Uncrowned jewels: 20 golfing gems that won’t charge eye-watering green fees

Kevin Markham selects Ireland’s Top 20 value courses...

Uncrowned jewels: 20 golfing gems that won’t charge eye-watering green fees

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The same is true of value. What one golfer might consider exorbitant, another might pay willingly for the experience that lies ahead. It’s a puzzle that can never quite be solved. Just as some American golfers won’t even consider a course unless the green fee is over €100, so there are Irish golfers who refuse to pay more than €50. Each to their own but my view is that both such categories of golfer miss out on playing some spectacular Irish courses — links and parkland alike.

For those with tighter purse strings here are 20 courses which I consider to offer the best value for money in the country. You might not recognise all the names… but golf is about thrills, excitement and, most of all, fun. These courses are brimming with the stuff and are ranked in order of their green fees.

1 Fermoy (Parkland)

You can’t argue with a €20 green fee: at peak time that is all Fermoy will set you back. How the course isn’t jam-packed from sunrise to sunset is beyond me because this is golf at its most inviting, most entertaining, most unassuming. There are two nines divided by a road but the pine trees are a common thread, chaperoning you all day long as the landscape buckles and rolls with the endless shifts in elevation. The 1st hole is a straight and perfect appetiser but all the holes here have something to offer. The back nine use a more daunting hillside, one blanketed in places by heather, and the 13th combines all of these elements to present Fermoy’s most striking hole. It drives down into a dip and then rises to the green. It is long and it is Index 1.

2 Birr (Parkland)

The 15th at Birr Golf Club, Co Offaly.
The 15th at Birr Golf Club, Co Offaly.

It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but a round of golf at Birr — alongside Fermoy Golf Club — is the best value golf in Ireland. This is a riotous landscape of eskers which rise and fall in perfect, natural rhythm across tree-drenched countryside. It creates all manner of shapes for holes to explore with water present on two of the new holes and blind shots still embraced from the earliest days. A couple of holes cross but Birr boasts some of the best par threes anywhere (the back-to-back 14th and 15th are magical) and the par fours which start the back nine are as good as any long hole you’ll find in Ireland. What makes courses like this and Fermoy great value is that they offer unadulterated fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously and they love welcoming visitors. That hits the right spot with most golfers. Fork out that €20 today.

3 Portumna (Parkland)

Given the quality of this course, Portumna has a startlingly low profile. Tucked away in dense woodland you are constantly reminded that this is old estate land… land that was used for racing horses and where the deer had the run of the place. Large oak trees are splashed everywhere and holes wander between them in a wonderfully lazy, open landscape fashion. There aren’t many changes in elevation so it’s a peaceful, elegant round of golf for no more than €25.

4 Portarlington (Parkland)

There are no changes in elevation here at Portarlington. This is as idyllic as it gets in terms of exertion. Yes, you might be vexed by the trees and the variety of doglegs, but that’s the only exertion required! Mature trees proliferate, especially where the course brushes up against the River Barrow. This is where you’ll find many of the strongest holes (14-17), although the best is the 7th — a par four stretching over 400 metres through a tall, tight avenue of trees. Red squirrels abound. They — the club, not the squirrels — won’t charge you more that €25 for the privilege of playing here.

5 Castlerock (Bann, Links)

It’ll cost you Stg £20 to play 18 holes on this nine hole beauty. Its big sibling, the Mussenden course, costs £95 at peak times but the Bann is closer to the sea, has tumbling dunes and boasts just one, solitary bunker. Expect blind shots, one of the country’s best par fives (the 5th) and a 90 yard par three where you’ll probably be happy with a bogey. It’s the sort of place you’ll play all day.

6 Scrabo (Parkland)

Another course of the thrills-and-spills variety and I’ll pretty much guarantee you haven’t heard of it. It sits on a hill, to the east of Belfast, and it is an unforgettable, hilly, gorse-drenched adventure. It will leave you breathless in so many ways. This is golf at its most raw and natural and the 1st hole is the epitome of this. The fairway has that crumpled air as it rises ever upwards between the flanks of gorse to Scrabo Tower. Played from the back tee it also shows off vistas that stretch to Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The course and the views continue in the same fashion, and many holes slot into the enigmatic category. Green fees are Stg £20-£25.

7 Corballis (Links)

The picturesque fourth hole at Corballis Golf Club in north Co Dublin.
The picturesque fourth hole at Corballis Golf Club in north Co Dublin.

