Doonbeg, par five 1st, 561/534/494 (L) yards
There is something about standing on a high tee right in front of the clubhouse, drinking in the views and looking at that distant flag that is utterly inspiring at Doonbeg. The first is an absolute peach,, straight down the throat to a green tucked under a towering dune. It looks perfect, it plays perfectly and you might even walk off with a birdie. Seriously, how hard do you want to hit that drive? One lone bunker threatens your drive, but many more await your
approach shots and these are the biggest threat. That said, every green at Doonbeg can make a fool of you.
Woodstock, par four 7th, 391/373/376 (L) metres
No surprise that this is Index 1. It’s a big right-to-left dogleg curving around a lake. From a high tee you see most of the hole — but not the green — and, while there’s plenty of landing area on the fairway below, the farther left you go the shorter your approach will be… and the more you bring the water into play. A lone sycamore tree resides in the centre of the fairway around the 220 metre mark. Use that as your guide. More water slices in short of a tiered and angled green, so the long approach is a tough shot. How you play the hole depends
entirely on where your drive finishes. The par three 8th is a brilliant follow-on.
Dromoland Castle, par three 7th, 179/157/126 (L) yards
There is nothing particularly clever to the design of this hole but its timing and its setting put it firmly on this ‘best 18’ list (and ahead of the excellent par three 17th). When you arrive on the tee shrouded in tall trees you’ll have a ‘wow’ moment. Dromoland Castle has slipped into fifth gear and for the rest of the round it never lets up. The 7th is a towering and thrilling tee shot down to the green, with water front left. The lake and castle beyond provide the perfect backdrop.
Lahinch, par five 4th, 475/472/423 (L) yards
Klondyke, alongside The Dell, are two of Ireland’s most famous holes, dripping in history and enshrined in Old Tom Morris folklore… even if Klondyke owes more to local professional, Charles Gibson. You tee off on this short par five with your back to the ocean and a valley of dunes ahead of you. And then, seemingly, the fairway stops as a ship-sized dune barges across the fairway.
Do you play over, for glory, or play around to the right, where bunkers await? You’ll have to decide when you reach your ball. But don’t get caught up in that dune, because the rough will grab your club head and you’ll probably fluff your escape shot… and on a short par five doesn’t that feel like a waste?
There is no feeling quite like hitting the perfect second shot over that hulking dune and wondering if you’ve found Klondyke’s natural, rippling green… and what joy when you discover you have.
Lahinch, par three 5th, 154/148/118 (L) yards
The Dell is all Old Tom Morris, and it is one of only two blind par threes in
Ireland’s 18-hole course portfolio (the other being Skibbereen). It’s not long, but the shallow green lies almost hidden within a nest of tall and steep dunes. A white stone on those dunes indicates where the flag hides. Hit a beauty and hold your breath... otherwise pray those dunes deliver some sort of miracle bounce. Should your ball stay high in the dunes, then your recovery shot will be truly intimidating. If you have the opportunity, hit two balls and hit the second one deliberately long, you might be surprised at which of your shots is closer to the pin.
Lahinch, par four 6th, 424/412/331 (L) yards
After the Dell, comes one of Hawtree’s holes, the knee-knocking 6th. It is Index 2 and you drive up onto a fairway that then whips left through the dunes and out of sight. Judging the correct distance is paramount if you want to make par, because it is a tough shot... and especially so for big hitters, as a deep, rough-strewn hollow awaits at the end of the fairway.
This is nowhere you want to be, with the green precariously positioned below you, above the beach. The green is shaped to reflect the chaotic shapes around it.
It is such an attractive approach shot and quite terrifying too if you’re not on the fairway.
Dromoland Castle, par four 15th, 273/266/234 (L) yards
There are three very short par fours here, which makes the course all the more playable for all levels of golfer. Holes 9 and 10 both threaten, with water close to the green, but offer birdie chances, while the 15th proves more terrifying, with no water at all. It’s all on show as you drive downhill over a tumbling fairway. There are three bunkers, with two of these directly in front of the green. Behind the green is only pain, as it drops sharply into the trees. The optimum play is an iron to the left hand corner of the fairway, which then opens up the green, but, given the yardage and its downhill direction, it is well worth a lash. The bragging rights could be huge.
Dromoland Castle, par four 16th, 439/406/332 (L) yards
And after the short 15th comes the monster, Index 1, 16th. Two trees wreak havoc on your tee shot, especially if you favour a draw. One stands on the right, close to the tee, while the other lies dead ahead at the elbow of the gentle left-to-right dogleg.
It is as deceptive as it sounds. Big hitters will drive between the two, straight at the green, but the rest of us will have to take the long way around. It is then a hefty approach to a green sitting on an incline beyond a stream. Many will play it as a par five, but it all depends on your drive, especially as only the front left of the green is easily accessible.
Doonbeg, par four 5th, 355/302/221 (L) yards
The shortest par four on the course and it’s a tricky wee beast (Index 7). This is what a risk/reward hole is all about. It should be simple: Play a five iron up the middle, pitch the ball on the green and two putt for par. But that flag hovering on the horizon, dominated by dunes on either side, is oh so tempting. ‘If I hit a screamer I can get really close’, you might think. Unlikely. There’s a deep pocket of chaos right in front of the green and you never want to be in there. If you land just short and avoid those dunes, then your short game needs to be inch perfect, but a birdie could be your well-earned reward.
