Though not of the same vintage as their Scottish counterparts, Lahinch and Ballybunion are the St. Andrews and Old Prestwick of Ireland; links courses deserving of their own chapters in the annals of Emerald Isle golf. As golf clubs each founded by a handful of dedicated founding members, these courses from their beginnings have played a central role in the social, recreational and economic lives of two Atlantic seaside villages in which they are located. Given their place among the world's best seaside links, these layouts are at the top of everyone's "must play" list.
The Cliffs of Mohr near Lahinch attract many visitors
For me, Lahinch in County Clare was a two-hour drive from Oranmore. The route led west along the southern coast of Galway Bay then south through the limestone shelves of The Burren and then west again to the Atlantic coast. Set on horseshoe-shaped Liscannor Bay with its high cliffs, the village of Lahinch is a picture postcard of busy, narrow streets, attractive shops and restaurants, and the world-famous course that lies a few minutes' walk from the town center.
Lahinch Golf Club
The club promotes itself as "the St. Andrews of Ireland" because of its central place, physically and spiritually, in the life of the town. There is no university in Lahinch, says the literature, but the town is "steeped in golf," its inhabitants as knowledgeable about the ancient game as anywhere in the world. And they are eager to share their love of it with visitors.
A Scottish regiment, stationed in Limerick City was out scouting one day and came upon the glorious site where the course now stands. With some local residents, they established the Lahinch Golf Club on Good Friday 1893. Old Tom Morris laid out the course and charged the astronomical sum of one £ sterling plus traveling expenses.
High dunes, quirky contours at Lahinch
In 1928, Alistair MacKenzie, architect of Augusta National and Cypress Point, revised the course, moving several holes closer to the coast and bringing more into play the high dunes and quirky contours of the land. Today, all that remains of Morris' original plan is the 6th, believed to be modeled after Old Prestwick's No. 5, called "The Himalayas."
Called "The Dell," Lahinch's par 3 6th hole is perhaps one of THE most fascinating holes I have ever played. Our group got on the tee box and had absolutely no idea where the green was. It was completely hidden behind a three-story sand dune. Prompted by the course guide, we aimed our tee shots at the white rock on the side of the dune that marked the pin's position. (The rock moves as the pin position changes). The green is an absolute marvel. Measuring about 30 yards wide and no more than 5 yards deep, it is tucked in a dell up against three tall dunes and the sensation of standing on it is sort of like standing in a room without a ceiling. Repeated efforts by some locals to change the hole have been resisted. Good. The hole shouldn't ever change.
Equally intriguing is No. 5, called "Klondyke," a straight-away 482 yard par 5 with a monstrous mound in the middle of the fairway that blocks any view of the green. From the other side, you can see the spotter's den, which resembles a mine shaft. A good tee shot to about 230 yards just in front of the dune leaves you with the option of playing over the dune for a possible 4, or going around it. Staying on the thin ribbon of fairway using that option is like trying to keep a shot in marbles on the margin of a piece of paper.
The best hole on the golf course is No. 4, a much more conventional hole but remarkable for its architectural brilliance. A steep uphill tee shot through two high sentinel dunes to a plateau on this slight dogleg left 428 yarder leaves a long iron or wood to a green that looks like it's in the next county. That's because the end of the fairway and approach to the green are separated by some 150 yards of high marram grass.
Because of revisions to the course to restore some of the MacKenzie features that had been lost over the years and to eliminate crossover tee shots on No. 18, we played off temporary tee boxes on three holes. Also, No. 13 was a temporary hole while the original 16th was being redone.
They say that the best weather forecasters on this rain- and wind-susceptible layout are the goats. If the weather is fine, the goats graze contentedly on the dunes. If rain is coming, the goats head for the clubhouse. On our walk down 18, we spotted three goats heading for the clubhouse. I also saw a fox on No. 11 scratching vigorously at a rabbit hole. He completely ignored me as I walked by 5 yards away.
Cliffs of Mohr
Following the round, I decided to take the 20-minute drive out to see the famous Cliffs of Mohr. Named after Mohr Point, the limestone cliffs rise a vertigo- inducing 600 feet above the water. I preferred to stand a safe distance from the edge, but many tourists (of which there were hundreds) sat on ledges and peered over the edge. It would be a little like standing on one of the steel beams of the Eiffel Tower three-quarters of the way up. I was told that every summer at least one person falls over the edge. No one makes it. Two weeks before my visit, a French team of expert climbers rappelling on the cliffs lost two of their members. Incidentally, I was told by a well-traveled Dubliner that the cliffs in Donegal are twice as high as these.
The charming and scenic Moy House near Lahinch
In Lahinch, I stayed at Moy House a few miles south of the town just off the coast road. Built in the 18th Century as a country house by a baron, Moy House is a charming, comfortable and wonderfully home-like manor with a small number of rooms, a book-lined wood-paneled library/tea room, and a cozy world-class gourmet dining room that overlooks the cascading lawn and the bay beyond. At sunset particularly, the view captivates your senses.
The pinewood floor rooms are furnished in rosewood and mahogany and my room included a canopied four-poster bed and a fireplace. Having passed through several owners, including two Americans, in recent years, Moy House opened as a guest house in the fall of '99. Owing to its richly deserved reputation, the house is booked solid months in advance.
An Irish Golf Adventure