Saturday, February 11, 2017

Irish Golf Clubs Sparking Debate

There are certain Irish courses which are constantly discussed in terms of how good they are… or how over-rated they are... Sometimes they just lead to bemusement. Most of our Irish golf courses sail under the radar but when it comes to green fees, difficulty and what comprises good design, here are six which constantly generate

Old Head of Kinsale

An iconic course, a troubled history and an attraction that few American golf tours seem able to resist. Indeed, Americans make up the largest portion of the membership.
The brilliant 2nd at Old Head - your first cliff top hole.
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 a five star service from the moment you arrive.
Rainbow touching down over Old Head's 18th.
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 such a statement is irrelevant and, quite frankly, idiotic. If I moved my house to Dublin’s Ballsbridge I could sell it for €5 million.

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.

Portmarnock Golf Club

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.
The 9th hole at Portmarnock
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.)
Views over the 17th green to Portmarnock's clubhouse.
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.

The European Club

The European Club is the 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.
The Index 1 7th at The European Club.
Yes, unique is the word and railway sleepers around bunkers is just the start. There are 20 remarkable holes (2 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.
The European's dramatic par four 12th.
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 (Montgomerie)

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.
The Montgomerie at Carton House appears like a links
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.
Carton House - views over the 18th to the hotel.
It’s yet another of the 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.

The K Club (Palmer)

The K Club 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 Liffey cosies up to the 17th fairway and green on the
K Club Palmer course.
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’?
The 18th green at the K Club.
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

Royal County Down is 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 such a masterpiece, and the contour of the dunes through which the holes flow. It is a stunning setting for a golf course.
It is, however, another tough course to play if you’re not at the top of your game.
One of the famous views in world golf looks back down the 3rd hole
to the Mourne Mountains.
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 1st 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.
The world famous par three 4th at Royal County Down.
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.

Of course there are other clubs - Cork, Carlow and Druid's Heath immediately spring to mind - which golfers quibble over but this is an easy half dozen.


  1. Adare, best parkland. Old Hwad closes 😱For 6 months of the year, what's that about Ted ⁉⁉and Portrush HAS to make this list, though the locals say Portstewart is 1.5 shots harder - I found that to be correct

    1. I think the Old Head closing for those months is more to do with golfer safety, Colm. I played it in May (when the photos were taken) and it was a howling gale. Let's just say that our entire four ball were nervous on some of the tees!
      Portrush? Interesting! I'm not the course's biggest fan but I hadn't heard much about it stirring debate... what are the issues?

  2. I have played RCD and The European twice in the last 3 years, Carton House Monty once. I cannot disagree with anything you said. We only went back to the European because we couldnt believe how tough it was, we really enjoyed it but in a masochistic kind of way. Done now, will not return. RCD I could keep going back to - beautiful. One tip, go between Nov and March and play for £55, just gamble with the weather. The comparison of Portmarnock with Co Louth is interesting, our group played Baltray and almost all of us thought it to be one of the best course we had played in Ireland - cannot wait to go back. Not as dramatic as the European, but a very refined and classic course.

    1. Baltray definitely fits in this category, Sean, but debate usually focuses on whether it's top 10 material or not. For me it's a course that grows on you - where every time you play it you discover something new. With RCD, 2017 is the first year they are requesting you to pick balls off fairways and place them in the first cut. Even so - the winter green fees are excellent

  3. Liked Moyvalley piece in The Irish Golfer but.......let's NOT agree with Peter Lawrie's line about undervalue green fees. For years, at so many courses, we got royally ripped off - clubs folded accordingly. Now, we hunt value in a more correctly adjusted, 'positioned' market. Customer is king, Kev - NOT profit-minded club managements.

    1. Honestly, Colm, I'd say more courses closed from over-supply rather than exorbitant green fees. The most recent closures (Glen of the Downs, Delvin Castle, Fernhill) were far from expensive. I'd agree that the cost of playing golf has led to fewer people playing the game but, again, that's more to do with membership fees and time than specific green fees. That said, there are green fees out there that are high... and yet many of those clubs are not struggling. It's a tough balancing act and one that Irish golfers don't always benefit from.

  4. I like my golf of the brutal US open style... Suffer for what you love.. Wind is a massive factor on the above courses and most of us sadly don't get enough exposure to links golf.

    Fail to see how Cork golf club could be divisive - it cross once at the 15th but its the best course in the country.. Short holes requiring accurate shots or impossible up & downs

    Main problem with Irish golf is the geographic imbalance. 4 of the 6 courses above are within a hour of the City Centre. Portmarknock would be unheard of if it existing in Ballyconnelly where if Enniscrone was on the East coast it would world renowned