Ranking Ireland’s top 100 golf courses

Another Ranking? Yes, but with a difference, writes Kevin Markham
Ranking Ireland’s top 100 golf courses
The view from behind the third green towards the Mourne Mountains at Royal County Down.

In a break from traditional ranking methodologies, I asked three passionate golfers to join me in devising a top 100 Irish courses list that uses a very different set of ranking criteria.

Each of the four contributors has provided a list of their Top 25 favourite courses in Ireland, including a small rationale as to what makes the course special. These are personal favourites (and not ‘best’ courses) and each of us undoubtedly looks at golf courses in different ways. So, for example, I regard Portmarnock as one of the top three best courses in Ireland, but it doesn’t make my list of favourites.

There are two golf writers, one golf architect and one Senior Irish International, and we each spell out the most important elements when choosing our 25. In all, 48 Irish courses are included with many appearing on all four lists.

Kevin Markham

1. General Information

  • Golf status: Golf writer/photographer
  • Started golf: Aged five.
  • Handicap: 8
  • Irish courses played: 370.

2. Ranking Criteria

The experience of playing a course is at the heart of everything. What is the initial attraction, does it catch my eye and fill me with excitement? Do holes and shots intrigue me? If I could only play 25 courses this is my list:

3. Top 25 Courses

  • Carne. Nothing in Ireland compares to Carne. Raw, beautiful and magnificent, you feel swamped by dunes and joy for 27 holes. A special place that thrills my heart.
  • Enniscrone. A big-dune course where you need imagination and creativity to play well. There are devastating green sites, some quirky, magical holes and a back nine to rival any.
  • Royal County Down. More big dunes, a furious front nine, and natural green sites combine perfectly with blind shots, bearded bunkers and glorious views. What a test of links golf.
  • Ballybunion (Old). Alongside Tralee, Enniscrone and The Island, the Old course vies for the title of best back nine in Ireland. The rhythm is unstoppable as holes glide along nature’s trail.
  • Waterville. The most picture-perfect links I’ve ever played. Between Hackett and Fazio, they created a work of art that perfectly reflects the stunning setting on the Ring of Kerry.
  • Royal Portrush (Dunluce). A links where every facet of your game is tested, where hearts bloom or break from one hole to the next, and where the genius of Colt’s design shines through.
  • The Island. The presentation is second to none and it just lifts The Island to a different level. The individuality of each hole is, at times, overpowering, especially on the back nine.
  • Scrabo. Beauty and the beast. This is a course that explodes over and around a gorse drench hillside, with bumpy, chaotic fairways and constant surprises. Blows me away every time.
  • The European. Another adventure and one that thrills and intimidates to such a degree that the adrenaline rarely stops. A tough links (I once lost 13 balls) but what a masterful creation.
  • Druids Glen. Such a colourful, dramatic parkland with the best set of par threes in Ireland. And the walk to 13 terrifies, every time.
  • Co Sligo. A Harry Colt classic and three distinct styles of links holes. Brilliant par threes.
  • Tralee. So many stunning holes… such an exhilarating back nine. And scenery that overwhelms.
  • Dooks. The best scenery in Ireland and a course of dune-crumpled brilliance and magical greens.
  • Narin & Portnoo. Gil Hanse’s upgrade is ready to be revealed on a links that runs riot around the dunes.
  • Co Louth. Quality in depth at this links, wonderful short holes and a test for the best.
  • Old Head. An unforgettable experience with half your round teetering on cliff tops. Nothing else like it.
  • Lahinch. A wonderful dune system is home to some of Ireland’s best holes.
  • Portstewart (Strand). An explosive start and a front nine of pure drama. Big dunes, bigger thrills.
  • Cork. Recent work has revealed more of the quarry that combines so enticingly with the harbour holes.
  • Strandhill. Exuberant, unpredictable, glorious. Small name, big heart.
  • Portsalon. As impressive as its surroundings. Contains the best hole (2nd) in Ireland and sweet double greens.
  • Carlow. Underappreciated, Carlow is full of surprises, heathland flourishes and old-school charm.
  • Slieve Russell. A modern parkland masterpiece full of colour and fun.
  • Ballyliffin (Old). The ‘bubble-wrap’ fairways, sweet green settings and dastardly bunkering give the Old an edge over the mighty Glashedy.
  • Ardglass. It starts with a blast of excitement and promises so much variety along the coast.

