Ireland has some of the best links in the world

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December 08, 2010
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

David Brice, CEO of Golf International, reviews destinations on PGATOUR.COM that can be experienced by purchasing a package with Golf international, a leading provider of high-end international golf travel. For more information about this trip or any other of Golf International's destination trips, click here.

Ireland has been blessed with a dizzying array of excellent links layouts and selecting which you should play and which could be postponed until your next visit to Ireland, presents an often bewildering challenge. Avoid the temptation to drive all over the country, instead stick to just one Irish region, or at most two and you will have more than enough quality links layouts to keep even the most avid player busy for a month. Include one of the following masterpieces as a grand finale and you will know you have tasted the very best of the best.

Ballybunion: Southwest Ireland If there is one household name among Ireland's bountiful selection of championship links courses, it is unquestionably Ballybunion.

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Legendary Ballybunion is a guaranteed thriller for every visitor.
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Mammoth sand dunes and a feisty wind only add to Ballybunion's challenge.
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Ballybunion heads the list of championship links courses in the Southwest.
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Royal County Down is ranked Ireland's best and No 10 in the world.
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Ribbon-like fairways and treacherous rough complicate Royal County Down's test.
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Royal County Down - perhaps the ultimate links.
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The European Club ranked Ireland's No 4 layout and it's still climbing.
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The European Club - always ready to give the best a run for their money.
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The European Club's greens are fiercely protected.
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The European Club - the realization of one man's dream.
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Universally acknowledged as being among the world's greatest, this is one of those gems lucky enough to have been built on a magnificent stretch of coastline which must have been predestined by some higher authority to be used for nothing other than an exceptional links course.

Whether this was truly understood or not back in 1896 when Ballybunion's founding fathers laid out the initial 9 holes, is a debatable point. The terrain was however very much appreciated by the great British architect, Tom Simpson, when he arrived here in 1926 to improve upon the original Ballybunion and extend it to a full 18 holes.

Little of significance has been done to change Simpson's design of 84 years ago and Ballybunion lives on, gracefully accepting the accolades, which continue to be bestowed upon it. There isn't a golfer who fails to be captivated by the magical spell that is Ballybunion.

Situated in a remote corner of County Kerry, close to the Shannon estuary and amidst some of the largest sand dunes you are ever likely to encounter, Ballybunion presents a fascinating combination of raw, wild beauty and as stiff a challenge as will ever be found.

Add to this an intriguing if not complex personality as the course runs through the dunes, alongside, then up and over them and you have a layout presenting a new challenge on virtually every hole. Boring is not a word that could ever be used to describe Ballybunion.

The first few holes, all relatively straight forward, belie the examination which commences on the sixth as a frighteningly narrow approach takes you to a plateaued green...and so the adventure among the dunes begins in earnest. From here on be prepared for Ballybunion's personality to come to the fore with a vengeance. The course confounds and confuses with a complexity that makes even the thinking golfer, think again.

The seventh runs its entire length along the shoreline and may be one of the best par 4's you will ever play. The eighth takes you back down the dunes and is a deceivingly short par 3, ready to punish any shot missing the green, severely. The test continues without let-up.

With some heartache you reach the world famous eleventh, one of the greatest two shot holes anywhere in the world. Knees shake as you stand on the tee of the world-famous eighth, with the waves of the Atlantic pounding below, enormous sand dunes to the left and the fairway dropping away in front. Any intimidation you may feel is completely understandable. The eleventh green is perfectly visible, directly in front...a windswept plateau overlooking and protected by that mighty Atlantic Ocean.

The sixteenth and seventeenth are no less brilliant and the fifteenth, a magical par 3, ready, willing and able to test the very best.

Tom Watson was the first of the American greats to visit regularly. Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickleson and Tiger Woods have all followed in Watson's footsteps and fallen for Ballybunion's charms. The course has now become a regular warm-up routine for our American golfers as they prepare for each year's British Open, arguably the ultimate test of links golf.

Unfortunately, fame brings with it popularity and Ballybunion has grown to become the most requested course in all Ireland by visiting golfers. Demand outstrips the availability of visitor times by a wide margin each year, making it advisable to book a full year ahead to avoid disappointment. It may seem like a long wait, but like everyone else, you will undoubtedly agree, the wait was worth it.

Royal County Down: Northern Ireland If Royalty is in a class of its own, to be revered and respected by mere mortals, then Royal County Down Golf Club is well deserving of its Royal moniker. It may be the most spectacularly beautiful links course to be found anywhere; it's ranked among the top ten courses in the world and is consistently listed as the best course in all Ireland. Royal County Down is indeed the King of Irish golf.

With more golf courses per capita than any other country, Northern Ireland is perhaps the ultimate golfers paradise and Royal County Down, the crowning glory among the generous selection of true golfing gems to be found here.

Dating from 1889, the original design for the Championship Course was laid out by Old Tom Morris, perhaps the master of all golf course architects, who was paid the princely sum of 4 guineas (about $6) for his efforts. Old Tom was quite content with the fee as he had little work to do, considering this to be the most natural of all links courses.

Against the magnificent backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne, County Down Championship stretches along the shores of Dundrum Bay and the Irish Sea, zigzagging back and forth to provide a different vista from virtually every hole. But the glorious scenery distracts from what is an extremely challenging layout, more than worthy of its top world-class ranking.

