Courses of the Week: The unsung heroes of Irish golf

February 25, 2010
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Ireland's wealth of superb links courses, estimated to be one third of all the true links layouts in the entire world, is an established fact, but, like so many of life's blessings, it has a good side and then another side that isn't as good.

The Island - 120 years old only 15 minutes from Dublin and still unknown.
The Island is a piece of Irish links history calling out to be played.
The ninth green at Castlerock.
Castlerock's links challenge is only complicated more by the small river that runs through it.
The seventh at Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Course.
Rosapenna's Sandy Hill Course raises the bar a few notches.
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The upside to Ireland's golfing fame is that it attracts lots of golf visitors. The downside is that too many of these visitors set their sights on only the most highly acclaimed, trophy courses -- those most recognizable names that have garnered the attention of the media and received lots of positive exposure - sometimes through fact and sometimes through exaggeration, turning them into golf stars. Play a few of these "big names" and you have added a few more notches to your golfing belt and earned bragging rights at your home club.

The rather sad ending to this short story is that too few of the less known names receive the attention of visitors they so justly deserve. Often the equal of their more famous neighbors (occasionally even better) the lack of name recognition causes many visitors to mistakenly believe these courses may not be worth playing. This is typically far from the reality and many of these courses offer a very special Irish golf experience that shouldn't be missed.

One article on the unsung heroes of Irish golf will not change a situation that has existed for more than a hundred years, but it will provide those who have thoughts of a golf trip to Ireland, with a few names that belong on every visitor's must-play list.

The Island Golf Club and its magnificent links course, have been sitting in the same location, just a scant 12 miles from the heart of Dublin, for well over a century, yet despite its proximity to the capital, the course remains unknown to most visiting golfers.

This is a good old-fashioned links that saw its first light of day back in 1890, though nobody seems to be too sure who was responsible for the original design. It sits on a slim peninsula of land that defiantly separates the Irish sea from the waters of Broadmeadow Estuary, just to the north of Dublin.

Not quite an island, the sea and estuary surround the course on three, almost three and a half sides, creating the ideal linksland, with The Island Golf Club its sole tenant. Gigantic sand dunes, fast running fairways filled with undulations, small quick greens and a blustery wind blowing in from the Irish Sea complete the picture. This is good old-fashioned links golf at its very best and one for the memory book.

Until 1990, the course had an abundance of blind holes, a fact that irritated many of the local members, so in its centenary year, with the able assistance of English architect, Fred Hawtree and the great Irish designer, Eddie Hackett, modifications were made, resulting in today's brilliant course.

Reminiscent of a crusty West of Ireland links or even the toughest of Scotland's seaside layouts, The Island delivers a real links test -- unforgiving, but always fair. The Island will delight even the most jaded links aficionado, so miss this beauty and you will be missing a real treat.

Royal County Down and Royal Portrush are the main golfing attractions in Northern Ireland, but this small corner of the Emerald Isle has more than 90 courses within its borders and one of the best is Castlerock Golf Club. Perhaps it is over-shadowed by neighboring Portstewart and nearby Royal Portrush, but Castlerock is a gem of a links, too often overlooked by visitors.

Designed by Scotsman, Ben Sayers, the Mussenden Course at Castlerock opened for play in 1901. Noted architect Harry S. Colt, added a few refinements in 1925, resulting in today's very impressive layout, a fine example of a kinder variety of Irish links golf that doesn't revel in the chance to humiliate and scorn, but reminds all comers that golf is a game supposed to provide pleasure.

The course enjoys an enviable location on the Derry coastline, with astounding views to Donegal on the one side and along the Causeway Coast and across the Atlantic to Scotland on the other. There may be no more picturesque place from which to savor a game of golf, but aesthetics are only the beginning.

