Kerry gold: The best 18 holes the Kingdom has to offer

The third county in the best-18-hole listing is the exceptional Co Kerry. With 15 courses — three of which are regularly listed among the world’s best — Kerry is spoilt for choice. So much so that, in this elite company, several of the smaller clubs don’t get a look in. Which is why a silver medal 18 holes are also provided. Measurements are as the clubs provided them.

Kerry gold: The best 18 holes the Kingdom has to offer

1 Ballybunion (Old), par four 6th, 383/371/314 (L) yards.

A hole that may not register on the radar of many golfers for two reasons: the mobile homes beside the fairway; and you are not yet in the big dunes.

That said, this right to left dogleg is fabulous and will play so differently depending on where your tee shot leaves you. The green setting is

sublime and utterly lethal: it is a superb example of the strength of Ballybunion’s greens. Finding and staying on the putting surface is not easy with steep slopes off the left and right. It is Index 7 and the second shortest par four on the course.

2 Dooks, par three 4th, 174/167/150 (L) yards.

This has always been a favourite of mine, tucked up against the estuary which flows into Castlemaine Harbour.

There are so many strong holes here but the 4th shows off the medium-sized bumpy dunes that make Dooks so special. It’s not a long hole

and it is probably a touch generous short and left of the green… but stray too far in that direction and out of bounds awaits.

The 6th green is clearly visible beyond the flag and after that, it’s the stunning Dingle Peninsula and the harbour’s waters.

The green looks generous but don’t be surprised if you’re not on it.

3 Killarney (Killeen), par four 8th, 375/363/299 (L) metres.

Index 3 was enhanced two years ago, with the water feature to the left of the green opened up and made more attractive with a stone-faced front.

Attractive it may be but it also makes the hazard far more prominent and

intimidating on a par four that demands two of your best shots.

Off the tee the ideal shot is a fade shaped around the tree to avoid the fairway bunkers on the left.

You’ll have a good length approach shot to an angled green. Attacking the green from anywhere but the right-hand side is fraught with risk, so work on that fade.

4 Waterville, par five 11th, 506/477/368 (L) yards.

A hole perfectly named. Tranquility somehow finds a wonderful sense of

isolation in the middle of the course, dropping down into a corridor of dunes that protect you from the winds.

The fairway shimmies back and forth before rising to a ledge-like green. Birdie opportunities abound — possibly more — and it is a beautiful hole to play.

An aerial shot of Waterville golf course
An aerial shot of Waterville golf course

5 Ballybunion (Old), par four 17th, 399/386/332 (L) yards.

From a towering tee you hit out to sea and then beg the ball to draw as the fairway doglegs quickly left around the heavy dunes.

A driver is not always necessary and with ample bump and run opportunities on the approach, length should not be your key concern. Find the fairway and take advantage. There are small fall-offs around the green and a couple of bunkers to the left add to the challenges, but this is yet another hole about choices and variety of shot.

6 Ballybunion (Old), par three 15th, 209/200/180 (L) yards.

A par three that is utterly terrifying but oh so compelling. With lots of sea

visible beyond the green and a nice high tee box you know there’s no

hiding from the wind — wherever it comes from — and that will typically leave you in doubt when it comes to club selection. But, if you doubt yourself, you haven’t a hope. As for the 11th (see Page 14) there’s no room for error around the green with hollows, humps and deep rough. The bunkers might be the safest ‘miss’. A ridge runs across the sloping green… as if Index 4 needed to get any tougher.

7 Killarney (Mahony’s Point), par five 16th, 458/435/372 (L) metres.

Often touted as the signature hole, the 16th drives out of the farthest corner of the course straight at the heart of the McGillycuddy’s Reeks. The hole sweeps right and then drops steadily to the green on the edge of Lough Leane. Given its short length for a par five, this hole begs for a big drive… preferably one with a fade. Find the perfect position atop the ridge and the next shot is a peach with mountains and lake forming a scintillating backdrop. Beware the water hazard running across the front of the green, some 100 yards out. If anything, it will make you want to go for the green in two all the more.

8 Hogs Head, par four 17th, 305/285/245 (L) yards.

The hole is named Temptation. And this short par four is exactly that as it rises constantly to a green clearly in sight. Bunkers up the left and a fairway that narrows at the throat to the green put a premium on accuracy if you want to give it a lash… but a 5/6 iron off the tee should set up a straightforward par. Maybe the state of your scoring will dictate what you do. The hole is wide open with mountains beyond and very very tempting.

9 Killarney (Killeen), par four 18th, 402/372/355 (L) metres.

Back to the clubhouse you go, with its backdrop straight from the Irish book of perfect landscapes. It’s an enticing drive from a high tee but with water along the left threatening a drawn tee shot and bunkers in the landing area on the right — all on show from the tee — this is a tough shot. Find the fairway and your only concern should be the bunker front right of the green… but that water isn’t far away. The green’s no push-over, either.

