The Comfort of Great Irish Golf – Stay&Play 2021
The Stay & Play market offers golfers the perfect insight into Irish golf, writes Kevin Markham.
The year 2020 was one that saw a significant evolution in Ireland’s stay & play market. Ask any golf club about their international business and it won’t be a pretty picture… but ask about domestic business and it’s a different story. As much as the loss of international business had a drastic impact on clubs, restaurants, bars and accommodation providers, the upside should last long into the future as Irish golfers discovered new Irish destinations and golf courses around the island.
“It really has been a year of change for Carne, and one of the benefits of the lack of international travel has been that our share of Irish golfers increased hugely this year, and their general consensus is that they will be returning to Carne – it was a course that many said they had been meaning to play for years, but felt it was a bit far, but given the circumstances this year they made it part of their staycation and decided it really isn’t that far after all!”
Fiona Togher, General Manager, Carne Golf Links
The likelihood of Irish golfers returning to these courses should offer ‘a glass half full’ mentality after such a difficult year. And with 2021 looking like it will follow a similar path, Irish golfers be anticipating some mouth-watering stay & play deals. The hotels in Belmullet (the Broadhaven Bay and The Talbot, most notably) may not be part of the golf course but you can be sure there will be deals available that tie them together. This will be a common theme nationwide and for those international travellers who like to collate their own itineraries many of those same deals will apply.
Destination Golf produces a World Stay & Play guide and six Irish resorts make the list. With golf such a major tourism attraction, and over 400 courses across the island, it is no surprise that golf courses and hotel resorts often go hand-in-hand. From the five star super luxury of places such as Mount Juliet, The K Club and Dromoland Castle to the colourful hotels aimed at the more price conscious, like Ballymascanlon and the Woodenbridge Hotel, there is literally nowhere where you will find a golf course without quality accommodation close by. The family friendly Inn at Dromoland Inn offers golfers yet another option. Offering panoramic views across the Clare Hills and Shannon Estuary, it is situated at the gates of the championship course, while offering an ideal base to visit nearby attractions and famous golf courses. The Shannigans Gastro pub is an ideal 19th hole, while the indoor pool and health club will be the perfect place to relax.
Yes, the choice and range are vast and there are close to 30 resorts in this guide alone, each boasting a golf course (or even two in the case of The K Club, Powerscourt and Carton House) in our Top 150. The spread of these resorts is also vast, from Rosapenna in the northern wilds of Donegal (where a new Tom Doak-designed course will open this summer) to the farthest southern tip of Co. Cork, where Old Head awaits on a diamond-shaped peninsula, and from Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links, on Dublin’s coastline, to the western edges of the Wild Atlantic Way where you will find Dromoland Castle, you are spoiled for choice… and luxury. And I haven’t even mentioned the heart of Ireland where resorts at Glasson, Moyvalley, Slieve Russell, New Forest, and the idyllic Rathsallagh are only a few of the options you can choose from.
Of course, just as in Belmullet, you don’t have to stay at a golf resort to get stay & play deals. You could stay in the local town and then play a few of the courses in the vicinity. The 10-bedroom Clody Lodge, in the heart of Bunclody town, is a perfect example with Bunclody Golf & Fishing Club on the doorstep and exceptional Carlow and muscular Mount Wolseley a short drive away. In Waterford, you could stay in Ireland’s oldest city and play any or all of the five golf courses in the region. It means quick and easy access to the town’s nightlife, shops and history… but you might prefer the simpler route of staying at the four star Faithlegg House, which comes with its own golf course and two types of accommodation. Choose between hotel rooms or their two and three bedroom self-catering houses.
It is one of the strengths of accommodation providers that such options are available. Self catering provides golf groups with more freedom in their comings and goings while still giving them access to the hotel facilities, bars and restaurants.
Faithlegg is a perfect example in Waterford, while Fota Island and Castlemartyr, hotels, farther west, in Co. Cork, also provide self-catering alternatives. Mount Juliet, in Co. Kilkenny, deserves a very special mention here: it too has self catering options (a two-bed and a four-bed cottage) but it also has two hotels. Its Jack Nicklaus-designed course speaks for itself – and will host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open this summer – but having two hotels to choose from is just a little bit special don’t you think. And when courses re-open in 2021 there will be many golfers who will want to experience this graceful course before or after the Irish Open.
In the midlands one of Ireland’s youngest courses, New Forest, has converted the estate’s original courtyard into luxurious two bedroom lodges. Each can accommodate up to six guests and they are conveniently located between the driving range and the clubhouse. The clubhouse restaurant is highly regarded for its food and the club is well located for the golf courses at Mullingar, Esker Hills, Tullamore, Glasson and Moyvalley (all of which comfortably make our Top 150). That right there is some pure parkland pleasure.
Of course if you prefer a more traditional approach – namely staying at a hotel – you could enjoy the same parkland sextet above by staying at the modern hotel at Moyvalley. The practice facilities are excellent and Moyvalley offers a rhythmic, calm and generous round of golf with a sting in its tail (16, 17 and 18). Interestingly, Moyvalley and New Forest were developed at the same time and opened in 2006. They both have the modern flourishes and facilities but their parkland style is very different: the hypnotic open flow of Moyvalley is countered by the denser, fast moving variety of New Forest’s estate terrain. They make a fine pair when it comes to compare-and-contrast parklands.
Another special mention should be made for Glasson Lakehouse, 40 minutes west of New Forest. The resort is currently implementing one of the biggest investments in Irish golf, completely upgrading its most famous holes (14 to 18) while also making changes to the hotel overlooking Lough Ree. There are big plans here and the golf course is due to re-open in early summer. For those concerned about the famous par three 15th… never fear, the hole will still be a daunting shot across the edge of the lough. Always bring a second ball to the tee!
