There are certain Irish courses which are constantly discussed in terms of how good they are... or how over-rated. When it comes to green fees, difficulty and design, here are six which generate plenty of debate, writes Kevin Markham.
An iconic course, and an attraction that few American golf tours seem able to resist. Indeed, Americans make up a large portion of the membership.
Its location alone makes Old Head a bucket list destination. With nine holes clinging to the cliff-tops, 300-foot drops to the ocean and such immaculate conditioning and presentation, this is a splash of golfing paradise.
Assuming the wind doesn’t make it unplayable this is as enjoyable and thrilling as golf gets.
You’ll find generous fairways and inviting, velvet greens. Holes 2, 4, 12, 13, and the closing stretch will give you an adrenaline rush like nothing else.
Old Head also promises five-star service from the moment you arrive.
Old Head’s inland holes are not overly dramatic but how can they compete with those nine cliff-top holes! On more than one occasion it has been pointed out that the design at Old Head is dull and that if you moved the course inland and dropped it in a field it would be nothing very special at all. That may be… but the course is not in a field so the argument is irrelevant and, quite frankly, idiotic.
Green fees are beyond the reach of most golfers and that always causes angst. And then there’s that history which means this stunning peninsula is no longer as accessible to ordinary folks as it once was.
Full green fee, peak season: €260.
A constant presence in the world’s Top 100 ranked courses, Portmarnock was laid out on gentle dunes over 120 years ago. The links has hosted countless Irish Opens (Seve, Langer, Crenshaw all won here) and its quality is undeniable.
Part of the course’s charm is that there was no ‘big name’ designer associated with the course’s early evolution, which makes its design all the more bewitching. The routing and the green settings are stunning, and the design is subtle and strategic… it requires serious guile to play this course well. Trying to get close to pins is just thrilling stuff and nothing sums up the beauty of bump-and-run quite like Portmarnock.
When a course is this revered, golfers expect to be blown away as they traverse the hallowed linksland. Perhaps these visitors expect a big dune landscape only to discover that the term ‘dramatic’ does not apply to this low-lying, gentle terrain. Drama is not Portmarnock’s currency. (Co. Louth Golf Club suffers similarly.) As with the K Club, Old Head, Royal County Down and The European Club, when you pay the big bucks you expect to be blown away… and when the course doesn’t oblige because you’re expecting something else then you’ll probably leave feeling underwhelmed.
The no-women-members policy doesn’t help the course’s image.
Full green fee, peak season: €225.
Creation of the mighty Pat Ruddy, a man practically synonymous with Irish golf. He has created his own links course… and a very good one it is too. Who among us wouldn’t want just such an opportunity to devise our own little piece of heaven. The course is highly regarded worldwide and there is one word which describes it most aptly: unique.
Yes, unique is the word and railway sleepers around bunkers is just the start. There are 20 remarkable holes (two extra par threes) here and you can play them all without going out of your way. The beach is in play on the par four 12th and par five 13th, and the 12th also boasts the longest green in Europe (127 yards). It is exhilarating stuff from start to finish. Finally, the club is family-owned and the Ruddys enjoy a good natter if you want to ask Pat about his remarkable creation, Ger about his photographs on the wall, or Mrs Ruddy about her legendary apple pie.
It is a very, very tough course with vicious rough and those brutal bunkers – often impossible to get out of unless you play backwards or sideways. Not surprisingly, it is this level of difficulty and perceived unfairness which attracts the greatest criticism. There are those who simply hate the bunkers and no one wants to pay a green fee and then get beaten up. If you’re a golfer who sprays shots in every direction consider somewhere less confidence draining.
Full green fee, peak season: €200.
Carton House (Monty)
The Montgomerie course describes itself as an inland links, such is the shape of the landscape, the fescue grasses seeping through the rough, the lack of trees and Montgomerie’s design. As part of the five-star Carton House resort, with a second 18 designed by Mark O’Meara, this is high-class stuff.