The narrowest ribbons of fairways thread their way through as impressive a set of sand dunes as could be imagined. The fairways are surrounded by purple heather and golden gorse, so beautiful to look at but so punishing for any who stray off the narrow path.

Innumerable bunkers are scattered throughout the course, deep, cavernous and topped with fringes of sea grasses. The greens are fast and many are domed, immediately rejecting any approach shot lacking in conviction. This is a true test of the player's command of the traditional bump and run approach.

It is seldom one finds a course lacking in any poor holes, but County Down Championship is on the very short list of such layouts. Tom Watson ranks the first 15 holes at the top of his favorites list and it is difficult to disagree with his evaluation of a course composed of so many strong holes.

The par-3's are as good as any and the par-4's, equally outstanding, but is this one of the toughest courses in the world? The highly respected golf-writer, Herbert Warren Wind thought so when he said, "it was in fact, the sternest examination in golf I had ever taken."

This is everything a links course is supposed to be -- tight undulating fairways; unforgiving rough; deep pot bunkers; billowing greens; blind shots and the inevitable wind blowing in from the sea.

Uncommon for a links is County Down's design -- two distinct loops of 9 holes rather than a typical straight out-and-back. The resulting constant changes in wind direction adding to the overall test.

This is a course that demands strategy where it's important to keep your ball in the frighteningly narrow fairways and away from the rough, but measuring a hefty 7,065 yards from the championship tees, length is a also a definite asset -- providing it doesn't come at the expense of accuracy. High handicappers beware.

Even for those who may not be up to the challenge of the Championship Course, but still want to taste the special attributes of Royal County Down Golf Club, there is a second layout here that is almost as delectable. The charming Annesley Links at Royal County Down is a shorter and more passive course, recently upgraded by the renowned British architect, Donald Steele.

The European Club: Southeast Ireland The vast majority of links courses were built in a period extending from 1880 until 1930. This was a time when zoning regulations were non-existent, golf was becoming very fashionable and linksland, a commodity unique to The British Isles, readily available.

Yet Ireland has almost magically seen a flurry of new links course developments during the past 35 years. Ballyliffin, Connemara, Murvagh, Doonbeg and The European Club are a few of the more significant new Irish entries into the world of links golf, with The European Club perhaps being the best of all. Located an easy 30 mile drive south of Dublin, in County Wicklow, The European Club is the dream and handiwork of the amazing Pat Ruddy, a man with golf in his blood.

Ruddy is not your conventional golf architect. He never studied the subject formally, neither did he work for any big architectural firm and possibly had never seen a drawing board until he acquired this piece of Wicklow coastline and vowed to build himself a golf course. What Pat Ruddy has accomplished is nothing short of amazing and proof positive that all you need is a dream and the determination, grit and courage to turn the dream into reality.

21 years have passed since The European Club opened and in that short time it has risen to be ranked number 4 in all Ireland, preceded only by Royal County Down, Portmarnock and Ballybunion. For this youngster to earn a position among four crusty centenarians maybe tribute enough for The European -- in the world of golf rankings, newcomers are never welcomed with open arms.

It must be said that Ruddy had a good eye when it came to picking out a potential golf site. The land he selected skirts Brittas Bay on the Irish Sea and consists entirely of sand dunes, the ideal raw material from which to build a links course to be remembered. And this self taught, determined designer has done just that. Today, The European Club stands as a lasting memorial to pure links golf and one man's determination to build one of the best.

From start to finish the holes have you weaving your way between, around, over and through the stunning sand hills. The Irish Sea is always in view and a constant factor, complete with the inevitable wind that seems to blow here with an added gusto. Unlike many traditional links courses, Ruddy has intentionally eliminated any blind holes and presents a refreshing case of, what you see is what you get that continues non-stop from start to finish.

It is difficult to identify the best holes here, as all are extremely good and half of those can be classified as truly outstanding. But if any must be selected, the 3rd, a par 5 and a cascading downhill thriller, must be on the list. The 7th is truly spectacular, with an eerie marsh running the full length of the fairway.

The 12th, 13th and 15th are literally played along the beach, providing yet another unique feature. The 17th, plunging through a dune-lined valley is nothing less than exhilarating. Perhaps the very best of all is kept until last, with a closing hole that almost defies description and needs to be experienced to be believed.

Success begets success and the initial amazement among the golfing intelligentsia at what this amateur designer had accomplished at The European Club, quickly spread. Before long Ruddy's services were being called upon by others to bring his unique design talents to their projects. An amateur no more, the name Pat Ruddy has become synonymous with quality designs and a particular mastery of seaside links.

Fortunately, the man has not taken a factory approach, instead carefully selecting which design projects he accepts. This is a designer who is very much hands on and if the Ruddy name is there, he did the work and didn't delegate to others. Find Pat Ruddy's name on a course and you can be assured it's special - Druids Glen, Druids Heath, Ballyliffin's Glashedy Course, Portsalon and the new Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna, only prove the point.

But The European Club remains his favorite child -- this was the first and this is where he invested all of his money and effort into creating a links masterpiece, so much in fact that little has been done to provide anything but the most basic of club houses. But that's the way Pat Ruddy wants it - plain and simple, just the way things were a century ago, when those other links courses were mere whippersnappers.

For more ideas and suggestions on how to get the very most out of your golf trip to the Emerald Isle, contact the Ireland experts at Golf International, by calling toll free, 1 (800) 833-1389 or click here.

©2010 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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