6 of the best golf courses in Ireland

Aug 9, 2020

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Thanks to Ireland’s dramatic coastline, majestic mountains and mythical history, it makes for a pretty spectacular location for golf. There are some incredible cliff-top locations, and Ireland is home to 25% of all the natural link courses in the world. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the sport’s greatest players also come from the Emerald Isle, including Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley.

Golf originated in Fife, Scotland in the 15th century and it soon spread to Ireland. One of the oldest courses in the country, the Royal Curragh Golf Club in Kildare opened in 1858 and is still open to this day — so this small nation has a very rich history in the sport.

Golf is also a great activity for observing social distancing rules, while still being able to take part in a sport with others. Obviously, it’s also an outdoor pursuit, so even better for keeping fit while not being in a sweaty, enclosed space like a gym.

So if you fancy teeing off somewhere breathtaking, or even if you’re not a golf fan, these spots are perfect for a remote break when the time is right, some top-class restaurants and, of course, lots of bracing fresh air.

1. Royal Portrush Golf Club, Antrim

Sun Breaks through Clouds at Royal Portrush Golf Club. (Photo by Atlantic-Lens-Photography/Getty Images)
(Photo by Atlantic-Lens-Photography/Getty Images)

This world-class club is set in rolling sand dunes with fabulous coastal views in Portrush, Antrim, in Northern Ireland and goes back as far as 1888. It also hosted the 148th Open Championship in 2019 with Irish pro Shane Lowry taking home the cup.

According to Golf World Top 100, the course “provides brilliant hole after hole tests to challenge every part of your game and the rough punishes any offline shot, and providing you can hit the fairways, the incredible greens require a wide array of approach shots.” The 36-hole club has two links courses, the Dunluce Links (the championship course) and the Valley Links.

Royal Portrush is a private members club but visitors are welcome as long as they are members of a recognized golf club.

Where to stay: The Golflinks hotel is less than a mile from the club and very close to the beach. It’s airy and modern and has everything you need. Prices start from about $150 a night. The nearest airport is Belfast International Airport.

2. Old Head Golf Links, Cork

Golfer putting on a green with the sea and the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse in the background.
(Photo by Dave G Kelly/Getty Images)

Situated on the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork, jutting two miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, you won’t find more staggering scenery than this. Its website claims “it is a piece of golf real estate like no other.” It is said to be an incredibly challenging course due to the unpredictable weather and exposed greens. The views make up for this on the 18-hole course.

The Old Head is a members club with pretty steep fees, but visitors are allowed to play as part of certain package deals. Once in, there’s a lovely spa and restaurant, and if you’re feeling extra fancy, there are 15 sumptuous suites.

Where to stay: If you are not staying on-site, the town of Kinsale is about a 20-minute drive away. We recommend the Blue Haven hotel, a stylish and bustling place in the town center with plenty of live entertainment. Rooms start at about $218 a night. The nearest airport is Cork Airport.

Read more: The ultimate guide to visiting Cork, Ireland

3. Royal County Down Golf Club, Down

(Photo by David Cannon / Contributor/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Cannon/Contributor/Getty Images)

One of the oldest clubs in Ireland and the stomping ground (or teeing off ground) of current world number one Rory McIlroy, Royal County Down is an 18-hole course that is said to be one of the most beautiful natural links in the world. It’s located within the Murlough Nature Reserve in Northern Ireland and boasts a different vista from every hole. Experts say the course is “a true test of golf with narrow fairways and ‘bearded bunkers’ that demand excellent control of the golf ball.”

Like most spots, this a members club but visitors are welcome on certain days of the week. After your game, sit back and enjoy lovely views of the Mourne Mountains from the clubhouse.

Where to stay: The Burrendale Hotel, Country Club & Spa is nestled into the foot of the mountains and is a great place close to the club, with 68 well-appointed rooms. Prices start from about $154 a night. The nearest airport is Belfast International Airport.

4. Ballybunion Golf Club, Kerry

Ballybunion Golf Course is located in Kerry, southwest Ireland, and though it has been considered slightly too remote to host top championship events, some of the sport’s most elite players practice there. Former President Bill Clinton has even had a round there. The course is said to have the “most formidable sand dunes in Ireland” and playing there is “truly thrilling” with two challenging and unique links — the Old Course and the Trent Jones Cashen Course. There are 36 holes in total and the website boasts that “every hazard and every shot is defined by nature’s infinite presence.” Visitors are welcome, check the site for green fees and times.

Where to stay: Try the Wilde Ballybunion, one of the finest small hotels on the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s close to both the beach and the golf club, and there is also a lovely restaurant. Rooms start at about $129 a night. The nearest airport is Kerry Airport.

5. Portmarnock Golf Club, Dublin

Portmarnock Golf Club is conveniently located only 10 miles from Dublin city center and a 15-minute drive from the airport, so it’s perfect for those who want don’t want to do much driving. It has been described as having “relatively calm yet undulating fairways” and has hosted many major professional and amateur events including multiple Irish Open Championships, the Walker Cup, the Irish Amateur Close Championship and the British Amateur Championship. Portmarnock has a total of 27 holes. Former top professional Tom Watson (winner of the Open Champion on five occasions) said: “There are no tricks or nasty surprises, only an honest, albeit searching test of shot-making skills.” Visitors are welcome at certain times.

Where to stay: The Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links was once the family home of the Jameson dynasty and is just up the road from the Portmarnock Golf Course. There’s a spa and a selection of eateries as well as stellar views of the sea. Rooms start at about $140 a night. The nearest airport is Dublin Airport.

6. Mount Juliet Estate & Golf Club, Kilkenny

(Photo courtesy of www.thrumyeyesbyjamie.com/Getty Images)
(Photo courtesy of www.thrumyeyesbyjamie.com/Getty Images)

The course at Mount Juliet in Thomastown, Kilkenny, is set in lush, rolling parkland and part of a 1,500-acre old Irish estate with an 18th-century mansion as a clubhouse. Experts say there is a “distinctly American” feel to the course with lots of teeing areas, bunkers and water hazards and “immaculate fairways.” The course can challenge even the most advanced golfers but is also good fun for those with a lower handicap. It’s an 18-hole course. Mount Juliet was supposed to host the 2020 Irish Open but has been rescheduled for next year. Visitors are welcome at the course.

Where to stay: The estate also has accommodation including self-catering lodges. It’s very romantic and truly like stepping back in time. It’s also a Category 5 Marriott Autograph Collection property, with award stays ranging between 30,000 and 40,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. Prices start at $230 a night. The nearest airports are Dublin or Cork.

Bottom line

The best time to play golf in Ireland is from April to September to get the mildest weather and the longest days. Please check each golf club for post-coronavirus opening times.

As restrictions begin to ease and there are more leisure options available, golf remains a social sport that incorporates space, the outdoors and can be done solo or with a small group — perfect for social distancing, when the time is right to travel. Plus, visiting Ireland should be on everyone’s to-do list. So combine these, and you’ve got a hole in one.

Featured photo by Adam Toth/500px/Getty Images

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