There aren’t many golf resorts that stand alone and by that we mean that anywhere you find a resort you will find other golf courses in the vicinity. Slieve Russell and Farnham Estate are perfect examples where the resort sits alone in the Irish countryside but there are other courses not too far away. Indeed, the two are only 24 kilometres apart but the resorts themselves are quite different. Slieve Russell has a family friendly vibe, with a spa, tennis courts, a 9-hole putting course, a par three 9-hole course, exceptional practice facilities and the big championship venue… all of which have contributed to it being designated PGA National Ireland, one of only eight PGA National designated resorts in the world. Farnham Estate is more hip and stylish, attracting many couples and groups of friends. The spa is a main attraction, as is the luxury of the hotel, but the Jeff Howes-designed course has plenty of fizz, too.
Druids Glen, in Co. Wicklow, is a glaring example at the other end of the scale: it boasts two championship golf courses (the Glen is simply majestic) and some 30 more within 40 kilometres, including the beautiful East and West 36-hole pairing at Powerscourt, the hillside adventure of Bray and the under-appreciated but electric Arklow Links. You could also descend into a bucolic Irish valley which is home to the Avoca River and the captivating Woodenbridge Golf Club. River and course are intimately entwined. A couple of valleys over, sliding ever faster towards the Wicklow Mountains, you’ll find the Paul McGinley-designed Macreddin. It is one of those big adventures that constantly keeps you guessing, and there is a hotel right alongside. The Brooklodge Hotel is home to the organic Strawberry Tree Restaurant, and it also hosts a thriving food market on one Sunday a month.
Druids Glen has an advantage being located close to Dublin, but Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links goes one better. Not only is it closer to Dublin, it is also only a few miles from Dublin Airport. When you hear someone extolling the virtues of ‘Location, Location, Location’… they have this hotel in mind! Plenty of recent investment – on the course and in the hotel – has enhanced its reputation but its popularity is not simply down to the quality of the Bernard Langer-designed links and distinctive hotel above the beach. This is an ideal base to explore Dublin’s many links courses. Royal Dublin and St. Anne’s fill Bull Island to the brim with links golf. Only a few kilometres to the north lies The Island, a magical links layout renovated in 2020 by Martin Ebert, while next door to the hotel is the world-revered Portmarnock Golf Club. You can even play Ireland’s only public links course at Corballis, which shares the same dune system as The Island. Elsewhere, Dublin has a lot to offer the stay & play golfer including an impressive range of golf courses. James Braid travelled to Howth in the 1920s and created a hilltop adventure through heath and gorse unlike any other. Then there are the dozen or so courses on the edges of the M50. Most notable among these are the classic suburban parkland pairing of Castle and Grange, as well as the illustrious and spacious Luttrellstown Castle. It should also be added that the castle is available to rent should you wish to really hit the heights of stay & play luxury, and enjoy the estate’s 567 acres. Or you can stretch your wings and head north to County Louth, the lakeside Concra Wood, Dundalk and even Royal County Down.
The K Club in Co. Kildare is 24 kilometres west of Dublin. Its five star hotel sits above the dark and brooding River Liffey, and it shines like a beacon as golfers pass by on their way to the 8th tee. The Liffey influences four holes on the Palmer North course and it is most terrifying on that par four 8th hole. The resort also comes with the Palmer South course (formerly the Smurfit) and the variety between the courses gives you plenty to think about as you head between the two impressive clubhouses.
So many of the hotels mentioned above are of the big variety but there are plenty more which are smaller, more intimate but just as plush. Rathsallagh House is a prime example, tucked away in quiet Wicklow countryside. It also has easy access to Rathsallagh Golf Club.
We have said little about Northern Ireland, and after the somewhat rollercoaster evolution of 2020’s Irish Open, which ended up being played at Galgorm Castle, it seems only fair to give credit where it’s due. The Open was due to be played at Mount Juliet, but Covid-19 resulted in a shift to the Ballymena course where several European Tour events have been played in recent years. Boasting a languid and peaceful pace, as well as the intertwining Braid and Main rivers, you’ll be hard pressed to play a more relaxing course. The nearby Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort is a beautiful venue with all the bells and whistles, as well as the best spa in the country. The Thermal Village just has to be seen to be believed. From here it is easy to strike out for the Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and the Dark Hedges… never mind Belfast’s Titanic Centre and the many courses in the region. Two other resorts worth mentioning are Lough Erne, in Co. Fermanagh (and close to the links courses of counties Sligo and Donegal), and the ever-popular Roe Park, farther north, which puts it close to the links of Antrim and Derry. A special mention should also be made for Blackrock House B&B, in Portrush. It is the first five star B&B in the town. There are four tastefully furnished bedrooms over four floors, and the two lounges and whiskey bar are the perfect place to unwind after (or before) experiencing some of the world’s best golf right next door.
Finally, a ‘resort’ that golfers may not even be aware of but ticks the boxes for thrill seekers. We’re talking about Old Head, in Co. Kerry, which many Irish golfers discovered for the first time in 2020. Playing over and around 300 foot cliffs it remains a gasp of exhilaration, time and again. There are hero shots galore as well as heroic views. Back in the clubhouse, discreetly tucked away, you will find 19 Seaview Suites with private balconies looking out to sea and two presidential suites. The O’Connor Suite, covering 1100 square feet, opened at the end of 2020. It is an unadulterated splash of luxury, much like Old Head itself.
As rich and fabulous as our golf courses are, and as comfortable as you find your chosen lodgings to be, please allow a little time to explore Ireland’s many famous destinations. These sites have made Ireland one of the top travel destinations in the world… and man cannot live on golf alone.