President Bill Clinton dubbed Ballybunion his favorite course in the world. (Tourism Ireland)
Thanks in part to 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, golf in Ireland is shining bright as ever.
McDowell took the U.S. Open away from Dustin Johnson at Pebble Beach, then clinched the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor by defeating Hunter Mahan.
McDowell's encore was equally impressive, rallying from four shots down to snatch the Chevron World Challenge from Tiger Woods.
Padraig Harrington drew all Irish eyes with his three major victories in 2007 and 2008. Now, after major triumphs by McDowell and Harrington, plus the emergence of Rory McIlroy, the Emerald Isle has never seen better days on golf's world stage.
One of the reasons this 'Holy Trinity' of stars is so adored all over the world is that they carry their Irish pride with them everywhere. Their jovial personalities are indicative of Ireland's welcoming clubs, humorous weather and spectacular scenery, making it tough for any vacationing golfer to get too serious – even facing a stiff wind to a blind green with cash on the line.
While McDowell, Harrington and McIlroy take on the PGA and European Tour circuits, their home sod is poised for a big 2011 as well. Five years after hosting the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup comes to Ireland for the first time. The event will be staged at Killeen Castle, one of the country's newest luxury golf resort properties centered around the restored 12th century castle.
Ireland's spectacular dunes have been here for millennia, but the golf product has improved greatly with new additions. Killeen Castle, The K Club and Doonbeg Golf Resort are just three of the most luxurious resorts in Ireland that complement the traditional 19th-century golf clubs.
Long after the railroad expansion of the late 19th-century led to golf clubs sprouting up around the isle, now every corner of Ireland has a golf tour worthy of your footsteps.
'I always look forward to returning home and experiencing the unique pleasure of golf in Ireland,' Harrington said.
Many American golfers make their first stop Ireland's southwest, anchored by Shannon (SNN) Airport, a less-than-six-hour flight from Boston.
Americans, including Tiger Woods and Tom Watson, have been coming to Ballybunion for years. But it's President Bill Clinton -- who proclaimed the Old Course at Ballybunion his favorite course in the world -- that has a statue in the town center.
Across the Shannon Estuary, historic Lahinch Golf Club is a history lesson in quirky Irish design, highlighted by the par-3 'Dell,' housing a green encircled by dunes and almost entirely blind. It was the perfect crime scene for the club's caddies, who once had a reputation of sneakily putting balls in the hole at the chance of a bigger tip from their player.
Once you've taken on blind shots of Ballybunion and Lahinch, head south, where Old Head Golf Links puts everything in front of you, including 360-degree ocean scenery on a 220-acre diamond of land 300 feet above crashing waves.
At Old Head, every view is a sea view.
Golf in Dublin and the east
Ireland's largest city, historic Dublin, is loaded with activity. After a tour of the city, castle or Guinness brewery, kick back in a small, charming pub that's likely to be older than the United States. Here, a long day on the pavement is capped by enjoying the craic with a pint brewed minutes away.
Ireland's east coast boasts a mix of traditional links golf courses and modern additions – both parkland and links – that attracts a set ranging from Europe's corporate business leaders to splurging couples looking for romance. The K Club, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup, boasts some of Europe's most luxurious golf resort amenities, including five-star dining and spa accommodations, highlighted by an Arnold Palmer parkland gem.
For links golf, you don't have to stray far from Dublin's city center. Royal Dublin Golf Club sits on a small strip of links land on Bull Island, while just up the road is one of the country's most renowned links, Portmarnock Golf Club, where Palmer played his first links golf in the 1960 Canada Cup. Outside the city is one of Ireland's most acclaimed modern links, the European Club, which has dunes so good they built 20 holes among them.
Golf in Northwest Ireland
To golfers, the rural northwest usually draws eyes initially as Ireland's 'value' destination. But members at friendly local clubs like Enniscrone Golf Club will gladly tell you their home links is as good as anywhere over a 19th hole pint. (In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a golf course anywhere in Ireland without an engaging 19th hole.)
Traversing the winding, two-lane roads through the countryside and towns like Sligo and Galway takes a little more savvy compared to the country's more developed regions. The first ever non-stop trans-Atlantic flight conducted by Alcock & Brown crash-landed in a swamp near Connemara – try not to repeat history with your rental car.
The mostly newer links of the northwest aren't household names quite yet like in other parts, but that's changing as visitors spread word of courses such as Rosapenna, Carne Golf Links and County Sligo Golf Club. Eire's northernmost club is Ballyliffin Golf Club, showcasing 36 holes of raw, remote links in the shadow of an Ailsa Craig-like Glashedy Rock.
Golf in Northern Ireland
Few coastlines in the world are as spectacular as County Antrim's, and the A2 Causeway Coastal Route is one of the can't-miss roads of golf travel. The route runs from Belfast Lough north along the coast through Lough Foyle and is home to such marvels as Giant's Causeway and the cliff-dangling, 16th-century Dunluce Castle ruins.
The two headlining links of Northern Ireland, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, jostle for the top spot in the North, and often all of Great Britain and Ireland. McDowell's recent successes have brought the eyes of the golf world back to his boyhood home club of Portrush, Ireland's only British Open venue. County Down staged the 2007 Walker Cup and has earned lore as one of the world's most demanding links.