The Road Less Traveled
A trip to northwest Ireland reveals outstanding courses and modest prices
When American golfers visit western Ireland, they typically follow an itinerary as established as the Spice Route. They begin at Lahinch, which is less than an hour from Shannon International Airport, and then they head south, along the coast, to Doonbeg (designed by Greg Norman); Ballybunion (truly one of the world's greatest); Tralee (which convinces you that Arnold Palmer, who designed it in the early 1980s, knows something about golf); Waterville (co-owned by a golfaholic American hedge-fund zillionaire); and Old Head (which isn't old but sits on one of the most spectacular landforms on the planet). I've taken that trip, and if you're short a player, I could pack in an hour.
But there's a less-traveled route out of Shannon: to the north. I went that way recently and found what are now some of my favorite courses in the world. What's more, the golf was a bargain, the people I met were extraordinarily welcoming, the scenery was otherworldly, and I didn't encounter anyone drinking Bud Light or smoking a cigar.
When I first played golf in Ireland, in 1993, the country had a double-digit unemployment rate, and the most expensive course I played was the new, super-fancy K Club, which charged just less than $100 for 18 holes. The Irish economy took off shortly after that and was renamed the Celtic Tiger, but golf in Ireland was still on sale in the spring of 2001, when I returned with five friends from home. For a seven-day trip -- including single-occupancy hotel rooms, rented minivans, and 13 rounds of golf -- we paid $2,500 a man (meals and airfare extra). Things got much pricier soon after that, however, and by the mid-2000s green fees at the best-known courses were approaching Pebble Beach levels -- a blow compounded by the weakness of the U.S. dollar. Today, the Irish economy stinks again -- and that's good news for visitors. The best-known courses are still relatively expensive, but green fees at most of the places I played were less than $100, and if you're traveling with others you might be able to negotiate group discounts or free replays or other goodies. Almost all the clubs on my itinerary were extremely interested in being visited by Americans, so you don't have to be shy about inquiring.
It takes willpower to steer your rented Passat past the turnoff for Lahinch, which I first played 15 years ago and love like a brother -- but I did it. My first stop was a good two and a half hours up the coast, at Connemara Golf Club, on the southwestern shore of a treeless peninsula near the micro-village of Ballyconneely. I arrived by 11, retrieved my golf shoes from the bottom of my suitcase and played with two regulars: Gareth Anthony, who works in the club's golf shop, and Dominic Ó Móráin, the general manager of a nearby hotel. (The best preventative for jet lag is to tee off as soon as possible after landing and keep playing until suppertime. No napping!) Dark clouds were churning, and I felt one or two drops of rain -- the worst weather of the trip, as it turned out. I had packed two new rainsuits, intending to give them an Irish field test, but to do that I would have had to wear them in the shower. My sunglasses and SPF-50 sunscreen did get a workout, though.
Connemara is the product of divine intervention. In the early 1970s, a local priest -- who believed that golf might anchor the community and attract tourists to what was then a gravely impoverished region -- raised money, persuaded local farmers to sell common grazing land, and enlisted the late Eddie Hackett, who worked as a golf professional from the late 1930s until the mid-1960s and almost by accident became the George Washington of modern Irish golf design. Hackett created courses the way Old Tom Morris did, by walking over the dunes and driving stakes into the ground. He didn't believe in bulldozers and barely believed in shovels. Anthony told me that a recent group of visitors from France had liked Connemara so much that they hiked all the way back from the farthest point to buy more balls. I liked it, too -- especially the second nine.
Afterward, I followed Ó Móráin to his home and workplace, the Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel, about 40 minutes to the east. Last fall, an online reviewer described the hotel's surroundings as "Breath taking!!!" -- a description that actually doesn't do justice to the place. The lodge was built in the late 1800s as a private fishing retreat, and as far as I could tell no part of the landscape has been touched since. There are 13 guest rooms (which start at about $125 a night, including breakfast), and from the windows of the ones in front you can see only the mountain range known as the Twelve Bens of Connemara and the magnificent unspoiled lake that gives the lodge its name. Ó Móráin conjured up a late lunch, which carried me through till breakfast the next day: poached salmon, smoked salmon, crab claws, crabmeat salad, local mussels, oysters and homemade bread, which I said I didn't want but then ate all of it. I couldn't spend the night -- I had promises to keep -- but if I'd hung around, Ó Móráin said, a guide would have rowed me onto the lake so that I could catch my supper.