Four days to play six of the finest links courses in the world. Chris Cairns travelled to south-west Ireland for this once-in-a-lifetime golf trip
There's something magical about playing links golf. The views over the ocean, the sea air, the sand dunes, the undulations. All facets of your game will be tested in all sorts of weather. It's why I love it so much.
The term links is derived from the old English word hlinc meaning rising ground or ridge and refers to a sandy area along the coast.
According to The Links Association, there are only 247 true links courses in the world, of which 211 are in the UK and Ireland. It's why the Americans flock over in their thousands every year to play these courses.
And undoubtedly, the south-west of Ireland has some of the best links courses in the world. So myself and two colleagues, Gareth and David (all playing off a 9 handicap), decided to embark on an ambitious golf road trip - to play six of the finest links courses Ireland has to offer in just four days. It was going to be intense, tiring, but in the end was it worth it?
Travelling day. We left Belfast at lunchtime and after almost six hours and a couple of food stops, we arrived at Kenmare Bay Hotel. We stayed in one of their luxury holiday homes to enjoy a good night's rest before the golfing began. The lodges are ultra-modern with all mod-cons including a fully-equipped kitchen and have access to facilities at the hotel including the sauna and swimming pool.
After enjoying an excellent breakfast in Kenmare Bay Hotel, we made the hour-long drive to our first stop, Waterville Golf Club ( watervillegolflinks.ie). Founded in 1889 originally as a nine-hole course, Irish businessman John Mulcahy returned to the area in the 1960s and hired Eddie Hackett to build an 18-hole classic links, which opened in 1973. More recently leading golf architect Tom Fazio has recently helped with a redevelopment of the course. The late Payne Stewart was one of Waterville's most famous members and a monument to his memory is situated beside the clubhouse.
As for the course itself, we found it to be hugely playable with forgiving fairways. The first is a straightaway par 4, but then the stunning scenery kicks-in with a long par 4 down to the estuary and then the third, a slight dogleg to the right around the water. The front 9 is fairly flat with everything in front of you. Undoubtedly the back nine takes your breath away more as you meander through the dunes. The 11th is a stunning par 5 and then the 12th is the famous par 3 'Mass Hole' - so-called because in the 18th century the celebration of mass was punishable by death in Ireland, forcing the local population to use the secluded valley in front of this green to hold their services.
The finishing stretch to Waterville is the most memorable with the last three holes all played beside the water. The 16th, a 366 yard par 4, is called Liam's Ace - it was here that local pro Liam Higgins had a hole-in-one on his way to a course record 65. The 17th is a beautiful downhill par 3 with stunning views and the 18th, a downhill par 5 to the clubhouse with an extremely intimidating tee-shot with trouble on both sides.
Once you're finished make sure to relax and enjoy a drink in Waterville's ultra-modern clubhouse which has panoramic views all over the golf course.
It was then back in the car and a two-hour drive to our next stop, Ballybunion on the Wild Atlantic Way. After an enjoyable meal in the Marine Court Hotel in the coastal resort, we drove back to rest our weary heads in The 19th Lodge ( ballybuniongolflodge.com), a traditional bed & breakfast opposite Ballybunion Golf Club ( ballybuniongolfclub.com). Run by Mary and James Beasley, a warm welcome is very much assured.
Up at 6am, as we were first out on the Ballybunion Old course at 7am. Normally breakfast does not start until 7am or so but James very kindly got up early and had a fry awaiting us at 6.15am. It's these kind gestures which make all the difference when you have a hectic schedule like we did. All week the weather was extremely kind to us and Ballybunion was no different, sunny with hardly a breath of wind. The day did not start well when I found my driver was snapped in two when taking out my golf bag with 15 minutes until our tee time, but the pro shop very kindly sorted me out with a new driver (as did the rest of the golf clubs we played that week).
We had all heard so many great things about Ballybunion and it's fair to say our expectations were high - thankfully it did not disappoint. The first hole (called Tombstones) will catch your attention, a short par 4 with trouble down the left and a cemetery on the right awaiting any wayward tee shots! The second hole is a stunning par 4 up the hill to an elevated green and then you play the next few holes beside the town. The sixth is a big dogleg left down towards the sea and it's then time to catch your breath and take a few pictures on the 7th tee, a wonderful par 4 running right beside the water.
There are no weak holes on the Old course. Like Waterville, we thought the back nine was even better than the front nine. Standout holes include the 15th par 3, 200 yards downhill with the ocean in the background, the par 5 16th where you try and cut off as much of the corner as possible and then my favourite hole, the 17th - a sweeping dogleg left around a huge dune. It's a magnificent layout and it's easy to see why it is so highly ranked in top 100 golf course lists.
Our day did not finish there though. After a lovely lunch on the clubhouse balcony overlooking the 18th green, we ventured out for another 18 holes on the Cashen course at Ballybunion, designed by Robert Trent Jones Senior in the 1980s. It's a quirky, challenging golf course, with more gorse bushes and tighter fairways. But a word of warning, it is very hilly with long walks between tee boxes. If we had our time over again, we would have got buggies - certainly tiredness kicked in as we played the back nine.