Ally McIntosh

1. General Information

  • Golf status: Golf Course Architect
  • Started golf: Aged 7
  • Handicap: 5
  • Irish courses played: 150 – 200

2. Ranking Criteria

The eighth green nestles in the quarry at Cork Golf Club. Recent work has revealed more of the quarry that combines so enticingly with the harbour holes. Picture: Kevin Markham
The eighth green nestles in the quarry at Cork Golf Club. Recent work has revealed more of the quarry that combines so enticingly with the harbour holes. Picture: Kevin Markham

I value individual design features very highly but also look for consistency in the routing: It should feel like a natural, walking journey without contrivance. Spectacular shots are welcome, so long as they are playable for all. Golf courses that provide subtle touches and interesting choices score most highly in my book, those that improve with repeat visits.

3. Top 25 Courses

  • Royal Portrush (Dunluce). The most elegant course in the country keeps an undulating landscape in just enough check to perfectly balance class and drama. Also home to the best set of green designs.
  • Lahinch. Playing out of the village, the course at Lahinch provides quirky, fun, and compact routing and one of the two best front nines in Ireland. No course has more variety or iconic moments.
  • Co Louth. With two of the best stretches of golf in Ireland (3-7 and 12-16), Baltray shows the genius of Tom Simpson’s strategic design with subtle small humps and swales placed right where they most influence play.
  • Portmarnock. If ever The Open Championship were to be held outside the UK, Portmarnock is the obvious choice. A true championship test, the ground game is alive and well with ideal turf and plenty of light touches. Wonderful scale and routing.
  • Ballybunion (Old). The best back nine in Ireland concludes a highly unusual journey through a highly intriguing dune scape. The green sites and severe surrounds make this a supreme test of approach shots.
  • Royal County Down. Is there anywhere more beautiful than RCD when the gorse or heather is in bloom?
    The “other” best front nine in Ireland, blind shots, variety and exhilarating challenges mix well with perfect conditioning.
  • Co Sligo. Colt again shows his class on this subtle course divided in to three distinct sections. The beauty of his green complexes and his restraint in design means nothing feels out of place.
  • Carne. All 27 holes at Carne provide so many heart-in-mouth moments, it’s hard to catch your breath. Despite the unbeatably large dunes and the requirement for some outrageous shots amidst the drama, it is surprisingly playable.
  • The European Club. A distinctly modern take on links golf, Pat Ruddy’s masterpiece is unlike any other course in Ireland, with humorous touches and a wonderful routing that builds to those unforgettable holes that almost touch the sea.
  • The Island. What a journey! Classic links holes mixed in with unusual quirk (the 14th fairway), some huge dunes and one of the best finishing stretches in Ireland.
  • Enniscrone. More big dunes from the north-west. Finish compares with The Island as one of the best.
  • Carlow. Great routing uses the landforms perfectly. Soil firm. Could do with opening up some views.
  • Portsalon. Ruddy’s modern updates intertwine superbly with the unique older holes. Fantastic setting.
  • Waterville. Beautifully located, Tom Fazio’s work has perfectly complemented Hackett’s masterful design.
  • Adare Manor resort. The figure-eight routing provides a pleasant walk and the conditioning is Europe’s answer to Augusta.
  • Ballyliffin (Old). Micro-undulations and strategic bunker placements all set amongst a vast low-lying dune system.
  • Strandhill. Compact and hugely entertaining with a surprise around every corner. Doesn’t need length to shine.
  • Cork. MacKenzie’s work in the quarry frames Ireland’s best consecutive set of holes away from the links.
  • Royal Dublin. Colt again shows his strategic class. 16th and 17th are two of the best par fours in Ireland.
  • Tralee. Some amazing – and seemingly impossible – holes in one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland.
  • Donegal. An outer and inner loop with an outstanding set of holes, especially from 6 to 11.
  • Rosapenna (Old Tom). Colt’s stretch from 12 to 16 is supreme but the Doak and Ruddy work complements them well.
  • Ballyliffin (Glashedy). The routing wins the day, with both nines climbing to high points (both literally and metaphorically) before returning to the clubhouse.
  • Royal Portrush (Valley). Hidden behind its big sister’s fame, the Valley should stand proud on its own with some dazzling golf holes.
  • Connemara. Can be brutal on a bad day but no better place to be during a balmy summer. Great back nine.

