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10 underrated golf courses in Scotland and Ireland

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Everyone wants to play golf in Scotland and Ireland. Fact. Maybe this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or perhaps an annual pilgrimage. The bucket lists will be overflowing with your old courses, whether that’s at Portmarnock or St. Andrews! The Open Championship courses will roll off your tongue, including Portrush, back on the rota, and rightly so. There will even be the must-plays that very few can play, unless well connected, financially sound, or both.

I can understand why the usual suspects are always on the golf itinerary. And, by writing this, I don’t want to question their appeal, or their quality. But my argument lies in that in this day and age of travel and tourism, it is all about going off the beaten track, exploring, living a little, and not conforming. Some may argue my selections aren’t off the beaten track enough, but they’re there to debate!

It is with a great deal of smugness that I present to you 10 golf courses (11 if you include two at Moray) I have experienced — five in each country — where you can be assured of as Scottish and Irish golf experience as you richly deserve.

Carne Golf Links

Carne Golf Links was the last links course designed by architect Eddie Hackett.

Protruding deep into the Atlantic on the west of Ireland is Carne Golf Links. The village of Belmullet lies almost exactly 3,000 miles from New York City, and Carne idly inhabits an area that is low on population, but highly populated with dunes. Sand dunes of the highest order! Now offering 27 holes, you will think you are driving to New York, but just before tipping off the edge of Europe, the dunes come into view. They are something to behold.

Castlegregory

There is the possibility that Castlegregory will be expanded one day, but for now it remains a 9-hole gem.

Traveling farther down the West Coast and driving beyond the practice greens of Ballybunion, Lahinch and Tralee is Castlegregory on the Dingle Peninsula. Surely I am not recommending a 9-holer? I will grant you access to one of the usual suspects in the morning, but following a couple pints of Guinness while watching the boats bob up and down off the Inch Peninsula, it seems appealing to play nine more, doesn’t it? Castlegregory gifts dramatic views across to Tralee, the steep-sided Mount Brandon as a backdrop and a challenge that simply not enough people know about. But, that’s its charm.

The Wild Atlantic Way, the world’s longest defined coastal route, should send you in the direction of the Ring of Kerry. A beautiful stretch of road and home to Waterville and Dooks, but perhaps controversially we will head cross-country to County Wicklow on the Irish Sea.

European Club

The European Club is one of the longest links at 7,377-yards from the tips.

Pat Ruddy designed The European Club. In fact, he is still designing the European Club. Heading out with his spray can, he will mark where bunkers need to be tweaked and changed before heading in again to talk to his golfers about Tiger’s course-record 67, how Padraig Harrington has his three majors thanks to the European and how Rory thinks it’s the best links he’s ever played. Oh yes, I forgot, you get 20 holes for your money and the world’s longest green.

Druids Glen

Druids Glen hosted the Irish Open from 1996 to 1999.

Not too far away and inland is Druids Glen. Sometimes referred to by the over-used phrase of the “Augusta of Europe,” they may be right. This is as close as I have come to what I imagine Augusta to be like. Spectacularly manicured, fascinatingly interesting, wonderfully unexpected and a lot of fun. Monty has won twice at Druids, while Sergio won his first tour event here. It goes to show it’s not just about how pretty the golf course looks; it’s tricky, too.

At the end of the 19th century, golf was steadily becoming more popular with the elite of the day. The Island Golf Club north of Dublin was originally a spur of land opposite Malahide. One fine day, a Syndicate of gents jumped in a boat and acquired the slice of land for their golf course. You could still get a boat to the course until 1973, with the clubhouse putting up colored disks to draw the attention of the boatman. Once on dry land, the dunes loom. It’s hard to tell just how big they are when you’re in Malahide, but after 18 holes and a couple pints of Guinness, trust me, they’re massive.

Hidden gems is a phrase too often used. Because a lot of the time, how you feel about a course is dependent on how you play and what type of courses you prefer to play. My challenge in Scotland is to demonstrate that no matter how low or high your handicap, or how close to it you play, you will still walk away appreciating what has just happened. This must be the reason we play? Personally, if I play poorly then I appreciate the view. If I play well I appreciate the scorecard, not forgetting the view. In Scotland, we will start by sauntering down the Edinburgh coast.

North Berwick Glen

North Berwick Glen was originally a nine-hole course when it opened in 1894 before being expanded to 18 holes in 1906.

The views of the Bass Rock extend out into the North Sea, while 150,000 gannets stare at you as you hover over the birdie putt. The ninth at The Glen Golf Club, North Berwick Glen drops to the seashore and has the rock as its aim. A visual treasure, and perched up high so susceptible to the odd breeze, it’s hard to concentrate on the swing when there is so much else to consider. The pretty town of North Berwick is a pleasant 5-minute stroll along the beach if you fancy a boat trip to see the birdies.

It’s not all about the sea and links, though, if you truly want to experience Scottish golf. The hills, the heathland, the contours and the gradients have helped assist the Queen’s at Gleneagles. Slightly over-shadowed by its bigger brothers of the King’s and the PGA Centenary (venue of the 2014 Ryder Cup), on a summer’s evening the views across the Ochils are worth the trip. Deer and rabbit will frolic in the rough, while the swans will serenely cruise on the loch at Nos. 13 and 14.

Royal Aberdeen

Royal Aberdeen Golf Club was granted its “Royal” designated in 1903 by King Edward VII.

