|The Dell Hole on the Old Course at Lahinch is tucked deep in a bowl surrounded by dunes. (Jason Scott Deegan/WorldGolf.com)|
LAHINCH, County Clare, Ireland - For decades, PGA Tour pros have descended upon Ireland to play its fascinating links golf courses as a warm-up to the Open Championship, even though the Emerald Isle hasn't hosted the event since 1951.
Payne Stewart became such a regular at Waterville House & Golf Links in southwest Ireland, the club erected a statue in his honor.
Maybe Lahinch Golf Club should do the same with Stewart Cink.
Cink came away from a round on the Old Course at Lahinch smitten with the club, playing it just a week before winning the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry in Scotland. "The first 10 holes at Lahinch are some of the coolest links holes I've ever played," Cink said.
His comments only solidify Lahinch's status among the top links golf courses, not only in Ireland, but in the world.
The 6,950-yard Old Course has roots dating back to Old Tom Morris in 1894 and Dr. Alister MacKenzie in 1927, but a redesign by Martin Hawtree completed in 2003 brought the club up to modern standards. Since the improvements, Lahinch has climbed to No. 23 in the latest Golf Digest ratings of golf courses outside the United States.
Member Michael Lightfoot, who splits his time between California and Ireland, called the Old Course "a treasure," adding, "It's really dramatic. You just don't get tired of playing it."
Hawtree, who has redesigned several other traditional links, like Royal Birkdale in Scotland and Royal Dublin, cleverly rebuilt Lahinch without sacrificing its quirky charms. He rerouted four holes and added two new par 3s, the 166-yard eighth and the 170-yard 11th, both set deep in the dunes. Sixteen teeing grounds were rebuilt. Leaving just four greens untouched, he restored the others to their original character conceived by MacKenzie.
Hawtree wisely left the magical "Klondyke" and "Dell" holes alone. Once the fifth hole, now the fourth, the 475-yard par 5 Klondyke hole requires a blind second shot over a hairy dune called Klondyke Hill. A flag man nicknamed by members "George the Fourth," stands atop the dune, signaling groups when it's safe to hit, so golfers coming up the 18th fairway aren't in harm's way. Only on a links like Lahinch could something so awkward be so beloved.
Old Tom Morris conceived the Dell hole, the 154-yard fifth, featuring a sunken green in a bowl surrounded by dunes. A white aiming rock placed atop the front dune provides the only clue that there's a green out there somewhere. Both the sixth and seventh are strong dogleg par 4s to the left, climaxing with undulating greens on the beach.
The ruins of Castle Dough are the target line for the tee shot of the par-5 12th, a crescent-shaped hole that bends along a river estuary. The drivable 279-yard 13th, featuring tons of trouble, can make or break a round.
The finish isn't as strong as the start, but the final holes in no way detract from a fabulous course. Most important, Lahinch isn't a stuffy club that despises outsiders. The club staff and members like to show off their lovable links by making everyone feel welcome.
"There is a real sense of a golf club that is not pretentious," Lightfoot affirmed. "They make you feel comfortable."
Lahinch always plays second fiddle to Ballybunion and Royal County Down in the rankings, but I would put it on a par, if not above, either course. The Old Course at Ballybunion starts out with several weak holes and RCD can be too punishing for many players. Lahinch is the perfect blend of drama, playability and scenery. Lahinch's front nine, along with the front nine at Royal County Down and the back nine at Tralee, rates among the best in Ireland.
If you're itching for 18 more holes, the par-70, 5,556-yard Castle Course at Lahinch, expanded to 18 holes in 1975, plays around the ruins of Castle Dough across the street from the Old Course. About a half-hour south, Greg Norman's Doonbeg delivers another soul-stirring links experience. The opening hole introduces towering dunes that dominate the landscape. The tiny par-3 14th green, cut onto a narrow ledge of a dune, might be the world's most treacherous short hole. Stone fences, a creek and deep pot bunkers litter the layout, causing havoc for players. A handful of blind shots make hiring a caddie worthwhile.
If you're looking for convenience, the Vaughan Lodge Hotel overlooks Lahinch. Honored as the 2008 Irish Golf Tour Operators small hotel of the year, the intimate four-star retreat, built in 2005, features free wifi in all 22 rooms. The comfy bar is a great place to unwind with a pint of Guinness.
For 5-star luxury, there are two options within a half-hour's drive. The Doonbeg Lodge straddles the line between over-the-top elegance and humble Irish traditions. The crackling fire that greets visitors in the lobby burns peat logs, provided by local farmers for generations. The accommodations range from mammoth suites with private upstairs bedrooms to separate links cottages just a short walk from the main lodge.
Staying at the Dromoland Castle, just minutes from the Shannon Airport, is nothing short of a thrill of extravagance. The castle, dating back a thousand years (before it was revamped into a hotel in 1962), was named one of the top 25 golf hotels outside of the United States by Golf Digest. The rooms are spacious, modern and inviting, not drafty and dreary like ancient castles tend to be. Find time to wander down long-hidden hallways to peruse paintings of the O'Brien family and the castle décor. A sparkling spa and a parkland course rated among the top 25 in Ireland complete an A-list of amenities.
A superb seafood restaurant draws non-guests to The Vaughan Lodge. Within walking distance of the lodge, the village of Lahinch offers several charming pubs, like Kenny's Bar, for a quick pint and bite to eat. At Doonbeg, there's no better fine dining than the Long Room's international menu. Lastly, dinner guests at the Earl of Thomond restaurant inside Dromoland Castle might be serenaded by a harpist while enjoying their meal.
Lahinch's location is ideal to take in one of Ireland's most magnificent natural wonders, the Cliffs of Moher. Just 10 minutes from the course, this geographic marvel stretches more than five miles along the coast of Ireland, dropping more than a tenth of a mile to the Atlantic Ocean below. It's one of many Kodak moments you'll discover on the Emerald Isle.
November 18, 2009
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.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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