Irish golf’s new green wave

IF Mark Twain truly believed that golf is a good walk spoiled, he obviously never set foot on the Old Head of Kinsale, a course in southwest Ireland cut from apromontory jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The jaw-dropping views of the rugged 100-foot cliffs along the southwest coast, no doubt, would have inspired the famous author to write another literary masterpiece. Golfers who have played Pebble Beach Golf Links and Whistling Straits — two 2010 major championship sites with stunning shoreline settings of their own in the United States — can vouch with firm conviction that neither compares to the magic of the Old Head on a sunny day.

The Old Head experience — playing in the shadow of the iconic lighthouse, walking through old stone ruins near the seventh tee, chatting up some of the best caddies in Europe, a tasty post-round lunch on the patio overlooking the course, or even staying in the new luxury suites below the stone clubhouse — can cause sensory overload.

It is awe-inspiring walks like playing Old Head that bring American golfers by the planeload to tee it up in Ireland. Numbers from Tourism Ireland show that visitors from North America are up 12 percent, the first growth in three years.

Visitors come for the seaside settings at Doonbeg Golf Club — with the beautiful beach of Doughmore Bay below and the magnificent Lodge at Doonbeg in the distance. The sights of the castle-like manor house at Adare Manor Golf Club and the castle ruins at Castlemartyr Golf Club just can’t be replicated anywhere else.

“If you’re a serious golfer, you have to go play in Ireland at least once in your life,” declares David Graham, a golf industry executive from Michigan who travels to Ireland every year to play. Graham has said if he had one hole left to play in his life, it would be at Old Head.

It’s not hard to pinpoint why Americans like Graham are so smitten with golf in the Emerald Isle. The scenic links courses lure us, while the friendliness of the hosts and charms of the whole experience steal our hearts. Only in Ireland would we dare put up with courses that cost so much without offering the spoils of golf carts, driving ranges, beverage carts and a post-round club cleaning.

Instead of fretting about missing the luxuries taken for granted back home, golfers who travel to Ireland live for bringing back tall tales of navigating narrow roads, staying in quaint bed-and-breakfasts without pomp or circumstance and playing golf in weather that would break the spirit of most mortals.

Lifelong memories like these don’t come cheap, of course. Thankfully, it’s probably more affordable than ever to book an Irish golf vacation. Prices for packages purchased through tour operators that include golf, lodging and transportation cost up to 10 to 15 percent less than they have in recent years — thanks to a sputtering global economy and the exchange rate of the Euro. A weeklong journey costs $3,500 at a minimum, pricing many overseas golfers out.

I’ve made the journey six times in the last seven years and can’t wait to do it again. Part of the fun of the journey is discovering hidden gems like Dooks, cut hard against the Dingle Mountains and Dingle Bay, or the inland links of Castlemartyr in East Cork.

Most Americans only play links golf — especially the big names like Lahinch and Ballybunion — when they land. That’s a mistake. Old Head is hardly a links. Instead of gorse and knee-high fescue, intriguing tropical shrubs line its fairways. Old Head serves well-heeled American country clubbers who still traverse Ireland by helicopter instead of car. Owner John O’Connor says his guests and overseas members regularly tell him their expectations have been exceeded.

“It is a one-of-a-kind sort of place,” he says. “Cape Kidnappers (in New Zealand) and Pebble Beach is what people compare it to.”

ADARE Manor Hotel & Golf Resort, less than an hour from Shannon Airport, offers an excellent overseas membership program as well. Itdelivers scenery distinctly different than Old Head but no less pleasing to the eyes. An idyllic parkland setting, crafted by Robert Trent Jones Sr., is complemented by the beauty of the manor house visible from at least five holes. The Neo-Gothic Manor, dating to the 1830s, houses some of the most luxurious rooms in all of Ireland. No two bedrooms are the same.

The 7,453-yard golf course is just as unique, casting challenging tree-lined holes in all directions. The most special holes — the short par-4 15th and the epic par-5 18th — touch the Maigue River. Englishman Richard Finch survived a fall into its chilly waters on the finishing hole to capture the 2008 Irish Open.

Some consider Adare Manor the top parkland course in Ireland. The course humbled Tiger Woods into a 79 in the first round of the 2010 J.P. McManus Invitational Pro-Am. “There are stronger holes here all the way around” than other Irish parkland courses, says Gary Howie, Adare Manor’s PGA Golf Professional. “There are 16 or 17 tough holes.”

Conversely, Castlemartyr Golf Club is more likely to massage your ego than bruise it. The 6,790-yard course was designed by American architect Ron Kirby, who also created Old Head. Castlemartyr has carved its niche as a value-laden track a half-hour east of Cork that gives players a taste of links golf without the brutal beating of lost balls in the dunes.

Since the layout opened in 2007, the fescue grasses and gorse bushes lining the fairways are still growing in. The 5-star resort hotel, part of the Dromoland Collection, features a spa, a fine restaurant and excellent rooms.

Still, nothing beats a day on a true links, especially at a palace like Doonbeg, named the 2010 European Golf Resort of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. Doonbeg might be the best combination of links golf and luxury onsite accommodations in the world (perhaps only the old course at St. Andrews and staying and playing at Turnberry in Scotland can compare).

Two and three-story guest suites in the main lodge and surrounding courtyard are designed to be spacious, so you can feel at home for a weekend or a month, all while enjoying privacy from your housemates. Their furnishings and décor are exquisite. The Tempur-Pedic mattresses are so comfortable that some visitors have bought theirs to be shipped home. The opening par 5 introduces players to the mountainous greenside dunes that define the 6,911-yard course. Over the years, Doonbeg’s original Greg Norman design has been softened to make it more enjoyable. It still packs plenty of bite, so take acaddy to avoid its many pitfalls.

The caddies guide golfers through blind tee shots at the par-4 second, par-5 13th and par-4 finishing hole. They also steer unsuspecting players clear of the hidden pot bunker in the middle of the 12th green.

Doonbeg climaxes at the do-or-die par-3 14th hole, where a 100-yard wedge either finds the tiny green or suffers a cruel fate swallowed by the dunes. “I can count on two hands the places (and golf courses) that give you an experience like this,” says Buddy Darby, the Chief Executive Officer of Doonbeg who lives in South Carolina. “I don’t know what lures people to Ireland — the people, the sea, the landscape,” he says. “But if you step outside and breathe the air here — it’s salty and fresh — there’s nothing like it in America.”

* Jason Deegan (38) is a golf writer and editor from Michigan who has reviewed nearly 500 courses from seven countries for more than a dozen major golf publications.

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