In 2014, I learned that I would be taking a job that would last from April 2015 to April of 2016. So, I knew that I would have the ability to take a significant amount of time off after the job's completion (and I will have a similar opportunity after I finish my current job which is set to end in July of 2017--the destination of that future trip is currently being contemplated). My family and I decided to forgo giving each other gifts of any kind for the next two years (Christmas, birthdays, father's day, and mother's day all became non-commercial affairs). Instead, we would take the money that we would otherwise spend on these occasions and put it in a communal fund to save for a golfing trip to Ireland. It proved successful and we were able to cover nearly all of our fixed costs (golf, hotels, and car) with what we saved over the two years. It felt like a free vacation (not to mention the fact that we eliminated the stress of always buying gifts for each other).
Our trip began in the last week of April and carried over to the first week of May. Obviously, our biggest concern was weather. Not only is Ireland notoriously finicky, but it is even more so the earlier you go in the season. Ultimately, we got exceptionally lucky. In total, we only had to play three holes in the rain. Not only was there no rain, but most days had brilliantly blue skies that made everything that much more dramatic.
The first week of the trip was devoted almost entirely to golf. The second week was more geared towards sightseeing, but with some golf interspersed. The following are the courses we played: Lahinch, Doonbeg, Ballybunion (Old Course), Ballybunion (Cashen Course), Tralee, Waterville, Old Head, and Portmarnock. In total, we drove approximately 700 miles. And yes, the driving was often terrifying. We needed to rent a van to fit the four of us, all of the clubs, and our suitcases. So, not only are the country roads exceptionally narrow, but I was driving a large car on the wrong side of the road. The only thing more lucky than no rain in Ireland was the car returning to Hertz intact.
This post is meant only to serve as an introduction to the trip and subsequent posts will review individual courses. Overall, I learned that I enjoy links golf more than American golf. I think it requires more creativity due to the ever shifting wind, often large greens, and undulating terrain. Moreover, I think it is more fun because the courses are certainly challenging, but are very playable. For instance, at Portmarnock, it is, in my opinion, an easy course to shoot a 90 on, but a hard course to shoot a 83 on. If you miss your drive twenty yards to the right, you will likely be able to find your ball and play it, but you will be so out of position, it will be unlikely that you make par. In short, shooting a low score requires perfect shot-making, but if you are off on a given day, you will not have a horrible time (as opposed to many American courses where a missed drive ends up in the woods, slows down the pace of play, and ultimately leads to a two shot penalty). That was another noticeable difference between Ireland and America--even bad golfers play quickly in Ireland. The only time I felt pace of play slowed was when the wind kicked up to nearly unplayable conditions.
On the subject of wind, for the most part, I found it to be an enjoyable challenge while playing, as opposed to a detractor that had to be overlooked. However, on some occasions, I felt like it did take what otherwise might be a top top golf course and turn it into only a top golf course. For example, Old Head has some of the best ocean views you will ever find on a golf course (how can it not as it is built on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic and is barely connected to the mainland). The day we played, the sky was completely blue with few clouds, but the wind was raging at 40 mph for nearly the entire day on every hole. My caddy said that you are usually faced with the choice of a clear day and high winds or clouds/fog and no wind. I asked him when the last time there was a clear day and no wind. Three years ago was his answer. The same was true on Tralee. A completely stunning golf course with ocean views that surpass Pebble and Cypress. But, again, many of the holes seemed unplayable due to the wind (I hit a driver to a 160 yard par three). This was in contrast to, for example, Lahinch or Portmarnock that (likely because of their more sheltered locations on the water) could be both beautiful and benign. I think this wind factor is what may prevent courses like Tralee and Old Head from breaking into the world's top 100, while Lahinch and Portmarnock find themselves comfortably within those ranks. When I go to Ireland I will happily play in 15-20 mph winds (as was the case at Lahinch), but 40 mph winds are simply not enjoyable.
Overall, I cannot wait to go back to Ireland. The people are amazingly friendly and it is full of history with plenty to do in addition to golf. Over the course of the trip, I lost five pounds from how much we walked and how little I ate (as the food left a bit to be desired). But, as my brother said, I would happily trade America's better food and worse golf for Ireland's better golf and worse food. We thought it would be too much to do Ireland and Northern Ireland in one trip, so I look forward to visiting the courses in Northern Ireland in the future. I think a fine itinerary would entail flying into Dublin, playing Portmarnock (again), the European Club (a bit south of Dublin and often on the cusp of the top 100 in the world), and then driving up to Northern Ireland to play Royal County Down (perennially within the top five in the world) and Portrush (Rory's home course that is in the top 20 in the world).
I suggest you get to Ireland as soon as you can. There are few places with such a high concentration of great courses (with others being Scotland, England, California, and (oddly), Wisconsin). Moreover, it is not much further away than flying from New York to California, and even the most expensive courses are cheaper than Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2, Whistling Straits, Kiawah, or Shadow Creek. In fact, by comparison, many have quite reasonably green fees. For example, even in peak season Lahinch and Ballybunion are less than $200.
As I go through the reviews of each course, I will also add some non-golfing highlights (e.g. where we stayed, ate, what cities we liked/did not like, and things we did other than golf). Below are some pictures of Ireland that are unrelated to golf, as I think Ireland itself plays a large role in how much you will love a golf trip to Ireland.
The route of our trip. We flew into Shannon and then went counterclockwise from Lahinch to Portmarnock (which is 20
minutes from Dublin airport-our departure point).
Cliffs of Moher- located twenty minutes from Lahinch.
Also near Lahinch you can take a ferry to Inis Mor, a small island where you can rent bikes and go around the entire island.
The primary sights include this lighthouse, a shipwreck, and hundreds of cows and sheep.
The ruins of the castle at Ballybunion, which is located on a cliff walk near the center of town.
Between Tralee and Waterville is Killarney National Park, a beautiful location with plenty of outdoor activities and castles to tour. Killarney
itself is a large city and was my father's favorite city on the trip. I would suggest spending a non-golfing day in this city.
Blarney Castle. There are some tourists attractions that I simply do not get. Why do people go to Times Square when visiting New York?
Then, there are others that justify the millions of visitors that flock there every year (e.g. the Colosseum). I thought Blarney Castle
was going to be in the former category. I was very wrong. The grounds were beautiful, climbing the castle was fun, and I learned a lot
along the way.
Touring the House of Waterford Crystal was another surprising highlight of the trip. After seeing how each piece of crystal is produced,
I now appreciate how much of an art it truly is (and why the pieces cost so much). The below golf trophies were all made by Waterford Crystal, and their replicas were on display.