A Course Called Quirky

Tom Coyne at Mulranny Golf Club. Photo: ©INPHO / Morgan Treacy

Tom Coyne, Contributor
October / November 2014

Tom Coyne, whose 16-week jaunt through Ireland’s 38 seaside golf courses led to the best-selling book, A Course Called Ireland, has put together a list of 18 of his favorite quirky Irish golf holes.

Quirky: possessing an individual peculiarity of character; an unusual habit or way of behaving; different from the ordinary in a way that causes curiosity.

In compiling my list of the 18 quirkiest golf holes in Ireland, it quickly became clear that I must love the unusual, because my quirky list lined up perfectly with my tally of favorite golf memories in Ireland. Ireland, like all the places I’ve traveled, seems to be the sum of its wonderful quirks – its flourishes, and its peculiarities. So when I call this my 18 quirkiest holes in Ireland, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it my 18 most Irish.

Lahinch #4, County Clare (par 5 | 475 yards)

My list starts on the hole that haunts the links dreams of my youth. I recall playing Lahinch for the first time as a teenager, and arriving at #4 down a half-dozen balls and resenting my father for forcing this pastime upon me. After hacking my way through a gauntlet of dunes and finally blasting my ball back onto the fairway, my caddy told me to aim at a big green mountain of golfing death, and hit my ball back at the sort of hulking sand tower from which it had just escaped. I was sure Lahinch was having a laugh. The green on the par five sits hidden behind a massive sand dune, invisible and improbable for the first-time visitor. It’s actually a rather generous landing area if you trust your caddy and aim for the white rock. And they could have made it harder, I suppose. They could have painted the rock green.

Mulranny #1, County Mayo (par 5 | 428 yards)

Every hole at the nine-hole Mulranny could make this list, but I point to the first because it is a visitor’s first taste of a green wringed by barbed wire fence. Mulranny is a wonderful little links built on commonage, so it shares its acres with sheep, horses, golfers, and other donkeys, and the fences protect the greens from heavy hooves. I have approached many greens with a mental picture of a prohibitive barbed wire fence; in Mulranny, one doesn’t need to pretend. Trust in the 90% air rule and chip right on through the fences (or take a free do-over if you find the 10%). And don’t forget to close the gate after you on your way out.

This is not a farm. This is Mulranny.

This is not a farm. This is Mulranny.

Ardglass #2, County Down (par 3 | 162 yards)

After teeing off #1, with ocean spray wetting your feet and a 15th-century castle up against your back, you might be wondering what you have gotten yourself into in Ardglass. Number two will confirm your suspicions that you’ve found one of the most special places in Ireland for golf. With a green perched above what looks like some sort of ancient coastal rock slide spilling into the waves below, number two combines water, rock, and green in a stunning tableau. You won’t know whether to hit your ball, rappel to safety, or go spelunking. No wonder Rory McIlroy, when asked his favorite golf course in Northern Ireland, chose Ardglass.

Otway #2, County Donegal (par 4 | 356 yards)

If you are looking for quirky, this little nine-holer has you covered. Packed into a small pocket of Donegal seaside, the course is as fun as it is confusing – holes crisscross and overlap, and without careful attention to the course map, you will likely end up inventing a tee-to-green routing of your own. Your tee shot on #2 will have you completely stumped – the tee markers point you up a hill and toward what looks like a fence at the edge of the property. Trust that you are facing the right direction and swing away – there’s a gate in the fence, and over the ridge you will find the second half of the golf course. Along with your ball, one hopes.

Cruit Island #6, County Donegal (par 3 | 149 yards)

Everything about Cruit Island is unique – from the name Americans find impossible to pronounce, to the adventurous haul out to the edge of Donegal, to the stunning rocky claws upon which the golf course is built. For my money, #6 is the most dramatic par three on the golfing planet, a green that would look so wide and welcoming if it weren’t for the massive sea cave separating you from it. Depending on wind and tide, this little par 3 can be played with any of twelve clubs, and it has at least as many personalities – from soft and sleepy sands at low-tide, to angry waves reaching for your ball at high. You wouldn’t think it safe to travel such geography on foot, not until someone dug a small hole in the ground and stuck a flag in it, after which it became not only sensible, but necessary.

