CARNE GOLF LINKS
Belmullet, County Mayo; 011-353-978-2292, carnegolflinks.com. Yardage: 6,730. Par: 72. Architect: Eddie Hackett, 1992. Greens Fees: $49-$54. T&L Golf Rating: ****
Carne sits on what used to be a commonage owned by a number of local families. In the mid-1980s, to bring economic activity to a rather depressed region, a local tourism company bought the property, organized fund-raisers and hired the late Dublin-based architect Eddie Hackett, then in his eighties, to design a course. His brilliance and playfulness are clearly evident to anyone who plays Carne. Once you've holed out on the heroic par-five eighteenth, a 544-yarder over terrain so crazily heaving that no words could fairly describe it, you'll know you've had one of golf's unique experiences. The most striking thing about Carne is its proportions. Everything is huge, from the yawning, avoid-at-all-costs depression down the right side of the very first fairway to its dizzying vertical drops. The sandhills are massive, and the scenery is staggering, particularly the little par-three fourteenth, not even 150 yards, with a tee box perched right by the beach and the blue-green sea. The seventeenth, 440 yards with one fescue-filled chasm down the left and another right of the green, ranks as the second-strongest par four on this trip. Carne is a must-play for serious links-golf fans.
ROSAPENNA GOLF LINKS
Rosapenna, County Donegal; 011-353-74-915-5301, rosapenna.ie. Yardage: 6,476. Par: 70. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1891; James Braid and Harry Vardon, 1906; Pat Ruddy, 2001. Greens Fees: $43-$49. T&L Golf Rating: ****
It's easy to see why Lord Leitrim, a wealthy Englishman, arranged for Old Tom to design a course here, or why some later greats felt compelled to make their own amendments. Rosapenna straddles a neck between two bays—Sheephaven on the west and Mulroy on the east—with the menacing, blunt-faced Horn Head mountain always in view on the front nine. The back tees on the front nine offer the best golf and the most scenic views, because they're perched atop the beachside dunes. The sixth, 198 yards across a cleft of scrub, is among the top par threes in all of Northwest Ireland. The original back nine crisscrossed roads four times, so Rosapenna's owner, Frank Casey, commissioned Pat Ruddy to find less precarious routing while he was building a new eighteen-hole links in the adjoining, untouched dunes. An exploration of Ruddy's magnificent new Sandy Hills last summer (set to open this June), while it was still growing in, revealed a true championship test.
CONNEMARA GOLF CLUB
Ballyconneely, County Galway; 011-353-952-3502. Yardage: 7,219. Par: 72. Architects: Eddie Hackett, 1973; third nine by Tom Craddock, 2001. Greens Fees: $32-$59. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
A weather-beaten and rocky landscape: It's as if the wind and rain have scrubbed all but a thin layer of soil off the bedrock. Like Carne, Connemara's course development was a community project and helped perk up the local economy. A tip: Play all three nines, because they're so vastly different. The first nine is comparatively flat, and the second occupies the sandhills, particularly at the thirteenth, a long par three over a deep ravine to a vast, heaving green, and the eighteenth, which departs a high tee for a low fairway and climbs back up to a raised green protected by cruel bunkers. Tom Craddock's nine is shorter and more naturally linksy—the greens are smaller, the fairways are lumpier and the first few holes are set in the dunes, from which you can watch kids playing in the surf and people out riding the small but sturdy Connemara ponies on the wide, flat beach.
DONEGAL GOLF CLUB
Murvagh, County Donegal; 011-353-733-4054, donegalgolfclub.ie. Yardage: 7,240. Par: 73. Architect: Eddie Hackett, 1972. Greens Fees: $54-$70. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
This is a big hitter's layout, with three front-nine par fives. Much of it is built on low-lying land, so you don't realize at first that you're on the Murvagh Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by Donegal Bay. That becomes apparent on the fantastic stretch from five, a tough 190-yarder to a slender green notched into a duneside, through eight, a rolling 550-yarder with gullies guarding the approach. There's a glorious view of the bay from the raised tee box at six and a good panorama of the course from the bar and dining room in the comfy new clubhouse.
BALLYLIFFIN GOLF CLUB, OLD
Ballyliffin, County Donegal; 011-353-74-937-6119, ballyliffingolfclub.com. Yardage: 6,612. Par: 71. Architects: Local members, 1947. Greens Fees: $49-$54. T&L Golf Rating: ***
A less dramatic design that doesn't climb quite as high as its sister course, the Old has an odd heritage—it was laid out not by a professional architect but by local members after World War II. It's fun because, like the sexier Glashedy, it's routed on perfectly rumpled links terrain. And it has teeth: The tufted dunes and various twists and turns of the narrow fairways hide many of the hazards that lurk unseen from the tees.
There are direct flights from many U.S. cities into Dublin and Shannon Airports; Belfast requires a stop. Shannon is the best arrival point for a trip starting in Connemara; Belfast is for Ballyliffin. One new option is a thirty-five-minute flight from Dublin to Sligo on Aer Arann Express. If you're uncomfortable driving on the left side on narrow roads, you can arrange rentals with drivers through your tour agent. Ireland is green for a reason, and while it can be comfortably in the seventies in summer, it can also get chilly. Pack two sets of rain gear and golf shoes and lots of wool or fleece no matter when you visit.