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The view from atop the dunes looking back at the 15th green at The Island Golf Club.
The view from atop the dunes looking back at the 15th green at The Island Golf Club. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

Five underrated links golf courses to treasure in Ireland

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer

Chasing the bucket list links of Ireland and Northern Ireland certainly isn't cheap.

The savvy way to plan the perfect golf getaway to the Emerald Isle is to sprinkle in a few lesser-known links with the big names to help balance out the costs.

In many ways, these links are just as good as their more prestigious neighbors. They might not be as old or as exclusive or have hosted as many tournaments, but they're still loaded with dunes, blind shots, pot bunkers and all the other characteristics Americans love about links golf.

The Island Golf Club

Gary Murphy, an Irish European Tour pro from Drogheda, calls County Louth Golf Club a "historic place." The links has hosted the 2004 and 2009 Irish Opens on the European Tour.

The Island Golf Club, laid out upon the same stretch of dunes north of Dublin, has none of that pedigree. But higher dunes and more spectacular scenery along the Malahide Estuary help lift the stature of The Island almost on par with County Louth.

The Island has plans to rework a quirky layout, but for now, it plays 6,312 meters (roughly 6,902 yards). The round starts with eight straight par 4s and ends the front nine with a par 3. The back nine steals the show. The par-3 13th overlooks the picturesque 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.

It's tougher than County Louth but probably more rewarding, too.

Dooks Golf Club

Dooks Golf Club in County Kerry is the odd course out among the star-studded stretch of links in the southwest of Ireland.

When golfers pass through, they stop at Ballybunion Golf Club and Tralee Golf Club, then race south toward Waterville Golf Links.

Dooks, however, is worth the slight detour.

The place offers an understated charm, coupled with stunning views of Dingle Bay and the surrounding mountains. The club remains one of Ireland's oldest, dating to 1889. Martin Hawtree, architect of Trump International Golf Links in Scotland, completely revamped Dooks in 2006, bringing it up to modern standards.

Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links

Similar names and the fact that they're neighbors regularly causes confusion between visitors seeking out Portmarnock Golf Club and Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links.

There is no doubt which one is the legendary links.

Portmarnock Golf Club ranks consistently among the top 100 courses in the world. It has hosted 13 Irish Opens in the modern era of the European Tour and dates to 1894.

The history of Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, which opened as a resort-style links just down the street in 1995, can't compete.

Choosing the new Portmarnock is wise for many visitors, however. It's easier than the dreaded Portmarnock, nearly half the price and arguably more fun to play.

Although Bernhard Langer dug out 99 penal bunkers, the layout of 6,444 meters (roughly 7,050 yards) still plays a couple shots easier than most links. The routing really comes alive at No. 8 by turning into the dunes for a rousing run.

Portsalon Golf Club

Those who do brave the back roads of rural County Donegal often stop for 36 holes at Ballyliffin Golf Club and 36 more at the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort.

Don't, however, ignore Portsalon Golf Club and its seaside views of the Lough Swilly, the Knockalla Mountains and the Ballymastocker Bay beach.

The Harry Blaney Bridge, connecting the Fanad Peninsula with the Rosguill Peninsula, opened in 2009, cutting the drive time between Rosapenna and Portsalon in half.

The club has a storied history dating to 1891 as an original founding member of the Golfing Union of Ireland, the oldest golf union in the world.

Pat Ruddy's redesign of 13 holes stretched the course to 6,200 meters, or roughly 6,850 yards. Ruddy's genius created the 430-yard second hole, a par 4 considered among the best in Ireland. From an elevated tee, it takes a heroic drive over a river (and an out-of-bounds wall) to a fairway pinched by mounding on the right. The approach shot is even more dramatic over the same river to an inverted saucer of a green next to a massive rock formation.

Portstewart Golf Club

The Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland remains the only Emerald Isle course to have hosted a British Open, way back in 1951. It's so revered that Portrush fans are clamoring for a return to the Open rota. The 2012 Irish Open showed just how well the tournament would be received, attracting record-breaking crowds and some stellar golf from the European Tour players.

The Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club, just down the road in County Londonderry, isn't too shabby, either.

The first tee, an elevated perch overlooking the beach and some spectacular dunes, probably delivers a crescendo right away. Seven new holes built in 1992 (Nos. 2-8) really elevated its status. These dunes define the best of links golf in Ireland.

Pictures from the front nine here could easily be mistaken for Ballybunion or Royal County Down. That's how good hidden links like Portstewart really are.

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
  • Portsalon Golf Club

    Porter Pierce wrote on: Apr 14, 2013

    My wife and I played Ballyliffin and Rosapenna last September, and following the book, "A Course called Ireland", played Portsalon. It was a wonderful course. We were cautioned about "the" tree; living and playing in the NorthWest, we were very familiar about trees.


  • hidden gems

    donald holmes wrote on: Mar 13, 2013

    While in Donegal,a trip to Narin And Portnoo is essential for all links addicts...must be the only course with a run of three par 5s in seriously mountainous dunes,with views to die for!


  • Links courses

    Sandra Nyhan wrote on: Mar 13, 2013

    Absolutely agree about Dooks. Fab course. When reviewing Dooks however you were very near one of the best 9 hole links in the country Castlegregory golf links-'the course that never closes'. Worth a visit the next time!!


  • Dooks GC

    DJ McQueen wrote on: Mar 12, 2013

    Absolutely agree with this review of the Dooks course. Terrific golf, great people, super scenery, and an outstanding clubhouse/bar.


  • Dooks

    jim conway wrote on: Mar 12, 2013

    I had the pleasure of playing Dooks last year. It is a hidden gem on the Southwest ! The golf is really strong and scenery stunning. A bonus was the members who also serve as caddies - a great group of guys ! Make the time - it's well worth it. Also mentioned in the book, "A Course Called Ireland" which is a great read for first timers.