That's the green in the distance at Cruit Island.

That’s the green in the distance at Cruit Island.

Doonbeg #12, County Clare (par 4 | 401 yards)

I happen to like my golf quirks for the age they connote – why would anyone put the green there? Because the course predates bulldozers – nature put the green there. Doonbeg’s #12 is a rare modern quirky hole, with a controversial and much debated design anomaly fashioned by Mr. Greg Norman: a bunker smack in the middle of the green. Love it, hate it, or laugh at it, you can say that you won’t find such a feature elsewhere in golf. But with the recent change of ownership at Doonbeg, one must wonder: Will Donald Trump leave the bunker in the green on 12? If enough of his own solidly-struck approach shots find themselves in the bunker, I fear that sand trap could very well be fired.

Achill Island, County Mayo – All Holes

To pick a quirky hole at the nine-hole Achill Island links is a difficult challenge – in fact, remembering any particular hole at Achill has proven tricky. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy my day at Achill and appreciate it as completely unique, but it isn’t a course of memorable golf moments so much as it is a pretty stretch of golfing land in the shadow of stunning grey sea cliffs, and a course covered with bucking sheep and fence-protected greens à la the commonage at Mulranny. But Achill has a feature I have never seen on a golf course elsewhere – as the resident sheep nibble all the grass to fairway length, rows of white stones are used to outline what would be the fairways at Achill. It’s sort of like a runway effect, as if you are a pilot looking for the safe stretch to land your ball. Even if stray outside the lines, if you don’t find your drive on the short grass at Achill, it’s time to take up tennis.

The sheep greenskeepers at Achill Island.

The sheep greenskeepers at Achill Island.

European Club #12, County Wicklow (par 4 | 459 yards)

The European Club’s rare and celebrated qualities are a product of the unique mind from which they were born. The green on the 12th in Wicklow is a perfect example of Pat Ruddy’s willingness to challenge golfers in unexpected ways. The putting surface is 127 yards long – a full pitching wedge from back to front, meaning the hole can be stretched or shortened for any approach in one’s bag. The green is not a gag – quirks abound at the European Club, but they aren’t accidental. This beefy putting surface is a chance to use every ounce of green-reading imagination at your disposal. And the green on 12 can provide you that rare golf experience where you aren’t sure if putter is enough.

Spanish Point #8, County Clare (par 3, 117 yards)

I finish my quirky front nine with a hole in Clare called “The Terror.” On the scorecard, it couldn’t look less terrible, but the hole asks you to hit over a deep hollow to a tiny green, with a wide expanse of holiday campers behind you and the resting grounds of the Spanish Armada just over your shoulder. Yard for yard, it is one of the most flashy holes in Ireland, and for a little flip wedge of a shot, terrible numbers do await should you get lost in the vista.

Old Head #18 , County Cork (back tee – par 4, 434 yards)

Play this hole from the forward tee and it’s another gorgeous hole set atop what might be the most uncommon golf setting on the planet. But take the long walk back to the black tee beneath the Old Head lighthouse, and this hole becomes something out of a video game, and you find yourself searching for a turbo swing button. The tee box is roughly four paces deep, from the lighthouse wall to the long drop into golfing Valhalla in front of you. I am accustomed to teeing off on waterside holes with a fear of losing my ball; on the back tee at Old Head, I was more worried about losing my club and whatever might be attached to it – namely, myself.

Lahinch #5, County Clare (par 3, 154 yards)

You arrived half-asleep in Ireland, slept-walked through customs, ate a breakfast that you don’t think you could explain to your doctor, and dragged your jetlagged bones up to number five at Lahinch where you look into a wall of windy dunes, and your caddy hands you a seven-iron and tells you it’s a par 3. With no green in sight, you wonder in what strange land you have found yourself, if you are still asleep on that 747, or if they sometimes forgot to build the greens on holes in Ireland. Trust your caddy, the green is back there – you’ll never not see a blind par-three anywhere else in your golfing life.

Tralee #13, County Kerry (par 3, 159 yards)

Called Brock’s Hollow, one might wonder about Brock and if he had a severe dislike of golfers. Find the green on this par three over a bottomless pit in the dunes and it will be your favorite in Ireland. Come up short and you should tell your playing partners to wait fifteen minutes before calling in a search party for extraction. And you thought designer Arnold Palmer was such an affable fellow.

Buncrana #8, County Donegal (par 4, 357 yards)

Named “Calamity,” the 8th at the charming nine-hole Buncrana is hands-down the most appropriately titled hole in Ireland. The par-four #8 shares its fairway with the adjacent par four #7, in what I believe may be the world’s only two-way fairway, with traffic heading along the hole in both directions. As you find yourself launching your drive directly into the foursome behind or in front of you, don’t worry – swing away, yell fore, and enjoy the chaos.

Always good advice; necessary advice at Buncrana.

Always good advice; necessary advice at Buncrana.

The Island #14, County Dublin (par 4, 337 yards)

It is easy to mistake the fairway on 14 at The Island for an accidental path created by, say, an earthworm. The necktie-wide fairway is only made more terrifying by the deadly dunes on the left, and a wet landing on the right. You will have never played such a short hole with such fear before – putting the ball in the hole won’t feel nearly as satisfying as putting a ball on the short grass.

Ballycastle #3, County Antrim (par 3, 168 yards)

Ballycastle is one of the most unique courses in Ireland for its multitude of personalities. From tame parkland holes to wild links offerings, from flat and low-lying holes, to a back nine that launches you up into seaside hills like some sort of desperate shepherd searching for his flock, Ballycastle is wonderful for being weird. And #3 on the safer side of the course brings ruins of the 12th century Bon-a-Margy Abbey into play. Centuries of war and weather could not bring the Abbey down, but an assault by wayward eight-irons is still being waged.

Surf's up at Ballycastle.

Surf’s up at Ballycastle.

Carne #17, County Mayo (par 4, 436 yards)

I couldn’t leave my favorite golf course off a list of the most unique holes in Ireland. There has to be something unique about #17 if my writer friend John Garrity makes the unmerciful par-four a central obsession of his wonderful memoir, Ancestral Links. The hole is a wild-ride of a par four with a deep, kinked fairway leading to a green that seems as if it has been melted across the side of a soaring dune. John found the hole so fascinating that he turned 17 into its own golf course, playing the hole eighteen times with a goal of breaking 90.

Narin & Portnoo #’s 13, 14,15, County Donegal (463, 490, 480 yards respectively)

I suppose it’s no surprise that a list of quirky holes has a strong Donegal representation (a county I love and a place I found to possess as much character as any in the country). If back-to-back-to-back par fives isn’t quirky in a course design, I’m not sure what is. Narin & Portnoo is one of Ireland’s true hidden gems and a gorgeous track that rewards the willing traveler with pure links challenge and stunning seaside scenery. Your love affair with Narin & Pornoo might take a brief hiatus as it lays out three meaty par-fives in a row for you, especially if they are into the wind. Don’t play it on an empty stomach. Your pint at round’s end will feel particularly victorious.

European Club, holes #’s19 & 20 (120 and 160 yards respectively)

Where better to end a round of Ireland’s most unique golf holes than with the most unique course plan in Ireland? The European Club again shows its singular Pat Ruddy vision with the addition of two extra holes that can be played for fun, or used so that another hole on each nine can be tended to or rested. Bonus holes are the kind of brilliant idea you only get when a course has the uncommon point of view and love you get at the European Club, where the extra cost of maintaining twenty holes is small beer when it comes to creating a perfect golfing experience. And two extra holes will help ease that feeling you are bound to encounter on all your golfing travels in Ireland – that eighteen is never quite enough.

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