Golf is the single biggest sporting attraction in Ireland, with nearly a quarter of a million visitors traveling here specifically to play. The Irish landscape and climate, like those of Scotland, seem almost custom-designed for scenic links, fair fairways, green greens, and devilish traps—and there is never a shortage of 19th holes. In short, Ireland is a place of golfing pilgrimage and a great stop-off after your vacation in the UK. Every region of the country boasts a few fine 18-hole courses, so no matter where you go, you can easily slip in a rewarding game. Greens fees vary widely, but are often surprisingly modest for non-members, especially on weekdays and at off-peak hours.
If golf is the focus of your vacation, there are a few world-class courses that really shouldn’t be missed. The following itinerary is in a way a dream list—you may need to swap out one of these days to do other kinds of sightseeing in these regions. And if you do decide to try to cram in all these elite courses, expect to shell out some hefty greens fees.
Because so many of Ireland’s top courses are on the west coast, we begin this itinerary with a flight into Shannon Airport.
Day 1: County Clare
Depending on how early your flight gets in—and how well you can play while jet-lagged—you may even be able to get in a round on Day 1, if you’ve booked your tee times in advance at Lahinch Golf Club on the coast in Lahinch. Stay overnight in County Clare, ready for the scenic drive southwest in the morning.
Days 2 & 3: County Kerry
Heading south to County Kerry (Tip: Take the coastal route N67, which incorporates a ferry ride from Killimer to Tarbert), you have a couple of choices just northwest of the town of Tralee: the Ballybunion Golf Club in Ballybunion, with two esteemed 18-hole clifftop links courses (one of them designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.), or the dramatic oceanview Tralee Golf Club in Ardfert, designed by Arnold Palmer. Then continue down to the Ring of Kerry, where you’ll stay the night, ready to play on Day 3 at the Waterville Golf Links, spectacularly sited overlooking the Atlantic ocean.
Day 4: County Cork
It’s about a 2½-hour drive east from Kerry to County Cork and the spectacular Old Head Golf Links, set on a peninsula just south of the charming town of Kinsale. Named one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World in the 2000s, it charges stiff greens fees—but then, how often do you get to play on a pristine course surrounded by ocean on three sides? Treat yourself to a good dinner that night in Kinsale, one of Ireland’s most foodie-friendly towns.
Days 5 & 6: Dublin
Spend the morning driving cross-country to the Irish capital (if possible stopping along the way to see the stunning medieval ruins of the Rock of Cashel, in County Tipperary). One of the world’s great golfing cities, Dublin is home to a quarter of Ireland’s courses, all within an hour’s drive of the city center. Hopefully you’ve already booked afternoon tee times at either the Portmarnock Golf Club, set on a spit of land in Portmarnock, or the Royal Dublin Golf Club on Bull Island in Dublin Bay, near Dollymount. Both are over a century old and have hosted the Irish Open multiple times. Whichever course you play today, you can play the other tomorrow. Both are in the northern suburbs, so do yourself a favor and book a hotel up there, thus avoiding the hassle of getting into and out of the city. Then take public transport into the downtown area for sightseeing, dining, or nightlife.
Day 7: Heading Home
It’ll take less than 3 hours to cross the island back to Shannon Airport. So, plenty of time to cram in a few of the sights that you’ve only heard talked about on the fairway. Book a hotel near the airport so you can get a good night’s sleep before flying home.
Beyond a Week
If you can stretch your vacation by another day or two, you’ll be well rewarded if you head up into the less-traveled regions of Northwest Ireland. Fewer golfers make it up here, and the greens fees are therefore much less stratospheric. More important, on the drive up you’ll see some incredibly beautiful countryside that’s never mobbed with tourists. County Sligo Golf Club, just under 3 hours’ drive from Dublin or from Shannon Airport, is a wind-whipped links course edged with wild natural terrain—and it has sweeping views of Sligo Bay and Ben Bulben mountain, immortalized in the poetry of W. B. Yeats. There are two outstanding seaside courses at the Rosapenna Golf Club in the Atlantic Highlands of Donegal, a 4-hour drive from Dublin, 5 hours from Shannon. Rosapenna has its own hotel, which may greatly simplify your stay.