Barry O’Leary

1. General Information

  • Golf status: Irish Seniors international 2016, 2017, 2019, Irish Seniors Close Champion 2019.
  • Member: Greystones Golf Club
  • Handicap: 1
  • Irish courses played: 100-plus

2. Ranking Criteria

The view from the tee on the newly elevated 18th at Ballybunion Golf Club.
The view from the tee on the newly elevated 18th at Ballybunion Golf Club.

Challenging, memorable, scenery, course conditioning. Does it have good memories for me and would I look forward to playing there again? (I have omitted some exceptional courses that I haven’t played for years such as Lahinch, Co Sligo, Ballyliffin, Connemara, Baltray.)

3. Top 25 Courses

  • Ballybunion (Old). A big, natural links with majestic dunes. Playable for all in gentle conditions but a monster when the wind blows. Some of the most memorable holes on any golf course.
  • Royal County Down. Often called the best course in Ireland and the world. A unique golfing experience with great variety of testing holes. The blind shots are not to everybody’s liking.
  • Portmarnock. A wonderful test of golf with all the subtleties and challenges of a world-class links. An outstanding venue for numerous Irish Opens and the 2019 Amateur Championship, it is always a test of skill for players of all standards.
  • Waterville. Well worth the trip out from Tralee or Killarney to one of the best all round tests of golf anywhere. Big, strong, majestic, surrounded by scenery only found in Co Kerry.
  • Druids Glen. Enchanting course with great variety and probably the best set of par threes around. Striking displays of colour in season.
  • Mount Juliet. Possibly the most enjoyable course to play for all standards of player, yet it remains a worthy venue for the Irish Open and WGC events.
  • Royal Portrush (Dunluce). Is this the best course in Ireland? Venue for the Open Championship 2019, it showed its teeth to the world. Demands accuracy off the tee or any score is possible.
  • K Club (Palmer). The strongest of our parkland courses, hosted the Ryder Cup in 2006. A really tough challenge.
  • The European Club. A modern links that incorporates some traditional features. The unique bunker designs (railway sleepers and long ‘eyebrows’) are not to everyone’s liking but the hole design and course conditioning are always top class.
  • Enniscrone. The revised design of 2001 has strengthened this course. Always a tough challenge but a very enjoyable layout.
  • Killarney (Killeen). Super parkland in a fabulous setting. Very popular Irish Open venue.
  • Carton House (O’Meara). A most enjoyable parkland setting with exciting riverside holes toward the finish.
  • Tullamore. This traditional parkland has long been a favourite of mine. Played it often as a teenager with my uncle who was a member.
  • Tralee. A strong, challenging links with some magnificent holes in a wonderful setting.
  • Royal Dublin. A real challenge, particularly if the wind is up. Former Irish Open venue.
  • Carlow. Traditional parkland with excellent design. Always a pleasure to play here.
  • Bunclody. Fairly recent venue with excellent holes alongside the Slaney.
  • Rosslare. Relatively flat seaside course with a real bite when the wind blows.
  • Carne. A rough, tough, raw links that will test every aspect of your game.
  • Dooks. Probably the most spectacular scenery of all our natural links courses.
  • Westport. Dramatic setting under Croagh Patrick alongside Clew Bay. Excellent back nine.
  • Grange. Dublin’s strongest parkland course, always in good condition.
  • Powerscourt (East). Long, challenging, with a spectacular finish.
  • Malone. An old, traditional parkland. Makes good use of the lake on the back nine.
  • Belvoir Park. Classic parkland, always immaculately presented.

Greg Allen

1. General Information

  • Golf status: Golf Broadcaster
  • Started golf: Aged 19.
  • Handicap: 9
  • Irish courses played: Over 150.

