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Ten reasons to plan your dream golf vacation to the links of northwest Ireland

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COUNTY DONEGAL, Ireland -- The award was probably a bit overdue.

The International Association of Golf Tour Operators named northwest Ireland the European Golf Destination of the Year in 2011. No longer was this once undiscovered golf destination feeling overlooked and unappreciated compared to the great links courses of southwest Ireland or its neighbor, Northern Ireland.

The likes of Ballyliffin Golf Club, Carne Golf Links (also called Belmullet), Enniscrone Golf Club, Donegal Golf Club and County Sligo Golf Club were finally the toast of Ireland's delicious golf scene.

'The northwest has risen to prominence in golf and accommodations,' said John Farren, the general manager at Ballyliffin. 'The tradition of links is stronger here. We have nothing to fear from our peers. We are as good as the best in the world. You don't get such a caliber of links in such close proximity.'

Here are 10 reasons why a golf trip to northwest Ireland should be your next overseas escape:

10. Hidden links: The shoreline from Galway in the west to Greencastle in the north is dotted with charming links courses you've probably never heard of like Connemara Golf Club, Portsalon Golf Club and Narin & Portnoo Golf Club, to name a few. These clubs offer strangers a hardy Irish welcome and a solid test of your game.

9. Poetry in motion: Driving through 'Yeats Country' in County Sligo is so beautifully rural and so distinctly Irish. The roads are narrow and winding. The rolling hills look a deeper shade of green. It's the countryside and views of Benbulben Mountain that inspired the works of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. The scenic village of Rosses Point is filled with tourist traps dedicated to Yeats, including his grave just a short ride away.

8. A musical medley: McGrorys of Culdaff, a 17-room hotel in a tiny village near Blue Flag Beach in County Donegal, serves fine meals in the Front Bar. The authentic Irish experience happens afterward inside Mac's Backroom Bar. This intimate venue rocks with traditional Irish music and even hosts world-class acts.

7. Old meets new: The four-star Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort in County Donegal -- one of the oldest golf resorts in the world circa 1893 -- boasts plenty of modern creature comforts. The Vardon Restaurant overlooks Sheephaven Bay. The 15-meter pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna are rare spoils. The back nine of Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Course and the awe-inspiring dunes of the Sandy Hills Course team up for 27 holes of superb links golf.

6. Discover the Irish Donald Ross: Eddie Hackett designed many of the finest links golf courses in Ireland. His last effort might be his best. Carne in County Mayo has earned a reputation as a links as wild as any in the world.

5. Surf's up: It seems hard to believe (but then again, it doesn't) that the wind and water off the northwest coast create some of the best waves in the world for surfers. For an experience vastly different from most Irish getaways, stay in the Sandhouse Hotel & Marine Spa on Rossnowlagh Beach, where you'll see more long-haired dudes than regular tourists.

4. Fun on the ferries: Traveling the fingers and peninsulas of this region requires some patience and creative planning. It doesn't have to be a hassle to ride a ferry. Consider it part of an unforgettable journey. Those who play Portsalon or Rosapenna should ferry over the Lough Swilly to reach Ballyliffin on the Inishowen Peninsula. From there, golfers can ferry over the Lough Foyle to the links of Northern Ireland.

3. No more troubles: There's no real border to speak of when you cross into Northern Ireland, just a whole different world that seems to have put its troubled past of secular violence to rest. The treasures of Portstewart Golf Club, Castlerock Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club, home of the 1951 British Open and 2012 Irish Open, are certainly worth the effort.

2. Believe in Ballyliffin: Only a handful of 36-hole clubs in all the British Isles compare to the two great tracks at Ballyliffin. Irishman Pat Ruddy routed the Glashedy Links through majestic dunes to the top of the property, while Nick Faldo's redesigned Old Links at Ballyliffin bumps and bounces its way near the shore.

1. Bang for your buck: The best part are the bargains. Everything is more affordable here -- the greens fees, the hotel rooms and even the Guinness. All that money saved will probably end up being spent at the bar anyway, a small price to pay for such a good time.