DUBLIN, Ireland – There are more than 800 golf courses in Ireland, and contrary to what Americans might think, not all of them are links courses and they're not all on the northwest and western coasts.
While courses like Ballybunion, Doonbeg, Enniscrone and Lahinch might come to mind, there's some pretty good golf in the east as well, particular in the Dublin area. Venues like The European Club, Portmarnock and the Island Club are among the top plays in Dublin, but there are some others you may not have heard of. Plus, there's the added benefit of being in one of Europe's most dynamic locations. Dublin is the home of Guinness, countless great restaurants, historical landmarks and a bustling entertainment and sports scene.
Last week, the Dublin area was the setting for The Irish Open, played at the Montgomerie Course at Carton House, just 45 minutes from the center of the city. It had been there before in 2005 and 2006, but that was before the 145-room hotel was completed at the stately mansion that dates back to the early 1700s.
There are two golf courses at Carton House -- the O'Meara (designed by American Mark O'Meara) and the Montgomerie Course, which was created by Scottish golfer and eight-time European Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie. The latter is sort of a hybrid between parkland golf and links golf with plenty of treacherous deep bunkers in the fairways and around the greens to keep you honest and high fescue off the fairways to help you remember you're in Ireland. It's plenty tough for the pros, too – just ask Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut last week at 2-over-par.
But the golf at Carton House certainly isn't the only example of non-links golf in Ireland or Dublin or the East Coast, for that matter. The K-Club, site of the 2006 Ryder Cup, falls under that category as does a pleasant surprise in County Meath called Headfort Golf Club.
There are two courses at Headfort – the Old Course, which dates back 83 years to its original nine holes, and the New Course, which opened in 2001.
The unique aspect of the New Course is that it sits on a piece of property that was left largely undisturbed. Architect Christy O'Connor Jr. routed the holes around groves of trees, marshes and streams in what's basically a wildlife sanctuary. The former Ryder Cupper said it was the finest piece of land he ever worked with and that the venue could host an Irish Open.
The par 3s are particularly stunning, each taking advantage of the natural water hazards that run throughout the course. And at nearly 7,000 yards, it's a good test for the best players.
Links golf around Dublin
County Louth (Baltray) is a top links course near Dublin.
But alas, nobody comes to Ireland without playing links courses, and there are a couple in the Dublin area that have been under the radar.
One that's emerging certainly is County Louth Golf Club, which was originally established in 1892, just north of Dublin. The course has undergone several incarnations over the years since architect Tom Simpson laid out the modern design in 1938. Tom MacKenzie put the finishing touches on this 7,031-yard layout 10 years ago.
Baltray hosted the Irish Open in 2004 and 2009. This is where Stewart Cink tuned up his game before winning the 2009 British Open.
What it lacks in seaside views (you do get a brief glimpse of the water on the back nine), it makes up for with a strong design. There are three par 5s on the front, including two in a row, Nos. 2 and 3. The second is a definite birdie hole; the third, at 545 yards, is survival, especially when it's playing into to the wind. The approach is blind, and if you miss the green left, a daunting pitch back up to an elevated green awaits.
And the par 3s are as good as it gets on a links course or any other, for that matter. None are alike, and they all play differently, especially with a strong breeze.
One thing all these courses have in common, of course, is tradition, and that begins and ends at the clubhouse. In Ireland, you don't often leave the course without a pint or two, and the clubhouses at all these courses are the perfect setting for a post-round pint of Guinness or Murphy's.
St. Anne's Golf Club, another links course that doesn't get a lot of press outside of Ireland, has a clubhouse with a 270-degree view of its splendid and very playable layout that sits on Dublin Bay just outside the city.
Much more forgiving than Baltray (which is fair, but can be difficult), St. Anne's has wide fairways, gentle rough and few blind shots. Located on the Bull Island Reserve, the club was founded in 1921 and remains a UNESCO bird sanctuary today.
St. Anne's clubhouse came along in 2003 as did a renovation of the par-71 course, which was lengthened to 6,717 yards, as well as receiving new greens and tees. The result is a course that really is playable for every level of player, but more than that a great walk in the park, even if it is a links course at its heart.