Friday, August 2, 2013

Carne's Nine New Magnificent Holes: Ireland’s North West

Larry lets fly on Kilmore's 8th hole
Larry’s finger pointed out to sea, past the islands that flank the coastline.

“You know what that is?” he asked Bob Gillespie, a golf writer from South Carolina.

“No,” Bob replied.

We were standing on the 14th tee at Carne, on the very north-west tip of Co. Mayo, the wind battering us, the ocean swelling against the beach below.

“That’s next stop America.”

Not to be outdone, Bob raised a hand and shielded his eyes. “Oh sure, I can see the Statue of Liberty.”

The Opening

Larry, Bob, Pat and I were playing at the soft opening of Carne’s new Kilmore nine holes. Soft was an apt word, seeing as we were having one of those ‘soft’ Irish days that brought equal measures of swirling rain and golden sunshine.  

“It wouldn’t be Ireland without a bit of rain,” Bob had quipped earlier, upon noticing that everyone had umbrellas except him.

The first flag you'll see driving in to the club is on Kilmore's 9th green
We were playing in a Scramble to celebrate the opening of Carne’s new nine holes – named the Kilmore nine. Their history and cost (see below) make intriguing reading, but of far greater interest is the scale and excitement of these new holes.

If you’ve been lucky enough to play Carne (Facebook Page) then you’ll know that the back nine is of the enormous, muscular dune variety. The course is famous for them and with good reason. The new nine holes may be even bigger. They weave in and around the existing back nine to create a new loop. You can feel overwhelmed, lost and insignificant… and yet be standing in the middle of the fairway. Nowhere is this more obvious than the par five 5th.

“Hello down there,” someone called from the 7th tee, high above the 5th fairway.
Views over Kilmore's 5th fairway from the 7th tee. Mind the nosebleed.
“Are you getting a nosebleed up there?” I yelled back, as my three playing partners disappeared from sight, leaving me alone to be squeezed by dunes on three sides. It was almost claustrophobic.

The New Nine

The new nine are, in a word, magnificent. Intrigue and beauty greet you on every tee and some of the green settings are mouth-watering. They are approaches where you are almost desperate to hit a good shot.

It is only the 5th that I struggle with, where a good drive will leave you blind and disoriented. The obvious route (the fairway) whips out of view around a dune and requires no more than a mid iron into the tight bend. Larry and Pat, both members, steered us well right, going over the dune itself. It is a hole that needs to be tackled a few times to appreciate fully how it can best be played.

I was taking photographs – for my Flickr page – and Bob would often end up beside me, his camera busily snapping away. Every time he said he was going to stop taking photos we came across another hole, another view, another something that had him reaching for the camera again.

The startling par three 2nd hole on the Kilmore 9
A friend of Bob’s once told him that he was not a 22 handicapper (his official h’cap), but an 8 and a 36 handicapper rolled into one. It’s true, too, because he sank some big putts and hit plenty of straight drives… accompanied by a few disasters. Larry plays off 16 and is enjoying his golf on the back of his second Captain’s Prize at County Longford Golf Club in July. It’s 51 years since he won his first. Pat plays off 8 and is one of those efficient golfers who rarely puts a foot wrong and came to the rescue on many occasions. As a team we combined brilliantly, to be five under after six holes. We didn’t drop a shot but only managed two more birdies, to give us a net 59.7. Unfortunately, 58 won it and we didn’t even make the prizes. Oh how we muttered at the bar about missed chances.

The History

Thirteen organisations were involved in making the new holes a reality: DSP/Fas, Erris Community Gain Fund, Corrib Fund, Fionntair Comhrac, Meithea Mhaigheo, Mayou County Council, CIE Tours International, Mayo Enterprise Board, Udaras, Leader, Failte Ireland, North & West Coast Links, Tourism Ireland... and Carne Golf Club. The gestation period was a lengthy one, dating back some 20 years.
The serpentine bunker and views back to the tee on Kilmore's 6th hole.
When Carne was first designed by the great Eddie Hackett, in the 1990s, he kept an ace up his sleeve. Yes, he had created one of Ireland’s great links courses, but he saw even greater potential for this remote spot on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, when he died in 1996, he had not had a chance to play that card. He did, however, leave behind a vision that others were determined to fulfil.

I was honoured and privileged to be invited along to the celebration. It’s a six hour drive from Wexford, but heading up to the north-west is never a hardship. I have found myself in this beautiful part of the world many times over the last few years – lured by the golf courses and the people.

These are the first new holes to be built in Ireland in several years and they form an astounding run that rivals the very best in the country. It has taken time to achieve this vision and a budget that would teach many of the world’s golf architects and developers a lesson or two. The work was completed for roughly €200,000 and most of it was done by a six-tonne excavator, a six-tonne dumper and by the sheer hard work of the local community. That speaks volumes of the respect paid to Hackett, who always believed in working with the land and not through it.

