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Capturing the Essence: Quintessential Irish Links Golf Course Characteristics

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Links golf in Ireland offers a pure and traditional form of the game set against the backdrop of the country’s rugged coastal beauty. Irish links are a testament to the enduring appeal of golf played on natural, windswept terrain. With its minimalist design philosophy, the land’s natural contours dictate each layout, resulting in a course that enhances the existing landscape rather than reshaping it.

Playing an Irish links golf course is an immersive experience steeped in golf’s oldest traditions. Many courses date back over a century, providing a sense of connection to past generations who have walked the same fairways.

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It’s common for some of the world’s best players like Tiger Woods to travel to Ireland to prepare for The Open Championship by playing and practicing on the country’s renowned links courses, such as Ballybunion and Lahinch, which offer challenging conditions similar to those found at The Open. Woods also played at Adare Manor the week prior to the 150th Open at St Andrews. While not a links course, Adare Manor will host the 2027 Ryder Cup. My new friend Brian Dunne is the superintendant at the original Adare Manor next door and is rocking some LevelUp Sporting stickers in his office, so they get a mention!

In this post, we will explore the characteristics of the quintessential Irish Links course and what makes it unique. The further reading suggestions include some great book and audiobook recommendations that will provide more context and enable you to expand your knowledge of Irish golf. You might also like our “Top 20 Links Golf Books and Audiobooks.”

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Dunluce Links, Royal Portrush

Ireland is home to approximately 63 true links golf courses, including some of the top links courses in the world. The west coast boasts some of the most celebrated links in the British Isles, stretching from Royal County Down, Ardglass, and Portrush (the only Irish course to host the Open Championship) in Northern Ireland to BallybunionLahinch, Doonbeg, and Old Head. The breathtaking Carne, Enniscrone, and Connemara charm visitors with their rugged beauty and unique tests across the rumpled dunes.

Located on Ireland’s rugged southwest coast, Waterville Golf Links charms visitors with its stunning oceanfront landscape. Designed by Eddie Hackett, It winds through towering dunes with thrilling seaside holes. Further south, near the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, Tralee Golf Club was designed by Arnold Palmer.  

The rich legacy of Irish links golf stretches around the coastline with gems at every turn. Carved through the towering sandhills of Donegal near the Atlantic, St. Patrick’s at Rosapenna and Ballyliffin Links offer wild terrain and endless views. Over in Dublin, Portmarnock and Royal Dublin have carved their stellar reputations in the shadow of Ireland’s vibrant capital.

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Playing a links golf course presents unique challenges and opportunities that differ significantly from your typical parkland settings. Characterized by their coastal locations, sandy soil, and often windy conditions, links golf courses demand a more strategic approach to the game, emphasizing ground play over aerial shots.

Links golf demands you adapt your mindset and technique to deal with the course and the elements. It’s key to manage your expectations and avoid the temptation of playing high-risk, heroic shots that could lead to big numbers. Know when to take your medicine and play the safe shot. Accept a less-than-ideal outcome to minimize the risk of a disastrous one.

In our post, 10 Essential Tips for Playing Links Golf, we reviewed how to prepare and adapt your game to the demands of links golf. You’ll need to embrace an array of shots like the bump and run, knockdown, and “Texas Wedge” to keep the ball below the ever-present coastal winds. 

Understanding the wind’s impact on ballflight, alignment, shot selection, and even tee height can set you up for success. Preparing yourself for the elements by packing the right gear will also get you on the right path and make your rounds more enjoyable.

Influence of the Sea and Coastal Winds

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Waterville

Irish links courses are intimately connected to the sea, often situated on narrow strips of land between the ocean and agricultural areas, sometimes even stretched arcoss a headland like Old Head, or peninsula like Dingle Golf Links. The proximity to the coast provides stunning vistas and contributes to the unpredictable weather patterns that are a hallmark of links golf.

The wind is a significant factor when playing Irish links courses. Coastal breezes can change intensity and direction without warning, adding a layer of complexity to every shot. Understanding how to account for the effects of the elements is key, as you must adapt and adjust your strategy to deal with headwinds, crosswinds, and even helping winds. Learning to alter your ballflight and tee height can also pay dividends.

The weather can change quickly, and it’s not uncommon to experience multiple seasons in a single round. Golfers are advised to come prepared for all types of weather, including rain and wind, and to dress in layers to adapt to changing conditions.

One of the most scenic spots in Irish golf is the tee at the par-3 17th at Waterville, the highest point on the course, called “Mulcahy’s Peak.” The elevated tee box provides spectacular 360-degree views of the course, ocean, and mountains, perched on top of the highest dune at over 250 feet above sea level.

Sandy Terrain and Natural Dunes

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Carne

In our post “Links Golf: Celebrating the Game’s Timeless Terrain,” we followed the game’s evolution back to the coastal “linksland” in 15th-century Scotland, where shepherds would use sticks to hit stones into rabbit holes in the coastal dunes.

These often windy sites and sandy stretches of land along the coast shaped the game’s early development. The firm and fast playing conditions promoted a style of play along the ground. The natural contours and hazards of the dunes were incorporated into early course designs.

