Irish golf: The way this game was meant to be

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September 14, 2009
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Any time a relatively new golf course makes it onto the prestigious, biennial rankings of "The Top 100 Courses in the British Isles", produced by the highly respected British magazine, Golf World, it's a major achievement. When a course not only makes it onto this list for the first time, but also comes in among the top half of the rankings - that's very unusual and impressive beyond words - County Mayo's, Carne Links, did exactly that, making its grand entrance onto the 2006 rankings at No. 43.

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Rosses Point juts out defiantly into the Atlantic creating an ideal links setting.
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The seventh at Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Course.
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Rosappena's Sandy Hills - another of Ireland's top 25 links.
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Ballyliffin?s Old Course is no walk in the park.
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Ballyliffin's Glashedy Course qualifies as one of Ireland's toughest links.
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Donegal's bunkers are unique - avoid them or pay the price.
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Portsalon is a centenarian recently improved by Irish design wizard Pat Ruddy.
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This amazing links course not only beat out many worthy Irish contenders, all fighting hard for the honor, but also, literally hundreds of other possible candidates, located in Scotland, England and Wales. Any who may have thought that the northwest was not a part of Ireland's Major League Golf, scratched their heads in wonderment and began taking a closer look at this forgotten corner of the country.

Ireland's own master golf architect, the late Eddie Hackett, with over 100 original designs and remodeling projects to his credit, was the poet laureate of Irish Linksland. Nowhere did Hackett's design artistry shine through quite as brightly as in the west of Ireland, where his accomplishments include Waterville, Connemara, Ballyliffin, Donegal, Rossapenna and Enniscrone. But he considered the links at Carne to be his best design ever and in uncharacteristic style, this mild mannered, humble gentleman, told friends that Carne was a layout destined to become known as the best in all of Ireland. Hackett's words, arrogant as they may have seemed at the time, are gradually becoming the reality.

Reaching 43rd position among the best courses in the entire British Isles placed Carne as the 9th ranked course in the Emerald Isle in 2006. Despite the number of outstanding new layouts added to Ireland's golf inventory during the past few years, Carne has only secured its lofty position in the most recent 2008 rankings and its reputation continues to grow.

To the average visitor, it may seem strange to find a links course of Carne's caliber, hidden away in a corner of Ireland, not commonly recognized for its outstanding golf, but the Northwest is not a one-pony show. It maybe away from the well-trodden path followed by most visiting golfers, but that's one of the many beauties of this blessed piece of golfing wonderland -- those who discover it are amazed such a variety of golf riches can remain unknown to the masses; delighted in their discovery, they keep their new-found secret to themselves, eager to drink more from this uncrowded well, on future visits.

Carne Links and its rocket ride to golf stardom at barely ten years of age, isn't the only success story in these parts where golf is a way of life. For all of the glory Carne now receives, there are another couple of dozen comparable layouts, deserving of nothing less. Most have not been catapulted onto the ranking charts and some prefer the peace and quiet that anonymity brings, but make no mistake, the world-class courses of the northwest match and not infrequently, exceed the quality of other, far better known layouts.

County Sligo's Rosses Point is probably the best known of the northwest's old-timers, founded in 1894 and ranked number 11 in Ireland and 58 in the British Isles. The course is superbly located along one of Irelands most stunning stretches of coastline and the layout complements the setting in grand style - the handiwork of Willie Campbell and the great Harry S. Colt.

Rosapenna in County Donegal has another pair of outstanding links courses, one designed by Old Tom Morris in 1894 and reshaped by Eddie Hackett in 1963, the other of far more recent vintage. Sandy Hills Links, another child star in the making, is the handiwork of Pat Ruddy, today's Irish wizard of design magic. Opened just six years ago to much acclaim from the Irish golf world - and with good reason -- this is one more example of prime-time, Irish links golf.

Ballyliffin is home to a couple of championship layouts where The Old Course has worked hard for almost 60 years to attain its deserved reputation. Helped along the way by a who's who of golf design, including Frank Pennink, Eddie Hackett and most recently, Nick Faldo, each has played their part in producing the fine test presented by today's Old Course. Many believe the upstart, Ballyliffin Glashedy Course, opened in 1995, has already surpassed its older sibling. Ranked number ten in Ireland and only getting better, it's difficult to disagree. If you get to Ballyliffin, better play both and come to your own conclusions as to whether or not, younger does mean better.

For those big hitters who enjoy a lengthy and thoroughly heartless challenge, Donegal Golf Club is one more of Northwest Ireland's must plays with the ability to inflict all the pain anyone can take. Stretching to almost 7,400 yards of thrill packed golf adventure, Ireland may have no links with this much excitement -- it's simply a magnificent brute of the first order.

Macho types looking for even more testing have no need to travel far. Portsalon Golf Club is another 7,000 plus yarder, dating from 1881 with the tenacity to break most and this one throws in a lesson in the artistry of old fashioned, links golf architecture at no extra charge. Enniscrone Golf Club has roots extending back to 1925 and presents a challenge that will be more than enough for most.

There's a golden nugget of a links at Narin & Portnoo Golf Club on the west Donegal coast that's a stranger, even to many Irishmen, but don't expect any little pussycat layout. This might be one of Ireland's prettiest seaside courses, with fairways threading around, over and through some rather significant sand dunes. Narin & Portnoo demands strategy and throws in a healthy serving of surprises, including a stretch of three, consecutive par-5's, tough enough to challenge the best. As if to compensate, the par-3's are among best to be found on any Irish course.

Over the past decade or so, Northwest Ireland has grown into a golf region in its own right, boasting as impressive a collection of golf courses as can be found anywhere in the British Isles. The world-class caliber of the layouts contained in this wild and wondrous landscape warrants much more than a passing glance and for the true connoisseur of the game, presents an excellent opportunity to experience Irish golf, the way it was meant to be. Best to sample your northwest Ireland golf experience while it's still pure and untainted and before the crowds start arriving. For a few ideas on how, click here.

©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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