The missing links

With an astonishing one third of all the world’s links courses, Ireland is an island paradise for links golfers. Think that’s good? There’s even better news.

For most of us, the finest links courses in the world remain tantalizingly out of reach. We might grab little peeks of them through the gates or perhaps we’ve seen Rory or Tiger destroy 18 holes on TV, but what that’s as close as we get.

Not in Ireland.

The whisper among golfers about easy access to Ireland’s links courses is turning into a roar. A look at courses like Royal Portrush on the Derry-Londonderry coast or Old Head, bang on Ireland’s western edge, might lead you to believe that this is membership only territory. It’s not.

Here are six open-to-all classics to whet your appetite.

Royal Portrush, County Antrim

It may have started life with only 9 back in 1888, but it was only a matter of a year before Royal Portrush was an 18-hole charmer. Among others, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson have stalked the greens here on Derry-Londonderry’s enchanted coast while the ‘Royal’ part of the club’s name derives from its patron the Prince of Wales (later to be known as King Edward). When 2011 PGA champ Keegan Bradley arrived here for the Irish Open in 2012 he described it as a homecoming. You may well relate.

Doonbeg, County Clare

A great links course looks like it was made by nature itself. In the case of Doonbeg that’s the reality. Designed by the great Greg Norman, the majority of fairways and greens were simply cut to fit: no landscaping needed. Named one of the top courses in the world by Golf Magazine, the five-star resort sits right on the Atlantic and with 16 of the 18 holes within sight of the ocean the changing wind conditions ensure each round is unique. Something you’ll notice on your second round. And your third, and your fourth…

Portrush

Royal Portrush Links

Waterville, County Kerry

The setting is one of the best I've seen for golf”. So says Tom Farzo, the legendary golf course architect. The man charged with ‘Tiger-proofing’ Augusta National knows his settings when it comes to golf. So when he began working with Waterville to update the century-old course in 2002 the pairing was something of a dream team. Waterville demands that quality that is seen in all great links golfers: imagination. You won’t get around this course simply by hitting clean and long. A little ingenuity and craft is demanded. But isn't that what makes links golf so special?

Royal County Down, County Down

“Every blade of grass is perfectly manicured, but a layout that feels perfectly unmanipulated”. In one sentence, eulogizing about the perfection of Portrush, Golf Magazine had cracked the secret to a perfect links course. Under the shadow of the Mourne Mountains, the course – made up of the Championship and Annesley links – has taken 114 years to get to where it is today. In that history, a 61 scorecard by local 16 year-old Rory McIlroy stands out as a red-letter day. In a recent interview about that momentous moment, McIlroy was asked what he remembered of the round: “Basically, every shot”. If you’re looking for unforgettable links golf, you’ve found it.

Lahinch Links

Lahinch & Ballybunion, County Clare and County Kerry

To maintain a 100 year old links course or build a fresh take on links golf? A question facing many links clubs. Lahinch simply had their cake and ate it, with the Old Course and Castle Course combing modern touches, like extra bunkers and mounting, with old-style triple-tiered greens. Meanwhile when Ballybunion welcomed guests like Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods to their links course the rest of the world began to discover what the people of County Kerry already knew; that one of the world’s finest golf courses lay on the south west coast of Ireland.

Portmarnock, County Dublin

A venue where 10  major champions have won the Irish Open Championship. From George Duncan in 1927 to the likes of José Maria Olazábal, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros, Portmarnock identified them all as champions. It has hosted every major domestic championship, both amateur and professional, as well as the Canada Cup (now the World Cup of Golf) in 1960 and the 1991 Walker Cup Matches. The great Arnold Palmer got his first taste of links golf at the  Portmarnock, when he joined forces with Sam Snead to win the Canada Cup (now World Cup) in 1960. "There are no tricks or nasty surprises, only an honest, albeit searching, test of shot-making skills.” Tom Watson, five-time Open champion, on Portmarnock.

Considered one of the great golf courses of the world, Portmarnock was founded in 1894 on sandy peninsula that was once accessible only by boat. Golf had been played there more than 40 years earlier when the Jameson family of whiskey fame, built a private golf course at the north end of links. A purely natural course offering superb views of the Hill of Howth and Ireland’s Eye, that small island just off the coast, it is laid out in two loops of nine and meanders in many directions, forcing players to deal with differing wind conditions. It has hosted 12 Irish Opens as well as the Walker Cup and the Canada Cup — now the World Cup of Golf — and its finishing holes are regarded as some of the best to be found anywhere in the world.

The journey doesn’t end here. Your dream links tour could also include any of the following clubs: Killarney Golf Club, Rosses Point, Ballyliffin, Tralee, Dooks, Rossapena, Narin, Portnoo, Old Head, Portstewart and Lough Erne Resort.