Ireland is rich in remarkable courses that too few golfers know about, believes Kevin Markham. Every golfer has at least one they’ll be happy to tell you about. Here are 10 of his.
Ceann Sibéal, Co. Kerry
iconPar: 72 - 6,477 mtrs
iconPar: 72 - 5,227 mtrs
WEST IS BEST: The 3rd green at Ceann Sibeal, near Ballyferriter in Kerry, is claimed to be the most westerly golf green in Europe! In the background is the famed ‘An Fear Marbh' on Inis Tuaisceart, the northernmost of the Blasket Islands.
’ve always loved a golf course where the experience starts long before you can see the fairways and flags. The beauty of the Dingle Peninsula captivates you for many miles as you head west towards Ballyferriter, and what feels, at times, like the edge of the world.
The Three Sisters watch over this links at that farthest end of the Dingle Peninsula. The hillside that falls away from these three cliff top peaks is home to a low, subtle and very deceptive links, designed by Eddie Hackett. The views may be raw, beautiful and captivating, but this is a course that demands your full attention. The rough is unforgiving and the burn which slips across eleven holes proves magnetic more often than not. The routing ensures the winds will target you from every angle… and target you they will. This is perfectly emphasised by several par fours of similar length but facing in different directions, which play very differently in the wind. Never less than crafty and gliding over natural often unpredictable terrain to sweet green sites, this is proper links golf.
There is new upgrade work being conducted by course design architect Ken Kearney: “Since my engagement at Ceann Sibeal GC, I have been encouraged by the club’s desire to retain the integrity of the old-school links that lays so comfortably on the landscape. As was Eddie Hackett’s style he did little to any earth movement and simply placed the holes carefully over the canvas. He did a wonderful job. However, some work done in past years has compromised the styling and conflicts somewhat with the landscape. Our work is to do as little as reasonable; but to enhance the landscape and the golfing strategies. There is a huge “sense of place” at the club and when one experiences that, it is clear that this is well worth embracing and enhancing.”
Birr, Co. Offaly
iconPar: 70 - 5,604 mtrs
iconPar: 73 - 4,904 mtrs
OLD FAITHFUL: Birr GC in Offaly, where the trees abound but do not define what is an excellent track. The four par-3s, as a set, are among the most enjoyable in the country.
he ‘real’ round starts on the 7th tee. Superb last 12 holes. The par of 34 on the back 9 is a true test for any aspiring golfer. I could happily spend a day just hitting approaches to the 11th or 17th greens. Importantly, always a warm welcome in both the clubhouse and golf shop.” Simon Stephens
I don’t quite agree with Stephen, because I think holes 1, 2 and 4 are very enjoyable, but from the 7th on the course returns completely to its original, esker-heavy, cavorting roots. (Holes 3, 4 and 5 were added in the 2000s). This is recognised as the course’s beating heart and it is hard to come away from Birr without talking about the rhythm and thrills you encounter. There are back-to-back par-3s at 14 and 15 (matched by back-to-back par-5s at 5 and 6), and the stretch from 10 to 12, along the wooded perimeter is superb. It is hard to believe that the rolls in the landscape are natural – they’re that perfect. It promises a scintillating back nine, as Simon points out.
Trees abound but they do not define Birr… what defines Birr is the eskers. This fast-draining and sandy soil makes it playable all year round and gives it certain crisp links qualities, including the occasional blind shot. But, with only three par-4s over 360 metres it is not long and so it demands sensible golf… not the bash and thrash approach. The four par-3s, as a set, are among the most enjoyable in the country.
Fermoy, Co. Cork
iconPar: 70 - 5,568 mtrs
iconPar: 72 - 4,661 mtrs
START WITH A BANG: At 317 metres, with a green benched into an upslope, the 1st hole at Fermoy is a delicious start. And the 13th? One of Kevin Markham's favourite holes. Period.
ermoy is, in a word, exuberant. It is joyful, unpretentious and exhilarating. My first visit here made me appreciate what country golf is all about for there is a freedom to the design that presents one enjoyable shot after another… right from the off. At 317 metres, with a green benched into an upslope and fully on show beyond a lazy dip, the 1st a delicious start. It’s a drive you’ll want to nail, like so many tee shots here.
