Ireland’s top 100 golf courses: Let the debate begin

Kevin Markham takes a look at the newest golf course rankings

Mount Juliet golf course.

The inaugural Top 100 Irish Golf Course rankings by Irish Golfer Magazine was published on Friday.

Cue the debates, joy and hand-wringing which inevitably follow. Indeed, those debates have already started on social media, and while most of the reaction has been positive there will always be those who want to vent. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and rankings have, and will remain, a contentious way of assessing golf courses.

Peter Finnan, digital editor of Irish Golfer, had this to say: “Golf Rankings are always a source of debate and while we are delighted with the result, this is a combination of opinions from the six players on our panel. There are so many great courses in Ireland, some of which didn’t make this Top 100 list, but we hope the Irish golfing public uses the list as a motivation to get out and play as many courses as they can and make up their own minds on what their personal Top 100 list looks like.”

In order to be transparent, let me say that I am one of the six panellists who decided this Top 100. As such, I have had a first-hand view of the thought processes and assessment procedures which shaped this ranking.

It is no surprise that such rankings lead to discord across every aspect of Irish golf. Which is the top course? Is links better than parkland? What is the best county for golf? How is this course so high in the ranking when that course isn’t even included? You get the idea. There is no ranking in the world — of anything from hotels to washing-up liquid — that doesn’t lead to disagreement.

John Shortt, the magazine’s editor, said, “We are delighted to be able to produce this unbiased assessment of the many outstanding golf clubs we are blessed to have in Ireland. It was great to see such vibrancy in the Irish golf market again.”

If there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to rankings it’s that a disgruntled golfer, unhappy with the position of certain courses, will claim the courses aren’t as high as they should be because they didn’t pay for advertising. I was part of the ranking process… advertising had nothing to do with it. Just because it happens in one golf magazine doesn’t mean it happens in another. In the very best presidential parlance: it’s fake news.

So let’s talk about the courses which have come out on top. That’s what you’re really after, isn’t it?

The top three courses in Ireland are as follows: at No 3 is Royal Co Down; at No 2 it’s Royal Portrush; and, at No 1 it’s Portmarnock.

 

Always best to avoid the bunkers if you can on the approach shot into the 2nd #linksgolf #portmarnockgolfclub #ireland??

A post shared by Portmarnock Golf Club (@portmarnockgolfclub) on Apr 3, 2017 at 5:56am PDT

That right there will be a surprise to many golfers. Royal Co Down typically fills the top slot, certainly in global rankings, but its third place ranking demonstrates how different assessment criteria are being applied by Irish Golfer.

There are five categories:

Course Layout & Design (35% weighting), Quality of test/playability (25% weighting) , Condition & presentation (20% weighting), Club facilities & visitor experience (10% weighting), Visual appeal (10% weighting).

Anyone who has played Royal Co Down will know just how tough it is, how unfair it can be and how those intimidating blind shots can leave you shaking in your Footjoys. In terms of that second criterion of ‘playability’, therefore, it is always going to struggle against the likes of Portmarnock.

And then there’s the massive work that has gone into Royal Portrush, ahead of the 2019 Open Championship. Two new holes and plenty of other changes have changed the outlook on a course that was known for finishing with two weak holes… but not anymore. It deserves its number two spot and who knows what will happen once those new holes settle in?

Among parklands, the K Club’s Palmer course claims top place (at 15th) with a rejuvenated Mount Juliet (20th) rated the second highest.

It means only two parklands make the top 20. Is that predictable? Yes. Is it surprising? No. The quality of our links courses is world-class — every golfer in the world knows that — so it deserves to be celebrated and recognised. I’ll debate the links versus parkland issue with you all day long (I do just that in the magazine) but you can’t argue with every global ranking that places our links in the highest possible categories.

Included in the magazine’s 32 pages of rankings there is a side-by-side list of the top 30 links and the top 30 parklands. The top five links are completed by Lahinch (4th) and Ballybunion (5th). In the parklands list, Killeen Castle (22nd), Slieve Russell (23rd) and Fota Island (24th) round off the top five.

As this is the first ranking by the leading Irish golf magazine, there are no rises or falls in the standings. To that extent, every course is a ‘new entry’ but there are some new entries which are more remarkable than others.

The inclusion of Grange Castle, a pay-and-play facility in Dublin’s Clondalkin, emphasises that these smaller, lesser known clubs pack a punch when it comes to what they offer. It possesses a smart layout, the maintenance is top class and it’s one of the most playable courses you’ll find, for a very low green fee (€28 peak rate).

 

Grange Castle Golf Club. Looking forward to the summer! #golf #summer #dublin #golfireland #irishgolf #golfcourse

A post shared by Grange Castle Golf Club (@grangecastlegc) on Mar 22, 2017 at 3:26am PDT

It is no surprise that the club’s inclusion at 99th has been met with both bemusement and approval.

“Played Grange a fair bit,” read one Tweet. “Absolutely stunned it makes Top 100. It’s pretty rubbish. Would love to know thinking there?”

“Love the list. Nice nod to Grange Castle there at 99,” went another.

On the subject of green fees, Portumna Golf Club is ranked 49th in the list but is, in my opinion, ranked number one when it comes to value. It has the lowest green fee in the top 50 by some margin, emphasising that golfers really can get value for money at our top courses. You won’t pay more than €25 at weekends, peak season, at this idyllic and peaceful parkland. Other clubs offering excellent peak season value are Strandhill at 45th (€40), New Forest at 53rd (€35), Rathsallagh at 57th (€40), Tullamore at 60th (€38), Royal Curragh at 92nd (€40), Naas at 93rd (€35), Ballinrobe at 95th (€30), and Grange Castle.

Everyone knows there will be quibbles about this ranking. As one of six people sitting around a table and discussing and scoring each course, I can tell you that the same is true of the Irish Golfer panel. Six golfers are never going to agree on a top 10, let alone a top 100, so considerable debate and compromise are involved.

Two of my favourite courses (Birr and Fermoy) don’t even make the list, so believe me when I say that things got passionate from time to time. And that’s as it should be.

When it comes to rankings there is only one thing I can be absolutely certain about… the best ranking is your own! What the panel and Irish Golfer have done is give you a steer on where you should consider next playing if you want to play our best courses.

We even included the 9-hole Mulranny Golf course in a special 101st place to indicate that there are some stunning quality 9-hole courses out there, too.

Magazines are on store shelves and in clubhouses around the country this week. You’ll also find it at irishgolfer.ie/top100.


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