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Dublin: An Irish golf destination brimming with charming links courses

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links - hole 18
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The 18th green of Portmarnock Golf Links sits in the shadow of some dunes and the old Jameson house that's now a hotel. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Anybody who claims that links courses around Dublin lack awe-inspiring dunes hasn't stood on the magnificent mountainous hills surrounding the No. 15 green at The Island Golf Club.

Nor have they climbed high above the seventh tee at the Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club to soak up the full panoramic view of the Irish Sea.

It's true that Dublin's most famous links, Portmarnock Golf Club and Royal Dublin Golf Club, don't offer the volcanic dunes of Ballybunion, Lahinch and Doonbeg in southwest Ireland. But that's no reason to ignore Dublin as a links golf paradise.

Dublin links, except Portmarnock and Royal Dublin, tend to cost much less than those in the southwest. They are also less populated by Americans, which means you are more likely to enjoy a game with a local. There's plenty of history as four of the links were established in the late 1800s. And the allure of Dublin, especially at night, remains a powerful draw.

Dublin's links line up like dominoes along the coast north of the city center. The hotel at Portmarnock Golf Links and clubhouse at Portmarnock Golf Club are visible from either course. Both Portmarnock courses (sometimes called the Old and the New to avoid confusion) and Royal Dublin sit mere minutes from the airport. They're primed to play the day of arrival or departure.

Farther north past The Island Golf Club, golfers at Laytown & Bettystown can see County Louth Golf Club across the River Boyne. The 14th tee at County Louth, called Baltray by locals, and the 16th tee at neighboring Seapoint Golf Links essentially share the same dune.

"We are spoiled for choices," said Gary Murphy, a professional golfer from Drogheda who has played on the European Tour and Challenge Tour since 2000. "Portmarnock is a timeless classic. The Island is a hidden gem. It's a true links. Portmarnock Links is a wonderful new course.

"The product on the East Coast is just as good, if not better (than the West), especially with access. There are tons of good (links) courses within 14 miles."

Royal Dublin Golf Club

Royal Dublin Golf Club, the host of three Irish Opens in the mid-1980s won by Seve Ballesteros (twice) and Bernhard Langer, might be one of the flattest links in the world, a disappointment for some guests hoping for a more dramatic setting. It's still a championship tournament course worth tackling. Established in 1885, Royal Dublin is accessible only by a narrow, one-lane wooden bridge built back in 1819 out to Bull Island in Dublin Bay. A sea wall, constructed in the early 1800s, helped formed the Bull Island Natural Reserve as sandy soil and dunes slowly built up over time. The handiwork of Mother Nature turned out to be ideal for a 7,200-yard links. Harry S. Colt restored the course after it fell into disrepair following World War I. A second redesign by Martin Hawtree, completed in 2006, added more than 450 yards in length, including 70 yards on the par-5 14th alone. The Englishman raised all 18 greens and built a new three-hole stretch at the 594-yard par-5 sixth, the 214-yard par-3 seventh and the 410-yard par-4 eighth.

Portmarnock Golf Club

The 27-hole Portmarnock Golf Club is the most revered Dublin links. Golf Digest ranks it 30th in the world. Portmarnock dates to 1894 and has hosted 13 Irish Opens in the modern era of the European Tour, crowning champions from Ben Crenshaw in 1976 to Jose Maria Olazabal in 1990 and Michael Campbell in 2003. The 7,466-yard championship course won't wow visitors with its views or terrain. It just pummels them with strong holes. The extra nine, added in the 1950s, is just as strong, even offering two surprises the other 18 holes can't: a scenic walk along the shore and an outstanding drivable par 4.

Portmarnock Golf Links

Portmarnock Golf Links next door is the much younger sibling, opening in 1995. The land used to be part of the Jameson family's private golf course, developed in 1858 as one of Ireland's earliest courses. Even though this Jameson playground disappeared many years ago, architect Bernhard Langer incorporated some of its elements into his new course of 6,444 meters (roughly 7,050 yards). The 99 bunkers can be penal. Even so, the layout plays a couple shots easier than most links. The course comes alive at No. 8, which turns into the dunes to set up a rousing run. Playing here is one of the best values of links golf.