Doonbeg, par three 14th, 138/126/121 (L) yards
The old 14th has long gone and it was a beauty. Hawtree’s new 14th plays at right angles to the old one and hugs the coastline. It too is a beauty and it doesn’t possess a single bunker. The beach and the resort provide an attractive backdrop, as you play from up in the dunes to a shapely green that’s all on show.
Plenty of run-offs put a premium on finding the putting surface, but it is not a difficult hole. Any of Doonbeg’s par threes could make this list, but I particularly like how Hawtree ‘found’ this new 14th.
Lahinch (Castle) par four 8th, 275/273/255 (L) yards
The farthest corner of the Castle course possesses the links’ three best holes: The par threes 6 and 7, and the perfectly presented 8th. The tee sits next to the castle ruins looking down over the course and an angled fairway (about 45 degrees) and it promises the toughest drive of the day, by far. It’s all about knowing your distances, because if you hit it long you’re in the rough, but if you hit it short, you’re in the marsh or the river. You could be brave and go for the green, but the bunkering is so well positioned that you simply won’t make it. This is all about brain over brawn and believing in your swing when you stand on the tee.
Shannon, par five 8th, 575/501/440 (L) yards
There are so many holes that sum up Shannon’s appeal and, as alluring as the waterside par three 17th is, the 8th does it best. All those pines and evergreens flanking the gently rolling fairway, the colourful shrubs by the tee boxes and the flag highlighted by the dark trees beyond the green... it’s very ‘Shannon’. The 8th is a delight and continues the course’s easy rhythm. It is not a fancy design but it illustrates how charming golf can be. You drive between the trees and the challenge comes when deciding how to approach the green, as a large pond lies front left.
Lahinch, par four 9th, 400/391/245 (L) yards
After the holes of Old Tom, Gibson and Hawtree (above) we take a hole from Lahinch’s true mastermind: Alister MacKenzie. The 9th uses the natural terrain to create a perfect links hole. From the high point on the course, you drive at the green with all of the challenges in full view. These include a sharp ridge running diagonally across the fairway, exactly where you want to be landing your drive.
It will tempt golfers to hit to the right, to find the higher ground, but that can make for a tough approach to a narrow green protected by a bank on the right and steep fall-offs everywhere else… including the front. It demands an intelligent tee shot, preferably to the left side of the fairway and short of the ridge, and then a brave approach to a long green.
Far more difficult than its Index 10 suggests and playing short on the approach is never a bad option.
Lahinch, par four 13th, 279/267/230 (L) yards
A very short par four with the green on show, but its dangers are hidden out of sight, over a ridge. You’ll probably fancy having a go, but if your tee shot finds the hollows to the right, a terrifying blind shot from down deep awaits, while natural shapes short and around the green will force everything left.
The thing is, you don’t need to be rash. Driving the green is exceptionally tough and the price for missing it is too penal. By favouring a long iron off the tee you will be presented with numerous opportunities to get close to the flag.
East Clare, par four 10th, 346/335/281 (L) metres
To a course talked about very much, but boasting one of the most peaceful settings of any course in Ireland, and it possesses some lovely holes, uncomplicated and lots of fun.
The 10th is a sharp dogleg right, over and around duck- and reed-infested ponds and with dense trees all along the right. The more of the dogleg you take on the more you open up the green… up to a point: An oak stands in the middle of the fairway, exactly 100m from the centre of the green, so getting caught behind it will prove infuriating. It’s time to make a decision: Do you play short and safe up the left, leaving a longer approach, or do you blast it and hope not to get behind that tree?
The green will be above you with a strong tier through the middle. The picturesque par three 17th didn’t quite make the cut.
Kilkee, par four 3rd, 292/254/218 (L) metres
A very short par four. Easy, right? Let’s start with the obvious: You’re high on the cliff-tops with breathtaking views over the ocean and across to Loop Head. Next, the flag is just visible over the edge of the cliffs, which bite into the hole and keep the fairway hidden.
It’s a daunting shot whichever way you look at it and while there are no bunkers, the green is very small. Now factor in the wind. Many a mulligan has been taken here!
Doonbeg, par five 13th, 514/495/380 (L) yards
Greg Norman’s vision to position a green up on the ledge was genius. It sits on a middle tier cradled by dunes and it again offers that risk/reward dilemma. If you hit a strong drive over the rolling, twisting fairway, then you will be sorely tempted to try and fly the ledge... but fall short and the deep, tufted bunkers under that ledge are golf’s equivalent of Davy Jones’ Locker.
A possible eagle becomes a fight for par. That said, a ‘safe’ second shot short of the bunkers leaves a tricky — maybe even blind — approach. The green is also angled, which makes your go-for-glory second shot all the more difficult. It may, however, well be the best option.
Woodstock, par four 1st, 366/356/314 (L) metres
There’s no question that Doonbeg’s 1st is one of Ireland’s best opening holes, but Woodstock’s is a beauty, too. It’s an introduction to the course’s tree-lined avenues, as well as an attractive double-dipping fairway.
The flag is visible, which makes it a delicious-looking hole and, while the fairway is generous enough in the landing zone, you have to favour the right-hand side to maximise your opportunities when attacking the green. Please avoid going into the trees this early in your round by taking advantage of the short length and playing the hole sensibly.
The hole would also make a fabulous 18th.