Golf can be played anywhere there’s a course, but it’s always felt like there’s something special about playing in Ireland. It’s not quite the place where golf was invented – they were piped to the post on that front by Scotland – but when it did catch on, it caught on in a big way. The history of golf in the Emerald Isle can be traced all the way back to the middle of the 19th century, and many of those early courses are still available to players. It’s also something of a golfer’s paradise – very few places in the world have as many courses per capita as Ireland does.
It’s easy to see why golfers have always felt at home here. The famously-green country was almost ready-made for the sport, with its open fields and a plethora of rolling greens seemingly designed to become golf courses long before anyone came to create a fairway. On top of that, it’s also associated with luck. The ‘luck of the Irish’ is famous everywhere from adverts for premium-rate alcohol to the world of online casinos or All Sister Sites, where casino games like ‘Rainbow Riches’ and ‘Leprechaun Song’ attract players in their millions by offering them over-the-top renditions of Ireland’s green hills and rich folklore. Everyone knows that sportspeople are superstitious, and so the combination of great scenery and lucky charms is a potent one.
With so many courses to choose from within the country, knowing where to start is a difficult question! The Golfing Union of Ireland – which is the oldest of its type anywhere in the world – is responsible for organizing who pays on those courses, how, and when – and give the scale of the task on their hands, we don’t envy them. While we’re hesitant to say which of the courses is the definitive best, we’ve narrowed the field down to our top five, and so here they are. We’re confident that you could head to Ireland to play any of these courses, and you’d be very happy with your selection!
Ballybunion Golf Club (Kerry)
We realize we’re at the risk of stating the obvious by listing this course, but it’s considered to be one of the top ten courses anywhere in the world for very good reasons. It’s also a difficult course to play, offering the highest level of challenge even for the best golfers among us. The grass is notoriously stiff, the slopes are long, steep, and perilous, and the fairways don’t give you much leeway if you’re off target. Many a golfer’s heart has been broken at Ballybunion, but many fine memories have been made here too.
Playing at Ballybunion can sometimes feel a little like you’re playing at the edge of the world. The rugged scenery is dramatic, and occasionally eerie. There’s an ancient graveyard very close to the course, upon which wayward balls occasionally land. Jack Nicklaus was famously unnerved by the course, and never came again after a single visit in 1989. Other players love it, citing their belief that it has an atmosphere like nowhere else.
Mount Juliet Golf Club, Kilkenny
We presume Jack Nicklaus is a much bigger fan of Mount Juliet than he is Ballybunion, and that’s because he designed it! Plenty of the sport’s great names have walked across the grass of Mount Juliet; it’s been selected to host the Irish Open on three separate occasions, providing great spectacle each time. It opened in 1991 – a mere two years after Nicklaus’ Ballybunion experience – so it might even be the case that the spooked Jack set to work on putting it together the moment he got home.
If you’re familiar with the way that Nicklaus usually goes about his designs, you probably already know what to expect from the course. By that we mean there are difficult bunkers everywhere, and getting out of them is much harder than getting in.
Royal Belfast Course, County Down
Royal Belfast Course is a confusing one. From inspection, it looks like it should be easy to play. There’s nothing visually unique about it, and so casual players turn up here in droves thinking they’re going to have a relaxing afternoon. Then they walk down to the first hole, and everything changes.
We don’t know what magical powers Harry Colt used when he designed Royal Belfast – which is the very oldest course in the whole country – but your eyesight deceives you here. Although we can’t put our finger on quite why, it’s much harder to play successfully than it should be. It’s best not to worry about it, and just enjoy the spectacular view all the way down to County Antrim as you make your way around the course more slowly than you’d anticipated.
The K Club, Kildare
We already know that this is going to be viewed as a somewhat controversial inclusion. Nobody can argue with the fact that the K Club is a fantastic course. Where it sometimes comes in for criticism is that it doesn’t ‘feel’ very Irish when compared with the majority of the courses in the country. The K Club has very clearly been modeled on the parklands course of America, and so if you ignored the weather, you could easily believe you were on the other side of the pond.
Just because it doesn’t have the typical features of an Irish course doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be considered great in its own right, and even its fiercest critics would have to admit that it is. The Ryder Cup doesn’t just turn up anywhere; it goes to courses where the organizers are confident a great event can be staged, and it’s come here. That should tell you everything you need to know. On top of that, it’s remarkably low priced to play if you can pick up a package deal online.
Royal County Down, County Down
In 2016, this course was voted the best in the world by the readers of Golf Digest. It’s also the personal favorite course of Rory McIlroy, and is among the favorites of Tiger Woods. For a course that’s been open since 1889, that’s a remarkable amount of staying power considered all the other locations that have opened up to golf in the time since.
In truth, the course hasn’t stayed quite the same over all of that time. It was remodeled extensively by George Combe in the first ten years of the 20th century, and then the famous Harry Colt came in to change things up again in 1926. Since then, though, it’s stayed largely the same. Even King Edward VII of England was a fan of playing golf here when he could find the time; he was so impressed with it that he awarded it the rights to use the ‘Royal’ prefix in 1908. Known for its variety of play – no two holes here feel even remotely the same – if Royal County Down isn’t the best course in Ireland, it’s in the top two.
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