The Island Golf Club

Despite an unbalanced layout, The Island Golf Club, established in 1890, is as good a "pure" links as you'll find. Wind tends to rip the exposed site, which is blessed with the biggest dunes around Dublin. The Island has plans to rework its quirky layout, but for now, it plays 6,312 meters (roughly 6,902 yards). The round starts out with eight straight par 4s and ends the front nine with a par 3. The overabundance of par 4s is hardly a slog, however. The short two-shotters at Nos. 5, 6 and 8 are never gimmees with trouble at every turn. The par-3 13th overlooks the picturesque setting of the Malahide Estuary. The fairway of the par-4 14th hole, where the old clubhouse once stood, is a mere 12 yards wide with out of bounds on the right. The round climaxes at the par-5 15th, where the green hides in an amphitheater of dunes. "In summer, it's gorgeous," member Philip O'Hara said.

Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club

The scorecard of Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club does this 5,875-meter, par-71 course established in 1909 no justice. It plays much tougher than the roughly 6,400 yards implies. If you can forgive the pedestrian holes along the road (No. 1 and Nos. 11-14) and the in-course out-of-bounds on three others (Nos. 3, 4 and 18), there's a wonderful links experience worth discovering. The par-3 sixth features an inverted saucer of a green along the shore. The seventh tee is cut out from a dune shelf, requiring a blast over a large tree to the fairway. Quirky, but fun, the par-5 18th requires a blind approach shot over several dunes.

County Louth Golf Club

Across the Boyne River, County Louth Golf Club was established in 1892. It wasn't until 1938 that architect Tom Simpson perfected this beauty considered one of the top 10 golf courses in Ireland. County Louth Golf Club has an uncanny ability to forgive the sins of high handicappers, yet punish the pros. In 1993, architect Donald Steel upgraded the design to 7,031 yards, sturdy enough to host the 2004 and 2009 Irish Opens. Murphy calls County Louth "the East Coast Ballybunion." Its par-3 holes defy modern rules of golf. They lack yardage but still pack plenty of bite. "This is seen through Irish eyes as a historic place," Murphy said.

Seapoint Golf Links

Seapoint Golf Links sprawls out across 260 acres in Termonfeckin, the design of Des Smyth, an assistant captain for the victorious European Ryder Cup team in 2006, and Declan Brannigan. The 7,150-yard course, opened in 1993, is a hybrid parkland-links with a knockout three-hole finishing stretch, where the beach and sea views steal the show. Gorse and five water holes highlight the front nine. "The course is almost half-and-half" links and parkland, Smyth said. "At first there are woods and lakes. It's a bit marshy. The center of the property once grew cabbage and potatoes."

In the city

Dublin, a historic city on the River Liffey, provides golfers a pulsing nightlife. It's best to ride The D.A.R.T. (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) into downtown to avoid the hassles of traffic and parking. An exciting vibe flows from the taps of The Temple Bar, a nightspot where bars and restaurants line narrow, cobblestone, medieval streets.

The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin continues to be popular for the free pint in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour. The bar, at the "head" of the pint-shaped building, provides panoramic views of the city.

Where to stay in Dublin

The four-star Grand Hotel Malahide is a great home base, overlooking The Island Golf Club across the Malahide Estuary. Three decades ago, The Island course was only accessible by rowboat. Today, it's a 20-minute ride up the coast road from The Grand. Portmarnock and Portmarnock Links are simple drives south along the coast road. Malahide Village casts an irresistible Irish spell. Duffy's Pub delivers good food. For some craic, crash the Gibney's Pub, a popular watering hole dating to 1937.

The hotel next to Portmarnock Links is another historic place. It is part of the former Jameson Whiskey family estate. The original house, St. Marnocks, dates to 1847. The hotel has 138 rooms -- all with free Wi-Fi, an advantage over The Grand. The rooms are divided between the old Jameson house and the newer wing. Guzzle some whiskey in the Jameson Bar inside to celebrate the lovable links of Dublin.

More photos

Portmarnock Golf Club - hole 15The Island Golf Club - hole 15County Louth Golf Club - hole 15Laytown & Bettystown Golf Club - hole 6

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • European Club

    Steve wrote on: Nov 14, 2011

    Simply one of the best in Dublin... and all of Ireland.


  • Dublin

    scott wrote on: Oct 4, 2011

    For goodness sake dont forget about Druids Glen. Love that place. The others are great too but Druids is a Parkland course where you can get a little different look.


      • RE: Dublin

        JasonDeegan wrote on: Oct 5, 2011

        Scott, this story is just about Dublin links courses. I'm writing a review of Druid's Glen soon.