March 12, 2020 By: Kevin Markham — From the mountains of Kerry to the islands off Donegal, Kevin Markham lists the 20 most scenic golf courses in Ireland … of which there are many.
1. Dooks, Co Kerry — Dooks, for me, boasts Ireland’s most beautiful setting for a golf course. Any of the top five could claim the ‘most scenic’ title, but it is Dooks’ endless 360-degree panorama that makes it so special.
MacGillycuddy’s Reeks form the backbone of the Ring of Kerry and tower over this links course from the south before stretching out in a shimmer of mountains towards Caherciveen. All those shapes and shades of green rippling along the skyline as your eye is drawn out to Dingle Bay and the sand dunes of Rossbeigh.
More dunes at Inch Point provide a slice of gold jutting out from the Dingle Peninsula to the north, while the Slieve Mish Mountains disappear into the distance in a colourful blaze beyond Castlemaine Harbour.
The 1st hole hides the depth of the views as you point west with the Reeks along your left. The 2nd green is where the enormity of Dooks’ beauty is on full display. I found it breathtaking on my first visit — I still do — and you can literally spin around and see Kerry’s beauty in every direction.
2. Waterville, Co Kerry — The beauty of Waterville is everywhere. The course itself is beautiful to look at, but so too is the setting at the farthest point of the Ring of Kerry. The River Inny arrives early, on the 2nd and 3rd holes, and then turns into an estuary as it loops behind the famous 16th and merges into Ballinskelligs Bay.
That, of course, is only part of the grandeur, as the landscape is ringed by hills and mountains that rise and fall in a rich tapestry of colour. Views inland reach to the distant MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, while out to sea, Horse Island lies just off the village of Ballinskelligs. Beyond that lies Bolus Head, which hides the Skelligs, now a global attraction thanks to Star Wars.
The final three holes run above the sea and beach, heading back to the clubhouse and taking in Hog’s Head and a string of mountains rising from Cahernageeha to Knocknagantee. It is simply one of the best finishes in Irish golf.
3. County Sligo — There has always been a certain mysticism to County Sligo Golf Club, out on Rosses Point. The way the imposing flat-topped Benbulben lurks over the hill as you play the 1st, before coming into full view as you reach the 2nd green.
This is the highest point on the course and the views from here are magical. You look out to sea, into the heart of Sligo Bay, and out there is a lighthouse. It becomes the focal point as you approach the 12th green. That air of mysticism is only further enhanced when you discover the Metalman — an 1821 navigational beacon in the form of a naval officer statue in cast iron, standing on a stone platform — is out in the bay, too.
But let’s go back to the top of the course where the 3rd — named ‘Metalman’ — has views spinning in every direction. Your tee shot drives at Sligo Bay and the hills that drift along the coastline stretching into Co Mayo. Knocknaree is there too, with Queen Maebh’s tomb on top.
Holes 9 to 11 offer the most uninterrupted views of Belbulben — you drive straight at the imposing mountain on 9 and 10 — and the Dartry Mountains, while holes 13 to 17 run alongside the beach wrapping around the shoreline to Coney Island. So much is on show, so much of the time.
4. Tralee, Co Kerry — A links where the thrills of playing the back nine will distract you from the scenery all around — and that’s saying something! Arnold Palmer’s quip about God creating the back nine might be a sweet cliché, but Mother Nature created the landscapes, Barrow Harbour, the perfect swathes of golden sand on Barrow Strand, and the distant horizons that seem to send your ball higher and longer with every shot.
Scenes for the 1970s David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter were filmed on Barrow Strand which runs below the 2nd, 15th, 16th, and 17th holes. Once upon a time golfers could drive off the par-five 2nd down onto the beach in an attempt to cut out the dogleg. Sadly, no more. On the front nine, Fenit Island Castle looms large across the crystal blue waters of Barrow Harbour when you reach the 3rd tee. Views beyond that stretch to the Dingle Peninsula.
5. Narin & Portnoo, Co Donegal — Narin & Portnoo may be undergoing an in-depth upgrade at the hands of Gil Hanse, but this architectural links masterpiece has always fused seamlessly with the natural masterpiece that is Donegal’s beauty.
