
It is a favourite with American visitors, as is Waterville Golf Links in Co Kerry, where the late Payne Stewart is remembered with a statue. Situated on the shores of Ballinskelligs Bay, Tom Fazio, was commissioned to update the memory of this Eddie Hackett masterpiece. It provides a true links golf experience, complete with rolling dunes, firm fairways and sod-faced bunkers.
Kerry has some of the greatest courses in the world, particularly Tralee Golf Club, where significant investment has been undertaken to improve its practice facilities and to introduce a Hawtree-designed par 3 course. This is to complement an Arnold Palmer-designed course that is one of the most majestic courses you will ever encounter. The front nine features some spine-tingling holes that navigate the rocky Atlantic coast, but it’s the back nine’s massive dunes and challenging tee placements that leave a lasting impression.
Tralee Golf Club
Meanwhile, a Tom Watson favourite, Ballybunion is natural golf at its best. With very few man-made elements, it offers an unparalleled back nine and countless interesting and testing approach shots on a unique layout featuring back-to-back par 3s and par 5s. One of the greatest and oldest links in Kerry is Dooks Golf Club. Founded 127 years ago in 1889, it is situated on the stunning Dingle Bay and is one of the ten oldest golf clubs in Ireland, with the Atlantic Ocean lapping the shores and the McGillycuddy Reeks nearby.
The perfect place to stay while in Kerry is Killarney, with its many accommodation options and congenial atmosphere, and there you will also find one of the country’s best parkland courses. Killarney Golf & Fishing Club has been a four-time host of the Irish Open, two of them won by Nick Faldo. The wonderful lake and mountain views make for a spectacular backdrop to both the two courses, Killeen and Mahony’s Point.
Head up to Co Clare and you will find Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg, a Greg Norman designed links recently revamped by Martin Hawtree. A five-star resort right by the ocean, owned by the family of the US president, the course features spectacular views on holes that make excellent use of the sand dunes. It is truly a majestic site and when Greg Norman arrived to design the course, he said: “When I first looked at this site, I thought I was the luckiest designer in the world. If I spent the rest of my life building courses, I don’t think I’d find a comparable site anywhere.”
Lahinch Golf Club
One site that may be comparable is the host of the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which will be hosted by former Ryder Cup-winning captain Paul McGinley. Lahinch Golf Club dates back to 1892 and is one of the world’s greatest courses. Created by Old Tom Morris and revised by Dr Alister Mackenzie, the course overlooks Liscannor Bay and is an enchanting place to play links golf. Head further inland towards Limerick city and Adare Manor and Dromoland Castle offer five-star stays with top-class golf as well. Dromoland Castle has been one of Ireland’s premier resorts for over 40 years, where investment continues to improve the golf course set amidst 150 hectares of woodland.
Adare Manor, meanwhile, is a truly stunning €70 million development from JP McManus, where no stone was left unturned in making it a stunning stay and play for all guests. McManus brought in Tom Fazio, who helped make changes to Augusta National, to improve the golf course with the stated goal to turn Adare into the “Augusta of Europe”. The course is heavily tipped to host the 2026 Ryder Cup, and will welcome Tiger Woods and other top golfers to the JP McManus Pro-Am in 2020. Oh, and the hotel has been named Best Hotel in the World. Adare Manor must be experienced.
Galway is at the heart of the craic and ceol of Ireland and it also has some excellent golf courses. Galway Golf Club, home of the late Christy O’Connor Snr and Jnr, is laid out by Dr Alister MacKenzie nearly 100 years ago. Galway has undergone an extensive upgrade programme in recent years but has lost none of its original charm, especially when the gorse is in full bloom with Galway Bay as a backdrop. Galway Bay Golf Resort was created by O’Connor Jnr, and it is a sensational golfing enclave, thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds virtually the entire course.
Connemara Golf Links is one of Galway’s great venues - a starkly beautiful links golf course, designed by the Eddie Hackett for a very modest fee at the behest of a group of locals led by an enthusiastic curate, Fr Peter Waldron, the local parish priest who pushed to get the course built. The course has received many illustrious visitors over the years, including five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who raved about the elevated and “spectacular” greens on the back nine. “If there were a course like this on the west coast of England, it would surely host the British Open,” said former Ryder Cup star and commentator Peter Alliss.
Connemara Golf Links
Head north to Mayo , one of Eddie Hackett’s masterpieces, the great Carne Links at Belmullet must be played. The remote beauty of the Mullet peninsula and inquisitive holes are laid out through some of golf’s largest dunes. From the towering dunes of Carne Golf Links there is a sensational drive through Co Mayo to Westport Golf Club.
Off it is then to Sligo, the county which Nobel Prize-winning poet WB Yeats so revered. Enniscrone Golf Club is one of Ireland’s greatest links. courses. Set in the scenic splendour of the sand dunes with breath-taking views overlooking Killala Bay, it is not to be missed. Strandhill is a links course with a terrific variety of challenging shots and dramatic scenery. The most famous Sligo course of the lot, however, is County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point, where Rory McIlroy won back-to-back West of Ireland Amateur titles as a teenager. There is something epic about the venue that kicks off the elite amateur season in Ireland, and each hole bring a new challenge as golfers navigate along the Atlantic and Benbulben Mountain.
Rosapenna Golf Club
Then we hit Donegal, named the “coolest place on the planet” by National Geographic. Let’s start with the rugged beauty that is Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort in north Donegal, which combines the old with the new - the Pat Ruddy designed Sandy Hills Links and the Old Tom Morris Links, created by Old Tom in the 19th century and updated in 1900s by the greatest players of the time, Harry Vardon and James Braid. Rosapenna Hotel is a four-star hotel with 65 bedrooms and extensive facilities. Recently added to resort was the Sandy Hills Links, designed by Pat Ruddy.
Last year, the 2018 Irish Open was a tremendous success for Ballyliffin Golf Club, as Russell Knox was victorious in the Rolex Series event on the European Tour. The world was watching as the stunning views were broadcast of the two brilliant courses on site, the Glashedy and the Old Links, which was upgraded and re-opened by Nick Faldo in 2006.
Ballyliffin Golf Club
Also in the north of this large county is Portsalon Golf Club, founded in 1891. Rated among the top 25 courses on the island by Golf Digest Ireland, the par 4 second is one of the world’s great holes with the 14th - named Matterhorn - not far behind. Undulating and eccentric holes means that this is a shotmaker’s paradise. Narin & Portnoo Golf Club, one of the most picturesque courses in Ireland, has sweeping views of Gweebarra Bay taking the breath away. Just north is the nine-hole Cruit Island, on a small inhabited island in the Rosses region, linked by bridge.
Head south and you will find County Donegal Golf Club, otherwise known as Murvagh, one of the great links courses, which has been described as the Muirfield of Ireland. Isolated from the outside world by a forest of evergreens, washed on one side by the great Atlantic Ocean and by Donegal Bay on the other, it is one of Darren Clarke’s favourite courses in the world.
A golfing pilgrimage awaits. Experience golf on the Wild Atlantic Way.