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The Hard Yards: Ranking the toughest 18 holes in Irish golf

Imagine a round of golf where you face 18 brutally tough holes in a row. No such Irish course exists, but if it did this is what Ireland’s toughest golf course might look like. Fancy it?

By 

Kevin Markham

Built in 1998 by the late Pete Dye, Whistling Straits emulates a cliffside links course with two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, bluffs, sand dunes and natural fescue lining the fairways. It has hosted the PGA Championship three times, most recently in 2015. The fairways may be that bit wider this week to suit Steve Stricker’s American bombers, but there are plenty of tough holes to test the mettle of the finest players in the world.

Are the indexes the only true measure of a hole’s difficulty? The toughest holes are those where any and every golfer is delighted to walk off with a nett par… where there is a sense of fear stepping onto the tee… where you wonder if you should swap that nice Pro V1 for the old Topflite in the bottom of your bag… and where you know that only three, four, five – or even six – of your very best shots are required if you are to walk off the green with dignity.

Now turn that into a round of golf where you face 18 brutally tough holes in a row. How exhausting, intimidating and, perhaps, unsatisfying a round would that be? You’d have to overcome blind shots, wicked doglegs, deep hollows, water hazards, long carries, sliding greens, bunkers, wind, cliffs and ocean all standing in the way in your quest for par.

No such Irish course exists… but if it did, here’s what it would look like: Par 72, 7,395 yards (from the back tees). Fourteen par-4s, two par-5s and two par-3s.

Front nine

Scrabo 1st

Par: 4

404 yards

Index 1


You climb to the tee with the hole behind you. Then you turn and see the 1st in all its glory. The flanks of gorse loom above the fairway as it rises and rises over bumpy terrain to a green sitting under Scrabo Tower. You need to be a long way up that hill to reach the green in two, but the farther up you go the more the fairway narrows. The small green is tucked in next to more gorse and there’s a significant slope to the putting surface. Always be short and right of the pin.

Portsalon 2nd

Par: 4

389 yards

Index 3


I will not be dissuaded from saying that this is Ireland’s most beautiful golf hole. We are blessed with many beauties but this hole curls around the enchanting (often empty) Portsalon beach. From a high tee your drive takes on both the beach and a river, which also runs in front of the green. It is a long and glorious hole and, from the tee box, the views of Lough Swilly and the mountains are majestic. Two perfect shots required.

Mount Wolseley 3rd

par: 4

435 yards

Index 1


Position and length off the tee is everything here. A strong drive out of the trees needs to favour the left hand side as the slope drops away from you. Staying left also means taking the lake and surrounding trees at the bottom of the slope out of play. From there the fairway rises to a heavily tiered green. The approach shot makes the drive look easy and finding the green is no guarantee of a straightforward two-putt.

Mount Juliet 4th

Par: 4

387 yards

Index 2


Given the generous fairway widths at Mount Juliet, the 4th is an anomaly. The hole plays through a chute of trees, requiring laser point accuracy to find the fairway. Your approach shot may not be the longest (this is the shortest par four on this list) but the lake that hugs the right hand side of the green, the vertical drop off the back and the trees on the left show no forgiveness whatsoever.

Bangor 5th

Par: 4

474 yards

Index 1


The length is enough to make most golfers wilt (it’s 467 from the regular tees) and this left-to-right dogleg demands a big drive if you’re to see the flag for your second. You drive over a low hedge and lower dip onto a rising fairway that then curls right. A low bank, with trees left and right, crosses the fairway short of the green just to confuse your perspective and hide the small putting surface.

Arklow 6th

Par: 4

437 yards

Index 4


A left-to-right dogleg that demands a strong drive into an inviting gap between a low wall of dunes spanning the elbow. Those dunes block your view and make the drive more intimidating than it is. The approach shot however demands your best and most confident strike as the green is protected by four bunkers right and one bunker left. The folds of the land around the green confuse the eye and the slopes of the green mean you have to get close to have any chance of par.

Malone 7th

Par: 4

460 yards

Index 1


Yes, it is long but the rising fairway that bends left into a dogleg means only the longest hitters will be able to see the green for their second shot. The estate’s grand trees frame the hole perfectly and offer a threat to the wayward as well. So length and accuracy required. You may not find a level lie for your second shot, either, which will make a long approach all the more daunting.

Castlerock 8th

Par: 4

364 metres

Index 7


A mischievous Index 7, and a hole that doglegs through deep dunes. Gauging where to aim off the tee is your first challenge as the fairway curls out of sight behind the right hand dunes. All you see is a sliver of fairway and the hole tempts you to bite off more than you can chew. Finding the fairway is crucial as you then have to play up into a morass of mounds to a well-protected green you can’t see. The flag, yes: the green, no.