The club dates back over 125 years, and it has resided on Corrin Hill since 1972. It is a course of infinite fun and passionate members – how else do you clear a thousand trees that have been felled by storms in recent years? – and course, members and clubhouse make Fermoy so welcoming. But it is by no means easy. The changes in elevation, slopes and flanks of pine trees test your skill constantly.
The front nine are less rambunctious than the back but you still won’t find a level lie. The back nine, across the road, ramp things up considerably as the steeply downhill par-4 10th makes clear and the holes that follow are defined by a sharp, deep gully that runs across the hillside. For several of these holes you need to be able to play shots from uneven lies… as you’ll find on the 13th. This long, tough par-4 is one of my favourite holes anywhere. You drive downhill between pines and heather over a buckling fairway that drops and drops. The green is perched on the far side and you are left with a seriously tricky shot. Why? Because it’s long and because you’re on a downslope.
Macreddin, Co. Wicklow
iconPar: 72 - 5,937 mtrs
iconPar: 74 - 4,765 mtrs
HYPNOTIC SIGHT: Macreddin is an adrenaline rush for those who venture into the heart of the ‘Garden of Ireland’.
s Paul McGinley’s only full Irish course design, Macreddin should be shouting from the rooftops. It’s a peach of a parkland, in a picture perfect setting, tumbling across two sides of the Aughrim Valley. Unfortunately, the club opened at the wrong time, in 2008. Macreddin didn’t buckle, however, and it remains an adrenaline rush for those who venture into the heart of the ‘Garden of Ireland’. The condition is top class and the shaping hypnotic. Each nine sprawls across one side of the valley, fairways spreading like branches across a canvas of pine trees and gorse.
Let your driver loose on the front nine as fairways bound into the distance, but rein it in on the back as more caution is required, especially with four sharp doglegs combining trees, steep slopes and a river.
The signature par-4 dogleg 12th is Index 1 – it crosses the river twice – but holes 2, 4, 6, 13 and 17 are equally superb. The tales of long walks suggest a buggy is the popular mode of travel (buggy and green fee deals are offered) but this is a fabulously pretty course to walk… let alone play. The club hosts a Black Tees stableford event – 6,473 metres – which is an ‘education’.
“First time I played it couldn’t get over how good it was. Exceptional greens and layout. After playing none of our four ball had any plans for the day so we went for another 18 again. So many signature holes & honours maths off the tee! Really recommend.” Bernard Quigley, PGA Professional (@bernardquigley_)
“Situated deep in the heart of Wicklow is a stunning test of golf. Breathtaking scenery along with a stern challenge for every level of the game. Fabulous course and more than a good stretch of the legs!” Stevo Byrne (@stevobyrne2010)
North West, Co. Donegal
iconPar: 70 - 6,187 mtrs
iconPar: 72 - 5,998 mtrs
WILD NORTH WEST: The approach to the 13th at North West in Donegal. The low approach often trumps towering wedge shots on windy days.
orth West was one of the four founding members of the GUI, and dates back to 1891. It lies on the Inishowen Peninsula, and many golfers pass it as they travel north to Ballyliffin. They should play here, too, for it has not idly been dubbed ‘the St Andrews of Ireland’. This is a true, dynamic links education where you can explore your skills in the art of bump-and-run. It’s not a pre-requisite by any means but the low approach often trumps towering wedge shots on windy days or when the fast putting surfaces make it difficult to stop the ball. So many of the beautiful greens just flow out of the land… yet another reason for the low shot.
The links may appear flat on first inspection but there are so many bewitching folds and idiosyncratic shapes, natural and unpredictable run-offs around greens, and well-placed bunkers that patience and concentration are essential. It’s about discipline and because it’s a low-lying links the winds that sweep in off Lough Swilly will dictate how your game evolves.
Here’s an essential tip: on 10 of the opening 11 holes a fade risks going out of bounds. From holes 1 to 5 that means putting a ball in Lough Swilly itself. Holes 11 and 12 on either side of the clubhouse are two of the stand-out holes here, while the 3rd beside the water is the pick of the par-3s. The par-4 12th is Index 2 and drops down a tier for the approach shot. It makes the green so tantalising. There are only two par-5s, which end each nine. Take the education on offer and find out what you’re capable of.