Monty didn’t hold back with this golf course. The joke goes that he was in a bad mood when he started designing cavernous bunkers as high as you or me. But they are remarkable creations nonetheless and they protect immaculate greens, with the purest of putting surfaces, and fairways that roll and sway.
Yes, the terrain is open but it is also deceptive, hiding an intricate layout of well-shaped holes.
The course will put manners on you should you fail to give it the respect it deserves so you need to play intelligently. But play well and you will feel like a champion.
It’s yet another of those tough courses which can humble you without you doing much wrong: several of the bunkers are hidden from view and their depth will prove too intimidating for some. And then there’s that open landscape which many find lacks character.
The phrase ‘inland links’ causes blood pressure problems for those golfers who feel deeply for the true Irish links.
Full green fee, peak season: €95.
Boasts a hefty reputation after hosting numerous European Opens, the 2016 Irish Open and the 2006 Ryder Cup. As at Carton House, it attracts international visitors, including those Americans who rarely venture away from the coastline. The five-star hotel is part of the allure and with 36 holes (Smurfit and Palmer courses) it is one of the top golf resorts in the country – if not Europe.
The Palmer course sits at the top of the parkland pile. Most Irish golfers see it as glamorous, exclusive, and a special experience that comes with an Arnold Palmer design. It has variety and colour in abundance thanks to its Co Kildare terrain, its ancient trees and its position beside the River Liffey. It has muscle too, and some very entertaining holes – especially those where the water threatens. After all, who didn’t watch Rory hitting those amazing shots over water on 16 and 18 and think ‘I need to try that’?
If you read the Bruce Selcraig article prior to the 2006 Ryder Cup, you might well be taken aback. Here was an American golf writer absolutely lambasting the Palmer course. The K Club, he said, is “a thoroughly uninspiring, comically overpriced, Americanised resort course.” Bruce didn’t hold back: “Bringing Ireland’s first Ryder Cup to the charmless Palmer course is like having Keira Knightley invite you to her bedroom - to move furniture.” Most of us have not played golf in the US, so we do not know how the Palmer course compares. Many Irish golfers continue to regard the K Club very highly indeed.
The course also receives negative press for its green fees. They have fallen in recent years but they are still amongst the highest in the country. As for exclusivity, it does have a certain air about it, as do others on this list, but exclusivity doesn’t have to mean brusque: it can mean attentive and accommodating, too.
Full green fee, peak season: €240.
Royal County Down
At the pinnacle of most golf course world rankings. This is hardly surprising when you consider the history and the names of the designers who have shaped the masterpiece, and the contour of the dunes through which the holes flow. It is a stunning setting.
It is, however, another tough course to play if you’re not at the top of your game.
It’s not regarded as a world-class course for nothing. You can feel the soul of this links with every step you take and you’ll be hard pressed to find more perfect greens. Bump and run is nearly always on (the first green presents an exhilarating introduction) and the sheer variety and quality of the holes is tantalising. On a course like this you’ll never be quite convinced you have the right club in your hand and that shows the magic of how a links can be tackled in so many ways. The condition is superb, the experience second-to-none and the views of the Mourne Mountains utterly breath-taking.
And then there are those bearded bunkers!
Jack Nicklaus was quite verbal about the number of blindshots: they weren’t to his liking but, at the same time, he acknowledged that Royal County Down is a links from a different era and that courses like this stand the test of time. Modern-day design might be tempted to flatten out some of the dunes because golfers take great satisfaction in seeing their shots land.
Royal County Down’s 9th and 11th holes present two of the blindest tee shots you will ever face, but there are several more… and if you stray into the deep rough you’ll find that number climbs further still.
It is these blind shots, the rough, some tight fairways and the incredibly slick greens which cause many golfers to regard this links as daunting and unfair. When you consider that Soren Kjeldsen won the Irish Open here, in 2015, with four bogeys and a double in his final round you’ll appreciate how challenging it is.
There are two further points: some golfers come away saying they were not made to feel welcome – Gary Player might be one as he was approached by an elderly member who complained that Player had snaffled his regular tee time; and the closing holes are too tame after the fireworks that precede them.
Full green fee, peak season: Stg £210.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved