Golf by the sea, links golf, is an especially moving experience for the traveling player, and Americans by the charter bus full have sought out the great links of Southwest Ireland for decades. But today the storied old courses at Ballybunion, Lahinch and Waterville are playing better than they have in years, and newer courses like the Old Head Golf Links and the newly renamed and reminted Trump Doonbeg have become bucket-list destinations of their own, making a trip to Ireland's southwestern corner a most rewarding trip.
The economic downturn of 2008 hit golf globally and Ireland was dealt a significant body blow. But nearly a decade later there is a bristling optimism in the seaside air of Ireland and it can be felt and seen on the links of Southwest Ireland. The Olde Sod is renewing itself.
Things are on the real up-and-up in Southwest Ireland, and a recent trip shows the pluck of the Irish is front and center at both the old courses and the new. And there is a new project in Waterville taking shape that promises to up the ante considerably. Here is a course-by-course look at the stunning golf in Southwest Ireland.
Ballybunion Old Course
The Old Course at Ballybunion is now the proud owner of a new set of greens—done to the original specs from more than a century ago—and a passionate superintendent who is intent on getting everything just right.
For Americans, Ballybunion Old was likely the first course to sound the siren call to Ireland. First established in 1883, the club reached out for an international membership 100 years later and it didn't hurt that five-time British Open champ Tom Watson sang its praises. Playing "BallyB" was a badge of honor to any traveling golfer.
Yet the Old Course was looking and playing its age when the club decided to undertake a much-needed refurbishment that began in 2014 under the direction of Scottish architect Graeme Webster and Penn State-educated superintendent John Bambury.
Key to it all was replacing all the greens in 2015, restoring the surfaces to links-like quality. Because of compaction, poor drainage and the invasion of non-links grasses, the greens had become dodgy and uneven. An exacting hi-tech mapping of every surface was utilized, the result of which is that every contour, every edge, every inch of every green is exactly how it was, but now there is proper drainage and the proper blend of fescue and bent grass that give the greens their proper feel. The Olde Sod was replaced by new sod that was grown by Bambury himself.
One green is new—or an approximation of the very old one. The par 4 seventh now sits closer to the Atlantic, making it both strategically and aesthetically more pleasing. And aesthetics as well as conditioning are at the heart of Bambury's passion for the place.
"Every gem needs to be repolished and reset once in a while, and the Old Course was overdue," says Bambury, who came to Ballybunion after overseeing Donald Trump's highly praised links course in Aberdeen, Scotland. "We wanted to get back to the feel of the traditional links, in both the way the game is played and the way the golfer envisions the course. There were facets of the grounds here that were just not visually pleasing and we feel that the links experience is about the entire environment and not just fairways and greens."
The rather unsightly background of the fifth green has been shielded by a new set of mounds sprigged with traditional marram grass, the long-bladed wavy turf you see on the dunes and mounding between holes in much of Ireland. There are several new areas of marram-clad mounding around the course that are more for the visual experience than for play. That begins at the new putting green, which now has a feel of privacy and is contoured to approximate the putts a golfer will face on the course.
"My work here is to make sure that the positioning of the golf holes and any new ‘man-made' areas utilizes this extraordinary piece of property with respect and that new construction blends imperceptibly with the existing land," architect Webster told journalist Ivan Morris. "Couple this with the Atlantic Ocean, seen and enjoyed throughout the majority of the routing at Ballybunion, and you really do have a golfer experience made in Heaven, but discovered on Earth."
In sharp contrast on the age scale to Ballybunion, the links at Doonbeg is virtually a brand new course, opened in 2002. Work over the last two years has made the course even newer, but keeping to tradition.
The original development of the links at Doonbeg and its magnificent seaside hotel was the work of American Buddy Darby of Kiawah Island, South Carolina, fame, with Greg Norman serving as architect. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump picked the resort up for a song—he says—in 2013 and went about "blowing up" the course with Martin Hawtree—who did his Scottish course—as architect.
"Whatever we said we needed, Mr. Trump gave us," says Doonbeg head pro Brian Shaw, who has been there from the beginning.
Calamity played a role in the reinvigorating of the course. A storm did severe damage to its coastline in 2014, reclaiming the greens at the postage stamp par 3 14th, the par 3 ninth and the par 4 fifth. It gave cause for Hawtree to reimagine things, and a completely new 14th hole, new greens at the third, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 12th and 17th and new surfaces on all 18 greens have given the course a greater playability and a more defined links aesthetic. New tee complexes seem to get lines of play correct, and the new back tees are a real challenge. From the middle tees Doonbeg is eminently playable by nearly every player, but from the back tees (which extend to more than 6,900 yards) you need to bring an adult game.
"I think because of Aberdeen, I had gained Mr. Trump's confidence," says Hawtree. "When we were doing Aberdeen he would ring me up every week to talk about things. Much less so at Doonbeg. He is an extremely good client, asks good questions, has ideas and is willing to do what needs to be done to make his golf courses the best they can be."
Hawtree looked at the existing course and saw a bit of a hodgepodge, though it was still great fun to play, and some changes rendered to it before Hawtree arrived—namely eliminating some blind but seemingly appropriate tee shots—did not seem necessary.
Hawtree was irritated by many of the course's quirky elements, including the crossover from holes five to six, which involved the 13th green. "You would say it helped that the ocean took back the 14th green and in doing so gave me the opportunity to sort that area out," he says. "Mr. Trump loves holes by the sea and it was important to keep the 14th green in that vicinity, but we came up with a much different hole that I feel still keeps the drama of its seaside setting."
Doonbeg's 10th through 12th holes, which played away from the sea, also lost their links-like characteristics in Hawtree's opinion, so he worked to blend them more into the links landscape. He also got rid of the bunker that was in the back middle of the 12th green, one of the "irritating" quirky elements, though it might have not been so irritating had it been readily visible from the fairway, which proved ultimately to be its fatal flaw.
"I think there was a philosophy of letting nature dictate things, and that's always a good approach, but I felt in some cases it went too far," says Hawtree. "I needed to soften some things up, some of the greens were a bit too severe and I think we were able to get them right."
Waterville Golf Links
The back tee of the par 3 17th at Waterville Golf Links is known as Mulcahy's Peak, in honor of John A. ("Jack") Mulcahy, the club's Irish-American founder. And from this highest point on the course there may not be a better view of links golf in Ireland.
Waterville is often referred to as the best course that will never host a British Open. The tiny town of fewer than 500 full-time residents sits at the end of Iveragh Peninsula on Ballinskelligs Bay. Though it's a little over an hour and change from Killarney, Waterville's serene remoteness wraps itself around your emotions. That's particularly true at Waterville Golf Links, whether coursing through the dunes or skirting the Inny estuary and the bay.
Golf was brought to Waterville by workers who manned the first Atlantic cable station in the 1880s. It was a simple nine-hole layout then, but when Mulcahy came to Waterville in search of links land, the golf landscape was forever changed. He enlisted the iconic Irish architect Eddie Hackett and his close friend, Winged Foot professional Claude Harmon, to design a strong test of golf and the course opened in 1973.
When the course was sold to a group of Irish Americans in 1987, the process of continually updating the links began and American architect Tom Fazio was brought in to make some significant changes—building two new holes and altering others, while the club also undertook erosion-control measures that assured its precious links would last for generations.
"We know we have a special place here, and we also knew that we could lose it if we didn't do something about the erosion issue," says managing partner Jay Connolly. "Work is always ongoing here. We have a long-term project to get rid of the broad leaf grasses that aren't common to links golf. If you want a really good links experience, you have to work at it, and boy have we worked at it."
The complete Waterville experience should come with a stay at Waterville House, the guesthouse on the bay that is owned by the club. It is such an abiding country home, with a stream outside the door known as the Butler's Pool, that is an excellent place to fly-fish for trout and salmon in season, not to mention smoking a cigar as you do it. Across the stream is a golf practice range, another fine place for a smoke, especially if you grab a glass of Irish whiskey from the Waterville House's public room.
Your Waterville experience should also include a conversation with club secretary Noel Cronin and its longtime professional Liam Higgins, the sort of characters that put an exclamation mark on golf at this exceptional links.
Old Head Golf Links
The late John O'Connor, an avid cigar smoker who founded the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale, strove constantly for perfection on the most spectacular golf site in the world. The Old Head, a big rock table nearly 300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, marvels all who play it. That drive to perfection continues under brother Patrick O'Conner, club manager Jim O'Brien and club pro Danny Brassil.
"Someone asked me if John was difficult to work for," says O'Brien with a sparkle in his eye. "I said ‘no, he was impossible.' "
Ever since the course opened in 1998 it has been a work in progress, with continual alterations to holes, to the marvelous landscaping and the addition of suites to the small but spectacularly sited clubhouse, changes driven by John O'Connor. And changes keep coming, also driven by O'Connor.
In 2014, the par 3 13th became the latest to be placed on a lip of the Old Head's acrophobia-inducing cliffs, moved across the club access road from its inland site. It's a gem of a short hole with green challenging to hit and to putt.