The Design

The Kimore nine were designed by Scottish golf architect, Ally McIntosh, with an initial routing mapped out by American Jim Engh, a member of Carne and also a golf architect.

Bob putts across Kilmore's par three green. Yes, that bunker's in play!
The dunes are entirely chaotic, entirely random,” said McIntosh at the launch. Typically, he pointed out, dunes are created in a formal line of ridges, parallel to the sea. That is not the case at Carne. “Here, it’s one dramatic hole after one dramatic hole,” McIntosh says, thanks to what he believes are the biggest dunes in the world of golf.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there are a couple of steep climbs (up the 6th hole and from the 3rd green to the 4th tee) and a buggy may be required by some. But all the energy expended will be richly rewarded.

The Kilmore nine venture into the dunes where the existing back nine reside. They therefore use the biggest dunes on the 280-acre property. At times the scale can leave you speechless, as my experience on the new 5th fairway accentuated, but McIntosh, with Engh's outline and Hackett's vision, has created the most dramatic holes of all. The style is very much in keeping with the original 18, but McIntosh has introduced a few quirks of his own as any good designer should: some greens have heavy ridges to follow the flow of the land; and the bunkering is more punitive, nowhere more so than on the 6th, where a small serpentine bunker to the right of the green will cause havoc.

Every hole has intrigue. Every challenge is exciting. On a windless day (if there is such a thing in Belmullet), only the par three 7th will prove seriously tough. The rest will need to be tackled with care and placement, thanks to the dunes and rolling fairways. It is a big challenge because it is a big course - possibly the biggest - but there is little that would be deemed unfair, although you may be inclined to disagree when you walk off some of the greens with their serious slopes.

Bob drives on Kilmore's long par three 7th 
Carne now has 27 holes, formed by three loops of nine. The new holes open officially on August 1st, 2013, with limited play available in August, September and October, as part of a 27-hole package. This is to protect the new holes and let them settle in.

The Best Holes

Always tough to pick the beauties after only playing the course once, but the par three 2nd will live long in the memory, slotted in delicately between two dunes and with wicked green slopes. The par three 4th and 7th are beautiful, too, but it is the drive on the 9th and the approach shot on the 8th that made me go weak at the knees. Delicious shots and tough ones too - with dunes this big you are always aware that an errant shot will mean big trouble, and these two holes epitomise that.

When I play a course I want to be enchanted and enthralled, I want to feel a thrill on every tee I step onto and be mesmerised by the challenge that lies ahead. If, as Carne has indicated, the main 18 will comprise the old back nine and the new Kilmore nine, then this heavenly spot in Mayo will come as close as any course I know to achieving that.

Tee shot on Kilmore's 9th
A Golf Destination

For some, building a new nine holes, given Ireland’s current woes, may seem extravagant (despite the club’s limited expenditure), but there is a sound rationale. Carne is a remote spot and for golfers who venture this far, the 27 holes offer them a wider choice. The new holes also tackle the misguided criticism that the front nine are bland – a statement that holds no merit. Compared with the back nine they are not as muscular or big, but these are scintillating holes nonetheless, routed through and around dunes that would overwhelm most other links courses.

With these 27 holes, surely Carne will rise ever further up the world rankings and golfers' bucket lists.

Scenic Location

From almost every tee box, golfers will be rewarded with stunning views. Islands are dotted across the ocean, the Nephin Beg mountain range rises to the south-east and Slievemore stands proud on Achill Island to the south. In every direction there is endless sky, until you drop down into the heart of the dunes and chase that little white ball.

The beauty of Mayo and Carne opens up from Kilmore's 1st fairway,
back towards the clubhouse.
What has been achieved on a shoestring budget, using sustainable principles which marry with the landscape's beauty, is hard to appreciate unless you visit Carne. The road across the county is long and barren, but golfing joy awaits and it is a journey no golfer will regret.
My immense gratitude to Mary Walsh and Eamon Mangan for their generosity and for giving me the opportunity to play Carne again and experience the new holes. My thanks, too, to my playing partners Bob, Larry and Pat. A pleasure.

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Green fees: €35-€70. €90 to play all 27 holes (2013).
Best pub for a pint: McDonnells Bar, Belmullet


  1. €90 to play all 27 is very steep. Can't imagine many Irish people being able to afford that high amount.

    Thanks very much for the good review Kevin.

    1. I agree, it sounds a bit steep, but you have to compare this to the best courses in the world. How much is Royal County Down, Waterville, K Club, Adare? And let's not go beyond these shores for comparisons. I think Irish golfers will balance the cost against the experience, and compared with other Irish links, this still comes out very near the top in terms of value.