Royal County Down 9th

Par: 4

428 yards

Index 5


This is one of the toughest holes you will ever face… and yet it is only Index 5 on this world famous links. A blind drive up over the dune and straight at the Mourne Mountains is your starting point and you’ll need someone – anyone – to give you a line off the tee. Then it is a steep descent to the flat fairway below where the green looks a mile away. Finding the fairway is cause for celebration, before you remember that your long second still has to squeeze between more dunes and fly a bunker. Two brutally tough shots and what a way to finish the front nine.

back nine

Cobh 10th

Par: 3

178 yards

Index 6


Not long by today’s standards but water threatens all four sides of an ‘island’ green floating above Cork Harbour. The tee is well up the slope which means you have to put your shot high in the air… so there’s plenty of time to consider your mistake if the ball starts to sail wide. Any breath of wind will cause nerves and a reassessment of club choice. The price for a miss is water or, if you’re lucky, sand. Not as vicious as Sawgrass 17… but cruel enough.

Ballybunion Old 11th

Par: 4

402 yards

Index 2


The Atlantic Ocean roars at you on your right, below the tee, all the way to the green. It is a beautiful but thoroughly intimidating place to stand, especially as you’re likely to be buffeted by strong winds. The fairways drops down over a couple of tiers, setting up a needle like approach between two sentry dunes below. The drive is manageable if you can avoid the distractions of the ocean and the wind is kind, but finding and staying on the putting surface is the bigger challenge as there is no margin for error.

Old Head 12th

Par: 5

537 yards

Index 3


‘Courcean Stage’ promises a terrifying tee shot over a chasm that falls between Old Head’s famous cliffs, to an unseen fairway above you. And the fairway is at right angles to the tee so you also get to choose how much of the ‘corner’ you can cut off. (The answer is ‘very little’.) You then have two shots along the cliff’s edge to reach the green and, cahances are, the wind will be coming off the sea… which means you will have to aim towards the sea to allow the wind to bring your ball back on to the fairway/green.

Druid's Glen 13th

Par: 4

461 yards

Index 1


What might be a par five on some courses (in terms of length) is Ireland’s toughest par four. Every terrifying element is here, except a bunker. From a high tee, golfers ideally need to fade a drive around a cliff face and over a stream to the fairway far below. Find the fairway and you have a shot at reaching the green which sits tightly between the trees over a big, magnetic lake. It will be a long approach and many golfers will choose to lay up short of the lake to give themselves a mid to high iron shot that offers a small chance at par. Force that second shot and the water and the trees will leave you staring at double bogey, or worse.

Tullamore 14th

Par: 4

474 yards

Index 1


In terms of length this is similar to Bangor’s 5th hole, but this is a 90 degree dogleg (left to right), with OOB tight right. A perfectly placed drive – and I mean perfectly placed – into the elbow is the only way you can hope to reach in two. The green sits on a rise, protected by bunkers and attentive trees. Only two of your very best will do.

Strandhill 15th

Par: 4

308 metres

Index 5


Difficulty doesn’t have to mean long… it just means a hole that can make a fool out of you. This short hole starts with a dogleg that bends left between heaving dunes and immediately rises to a high green. Gauging how to play long while also staying on the fairway is the first challenge; your second is how to stay on a green with steep fall-offs on three sides. Land short and the ball can come back 80 yards.

Royal Portrush 16th

Par: 3

202 yards

Index 4


Calamity Corner is known worldwide for its difficulty and the sheer terror it instils in golfers when they step onto the tee. The hole curves around a deep chasm to a green that sits above you with nothing behind it but sky. There is a small bailout area front left – highly recommended – but it is a terrifying shot regardless.

Carne 17th

Par: 4

392 metres

Index 1


Uphill, through the dunes, the 17th requires four exceptional shots if you are to make par. The fall-off into a chasm along the left may not be fully visible but there is an aura there that will always encourage you to keep to the right. The fairway is wide enough but you do need a big drive to have any hope of continuing your quest for par. A big dune wraps tightly around the green from the left while another steep fall-off drops sharply on the right of the putting surface, leaving only a tiny entrance to the green itself. Most golfers will be/play short after two shots… which leaves a tricky uphill chip to a putting surface with fast, steep slopes.

Adare 18th

Par: 5

585 yards

Index 5


Adare is a generous course with wide fairways and vast greens, but the River Maigue is far less benevolent. It chaperones the 18th fairway tightly from the start, along the left side. A couple of very confident shots will put you in position because at some point you have to cross the water. It’s wide, too (remember Richard Finch getting wet in the 2008 Irish Open?), so you can’t afford to doubt yourself. This is no time to discover a hook.

Kevin Markham is the author of Hooked, An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland and a regular contributor to the Irish Examiner.

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