Thankfully after a long day walking 36 holes, it was only a 30 minute drive to Tralee where we stayed for the night at the Brandon Hotel. We had dinner in the excellent Croi restaurant ( croirestaurant.com) which is only around the corner from the hotel. They cater for everybody with an a la carte menu and a tapas menu - we had the latter. Bed for 10pm as we had another early start the next morning and another 36 holes.
In the car for 6.20am and it was off to Tralee Golf Club ( traleegolfclub.com), a 20-minute drive away. Once again we were first out but had to decided to go with buggies that morning (every other round we just used pull trolleys). Our fourball was completed by a merchant banker from Seattle called Leonard who had driven up from Killarney for a game.
The mist was still rising from the Slieve Mish Mountains as we hit our first tee shots at 7.10am. With the weather set fair again and waterproofs thankfully left in the car, it was a wonderful golfing experience with two very different nines. The striking second hole is a sharp dogleg snaking around the shoreline, followed by the scenic par 3 third, known as 'The Castle'. My favourite hole on the front nine was the 8th, a par 4 where the long hitters can aim right across the water, cutting the corner and leaving themselves only a wedge into a tiered green. The back nine is something else, played through mountainous dunes with daunting carries over ravines to plateau greens. The 12th is a brutally long par 4 which requires two excellent shots to find the green and the 13th is a short par 3, where the green is surrounded by dunes and a 70ft crevice awaits any tee shots that are short. Then it's back along the shore for holes 15 to 17 before a well-bunkered par 5 18th caps it all off in style.
Finishing just after 11.30am, we then drove 50 minutes to Tarbert to catch the ferry over the Shannon Estuary linking Co Kerry with Co Clare. It's only a 20-minute journey and the ferries depart every half hour or so. After disembarking on the other side in Killimer, it was only 25 minutes to our next destination, Trump Doonbeg ( trumpgolfireland.com).
We stayed in one of the Classic Links three-bedroom suite cottages which are ideal for golfers or families. Shuttle buses are on hand 24 hours a day to bring you to the hotel, the golf club or even into Doonbeg itself to enjoy a pint or two with the locals.
The course itself surprised us with its excellent design and condition (we played off the white tees which is just over 6,500 yards). The first hole reminded us of Portstewart's opener - a magnificent par five with dramatic dunes either side of the fairway and surrounding the green in the distance. The first hole sets the tone for many memorable holes on an enjoyable layout. Some of the par 5s are almost 600 yards, even off the white tees. Unforgettable holes include the driveable par 4 sixth with the tee box looking over the ocean with mountainous dunes all down the right hand side of the fairway and the reachable par 5 13th where the second shot is played to a raised green over a coffin bunker. And the five par 3s range from 115 yards to over 200 yards, all played downhill and all extremely enjoyable. The finishing hole is also a cracker, played alongside the beach with wonderful views of the coastline.
After relaxing with a pint of Guinness and discussing the day's golf, we had dinner in Trump's Bar and Restaurant - I'd highly recommend any of the burgers. The shuttle bus then brought us into Doonbeg for a quick nightcap - all the bars can then phone up the hotel to request the shuttle comes back for you at any time.
Alarm went at 6am for our last day of golf. With breakfast not starting at the hotel until 6.30, the kitchen very kindly sent down a selection of pastries, fruit and coffee for us to enjoy before we set off for Lahinch ( lahinchgolf.com), a 30-minute drive away.
Having hosted the Irish Open in 2019, this course has been on my bucket list ever since to play. New practice facilities across the road from the first tee will ensure you are warmed up and ready to go. Before we got going, starter Tony very kindly went through the course Strokesaver for us and advised us on sight lines, blind holes and where to avoid. His advice was invaluable.
Once again we were blessed with sunshine and no wind to speak of as we teed off just before 7.30am. Lahinch is unusual but fantastic fun to play. The third is a blind tee shot as the hole swoops down towards the sea. The fourth, a shortish par 5, is more unusual as your second shot is a blind approach over a monstrous dune known as Klondyke. And the fifth, a par 3 called Dell, is one of Lahinch's most famous holes as you cannot see any of the green as there's another huge dune hiding it away. It's a great sweat to hit your tee shot over the white stone and running up to find your ball on the green (or not as the case may be!).
The back nine is equally as enjoyable (with no more blind shots) - the par 5 12th has the estuary all down the left hand side and the castle ruins on the right, and the 16th is a wonderful par 3, playing down to a green surrounded by bunkers.
Lunch followed on the balcony of the golf club as we reminisced about the quality of all the golf courses we had played. It was then time to enjoy some of the wonderful old pubs Lahinch has to offer including Kenny's, Danny Macs and our favourite The Nineteenth Bar.
We stayed in the stylish Lahinch Coast Hotel ( lahinchcoasthotel.ie). It has just undergone a redesign and is ideally located right in the middle of town with plenty of parking on-site. It was the perfect base to wander around town and enjoy our final day in the south-west of Ireland.
It's impossible to rank the golf courses in order - all three of us had completely different lists. Suffice to say, go down and try them all yourself - you will not be disappointed. This is links golf at it's absolute best and you are guaranteed a warm and friendly welcome wherever you play.
Many thanks to general managers Michael Murphy of Waterville, John Eggleston of Ballybunion, Anthony Byrne of Tralee, Paddy Keane of Lahinch and Evan Butler, director of sales and marketing at Trump Doonbeg, who helped organise this once-in-a-lifetime trip.