For once-in-a-lifetime drama, it doesn’t get bolder or more exhilarating than Old Head Heavyweight contenders The Irish Golfer Magazine’s Top 100 ranking came out a fortnight ago to much fanfare, yet the publication of Golf magazine’s Top 100 courses in the world slid by relatively unnoticed in Ireland.
It’s an American magazine so perhaps that’s one explanation but it is an authoritative ranking with 100 raters involved in assessing courses around the world.
Released in August, it is the magazine’s 18th biennial world rankings… and Ireland has seven courses on the list. This won’t come as any surprise to those who love links golf and have played the best courses Ireland has to offer.
Those seven courses, and their position in brackets, are as follows: The European (97), Waterville (82), Portmarnock (49), Lahinch (35), Ballybunion (Old) (17), Royal Portrush (14), Royal Co Down (4).
Maybe you’ll argue with the order; maybe you’ll disagree with the gaps between courses (eg the 33 places between Portmarnock and Waterville); and maybe you will argue that other courses should have been included, but consider this: there are approximately 30,000 golf courses in the world and, with 340 18-hole courses, we have a little over 1% of that total. And yet we have 7% of the world’s best courses.
Scotland, England, and Wales contribute a further 24 courses so, combined, our two small islands boast 31% of the world’s best.
Compare this to the USA, which has approximately 50% of the world’s total courses and has 42 in the Top 100. Pound for pound, Ireland does extremely well. Even so, that won’t satisfy some Irish golfers because there are other courses that must have been close. Let’s take a look at the five most likely contenders...
1. Tralee, Co Kerry
Probably the closest course to making the top 100, Tralee wins non-stop plaudits for its beautiful location and its famous back nine.
The setting for the course above the beach made famous by Ryan’s Daughter is spellbinding but when its designer, Arnold Palmer (alongside Ed Seay), quipped that ‘I designed the first nine but surely God designed the back nine’, it was a phrase that ignited the imagination and a belief that became folklore. It was also ranked number seven in the Top 10 Ocean Golf Courses in the world by Golf Channel. (Ballybunion was No 8).
There’s no doubt that the back nine is an incredible adrenaline rush of huge dunes, intriguing fairways, and green settings that have to be seen to be believed, but the front nine is regarded as weaker as it doesn’t hold quite the same drama.
That’s harsh when you consider what holes 2, 3, and 8 offer but the opening nine is indeed let down by a couple of weak holes.
There are plans to make changes to these so this remarkable links may well find itself in the top 100 in two years’ time.
2. Old Head, Co Cork
For once-in-a-lifetime drama, it doesn’t get bolder or more exhilarating than this. Similar to Tralee, it was ranked in the Top 10 Ocean Golf Courses by Golf Channel — at No 9 — so its location on the ocean-dipped promontory is a big part of its attraction. So too are the 300-foot cliffs which come in to play on nine holes.
There are few courses anywhere that boast hazards dropping straight down into the ocean as often or as far as here, and many’s the time you hear of golfers failing to get passed the second tee after discovering they have a fear of heights.
The design of the course takes you as close to those cliffs as possible and yet it still remains a generous course to play. That is also one of the criticisms aimed against it, especially on the ‘inner’ nine holes where style trumps substance.
This may be why it fails to make the top 100 but no one doubts it is an unforgettable experience.
3. Co Louth
Overhauled by the great Tom Simpson (and Molly Gourlay) in 1938, Co Louth celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017.
It is a links of serious pedigree where little has changed since Simpson’s day. The routing is natural and well-balanced and the greens and green settings are sublime. It is a course for strategists.
The run of tumbling holes from 12 to 16 is one of the best in the country, with holes 4 to 8 close behind.
Some of the inland holes are flatter and are seen as being weaker, and this may explain its lack of inclusion. Important cosmetic changes are being made (a rough thinning programme most notably) and, with Simpson’s name attached to three other courses in the top 100 (Cruden Bay (77), Monfontaine (45), and Ballybunion), Co Louth remains a serious contender.
4. County Sligo
Harry Colt’s name is associated with many of the world’s best courses… 10 of them, spanning six countries, are included in Golf magazine’s top 100, with Royal Portrush, Muirfield and Pine Valley the highest ranked.
Co Sligo is another of his great courses, set out at Rosses Point.
This is Ireland’s most enigmatic links with a variety of holes and shifts in terrain that no other Irish course can match… links or parkland.
Colt’s greens are things of beauty yet finding them with your approach shot is always tricky. Definitely an outsider to make the top 100 but always worth a visit.
5. A links medley
The fifth course comes from one of four links as The Island, Enniscrone, Ballyliffin (Glashedy), and Carne scrap it out. Each has its merits, its beauty and its challenges. Each has big dunes, too, creating channels for holes to flow between.
Does The Island nudge it, with its first four holes pointing north, south, east, and west, and one of the best back nines around? Is it Carne, with golf played over and through the biggest dunes of any golf course, anywhere?
Then there’s Enniscrone with its blind shots, quirks, and muscle? Or could Pat Ruddy’s ever-popular Glashedy (and host to next year’s Irish Open) take the honours?
There’s also the dark horse of Dooks in Co Kerry, which will see significant changes in the years ahead, with new holes set to be laid out over 90 acres of additional linksland.
We should be ecstatic that seven courses have made the list — they help to make our island one of the globe’s biggest golfing destinations — but it would be nice to have another couple, wouldn’t it?
1 Pine Valley
2 Cypress Point
3 St Andrews (Old)
4 Royal County Down
5 Augusta National.