There are two kinds of golfers: Those fortunate enough to have played on historic links courses and those who desperately want to before they reach that 19th hole in the sky. Eight Sacramento couples have one fewer task on their bucket lists after visiting Ireland last month for a slice of golf heaven. They now know that craic means fun, how to pronounce Smithwicks and the difference between Lahinch and Doonbeg. If you’ve been to Ireland, you understand why they’ve talked of little else since their return. If you haven’t, here’s a first-timer’s primer from 10 days on the Emerald Isle.
There are more than 400 courses in Ireland (the size of Indiana) and 550 in Scotland (more per resident than any country in the world). They range from world-class major championship and resort venues to ones where you put a few euros in a box and go.
We played six: Portmarnock, north of Dublin, first, followed by Lahinch, Doonbeg, Ballybunion, Tralee and Old Head as we moved south along Ireland’s west coast. It was a small but diverse sampling of old and new.
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“I figured that, traveling as a group of couples, the southwest was best since I consider it to be the prettiest part of Ireland, and the courses are pretty and a little more user-friendly,” said Mike Ubaldi, the trip leader and instigator, making his fourth trip to Ireland.
Portmarnock, Lahinch and Ballybunion were established in the 1890s and you can practically sense the ghost of Old Tom Morris roaming the fairways. Portmarnock is a flat, Scottish-style links dotted with dreaded pot bunkers. Lahinch and Ballybunion wind their way through dunes like nothing you see in America; they envelop you like a golf cocoon.
Firm, narrow and tilting fairways are just a suggestion at the old courses, where you had better get used to blind tee shots, visual intimidation and hitting from the rough. Score is best kept by how much fun you have.
Tralee (1984), Old Head (1997) and Doonbeg (2002) are newcomers. Tralee, an Arnold Palmer design, has a flat front nine along the water that feels like Monterey and memorable back nine amid dunes. Old Head, sitting alone on a peninsula on the southern tip of Ireland, might be the most stunning course you’ll ever play with nine holes along cliff tops and 18 holes with ocean views. It has Pebble Beach beat by the fifth hole. Doonbeg, designed by Greg Norman, is spectacular as well but was purchased earlier this year by Donald Trump, who plans a major renovation this winter.
Scotland or Ireland?
Golfers who’ve not played across the pond naturally think of Scotland before Ireland. Scotland is the home of St. Andrews, where golf was first played after all, and is home to many of the British Open courses we see on TV.
Don’t be too hasty, says Jim Sarro, who has planned golf trips to both countries for 30 years.
“Ireland is for better golfers,” said Sarro, the owner of Birdcage Travel. “The courses are much tougher. Scotland, it’s all flat and the rough is that wispy stuff you can hit the ball out of.”
In 2012, 163,000 overseas tourists played golf in Ireland, which was worth 202 million euros to the economy, according to the country’s tourism board. Further, golfers spend 2.5 times the amount of money as the average tourist. In the same year, golf was worth 220 million euros to the Scottish economy, according to golftourismscotland.com.
Sacramento’s Steve Baker, a golfing regular to both countries over the years, summed up the relationship this way: “In Ireland, the people are just a little nicer, the grass is just a little greener, the food is just a little better and things are just a little more casual.”
Planning a trip
Groups between four and 16 work best for price efficiency, intimacy and tee-time availability in package trips, Sarro said.
Hire a driver if you want to avoid counseling – the roads are that narrow, and driving is done on the left side. The history and humor drivers provide are free.
Go for seven days and play a new course every day. Pick a region to cut down on travel. Utilize at least one caddie per foursome – they’ll tell you where to hit the ball, they’ll find it in places you didn’t think were possible and they’ll provide comic relief.
Bring your clubs or rent a set for a trip; there are advantages to both.
Golf is played year-round, and every visitor to Ireland should be prepared for rain.
“There is no template,” Sarro said. “Every trip is different – it’s like putting a big puzzle together.”