  2. i was reading your book for the 3rd time, planning a golf vacation and family history find at the same time. don't know how i missed the line on your blogspot the first 2 times, but now that i've found it, i have one question on the new course at carne. is it better than the old one. if you had only 1 chance to play again, which one ,old or new?

    1. Yes, it's more of a thrill to play the new Kilmore nine and the old back nine. They're outstanding. But it will take a couple of years for the new holes to settle in and play like the other 18 (that's the beauty of the sustainability principles that the club has pursued - it's very natural). As a result the availability is limited on the new holes so you'll need to factor both of those into your plans.

      I'd play new every time, but if you can take the extra time to play the old front nine holes, then I'd recommend it.

      When are you planing to come?

    2. Well done Kevin on bringing the new nine holes at Carne to life! I am looking forward to playing them having had many a sneak look over when playing the current back nine.
      I believe that this new nine hole addition will do more to add to the reputation of links golf in the West of Ireland.
      Great credit has to go to all the members and staff at Carne Golf Club, and a personal "Well Done" to Eamon Mangan and Mary Tallott who have worked tirelessly in promoting the Erris region. What a tremendous addition to the North & West Coast links group of courses....I can't wait!!.

  3. It would be a shame if they made the main course the back nine along with the new 9. The first hole at Carne is one of my favorite holes in golf. You stand on the tee, wind in your face, looking at the dunes and wondering, "what is going on here?". After you hit your first shot - hopefully a solid one - you wander down the fairway and get a sense of the dunes and what Mr. Hackett, a genius, was thinking. The front nine is pure bliss the perfect appetizer for the dramatics of the back nine. On the front you get subtle clues and lessons of what awaits you on the back. One shouldn't mess with perfection.

    1. Great to hear someone standing up for the front 9, Tom. I love the 8th and 9th holes, but you're right about the whole 9 giving you a taste of what's to come. As for 'perfection' I simply suggest you get to play the new nine and make up your mind then.

    2. God willing, I'll get back to Carne sooner than later. It is a special place. I first played there on my honeymoon. My bride walked the front with me. On the rare occasion when I'd hit a good shot, she'd say, "where did it go?" I'd reply, "right down the middle!", to which she would exclaim, "that's way I couldn't see it!". On the back I played with a gentleman who grew up with my dad in South Boston before retiring to Mayo. Even if was an ordinary tract, it would have been a brilliant day.

      Alas, Carne is no ordinary place. I look forward to seeing the new nine, the reviews have been fantastic. What I'm curious about is the FEEL of the place. My love of Carne has as much to do with the flow of the course as the quality of the holes or the views. That was Mr. Hackett's genius (I'm a big fan of the Connemara Links as well). A course can have 18 great holes and still be a grind to play.

      I'm impressed that they designers - in Irish fashion - were able to complete the new nine for such a small sum. My mind is open and I look forward to tipping my hat to the folks at the Belmullet GC for making the new nine a reality and creating something wonderful.

  4. reply for august 3rd, on new or old nine. planning for april 2014. 1st stage of trip, carne, enniscrone, co. sligo, and strandhill. 2nd stage lahinch old, dooks, killarney-killeen, then finishing at ballbunion chasen and old, before heading back to us. all this over 3 weeks. gives me time for family hunting and some sightseeing. thanks for answer to carne, question. decided if they allow to play all 27 holes.

    1. I've always found April to be a decent month, so I hope the weather holds for you. That's a fantastic itinerary. So many Americans like to finish at Ballybunion - is that because of Tom Coyne's book? I'll be intrigued to see what you make of Strandhill - very much second fiddle to the big courses, but still one of my favourites:

  5. Thanks for your great review and photos. Whetting my appetite for our trip across the pond next month... Playing all 3 nines...after reading garrity's book I may need to stay a month sometime soon!

    1. Good to hear - it's a great book, isn't it! Where else are you playing and when are you coming? Would suggest you consider playing Carne's three nines a second time so you have some idea of what's expected of you.

  6. i've read tc's book, didn't put together my ending at ballybunion, with his end. just it was closer to the airport than killarney, and fit my trip a little better. i have plantar fasciitis, and walking is getting a little difficult, so i put the courses i have to walk,(can't get a cart), on days when i'll have sometime to recover. i might have to move the trip up a little since i'm finding it difficult to get tee times and places to stay during easter week. i just hope i don't run into any of the having to play off of mats, or not being able to use a cart because of waterlogged fairways. ichose the courses from you're book and by doing some other research. i didn't want the built for american courses, i think carne is the newest course, and i looked for a rating of 85 to 100 from your book. which i think killarney killeen is the lowest rated at 88. if i only get to do this once, i want the best. also going so early, i hope to play with the locals. thanks