Back on track, the Aberdeen coast has recently been synonymous with the arrival of the Trump International Golf Links. No matter what your political persuasion, it’s a marvellous golf course. But a little farther up the coast is Royal Aberdeen, the sixth-oldest golf club in the world. It was founded in 1780 as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen. The front nine is arguably the best group of links holes anywhere on the planet, yet it might depend on how well you’re playing. Either way, the tradition, the atmosphere, the welcome and the clubhouse are reassuringly characterful.

Moray

The Old Course at Moray Golf Club has seven par-4s measuring at more than 400 yards.

The farthest north I will head is Moray. I know some of the purists will cite Dornoch as THE Scottish golf experience, but the 36 holes of the Old and New at Moray will once again offer pure Scottish golf. It’s important to play one “Old” on your trip, so Old Tom Morris’ Old can then be followed by Henry Cotton’s New. That’s not a bad combination. They won seven Opens between them, so they knew what they were doing.

Heading back down the road, the steam from the Highlands’ only steam railway will welcome you to Boat of Garten. Home to the ospreys and nestling by the River Spey, the course was designed by the legendary James Braid. The railway also runs alongside the fourth hole, so don’t forget to give the passengers a wave, not a fore. It is a beautifully untouched end to the tour. There is not much flat terrain to be had, but then you are in Scotland.

It’s without question that Scotland and Ireland offer the ultimate golf experience. But it’s important to explore beyond the brochure. Where Turnberry and Ballybunion are our Colosseum and Eiffel Tower, the plethora of courses will equally fulfill your romantic notions of Scottish and Irish golf. With a Guinness or whisky in hand, come rain or shine, your tour of golf heaven awaits.

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Born and bred in the home of the Beatles, Liverpool, sport has always been Graham’s number one pastime. Football (soccer!) and cricket were Graham's games of choice at school, but his dad always asked him to caddy. With the reward of a half a shandy and a packet of salt and vinegar, how could he refuse? But, it was the day after winning The Amateur Championship at Formby in 1984 that Jose-Maria Olazabal really got Graham hooked. Dragged along to watch Jose-Maria hit ball after ball after ball he fell in love with the game. Graham's job as a golf tour operator for seven years and seven years at wonderful Gleneagles have confirmed his love affair with the sport. He has been lucky to play some of the best golf courses in the world, but mainly in the UK and Ireland. Graham's favourite course is Muirfield, which is just down the road from his home in Scotland. His favourite club is the putter, now putting left-handed (yips right-handed). No hole in one! Never been hit by a ball, thank God. Shot shape tends to be left to right - exaggerated from time to time! But, most of all he loves the 'chat' and the exercise. Graham realises just how fortunate he is professionally, combining his love of golf and travel. He now promotes four of the best golf resorts in Europe, if not the World. So, if want to know about golf over there, give him a shout. Cheers me dears!

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Pingback: Golf Website Puts Castlegregory GC In List Of Ten Underrated Courses - traleetoday.ie

  2. golfraven

    Jul 7, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    I am still kicking myself that I have not played those courses in Ireland, living just an hours drive away … moron. Still played some good stuff there but not close to what is considered as excellent and those courses are.

  3. ND Hickman

    Jul 6, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    You want to play a few good courses in Scotland then you need to play Glasgow Gailes, Western Gailes and Dundonald. Three phenomenal links courses that are legitimately all a stones throw away from one another.

  4. Mike Mercer

    Jul 6, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    The hidden gem of a golf links that is Castlegregory nestles between the shores of Brandon Bay and Lough Gill. A challenging nine holes will leave visiting golfers in awe of its scenic beauty and variety of holes making it a test to players whether low or high handicap
    Well worth a visit on the Dingle Peninsula at Stradbally, Castlegregory, you won’t be disappointed.

  5. John Krug

    Jul 6, 2016 at 11:50 am

    I played Carne about 20 years ago. When I first saw it, I thought that I had landed on the moon. Great course.

  6. DaCrusher

    Jul 6, 2016 at 1:22 am

    Druids Glen is nowhere near the Augusta of Europe. Played it, disappointed.

    Some other mentions in Ireland: Ballyliffin and Old Head. Old Head probably doesn’t get the praise it should because it is a “young” course but IMO, it IS better than Pebble. I would pay $500 to play Old Head again but not Pebble.

    Agree with North Berwick. Great layout, unique holes, worth the stop. Elie Golf Links (mentioned above) is a true hidden gem surrounded by the oft hyped Kingsbarns and St Andrews (exclude the Old Course from that statement). Have recommended Elie to several peeps going over there.

  7. doubleipa

    Jul 5, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Played Carne last June with my 12 year old son. Course was AWESOME!!! Some of those dunes are so tall it feels like you’re playing golf in a hallway. I would play this course again in a heart-beat.

  8. Obee

    Jul 5, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    How about Dooks? And Elie? Played Dooks three summers ago when I visited the UK. Was going to play Elie, but got rained out. Dooks was fantastic and quite a bargain for such a wonderful course.

    • DaCrusher

      Jul 6, 2016 at 1:16 am

      Elie Golf Links awesome mention. A true hidden gem. Skip St Andrews (other than the Old Course) and go play this

  9. M Sizzle III

    Jul 5, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Graham,
    Your bio indicates you promote four golf resorts. In the interests of journalistic integrity, can we assume that none of them are mentioned in this article?
    Thanks,

    • Graham Hesketh

      Jul 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      Absolutely, M Sizzle III, the resorts I promote are not in the UK and Ireland. The courses I mention are just ones that I love, but I know there are plenty of other great ones.

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