Portumna, Co. Galway
iconPar: 72 - 6,112 mtrs
iconPar: 74 - 5,149 mtrs
WATERY GRAVE: The famed par 5 17th at Portumna Golf Club is much discussed because of the lake along the right.
N creating this list it is easy to cherry pick small golf clubs which are packaged neatly, beautifully and found off the beaten track. What is more difficult – and surprising – is to explain how a ‘big’ parkland remains below the radar... and frustratingly so. Portumna appears at number 47 in Irish Golfer Magazine’s 2021 Top 100 Courses. It has the most perfect location, set in deep forest and rolling over low terrain that was once part of the Harewood Estate. The dark forest borders contrast sharply with the oak, ash and beech which form lone sentinels striding freely throughout the spacious centre of the course.
It promises a tantalising day with the driver but you have to pick your moments carefully. Let loose on the 3rd; rein it in on the 6th… and so it goes. What works so well for Portumna is how attractive the holes look from the tee. The framing feels exciting and comforting at the same time. The 5th is an immaculate downhill par-3 swallowed up by trees. Holes 6, 11 and 14 are beauties, too, and everything works in harmony here. The layout is smooth and intuitive.
A special mention should be made for the final three holes, which form Portumna’s signature stretch. The par-5 17th is much discussed because of the lake along the right, but the short par-4 16th, for me, is a majestic par-4 with one of the prettiest approach shots you’ll hit. Tricky too, as that forest lingers close by. That deep forest is also home to deer which frequently make an appearance.
Rathcore, Co. Meath
iconPar: 72 - 6,318 yrds
iconPar: 72 - 5,321 yrds
ROYAL RATHCORE: There are big, booming tee shots to be hit… and there are just as many that demand real caution. It is not going to beat you up on length but you will need to tease out some smart thinking.
athcore is a modern parkland… but please ignore the images that have probably just popped into your head. This is a little slice of heaven bounding over strongly rolling terrain in the middle of nowhere (well, a few km from Enfield). Opened in 2004, at a time when ‘big’ was all the rage, Rathcore went the other way and presented golfers with a neatly packaged 6,318 yard par 72 (middle green tees), contained within 130 acres. It’s such a pretty piece of land with natural water features, gorse-drenched hillocks and idyllic green settings. Those water features are enhanced by stone-fronted walls beyond which you will find tempting green sites. Those hillocks embrace two ring forts… and a fairy ring. The holes (designed by Mel Flanagan) match that setting all the way.
There are big, booming tee shots to be hit… and there are just as many that demand real caution. There are four very short par-4s – the 6th and 7th are 317 and 300 yard beauties running side by side - where your Driver is definitely the wrong choice. The two longest par fours both measure 435 yards and are Index 1 and 2. The four par-5s fall between 472 and 532 yards. It is not going to beat you up on length but you will need to tease out some smart thinking, especially on the short par-4s and the doglegs.
Perhaps what sums up Rathcore’s brilliance best is the signature pairing on the par-3 11th and 16th. They face in opposite directions and use the same reed-laced pond. The 11th steals it as it hits from the high hillock with the green jutting out into the water, but the 16th is a touch longer at 178 yards… and far tougher (Index 6).
Rosslare, Co. Wexford
iconPar: 72 - 6,539 yrds
iconPar: 73 - 5,658 yrds
ROSSLARE: Tight little gullies, unexpected rises and ridges, blind shots and sharp bunkering promise a day of unpredictability… and that’s before we talk about the lovely greens where going wide of the mark leaves devilishly difficult recovery shots.
osslare may be in an Irish tourism hot spot but never think for one second that Rosslare Golf Club is a ‘holiday links’. This course is on the top of its game, in super condition, and promises some wonderful holes. It is traditionally the first venue on the hotly contested Top Golfer Tour – and it often makes the tour’s low-handicappers look like chumps – so it always demands your best. And the reason is simple: this low-lying links is all about subtlety and negotiating the hidden elements that spring up at you on many holes. Tight little gullies, unexpected rises and ridges, blind shots and sharp bunkering promise a day of unpredictability… and that’s before we talk about the lovely greens where going wide of the mark leaves devilishly difficult recovery shots.
