Ireland vs. Scotland: Which is the better golf destination?

Golf is not so much our profession as it is our passion at Golf Digest, and often that passion translates to philosophical, analytical, ideological and, occasionally, idiotic workplace discussions about the game. During this time of pause in our sport (and in the world at large), we decided to take these office conversations online in hopes of providing a welcome distraction.

In our latest installment of the “Great Golf Debates,” E. Michael Johnson and Mike Stachura tackle the pressing question: Which is the better golf destination, Ireland or Scotland?

Mike Stachura: A debate over Ireland and Scotland? Why not choose something more straightforward like who makes the best barbecue (I see you, Memphis and Kansas City, but please let me introduce you to the great state of Alabama). Or maybe who’s the coolest behavioral economist (Leavitt is funny stuff, but really Kahneman is the OG, obviously). Or why not your favorite Friend? (Rachel? Monica? Phoebe? Please. Clearly, poignantly, with a passion that makes the soul ache for a thousand ages, Mr. Heckles). But be that as it may, let’s, as the witty internet equipment guru likes to say, get stuck in.

Ireland is a love song sung by Glen Hansard with a voice on the edge of romance and regret, filling up a Dublin side street just after the bars have closed. Scotland is a somber, quiet, wistful, majestic comedy that is as much reflection as it is celebration, like Local Hero. In Ireland, you always want to have another drink even if you don’t drink—and someone is always there to buy you one. In Scotland, you always want to stay another week. Or month. Or forever. Oh, what? You wanted to talk about the golf? It’s the same thing.

Scotland seems a tour through golf’s rugged history (Prestwick, Dornoch and, obviously, St. Andrews, although there are incomparable others on that list, from Crail to Cruden Bay). At every turn, it feels like every course should be played twice to understand that what first seems impossible or goofy is actually entirely navigable and in a word, genius. In Ireland, the best golf always seems to have a twinkle in its eye before smashing a shillelagh across your left temple. But then it picks you up and has a laugh with you. Royal County Down is famous for this, but so are the par 3s at Portmarnock and the par 4s at Ballybunion Old, all of which are lovingly described in that perfectly Irish phrase that is at once compliment, joke and threat, “an absolute cracker.” That phrase has been summarized to mean “beyond brilliant.” So if golf in Scotland is brilliant, I’d say golf in Ireland might be an absolute cracker.

E. Michael Johnson: Hmmmmm. The home of golf versus golf that feels homey. In full disclosure I’ve spent far more time in Ireland than Scotland, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate both. Perhaps not fully understand but understand enough. You’ve done a lovely job of setting things up with impeccable pearls of prose worthy of such lovely lands that I can’t even hope to match, so I won’t even try. As the commercial said, “Stay in your lane, bro.” For me that mostly means golf and drinking, neither of which are in your wheelhouse. OK, you do know golf. I mean, weren’t you travel editor of Golf Digest for about three weeks once? But I digress.

What’s difficult about picking a side is it depends on what you’re looking for. Do you want to be standing on the tee at St. Andrews with its clubhouse and 600 years of accumulated history bearing down on you and the sense that you are following in historical footprints set centuries earlier or do you want to make the wonderfully beautiful drive out on the Ring of Kerry to the peaceful splendor of Waterville G.C., perhaps stopping at Tralee either on the way there or on the way back? Although both places are among the last strongholds of that endangered species known as the caddie, do you prefer the Irish loopers who tend to be more jovial and good storytellers or the old-time Scots who, while often more businesslike, have the kind of local knowledge you’d expect from a seasoned tour veteran? It’s a tougher decision than whether or not to start watching “Tiger King.”

MS: Once we get coronavirus kicked, I’m hoping the CDC also just as quickly develops a “Tiger King” vaccine. And while drinking might not be in my wheelhouse, I’m willing to learn. Even tried Guinness when I was in Portrush a couple years back. Tasted like what finding a sweater in your bag on the back nine of a late October round feels like. And the Harbour Bar is one of those places you more or less have to feel. It’s not the food or even the drink. It’s just a sense that time doesn’t matter, laughter comes easier and why am I paying for a therapist and an investment advisor when this guy behind the bar is solving all my problems with quotes from Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

Scotland has some of those places, too. The music’s just not as good. (However, I was not skilled enough for the tasting at Bushmills, at 10 the next morning. Of course, that sounds like a typical Thursday for you, because, well, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.) Let’s first be clear on one thing: There’s plenty of wicked-good parkland golf in both Ireland (Adare Manor, K Club, Druid’s Glen, Mount Juliet, Carton House) and Scotland (Gleneagles, Loch Lomond, Duff House? Blairgowrie?), but if you’re going to play that kind of golf in Ireland and Scotland, it better be because you’re staying a month or on sabbatical. The links stuff is what you’re after, and if it’s a numbers game, Scotland might have more of it. And, frankly, it’s probably going to be an easier driving experience. The roads in Ireland are better than they were, but that’s like saying leeches were a great leap forward in medicine.

