Southwest Ireland's triumvirate of golf excellence

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November 17, 2011
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Editor's Note: The following article is written by David Brice, President of Golf International. Established in 1988, Golf International specializes in the design and operation of quality golf trips to Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, France, Spain and Portugal. The articles written by David represent trips available to Golf International customers. Click here to learn more about Golf International.

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Ranked among the world's best links, Ballybunion throws down the gauntlet to any challenger.
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Massive sand dunes are only the beginning of Ballybunion's defense arsenal.
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Ballybunion - a links for the memory book.
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Lahinch - one not to be missed links among Southwest Ireland's many.
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Lahinch has been compared to a roller-coaster ride for good reason.
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Lahinch's good looks are only a part of the charm.
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Doonbeg Links reveals Greg Norman's passion for the game with an inspirational layout.
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Doonbeg's rough is best avoided.
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Packed with variety and ever-changing challenges, Doonbeg is a new classic links with style.
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Play the triumvirate of links courses from the lap of luxury - Doonbeg Lodge.
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Ireland is blessed with a dizzying array of excellent golf courses, many of them links layouts, ranked among the world's best. 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, jumping from one trophy course to the next, instead focus on just one Irish region, or at most two, and you will have more than enough conveniently located, quality courses to keep the most avid golfer busy for a month.

You could do no better than concentrate on the golf rich, southwest region, where the counties of Clare, Kerry and Cork, showcase a wealth of sightseeing and other off-course activities, together with many of Ireland's most impressive golf gems, each calling out to be played. You can't include all of the courses, so as a starting point, here are three of the very best -- a triumvirate of classy links, each with its own well deserved claims to fame and not to be ignored, all three can be easily played from a single hotel base.

Stay at the plush, Doonbeg Lodge, a magnificent 5 star, luxury resort, overlooking the crashing Atlantic Ocean and Doonbeg Links and you will be in the very center of what can only be called, southwest Ireland's most precious piece of links real estate.

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

Universally acknowledged as one of the world's greatest, this is one of those gems fortunate enough to have been built on a spectacular stretch of coastline, predestined by some higher authority to be used for nothing other than an exceptional links course. Whether this was truly understood 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 and extend it to a full 18 holes.

Little of significance has been done to change Simpson's design of 85 years ago and Ballybunion lives on, gracefully accepting the accolades, which continue to be bestowed upon it. There isn't even a single 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 will ever 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 that presents a new test 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 that begins 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 be prepared for Ballybunion's personality to come to the fore with a vengeance. The track 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 severely punish any shot missing the green -- and the test continues without let-up.

With some trepidation you reach the fabled eleventh, one of the greatest two shot holes ever. Knees shake as you stand on the tee of this world famous hole, the waves of the Atlantic pounding below, enormous sand dunes to the left and the fairway dropping precipitously in front. Any intimidation you may feel is completely understandable -- the green is perfectly visible directly in front, a windswept plateau overlooking and diligently protected by that might and often angry, Atlantic Ocean.

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

Tom Watson was the first of the American greats to visit Ballybunion regularly. Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickleson and Tiger Woods have all followed in Watson's footsteps and all have fallen for Ballybunion's charms and it has become a regular warm-up course for our American players as they prepare for each year's British Open, the ultimate test of links golf. Ballybunion belongs on every visiting golfer's must play list -- it's a unique and never to be forgotten experience.

Lahinch: This is another one of those very special links courses that simply should not be missed by any true, blue, golf aficionado. It's a layout that has everything -- history, good looks, pedigree, variety and as tough a challenge as can ever be conjured up by a single course. No less important, it also delivers a heck of a lot of fun, but it was a long, circuitous route that eventually gave us the Lahinch we enjoy today.

The course saw its first light of day back in 1892 when a group of wealthy merchants from Limerick City, assisted by army officers from Scotland's famed Black Watch Regiment, who were stationed in Limerick, discovered what was to become the home of Lahinch Golf Club. The Scots were sorely missing the links golf of their homeland and the merchants, who had formed the Limerick Golf Club, were in search of a home of their own.

United by a common cause, Scots military and Irish civilians joined forces and set about laying out 18 holes on a piece of desolate linksland they had come across in the tiny fishing village of Lahinch, a 40 mile train ride from Limerick. On April 15, 1892, a rudimentary Lahinch golf links opened for play.