The green of the par 3 16th, which sits on the heavily exposed northern side of the course, was replaced again, and this time was made slightly wider and space created to its right, above the cliff line, for some bunkering that will save a few shots from watery graves.
The tinkering never stops. There are some new tees, and an especially appealing one on the par 5 12th where the views of the caverns at the base of the cliff line are a moving experience, especially at the time of year when thousands of birds are using them for their rookeries. There are the ruins of an ancient lighthouse and small outbuildings on the property that soon may be accessible, and the thought is to push the par 5 sixth right up to the base of them, again creating as much drama in a course filled with it.
"John was always looking to do something," says O'Brien of the club's late founder. "And I think we always will."
Lahinch Golf Club
Two names ring with crystal clarity at Lahinch Golf Club: Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie. Old Tom, the legendary St Andrews pro, was invited in 1894 to improve on a course laid out in 1892 by members on a dunes-laden stretch of County Clare next to the Atlantic coastal town of Lahinch. There were some further changes, then MacKenzie, whose reputation was already internationally renowned, arrived in 1927 to put his stamp on the land.
That stamp wouldn't be the last, and the club has continually searched to find just the right mix of playability and aesthetic.
In 1999, Martin Hawtree, who was already consulting with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club on changes to several British Open courses, was asked to reconsider Lahinch. He created two new par 3s, the eighth and the 11th, rerouted four others and sorted out some bunkering.
What he didn't do was change Lahinch's most distinctive holes, the par 5 fourth and the par 3 fifth, the two remaining Old Tom Morris holes. The fourth, known as the Klondyke, has a large mound which totally obscures the green about 140 yards beyond it. The fifth, which is called Dell, is one of the most famous par 3s in all of golf with a totally blind shot over a large dune ridge. The greenskeepers move a large stone atop the ridge each day to help players align their shot with the pin.
In the works right now is a new short game practice facility, something unusual at Olde Sod courses, across the street from the clubhouse. It's precious land, and ripe for residential development, but the club has chosen to devote it to the development of its players' games.
"We know we have to constantly look at the course and how we do things here," says Paddy Keane, Lahinch's general manager. "It's a competitive business and we have a very good name that we'll work hard to keep. People keep coming back, and we want people coming back."
Hogs Head Golf Club
Hogs Head Golf Club, a new course in Waterville on the land of the former Skellig Bay Golf Club, is taking shape under the direction of American architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Founded by Bryan Marsal and Tony Alvarez of the New York-based international financial consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal, Hogs Head will be a completely different course, a "blowup" as they say in the business. It sits on the headland abutting Ballinskelligs Bay, across from Waterville House, and 13 additional waterfront acres were purchased that allow for new holes near the water.
"It's one of the great sites we've ever worked on," says Jones. "It's a great open site with exposure to the elements with the wind as the invisible hazard."
Hogs Head will be a private club with some public access that will be open May through October. The club's concept, Marsal says, is based on the camaradie that he and Alvarez enjoy on trips to the Bohemian Grove, the artsy, philosophical and recreational retreat in Monte Rio, California.
"It's built by friends for friends," says Marsal.
Targeted for play later next summer, Hogs Head is being properly built with sand-capped fairways and extensive drainage. "It will be firm, fast and fun," says Jones.
The site development includes tearing down the old nearby Lake Hotel and replacing it with a more appropriate 48-room lodge and the creation of 15 cottages. There will also be a new clubhouse.
"We think it will make Waterville much more of an overnight destination instead of a day trip from Killarney," says Waterville Links' Jay Connolly. "They are doing the right things there."
For extended trips to the Southwest Ireland, there are several more interesting courses meriting a look. The Dooks Golf Club, not too far north of Waterville, is a lovely and somewhat quirky links that is worth the trip. Farther out of the way, but perhaps worth the effort, is the Dingle Golf Club on the Dingle Peninsula.
Just to the south of Ballybunion is the links of the Tralee Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design that goes back to the 1970s that has been updated. The par 4 12th hole is one of the real bears in all of links golf.
Americans headed for Southwest Ireland generally travel through Shannon Airport. Just down the road is Dromoland Castle, a lovely hotel that has a parkland course that's good for getting the kinks out after a long flight, or as a final destination before the trip home.
"The Southwest of Ireland is running in tandem with the resurgence of the Irish economy," says Brendan Keogh, CEO of the travel business SWING that specializes in the Southwest. "The demand for golf is very high and is reaching capacity at some courses. There is certainly an element of people traveling who had cancelled plans due to the economic turndown. It certainly confirms that this beautiful region of Ireland is back on track."
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.