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Kevin Markham

EMJ: Good to hear you passed on the 10 a.m. Bushmills. You need some mad drinking skills for that. And if you need a teacher on the imbibing front, I know a guy.

As for parkland golf, you can keep it. Not that it’s bad. Places such as Killarney Golf & Fishing Club and some of the ones you mentioned such as Adare Manor and Gleneagles are perfectly fine. But you didn’t travel across the pond for “fine” and these courses simply lack the grandeur of links golf. St. Andrews, Turnberry, Prestwick, Carnoustie, Royal Dornoch, Royal Troon—the names roll off the tongue with a cool liquidity that transports golfers beyond the over-stylized, ultra-manicured fairways of golf here in the States. In fact, Scotland holds almost a religious cache for so many. But then there’s Ireland—a country about the size of Maine—with great golf almost everywhere you look. Waterville, Ballybunion, Lahinch in the southwest; Old Head down south in Kinsale, Portmarnock, Royal Dublin and County Louth (Baltray) in the Dublin area; Rosses Point and Donegal in the west and my word, Portstewart, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in the north. It is simply disgusting how many wonderful courses there are.

Now sure, the roads are terrible for the most part, but barreling down a narrow two-lane street driving on the wrong side of the road only enhances the experience, not detract from it. You just might want to wait for that properly “pulled” Guinness until after you’re off the road. I’m trying to find an argument for Scotland here, but it’s proving difficult.

MS: Great golf almost everywhere you look? As someone we all know from Scotland might say, “Are ya daft, man?!”

Scotland is awash in the greats of links golf like you mention, yes, but its second tier lineup and even its third tier surprises are movie-set quality. Nairn, Gullane, Brora, North Berwick, The Machrie, Western Gailes, Castle Stuart and the staggeringly under-appreciated Machrihanish, whose opening tee ball over the Atlantic Ocean can make you feel like the first guy who successfully cliff dove. Or in my case, didn’t.

But don’t fall asleep on Dunbar or Fraserburgh or Elie, which might have more holes you think you can birdie than any one course in your life. Until, well, you don’t. Kind of like the feeling I have when I look at a barbecue menu in Birmingham. Too much pork for just one fork, I believe is the expression.

EMJ: I guess for me it comes down to this: The historical significance of Scotland is undeniable. But I don’t go on a golf trip for a history lesson. The breadth of excellent courses in Scotland is substantial (and not all are “name” courses as places such as Brora, Western Gailes; Royal Aberdeen, Machrahanish and others testify), but some are stingy about who they let on (see: Muirfield) or in the case of St. Andrews require securing a tee time often as much as a year in advance. Sorry, Scotland, but in Ireland I find the people friendlier (after all, its motto is “Céad Míle Fáilte” or “land of a thousand welcomes”), the food better and the golf every bit as good, but a tad more accessible. And there are plenty of those lesser-known courses there are well. Ardglass, The Island Club, Ballyliffin, Enniscrone, Carne, County Sligo, Rosapenna and Dingle. Not a poor choice in the lot.

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And while there are a number of fine hotels and other accommodations in Scotland, I love the fact that at a B&B such as Teach de Broc next to Ballybunion the bar doesn’t close when the keeper of the house goes to bed. I also simply have a soft spot for the Emerald Isle. It was my first trip abroad, then a few years later I went with a photographer to 22 courses in 10 days covering almost the entire outside of the country from the southwest all the way to the north and back down to Dublin. In 2015 I went on the best buddies trip of my life to Ireland. So I am flooded with good memories like this photo I took from the Waterville clubhouse of our second group finishing up. How do you beat that? Perhaps by later on rewarding ourselves with the reviving power of a whiskey and a recounting of the day on the turbulent linksland, with the hospitality of those serving us at its most warm and sincere. In short, golf in Ireland is an experience that enhances the belief that it is good to be alive.

So Scotland or Ireland? I’ll take Ireland, but not by much. In fact, it’s so close I think we need to go back to gather more evidence.

MS: Fair play, as they say over there. Even though we’ve just spent the better part of a James Joyce short story saying Ireland is that and Scotland is this, what we’ve really shown is that both of these aren’t merely equally tantalizing bucket list destinations, they’re entire bucket lists in and of themselves several times over. They aren’t like a box of chocolates. You know exactly what you’re going to get and you get it and it is spectacular and life-alteringly memorable and spiritually restorative in the way other people wrongly ascribe to French Impressionism or certain kinds of pizza places or early Kurosawa films, or, God save us, baseball. It is ridiculous to even consider any other destination in their class. Like suggesting there is a better kind of Dorito name than Cool Ranch. And I’ll grant you Ireland shakes your hand before you’ve even extended your arm.

But I’ll also remind you of a round at Western Gailes that teed off at 6, ended in the gloaming with the general manager greeting some straggling Americans with open arms and an open bar and then upon hearing that one of us was getting married that Monday with no family able to make the trip, set him up with the local minister and showed up in full Scottish highland dress kilt and tux with, of course, a second one for the groom. A best man you didn’t know you had. Scotland, Ireland, both are up for the task.

So, yes, here’s to more research. And soon. For all of us.