10 Ballybunion (Cashen), par five 15th, 481/460/380 (L) yards.

The Old course is revered, among other things, for the brilliance of its green settings. The same is true of the Cashen, if in a very different fashion. The 15th is a perfect example: the green is wedged on a shelf up in the dunes with little option of bump and run… unless you’re at the very bottom of the dune.

This is a strong left to right dogleg, with the tee shot requiring some caution as you can be penalised for going too far.

The second shot down through a deep valley of ridges could be straight out of a western film if it wasn’t so green.

It is one of the great spectacles in Irish golf especially as the sea lies visible beyond the dunes. Find the bottom of that dune in two and you’re in great shape.

11Tralee, par four 8th, 399/391/300 (L) yards.

Similar to the 6th at Ballybunion, Tralee’s 8th is rarely first on the lips of golfers at this Arnold Palmer-designed links. That’s hardly surprising when you consider the quality of the back nine, but the 8th is exhilarating from tee to green as it curls its way around Barrow Harbour in a gentle right to left curve.

You can bite off as much as you choose with your tee shot but this hole, squeezed by the sea and rocks on the left and a ridge of dunes on the right, is all about the approach shot.

With its narrow chute dropping down to the green you can land your ball 50 yards short of the green and find it runs on. Length off the tee is therefore not as important as the yardage suggests.

The 8th hole at Tralee
The 8th hole at Tralee

12 Tralee, par three 16th, 199/179/119 (L) yards.

Known as Shipwreck, this is par three perfection in both appearance and name. The green sits completely alone with only beach and sea behind, and anything but the sweetest tee shot will leave you in trouble. As with Ballybunion’s 15th, the safest miss is the bunkers as the rough and the dune slopes around the green are treacherous.

13 Waterville, par four 16th, 386/352/320 (L) yards.

This famous par four plays along the edge of the sea, rising gently from the tee, over a crest to a bunkerless green set right up against the water.

It’s not a long hole so no heroics are required… but it is known as ‘Liam’s Ace’ for a reason. Throw in some wind and the approach shot to a perched, plateau-like green becomes a lottery. At least it works for low running shots.

14 Waterville, par three 17th, 194/168/120 (L) yards.

Everything about Mulcahy’s Peak is picture-perfect. The high tee delivers the best views of the day with Ireland displayed in a 360 degree kaleidoscope of mountains and ocean. This is a par three where wind will always prove a factor but at least the green makes a good sized target and as long as you don’t miss by too much, you should be fine.

15Tralee, par four 12th, 461/440/373 (L) yards.

Not only is this Index 1, it is also one of the most beguiling holes on the Wild Atlantic Way.

What you see from the tee — the green, namely — is teasingly unfair because you have no idea what awaits. The drive drifts downhill and it needs to be your best.

The low chute of dunes you play between can actually help knock a slightly wayward drive back onto the fairway but from anywhere else, the green is simply not reachable in two. And that’s down to the deep chasm that wraps around the front, left and back side of the green.

Add in that you may well be playing your approach from a downhill lie and this hole will only reward the bravest of golfers.

16 Ballybunion (Old), par four 11th, 471/398/349 (L) yards.

A hole constantly listed as one of the world’s best … and it’s hard to argue with that consensus.

Perched parallel to the beach, the hole drops down through the dunes in a series of rollercoaster steps until they form a pincer movement right in front of the green, hiding much of the green complex.

It is Index 2 and while a big drive will serve you well, you could end up in trouble with the steep drops catching out some golfers. To have the best shot at targeting the green, play for a level lie with your tee shot, and be sure to find the green with your second… there is no forgiveness around the edges.

The 11th at the Old course in Ballybunion
The 11th at the Old course in Ballybunion

17 Waterville, par five 18th, 594/556/406 (L) yards.

The best finishing hole on the Wild Atlantic Way?

Quite possibly. Straight and true, above the beach, it is all on display from the tee.

It’s long, too, which makes it even tougher at the end of the round, but at least you know exactly what you have to do as the fairway sways gently between the bunkers.

A good drive is a must, as is a strong second… after that it’s all about how you play your links approach shots from 100-150 yards out.

18 Killarney (Mahony’s Point), par three 18th, 179/162/124 (L) metres.

Is there a more enchanting par three in Ireland? Whatever you think of ending your round with a par three, the amphitheatre of towering pines behind the final green is a powerful moment. The stark trunks of those pines almost swallow the pin. Now add in the lough, which you must cross, and the four bunkers cupping the left side of the green and you’ll appreciate what a dramatic finish this is.

The 18th at Killarney (Mahony’s Point)
The 18th at Killarney (Mahony’s Point)

- Kevin Markham is the author of Hooked, An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland. By Collins Press.

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