BEST NEW COURSE
Johnstown, Kildare, Ireland
If traditionalists shed tears when all the classic Irish links lost out to Arnold Palmer's K Club in the battle to host the 2006 Ryder Cup, then expect widespread tidal damage for the attention sure to be lavished on the new PGA National at Palmerstown House. That said, this modern design, involving early work by Jack Nicklaus and a determined finishing push by Christy O'Connor Jr., is an elegant course that will instantly take its place among the best inland eighteens in Europe, never mind Ireland.
PGA National, which stretches to 7,419 yards, is part of an 800-acre estate that was once one of Ireland's leading stud farms. Golf hasn't pushed aside the serious Irish business of turning out racing champions; instead, the sight and sound of racehorses clip-clopping back to their stables is part of the charm. Although Palmerstown House itself remains private, there are plans to build a five-star hotel on the property.
The estate's owner originally hired Nicklaus and Payne Stewart in 1999 to design the course, which is roughly an hour's drive south of Dublin Airport in Kildare, the same county as the K Club. The project was put on hold after Stewart's tragic death, but O'Connor was later hired to see it through. Involving the planting of 150,000 laurel trees, the extensive use of lakes and streams and enough color from shrubs and flowers to please the horticulture department at Augusta National, the feel is one of refinement. The rugged beauty of the coastal linksland could be a planet away.
Greens Fees: $207$226. Tee Times: 011-353/4587-1404 or visit palmerstownhouse.com.
NEXT-BEST NEW COURSE
The Heritage at Killenard, Laois
This isn't the kind of grand-scale resort you'd expect to find in a village that was once the size of its own signpost. But the Irish economy has woken up in the last decade, and so, too, have its golfing ambitions. The Heritage—which lies almost in the middle of a triangle between Dublin, Cork and Limerick—is the latest monument to the Celtic Tiger, a place eager to show that it is moving up.
Codesigned by Seve Ballesteros and Jeff Howes (Jack Nicklaus's design coordinator during the construction of Mount Juliet and other projects), the course was carved out of treeless and windy farmland. Although the widespread use of tall fescue, rolling fairways and difficult-to-access greens gives the impression of wonderfully natural terrain, this is actually a very modern layout. At the 572-yard par-five second hole, you feel the MetLife blimp should be hovering overhead to record your parabolic approach over water to a tight flag. The generous fairways allow you to open up off the tee, but defenses loom all around the greens. Case in point: The 332-yard eleventh—which from the tee box looks takeable—has enough sand around the green to reshoot Lawrence of Arabia. And did we mention the deep quarry off to the right?
For the Irish golf market, the Heritage's friendly service, attention to detail and value for the money will make it a strong draw and stiff competitor. But when it comes to more discerning international golfers, it will be the quality of its other facilities—the elegant hotel and luxury spa (which are set to open in June; see "Hotels," below), the swimming pool and even the Ballesteros Golf School—that will ultimately determine its attractiveness.
Greens Fees: $123$142. Tee Times: 011-353/5024-5994 or visit theheritage.com.
OTHER COURSE NEWS
Druids Heath Newtownmountkennedy, Wicklow
Part of the Druids Glen Golf Resort, this course opened in late 2003, and although it's supposed to be the little brother to the grander Druids Glen layout, architect Pat Ruddy's work here is stunning. While the European Club down the Wicklow road (Route N11) shows Ruddy's mastery of links design, at the maturing Druids Heath he seems to have found a unique way of combining elements of links, parkland and heathland architecture into a unified whole. He's fashioned holes alongside rocks, quarries, streams, lakes, trees, pot bunkers, mountains and sea.
Greens Fee: $155. Tee Times: 011-353/1287-3600 or visit druidsglen.ie.
Lahinch Golf Club, Clare
It's been two years now since Lahinch completed an extensive restoration that aimed to take its classic Old course back to the natural design envisaged when Alister MacKenzie arrived to offer his genius in 1927. Not content with the 1894 work of Old Tom Morris, the club had called in MacKenzie, who, among other things, moved all of the holes across a road and closer to the sea and fashioned elevated, undulating greens. MacKenzie's design, in turn, was reworked in the 1930s by a committee of members determined to make the course play easier. Decades later, in 1999, the club hired Martin Hawtree to restore some of MacKenzie's purist architectural touches. The result, now fully grown in, is a highly improved course that, remarkably, retains all of its quirky charm and sense of adventure.
Greens Fee: $175. Tee Times: 011-353/657-081-003 or visit lahinchgolf.com.
The Beacon, Dublin
A mere twenty minutes by light rail from Dublin's city center, and perfect for a quick escape south to Druids Heath or the European Club at Wicklow, or to Kildare and the new PGA National, the Beacon in the Sandyford suburb of Dublin is a chic new hotel that wouldn't look out of place in New York City's SoHo. The eighty-two bedrooms are bright, white, clean and very comfortable; all have flat-screen TVs and broadband Internet access. The public rooms and hotel bar are equally relaxed and cool. The hotel's My Thai restaurant, serving Pacific Rim cuisine in a dark modern interior, is also part of the Beacon's room-service menu.
Rates: from $167 for bed and breakfast. Call 011-353/1291-5000 or visit thebeacon.com.
The Heritage, Killenard, Laois
Just over an hour from Dublin, down the M7 road toward Cork and Limerick, the Heritage lies almost in the middle of Ireland. The sheer scale of this new golf and leisure resort means its owners must be expecting people from everywhere. There are 100 bedrooms, fifteen suites, four penthouses and a forty-seat private cinema. If privacy rather than attentive service is preferred, there is the option of taking a well-equipped terraced house in the nineteenth-century village of Killenard, which has expanded around this ambitious development.
Rates: from $350 for bed and breakfast. Call 011-353/5024-2341 or visit theheritage.com.