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Too often overlooked by visiting golfers, Northwest Ireland, composed of the most Irish of Ireland's counties - Donegal, Mayo and Sligo - is a golfer's delight and for connoisseurs of the links game, a true paradise found. This is home to a showcase of some of the most ruggedly natural links courses Mother Nature has ever produced. The names may not be familiar (even though they include 8 of Ireland's top 50 courses) but that doesn't detract from the raw, unadulterated links challenge these beauties present and all amid some of the most dramatically handsome scenery to be found on an island filled with good looks.
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To obtain a better idea of the amazingly high standard so consistent among the Northwest's collection of links layouts, here are three of the very best. Out of fairness I have selected one from each of the three counties making up the Northwest region.
Carne Golf Links, Co. Mayo Carne is about as far west as you can go on mainland Ireland, with the next stop, the Statue of Liberty. The setting on the Mullet Peninsula, practically surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and spectacular views of Blacksod Bay and the Atlantic islands of Innis, is nothing less than breathtaking.
This idyllic location was presented to the late Eddie Hackett, arguably Ireland's greatest golf architect ever, to design a course that would attract tourism and golfers from around the globe. The end result is the best design of Mr. Hackett's illustrious career though sadly, it was to be his last -- Eddie Hackett passed away in 1996 just three years after the inauguration of the course he rightly regarded as his crowning achievement.
Since opening in 1993, Carne may not have attracted the numbers of visitors that had been hoped, a situation that will change, given more time. More importantly, Ireland has gained a top quality links course that is unequivocally the equal or perhaps even better than its highest ranked championship layouts -- Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Portmarnock included.
Hackett believed he had put his signature on what would one day be acknowledged as Ireland's best links course and anyone playing it today can only agree. Wild, natural and ruggedly beautiful, it's hard to believe the course is only a young teenager.
The mammoth sand dunes are even more imposing than those at Ballybunion and the two 9-hole loops snake around, over and through them with a sense of drama that only adds to the mystique of the layout. Dunes have been used to elevate tees, laying out a vista of the challenges that lie ahead on each hole, where a constantly erratic wind, gusting off the Atlantic waits, ready to pounce from behind every sand hill to frustrate, tease and destroy any strategy you may have devised. A round on Carne is an adventure into the unknown, through a lunaresque landscape of thrills and challenges, the likes of which you have never experienced before.
A quick glance at the course card shows Carne to be a mere 6,700 yards, which misleads some into thinking that playing to their handicap will be a breeze. After the first hole, this misconception has all but vanished as every spark of attention is focused on the task ahead and the fight to preserve honor gets seriously underway.
By the time you reach the 19th hole, you will feel as a warrior returning from a hard fought battle; worn and weary, but privileged you had the opportunity to engage such a worthy opponent. There will be many lasting memories to be taken away from Carne - memories of a course that battled gallantly with uncommon spirit and that you have played one of the best links courses in all Ireland - a true gem that can remain hidden no longer.
Rosses Point, Co. Sligo County Sligo Golf Club was founded in 1894, playing over a modest 9-hole layout located on a narrow finger of land called Rosses Point. Jutting defiantly out into the Atlantic Ocean with water on 3 sides, this is a piece of real estate ideally suited for a links course, where the elements come into play constantly.
Within 10 years the club had extended their layout to a full 18 holes and by the early 1920's, demanding an even better course, called in the architect of the day, Harry S. Colt, to undertake a total re-design. The project was completed in 1927.
Colt's work remains very much intact today and stands alongside his many other accomplishments including Royal Portrush, Royal Belfast, St. Andrews (Eden), Royal St. Georges and Sunningdale, as yet another masterly design from one of golf's all time geniuses.
Measuring 6,611 yards from the back tees, Rosses Point starts out in the most gentlemanly way, allowing the player to build confidence over a couple of fairly straightforward opening holes. But by the time you reach the fourth tee, the real test is already underway, and what a test it proves to be.
Deceivingly innocent to the eye with fairways that appear to be flat and adequately wide, accuracy is demanded on every hole. Those who stray into the rough or strategically placed bunkers are penalized to the maximum. The fairways that appeared flat and almost manicured from a distance quickly prove themselves to be everything links fairways should be with surprises aplenty.
There is a devilish stream that meanders menacingly throughout the course, making its presence known on at least half a dozen holes. It pops up in every conceivable place - off the tee to the right and then off the tee to the left; short and right of the green then behind the green.
With constant changes in hole directions, the wind on this exposed layout becomes more of a factor than even a links veteran might anticipate.
There are elevation changes requiring tee shots uphill and then down and as a final defense, Rosses Point will beguile and distract you with its good looks. The views throughout the course are truly awesome but nowhere as inspiring as from the third, fifth and tenth tees where three hundred and sixty degree panoramas take in Benbulben Mountain, the ocean and small harbor. It would be difficult to find a more stunning vista in golf.
Perhaps there are two or three holes at Rosses Point that are not so strong, but each of them provides views that more than compensate. No course is perfect, but this is one that comes pretty close -- it's a course that is invigorating to say the least and more often than not, inspirational.
Ballyliffin Golf Club, Co. Donegal If the name, Donegal, conjures up a special image of the real Ireland, then Ballyliffin will be for you. Located at the northernmost tip of Ireland, at the top end of County Donegal, this is the place for nature lovers, hill walkers and those who just yearn to view the best of Mother Nature's handiwork. Spectacular scenery and clear fresh air, some say the freshest in the world, are all here in abundance.
Ballyliffin Golf Club was inaugurated in 1947 and today boasts 2 eighteen-hole layouts. The Old Course, where golf had certainly been played way before the formation of the club and though records remain quite hazy as to who the architect might have been, it is clear that the principal designer was Mother Nature herself, as there may be no more natural course in the entire world.
The second course at Ballyliffin, the Glashedy Links, has a more documented pedigree. Designed by the noted Irish architect, Pat Ruddy of European Club fame, working with Tom Craddock, Glashedy was opened in 1995. There are those who claim this may well be the best links course designed in the British Isles in half a century, despite its relative youth.
For those who journey this far, both courses must be played. Each has its own distinct personality and it is impossible to rate one higher than the other; they are both a joy to play and present quite contrasting challenges.
The Old Course has long been considered the ultimate hidden gem of Irish golf and was so highly regarded by those, "in the know" it had been nicknamed the Royal Dornoch of Ireland.
The terrain is nothing less than extraordinary with fairways that twist and tumble in every conceivable direction and more of the humps, bumps and hollows that are the sign of a true links. In many ways reminiscent of those Scottish links courses, but lacking anything in the way of blind holes, The Old is classic links golf at its very best.
The Glashedy opens with a resounding bang, as you set off to 3 mighty par 4's, acting as appetizers for the extravaganza to follow. This is a course for the big boys and one that demands you are on top of your game from start to finish.
Some have called the two courses at Ballyliffin, formidable, while others have used much stronger language. The pair is well worth the trek for the seasoned golfer who is looking for a lot more than many other courses are able to provide.
Despite its isolated locale, Ballyliffin fits in well with a golf experience in Northern Ireland and a combination of Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Ballyliffin will provide the serious player with a week's worth of golf that will be hard to beat.
There can be no question that links golf in Northwest Ireland is world-class in every way, with a special character of its very own and as much appeal to those less enamored with the Royal & Ancient game as it does to the most avid golfer. If this fascinating corner of Ireland isn't at the top of your travel list, it's time to make the correction and start planning your trip. For more ideas and suggestions on how to get the most out of your Emerald Isle experience, call the Ireland experts at Golf International toll free at 1 (800) 833-1389, or click here.
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