Within two years Lahinch was a success and the greatest golf architect of the day, Old Tom Morris, was brought in to suggest improvements, adding even more of a Scottish accent to this unique links. The accent only became stronger in 1927 when Dr. Alister MacKenzie, another distinguished Scots architect, was hired to undertake a major refurbishment of Old Tom Morris' work.

It took a full year for MacKenzie to complete the work, accentuating the links aspects by integrating more of the sand hills into the design, whilst retaining the natural flow and appearance of the course. Elevated, multi-tiered greens were also added, increasing the demands on players. Convinced he had created a course destined to be one of the world's best, Dr. Mackenzie left Lahinch, his mission accomplished, a very contented man.

Unfortunately, he had not realized what a fickle group the Lahinch members were. Within 7 years the Lahinch Golf Club members came to the disastrous decision that they had produced a course far too difficult for the average club player and in 1935 work was undertaken to remove the multi-tiered greens and otherwise, simplify the challenge. Ironically, this was about the same time Dr. MacKenzie was working with Bobby Jones, designing Augusta National.

By 1999 the members had yet another change of heart! With the innovations in technology and equipment, they yearned for the course MacKenzie had provided them and decided to change things one more time, bringing everything back to the way Lahinch was in the 1930's. The noted English architect, Martin Hawtree, was hired for the task of resurrecting MacKenzies true gem of 60 years earlier, a job he accomplished with total faith to the original and in masterly style.

For all of its complicated back and forth history, it is remarkable that the end result is such an outstanding links -- a genuine classic and one of the best, not only in Ireland, but in the entire British Isles. Phil Mickelson has gone on record as saying this is his favorite links of all and few who have had the privilege of playing here would disagree. Add one more course to your must play list and be prepared to be impressed.

Doonbeg: It's an irony that the site occupied by Doonbeg today, is one of the locations considered by the same Limerick merchants and Scottish army officers, who eventually chose Lahinch as the place to build their course, back in 1892.

In those days their reasoning was that Doonbeg was less accessible, a problem that no longer existed in 2002 when Greg Norman discovered the same gorgeous piece of County Clare coastline and the place where he would create one of the best pieces of modern day, golf architecture ever conceived.

If you are among the school who believe that every good Irish links course must first be a centenarian, Doonbeg will immediately change your thinking -- and that's a guarantee. Greg Norman's inspired design is without doubt one of the finest links layouts in the entire Emerald Isle and it's not even a teen-ager.

By Norman's own admission, he was handed one of the most desirable pieces of linksland to work with. A stunningly beautiful, one and a half mile stretch of shoreline that swoops, curves and tumbles around crescent shaped, Doughmore Bay. Filled with dramatic sand dunes, some reaching more than 100 feet above sea level, this is literally land intended by Mother Nature to be nothing else but a spectacular links course.

The end result is a layout that bobs and weaves its way, over, around and often through a landscape that at times seems almost lunaresque, on occasion reminiscent of a traditional, 19th century links, but always unabashedly handsome. There may be no better looking course in all of Ireland than this dazzler called Doonbeg.

Doonbeg's incredible challenge becomes immediately apparent on the first hole, a 567 yard par-5. The scenery will be the first distraction -- get used to it, there are another 17 holes to play, with each better looking than the previous. Stay focused on your game or you will lose the ball to the dunes or an unsympathetic pot bunker on the second shot. Reaching the green safely on the third shot will be no mean accomplishment, as it's jealously guarded on three sides by a frightening monster of a sand dune. Only 9 years old and already people are saying this is the best opening hole in all of Ireland, bar none -- and this is only a warm up for all of the excitement that lies ahead.

The signature hole is the short, par-3 fourteenth. Measuring a seemingly innocuous 111 yards from the back tee, it's a hole totally underestimated by all first-time players and one of the most difficult to judge. With the Atlantic Ocean sitting directly behind the flag and a wind best classified as reliably unpredictable, club selection can range all the way from a sand wedge to a 3-iron and you still need Lady Luck on your side to first make and then hold the green. It's hard to imagine a tiddler of a short hole like this could make a grown man cry, but that's just what the fourteenth will do.

After the good looks and tough challenge, one of the great appeals Doonbeg holds for any visitor is that it's a succession of excellent holes, with a number that will literally, blow you away, but there isn't a single hole that can fairly be called anything less than top-drawer. The White Shark has done himself and Ireland proud with his masterpiece at Doonbeg, a very special treat that again belongs on your must play list.

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

©2011 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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