Corballis is a small, municipal links beside The Island Golf Club, in Co. Dublin. The Island is world-class but little-known Corballis actually shares the same stretch of dunes. There may be issues with holes being close together but even with that in mind it has real fire in its soul as fairways flow naturally between some sweet dunes. So, for no more than €30, you’ll play remarkably adventurous holes, especially the four new holes added by Ron Kirby in 2009. It can’t boast the same quality, scale or maintenance of The Island, but you will never be disappointed by a round here and recent investment will see significant improvements to the clubhouse. Without a doubt one of the best value for money courses when you consider it’s in Dublin!

8 Strandhill (Links)

Not far from Sligo town, with sea pressing in on two sides, Strandhill boasts a crumpled landscape that rises towards a central point... not unlike Knocknarea Mountain which looms overhead. The links was designed by its members over many years and this has brought an element of quirkiness to proceedings — one you will benefit from handsomely, especially on holes like the 13th, which disappears into a pit of dunes, and the 15th which rises back out of them. The variety of holes is impressive and it rarely lets you settle into a rhythm. Much of this quirky, clever and fun course is on view from the clubhouse and it costs €40 at peak time. Ally McIntosh is currently upgrading elements of the course.

9 Royal Co Down (Annesley, Links)

The Annesley is overshadowed by its world-class sibling but don’t ignore this magical, miniature and immaculate links. What might appear as a trifling par 66 — with six par threes — will quickly put manners on you. The course is tight, bumpy and chaperoned far too often by deep gorse. There are semi-blind shots which will always cause you pause and you’re far better off leaving your driver in the car. The Championship course may be beyond the wallets of many golfers in peak season (£220) but the Annesley costs £45 and it is a perfect introduction to what links golf is all about. Please note, you can play the Championship course during the winter months for £70… so wait for a sunny spell and then go and play what America’s Golf Digest magazine rates as the best course in the world.

10 Portsalon (Links)

Set above one of Ireland’s most beautiful beaches — Ballymastocker Strand — and with the Knockalla Mountains rippling along the skyline there are few more enchanting locations for a golf course. This links is banging on the door of Ireland’s top 20, yet GUI/ILGU members can play it for €50. The par four 2nd is one of the best holes in Ireland, shooting over the beach and then over a river. It is part of an opening string of holes that weaves through the dunes next to the beach. Two double greens add to the enchantment. The back nine may push inland, away from those dunes, but there are more stunning holes to be found. It should be noted that Narin & Portnoo, farther west along the Donegal coastline, offers the same GUI/ILGU deal, is every bit as good and offers even more startling views.

Ten Other Value Gems

Mahon (Cork city) €28: A municipal parkland in the heart of Cork city, with some unexpectedly good holes (No’s 4-11). A fabulous public facility and its short length will appeal to everyone.

Charleville (Cork) €25: The trees give this charming parkland its structure, its colour and its thrills. It’s a gentle round of golf as long as you can negotiate those trees.

No 3 at Charleville Golf Club. The trees give this parkland structure, colour, and thrills.
No 3 at Charleville Golf Club. The trees give this parkland structure, colour, and thrills.

Castlegregory (Kerry) €25: A nine hole links gem, raved about for its natural feel, its beautiful location and its remarkable holes.

Cruit Island (Donegal) €25: Another nine-hole links and one that requires an odyssey to the wilds of Donegal… but the size of the dunes and the rollercoaster adventure make the journey more than worthwhile.

Ballyneety (Limerick) €30: A modern course that moves easily around the central clubhouse which rises above it all. All the parkland necessities and fun you could ask for.

Esker Hills (Offaly) €30: A riot of shapes and sizes and a round of golf unlike anything else on this island. Plenty of rises and falls and semi-blind shots. It certainly helped Shane Lowry’s career.

Newcastle West (Limerick) €30: A strikingly peaceful parkland with gentle shifts in elevation to add to the intrigue. Good par threes.

Rossmore (Monaghan) €30: Another from the ‘rollercoaster parkland’ stable, Rossmore sits outside Monaghan town and the double-dipper 1st hole tells you all you need to know. Fun from start to finish.

Moyola Park (Derry) Stg£30: The ‘Portumna’ of the north… quality, thrills, woodland and adventure but doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The central wooded hill is majestic.

New Forest (Westmeath) €35: Modern, manicured and rather marvellous, this is a big parkland of quality and the 18th century (manor) clubhouse is spectacular.

West Waterford €35: Shane Power and Gary Hurley learned their trade on this peaceful, well laid out parkland.

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