The foundation of a true links course is its sandy soil, which provides firm, springy, fast-draining turf. This characteristic leads to fast and hard fairways and greens, demanding a style of play that is responsive to the ground conditions. The sandy base ensures excellent drainage, allowing courses to be playable year-round despite Ireland’s wet climate. Check our post “Sand and Golf: How Sandy Terrain is the Soul of the Game” for more.

Irish links golf courses are defined by their dune landscapes, which create a series of natural undulations and elevation changes. These dunes are not only visually striking but also present unique challenges, with blind shots and hidden hazards that require strategic thinking and local knowledge to navigate successfully.

Blind Shots

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Lahinch “Dell”

Blind shots are deeply embedded in the history of Irish links golf and are seen as a defining characteristic. While in no way unique to Ireland, they are adbundant due to the massive dunescapes and elevation changes along the Irish coast. As the courses were routed over the land’s natural contours, blind shots became a strategic design element where the green, fairway, pin position, or optimal target line was not visible from the tee or approach area.

Sometimes blind shots bring in an additional strategic or risk/reward element into play off the tee, with the ideal or heroic line rewarded and the safe route penalized with an obstructed view.

The “Dell,” the short fifth hole at Lahinch, a 154-yard par-3, is one of the most famous blind tee shots in Ireland. The green is tucked between towering 30-foot dunes, and a white rock on the dune face indicates the pin position. The short 7th and par-4 9th at Royal County Down are iconic for their blind tee shots and encapsulate the “quirky” essence of links golf. For more, see our “Top 10 Characteristics of Links Golf.”

Hazards and Rough

The rough on Irish links golf courses comprise native marram and fescue grasses that are well adapted to the sandy, windswept environment. These grasses can be punishing for errant shots, with their deep roots and thin blades creating dense areas that can ensnare golf balls.

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Royal County Down

The area surrounding the green complexes can include various slopes, hollows, dips, depressions, and undulations that can make recovery shots difficult, adding another strategic design element to be wary of. An example is the 8th green at Carne, located in a hollow protected by hills.

Bunkers are typically deep and strategically placed, with revetted faces that defend against shifting sands. Due to their proximity to the sea, the sand can often be firmer, especially after rain or in windy conditions.

Irish links bunkers are known for their “bearded” appearance, with overhanging lips of marram, red fescue, and heather that adorn their faces. The “bearded bunkers” at Royal County Down are often said to be the most visually stunning in the game.

Castle Ruins, Lighthouses, and Landmarks

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Old Head 4th Hole

Irish links golf courses are celebrated for their proximity to some of Ireland’s most historic castle ruins, lighthouses, and landmarks. The iconic Old Head and St. John’s lighthouses serve as backdrops for Old Head and Ardglass, respectively, while Lahinch’s Castle course takes its name from nearby “Dough Castle.” Waterville’s 12th, the “Mass Hole,” set amongst the dunes, was once the site of covert outdoor masses.

The dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle near Royal Portrush have made their mark on pop culture. The striking image of a castle partly fallen into the sea may have inspired C.S. Lewis when he wrote his fictional Chronicles of Narnia series. In the books, the Pevensie children’s castle, “Cair Paravel,” suffers similar damage. The castle also appeared in Game of Thrones as the Greyjoy castle Pyke.

Whether it’s the restored fortress at Ardglass, serving as the world’s oldest clubhouse, or the iconic Blarney Castle, home to the legendary Blarney Stone, these landmarks enhance the golfing experience, adding layers of cultural depth and historical intrigue to every visit. Check out our post “Guiding Lights” for more on golf’s iconic lighthouses and most photographed holes.

Further Reading

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A Course Called Ireland
by Tom Coyne

Summary: By turns hilarious and poetic, A Course Called Ireland is a magnificent tour of a vibrant land and paean to the world’s greatest game in the tradition of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods

In his 30s, married, and staring down impending fatherhood, Tom Coyne was familiar with the last refuge of the adult male: the golfing trip. Intent on designing a golf trip to end all others, Coyne looked to Ireland, the place where his father had taught him to love the game years before. As he studied a map of the island and plotted his itinerary, it dawned on Coyne that Ireland was ringed with golf holes. The country began to look like one giant round of golf, so Coyne packed up his clubs and set off to play all of it-on foot.

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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Ancestral Links
by John Garrity

Summary: One man’s quest to uncover the roots of his family’s obsession with Irish links golf – a journey that takes him to his ancestral home in Ireland, to Scotland, and to the American heartland. 

John Garrity is well known in the golf world for his writing for Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, and on Golf.com. In this book, Garrity travels to the remote corner of Ireland from which his great-grandfather left for America, now home to a majestic golf course. There he discovers why local farmers spent seven years carving the course out of unforgiving terrain, using only rakes and spades for their work. From there, he visits Musselburgh, Scotland, where his maternal ancestors played golf before the first 13 rules of the game were written there in 1774, and to Wisconsin’s St. Croix River Valley, where his father learned the Ancient Game. 

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

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Hooked
by Kevin Markham

Summary: Now in its third edition, this concise, detailed book is for golfing tourists looking for great value courses, for golfing clubs that wish to go beyond their local area, and for Irish golfers searching for excellent but unsung courses in Ireland. Written from an amateur’s perspective, reviews focus on the energy and excitement of playing each course, giving a true representation of the golf experience, ranking each course, and providing contact information for booking.

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