Golf, played well, is a game of moderation, the need for accuracy restraining the urge to grip and rip. But golf travel, planned well, rewards those who go to extremes. It isn't foolproof—sometimes all you find at the end of the road is the end of the road. But sometimes you find something really remarkable, like Carne Golf Links in County Mayo, Ireland.
No question, a trip to Carne is a leap of faith. Testimonials from other golfers are rare since few overseas visitors have played there. A quick glance at the map explains why—Carne is the most remote of Ireland's great seaside courses, sitting on the Mullet Peninsula, jutting into the Atlantic in the far northwest. The drive alone is a blast. The towns get prettier and smaller the farther you go, the scenery more rugged, the roads narrower, and the traffic all but disappears except for sheep grazing along the shoulders or cattle being herded from one pasture to another. Into the far reaches of Mayo, where the mountainous terrain subsides into a rolling countryside of stone-fenced farms and eerie peat bogs, there's little relief from the howling westerlies. Past the village of Belmullet, the course, set on a monumental dunesland rolled up by the ceaseless pounding of the ocean, finally comes into view.
The far-flung northwest rota boasts many such gems, which are so isolated, so new or so both that they haven't achieved brand-name status. The cachet here is playing great courses that haven't been overrun by visiting golfers, for a fraction of the cost of, say, Ballybunion. But word is getting out: Tour operators are now showcasing the area, course owners are redesigning (as at Enniscrone) or building new courses (Rosapenna), and developers are building new hotels (Ballyliffin). There are more famous places to play, but these courses have what ultimately counts—great links golf in all its exhilarating and confounding glory.
This is also a less touristy Ireland. You'll hear Gaelic spoken and sit on enough barstools that you'll begin to taste the variance in how pubs pour their Guinness. The land itself is extraordinary, from colorful fishing villages and bustling cities to lovely beaches and rugged mountain passes. It is spirit lifting, and you'll soon know why W. B. Yeats, a frequent visitor to Sligo and an admirer of its famed course, was moved to write poetry.
These courses are less busy than their more famous Irish counterparts, except on weekends, when members tend to be out in force. You can book tee times for most courses on their web sites, although for convenience you're probably more likely to go through a tour operator (see below).
COUNTY SLIGO GOLF CLUB
Rosses Point, County Sligo; 011-353-71-917-7134, countysligogolfclub.ie. Yardage: 6,609. Par: 71. Architect: Harry S. Colt, 1927. Greens Fees: $65-$76. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
County Sligo, a.k.a. Rosses Point, opens with two testy, uphill par fours and then takes off. The view from the third tee is alone worth the visit—mighty Benbulben, Yeats's geological muse, rises proudly to the east, while the sea rolls into wide stretches of beach far below. There are glamour holes, beginning with the 500-yard par-five third, which tumbles steeply toward the sea. But unlike so many links courses, Rosses Point is subtle, even minimalist at times, and it's tougher than it appears. Most memorable is seventeen, the Gallery, a long dogleg par four to a raised green; many pros rate the hole the best two-shotter in Irish golf.
ENNISCRONE GOLF CLUB
Enniscrone, County Sligo; 011-353-963-6297, enniscronegolf.com. Yardage: 6,857. Par: 73. Architects: Eddie Hackett, 1974; Donald Steel, 2001. Greens Fees: $52-$65. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
Since the addition of Steel's six new dunes holes, Enniscrone now possesses a superior links layout. The approach on number one, a dogleg right, is a complete surprise—what you don't see from the tee is a green cut high in the crook of the dunes. Fourteen is a killer par five, a double dogleg that starts with a tee shot through two dunes, falls down into a gully and then rises to a roller-coaster green; fifteen through seventeen, hugging the beach on Killala Bay and guarded by burnt orange fescue and unbroken wind, are as tough as they are beautiful.
BALLYLIFFIN GOLF CLUB, GLASHEDY
Ballyliffin, County Donegal; 011-353-74-937-6119, ballyliffingolfclub.com. Yardage: 7,250. Par: 72. Architects: Tom Craddock and Pat Ruddy, 1995. Greens Fees: $65-$76. T&L Golf Rating: ****
The course name is taken from the grass-topped Glashedy Rock out in Pollan Bay that's in view on most holes, in part because the holes climb up and down the hillside. The course is long and, with fairways guarded by low-lying sod-walled bunkers and wild undulations, well-equipped to withstand the modern game—when it hosted a European PGA Tour event last year, only five players broke par over the four rounds. From the members tees, though, it's a playable layout. Fairways rise, fall and cut across sandhills that, while not as dramatic as those at Carne or Enniscrone, climb steadily to unparalleled altitudes, most dauntingly at the 572-yard thirteenth, playing uphill all the way. What goes up must come down—at the 183-yard par-three seventh, for instance, the tee is more than 100 feet above the green, and the wind plays havoc with shots the whole way down.