The true qualities of Castlerock are revealed as the round commences and the track begins to snake its way around, between and over sand-dunes, one minute providing breathtaking vistas of the coast, the next, abruptly punishing with blind shots, deep rough, grassy hills and the inevitable wind gusting in from the sea. The fairways are narrow and ribbon-like, the well maintained small greens are true, but never to be taken for granted.

This is a links with a heart -- the hazards are for the most part, clearly visible and the bunkers, appreciably less severe than on many other links, bringing a consoling sense of forgiveness to those less accustomed to the often devious nature of links golf.

This is the way links golf was supposed to be and Castlerock is a course to be respected, savored and enjoyed to the fullest. Yet as testing as it can be, this is real, unadulterated links golf and if you are anywhere close-by, take advantage and experience this one for yourself.

As the crow flies, it's only 40 miles from Castlerock to the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Links in County Donegal. If you aren't flying, the drive is closer to 80 miles, but for any serious golfer, there are some wonderful rewards waiting at the end of the road.

The original links course at Rosapenna was laid out by Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews in 1893. Harry Vardon and James Braid, both journeyed to Rosapenna in the early 1900's to add length and bunkering to the course, wisely leaving Morris's perfect greens intact.

Rosapenna's Tom Morris Course remains very much as it has been for the past century and is a standing tribute to the superb design work of those masters of old. Come here anticipating a piece of historic golf magic and you won't be disappointed.

Located on a spectacular stretch of County Donegal coastline, this is a superb piece of golf real estate that could have been used for nothing other than a very special links.

Bounded to the west by two sweeping bays, the course is made up of a pair of distinct loops. The first ten holes cover some fairly flat ground running alongside Sheephaven Bay. The following eight holes then wend their way around a massive hill overlooking Mulroy Bay, before eventually careening over the top and galloping all the way back home.

Exposure to the wind coming in off the Atlantic Ocean produces challenges that are usually greater than anticipated and the bunkers, though always in clear view, make strategy important from start to finish. This is far from a walk in the park and the old fashioned test presented, is everything the visitor could hope for -- this is classic links golf at its very best. If this was all Rosapenna offered, it would be well worth the trip to experience an extraordinary links layout that has escaped attention for so long... but there's more.

Just a few years ago, a second course opened at Rosapenna, sharing the same wild coastline as the original. This time the designer was Pat Ruddy, a golf writer turned architect who took the golf world by storm with his astounding layout just south of Dublin, The European Club. Then to prove his detractors wrong, came up with yet another winner, Ballyliffin's fantastic Glashedy Course.

Innocently named, Sandy Hill Links, Rosapenna's second course may well be Ruddy's most impressive achievement to date and could be the excuse the international golfing world needs to bring this pair of dazzlers some long overdue appreciation, if not adoration.

To classify Sandy Hill as a dramatic links seems almost an understatement. It's a course of gargantuan proportions that bobs and weaves its way through mammoth sand dunes and a lunar-like landscape that is nothing short of spectacular.

On occasions the dunes shield from the wind then, with a total lack of respect for the player, subject him to fearsome gusts that find every conceivable way to penetrate the shield. It's the on again, off again jousting with the wind that adds so much to the test, which has to be one of the most arduous in Irish golf.

The pencil-thin fairways slowly thread their way through the maze of sand hills, with thigh deep rough encroaching in from every side, constantly adding to an ever-mounting challenge that tests both patience and tenacity.

There are opportunities to take out the driver, but big hitters beware, hit hard and if you are not accurate, eternal damnation awaits, only too eager to take one more brash visiting golfer into its depths.

This is a course that always rewards precision and a carefully thought out and executed game plan. You will have to sacrifice par on occasion, but play an unflinchingly tenacious game and you could have the satisfaction of pulling in a good scorecard on a course that will crucify others.

Rosapenna was worth the trip when there was only one course, but now with a pair of crackerjack links, it's likely to become another Ballybunion -- don't miss it. For more information on Ireland's amazing golf, call the experts at Golf International at 1 800-833-1389 or click here

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