It spills all around you and at the farthest point, it is breathtaking. No other course in Ireland takes you so close to the sea’s edge; after the short par-four 7th delivers the best views as you hit down towards the sea, the 8th tee puts you right on the water’s edge.
It is literally lapping at your feet and it runs alongside you as you rise over the crest and gaze towards Crochy Head on the other side of Gweebarra Bay. Golden sandy beaches sprinkle the shores, while the one closer to home, beneath the closing holes, promises an enchanting walk at any time of year. The tide wraps around Inishkeel island, just offshore, where church ruins from the 6th century still stand.
And all the while, the Derryveagh and Blue Stack Mountains fill the horizon to the east.
6. Connemara, Co Galway — The drive to reach the links course at Connemara is a highlight in itself as you weave your way across this unique landscape. Even the drive up to the club passes a Connemara pony or two which puts you firmly in this West of Ireland setting. The course is captivating with a clubhouse promising stunning views on the ocean’s edge.
Walk around it and count the number of flags you can spot, flapping in the inevitable breeze. The rugged, grey stone of Connemara ripples around the course’s inland boundaries. Out to sea, islands are scattered, including the second Horse Island mentioned on this list (there are five around Ireland).
To the east, the Twelve Bens make a stunning silhouette at sunrise and your opening shot drives straight at them. The third nine, rarely played by visitors, promises even better ocean views and drama at the start.
7. Killarney, Co Kerry — It is disappointing, but not exactly a surprise that there is only one inland course in this list. The seascapes have so much going for them and the Atlantic does embrace so much of our coastline. Killarney, however, bucks the trend thanks to the ever-present Lough Leane and the mighty MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, which dominate the skyline and tower over Killarney’s two lakeside courses.
The Killarney National Park, which butts up to the course, doesn’t hurt either, and there is no course on the island that can boast so many insouciant deer. The Reeks are ever-present, ever-colourful, and several holes play right on the water’s edge — none so dramatically as the 1st on the Killeen course, and the par-three 18th on O’Mahony’s Point.
8. Cruit Island, Co Donegal — The only 9-hole course in this list, and although Castlegregory, Connemara Isles, and Mulranny are picture-perfect, Cruit Island in Co Donegal tops the 9-hole chart. It has a charming drive to reach it, and there are islands scattered around the bay like confetti. The course follows a curve of land that shows off the surroundings from multiple points and there are almost too many islands to count.
American writer Tom Coyne waxed lyrical about the 3rd hole and the beauty that greets you as you breach the fairway crest. Today, Americans are known to pause to take photographs of these views … and they are impressive. Islands spill across the horizon towards Errigal Mountain’s iconic peak, east of the village of Gweedore. It is Donegal’s highest point in the Derryveagh Mountains.
9. Portsalon, Co Donegal — Ballymastocker Strand is one of Ireland’s most beautiful Blue Flag beaches. It runs alongside the course for several holes and, on the famous par-four 2nd, you must drive over it, as well as a river, to find fairway. Lough Swillyfills so much of your view, with the Inishowen Peninsula on the other side. Also there is the Dunree Lighthouse, signalling the start of the Urris Hills which ripple across the peninsula.
To the south, and forever in your eyeline because of the course’s layout, Knockalla Mountain rises up and pushes its way out into the lough. The history of the lough, the lighthouses, and the HMS Saldanha, which sank in 1811, all give the views added significance.
10. Old Head, Co Cork — With nine holes perched on the edge of 300-metre cliffs and several thousand golf balls committed to the ocean’s watery grave, it is no surprise to have Old Head of Kinsale on this list.
The lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip — built in 1853 — anchors everything, and while there are no mountains or islands in sight, the coastline disappears into the distance, to the east and to the west, leaving the blue ocean to fill your vision … and caddies to fill your head with history (the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat, 11 miles off the Cork coast in 1915).
Keeping your ball above ground is no easy task on the par-threes perched above the ocean and the famous par-five 12th which drives over a chasm of roaring ocean and squealing birds.