2. Ranking Criteria

Jon Rahm on his way to victory at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch last year. The Co Clare links is ‘the nearest thing to an Irish St Andrews’. Picture: Jan Kruger
Jon Rahm on his way to victory at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch last year. The Co Clare links is ‘the nearest thing to an Irish St Andrews’. Picture: Jan Kruger

For me it’s all about the course. That might seem obvious but matters such as views are less important than the vista of the hole directly in front of me. I’m a sucker for good bunkering along with simple well-defined mowing patterns and as much as I love the links land golf that Ireland does so well, there is so much to savour in our parklands.

3. Top 25 Courses

  • Portmarnock. I know there are more spectacular pieces of Irish linksland but Portmarnock is an understated complete masterpiece which has been subtly and yet substantially upgraded over the last decade almost by stealth. A strategic challenge among the best there is.
  • Royal Portrush (Dunluce). Mackenzie & Ebert upgraded one of Colt’s greatest design achievements ahead The 2019 Open. Two new holes and additional tweaks ensure the spectacular views are matched by a more consistent challenge for the modern game.
  • Royal County Down. The well documented attractions are off-the-scale and unique aesthetically. For scrutineers who are far wiser than I, it has been ranked No 1 in the World. Sensitively upgraded over recent years.
  • Lahinch. The nearest thing to an ‘Irish St Andrews’, this has a design lineage that includes Old Tom Morris and Alistair MacKenzie. It’s a wander back in time with a distinctly up-to-date twist.
  • Ballybunion (Old). While not possessing the most extraordinary opening holes, Ballybunion builds towards linksland which compares to anywhere in the world — a factor never more obvious than when you reach the 11th.
  • Adare. The original RTJ design needed little altering when Tom Fazio was employed to refurbish the layout and now, in terms of conditioning, Adare is state-of-the art in global terms.
  • Enniscrone. The first time I played Enniscrone, I could not believe it was not a Top 10 course. It is for me. It possesses among the most spectacular dunes in the Irish golf landscape.
  • The European Club. A modern links with a brilliant routing which possesses even greater potential. Few courses anywhere have such presence from the first hole to the last.
  • The Island. I have to confess to a ‘love affair’ here. This was my first 18-hole round anywhere. Recent improvements by Mackenzie & Ebert have blended its high and low duneland into a layout that might just be approaching greatness.
  • Waterville. Exudes an other-worldly five-star feel. Its remote peninsular location lends itself to almost a feeling of mystique while a recent Tom Fazio refurbishment has added to its allure.
  • Ballyliffin (Old). The lumpiest, bumpiest natural fairways in Ireland. One of two courses I want to play in heaven with a light 7-club bag.
  • Cork. And this is the other one. In places quirky but this Alistair MacKenzie classic is always a fair challenge with enormous variety. It has few peers in Ireland in that regard.
  • Old Head. Bucket-list stuff. The original design on a peerless clifftop site has had the edges slightly softened out into a more flowing and more satisfying routing.
  • Co Louth. A really well balanced mix of low and medium duneland that’s strong and consistent throughout.
  • Co Sligo. A course that has really grown on me. The surrounding views soften the challenging experience when the game struggles.
  • Mount Juliet. One of the first Irish ‘takes’ on modern American resort design. Renowned for fine conditioning and ambiance.
  • K Club (Palmer). This is about really strong design which turned flat farmland into one of Ireland’s parkland wonders.
  • Portmarnock Links. Strong consistent modern links design. Builds momentum beautifully towards a cracking last four holes.
  • Tralee. Stunning views. In its fourth decade now, the original American design has been substantially upgraded.
  • Fota Island. A beautifully mature parkland, especially after Jeff Howes’ 2001 refurbishment which ironed out some wrinkles.
  • Slieve Russell. The rolling landscape in West Cavan’s drumlins was beautifully transformed by Patrick Merrigan into a course that’s maturing beautifully.
  • Malone. The natural folds of the land present enormous variety and possesses arguably the the most diverse foliage and tree line on the island.
  • Carlow. Old-school design allied to unique topography and heathland feel. Holes 15-17 are world class.
  • Hog’s Head. The old ‘Skellig Bay’ has been transformed by Robert Trent Jones Junior into a five-star clifftop golf experience.
  • Dromoland Castle. Admirable Ron Kirby routing through lush undulating parkland and an exhilarating four-hole finish.

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