It is not unlike North West in terms of that low-lying feel, but Rosslare is more out and back with holes facing in one of two directions, apart from two par-3s. I love a course that races away with you right from the start and Rosslare does that in spades, with holes 4 to 8 a sensational stretch of links holes over the best terrain, and holes 1 to 3 building the excitement. After the see-sawing par-5 8th you turn for home and then comes the Index 1 par-4 11th. The approach shot is blind, with a green sitting in a slight depression. You just might get lucky.
“Love this place, used to escape the family in Kellys [Hotel] with a 6am tee time! Lots of variety with never ending par-5s to drivable par-4s, to daunting par-3s into the breeze. Your brain needs to be engaged the whole way round or it'll beat you up.” Simon Ward (@youngsiward)
Scrabo, Co. Down
iconPar: 71 - 6,270 yrds
iconPar: 72 - 5,216 yrds
ADRENALINE RISH: Scrabo in Co Down - 18 holes of pure adrenaline float over a buckling hillside drenched in gorse. The fairways typically run like a links so shots can get away from you and anything going into the gorse should be left there if you value your life.
f you saw my article on Ireland’s Top 100 Courses for the Irish Examiner last summer, you might have noticed that I placed Scrabo at No. 8. Have you heard of it? Don’t worry, few have. And what a shame that is. Eighteen holes of pure adrenaline float over a buckling hillside drenched in gorse. Walking the course would be an adventure in itself… but playing it is a different matter entirely. The 1st is, in my opinion, the best opening hole in the country. True, it’s not as sophisticated as Portstewart, Doonbeg, Malone or Ardglass, but what an opening gambit. This par-4, Index 1 rises up the hillside, through armies of gorse towards Scrabo Tower, which can be seen for miles. If that doesn’t spell out what lies ahead then nothing will. Fairways snake across the hillside and you will find that this is an exceptionally natural course… so much so that the rock beneath the surface can burst through to create added difficulty. And this is a difficult course. Fairways typically run like a links so shots can get away from you and anything going into the gorse should be left there if you value your life.
There are some big, big holes here. The 1st measures 459 yards (whites) while the 12th rocks in at 443 yards. Index 1 and 2 unsurprisingly, and both uphill. The downhill par-5 9th measures 582 yards. The rest are much more manageable, with six par-4s under 350 yards. Even so, you may prefer the green tees which are 300 yards shorter.
Difficult or not, Scrabo is a blast unlike anything else in the four provinces and it’s an experience everyone should try. Enjoy the views that stretch to Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
Strandhill, Co. Sligo
iconPar: 70 - 6,618 mtrs
iconPar: 72 - 4,995 mtrs
Strandhill: ALL AT SEA: Strandhill GC in Sligo promises constant views and you play beside the sea on three occasions. There is a wild abandon that is infectious; the greens have natural and often startling shape; and there are holes that defy belief.
“My first visit to Strandhill remains vivid in my memory: Despite being caught in a ferocious storm, I was blown away more by the quality of terrain and variety on offer within the eighteen holes. Never had I had my expectations exceeded as much. That said, there remained an innocence to the course which gave opportunity to vastly improve its appearance and strategy. To that end, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the club over the last few years, completely redesigning the bunker scheme, introducing more scale to the compact site, and softening some of the man made elements that had been built by members over time. We’re still working with the local authorities to introduce a couple of new holes that will cement this not-to-be-missed links firmly in the top tier.” - Ally McIntosh, Golf Course Architect.
I have waxed lyrical about this links because Strandhill has so much going for it: there’s sea on two sides and Knocknarea Mountain on a third; there is a wild abandon that is infectious; the greens have natural and often startling shape; and there are holes that defy belief… either because of exuberant terrain (holes 5 and 15) or because there’s no way a hole should be designed like that (the outrageous 13th). The word ‘quirky’ is often used – I use it myself – but sometimes people see ‘quirky’ and think fun but not quality. That’s not Strandhill at all.
There is a central peak to the course, with holes falling down each side, typically heading towards the sea. It promises constant views and you play beside the sea on three occasions. Teeing off the 7th with surfers riding waves to your left is not something you’ll find anywhere else on the island. Hugely entertaining.
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