BELMULLET, Ireland – We are standing on the 13th green at Carne, a rugged piece of raw golfing brilliance that has become a site of pilgrimage for purists and tourists alike, and frankly we are a little overwhelmed.
The sky is blue, the wind is down, the scenery sensational and there may not be an adequate superlative to illustrate the depth of this oceanside links experience for the previous dozen holes.
And now, putter in hand, our host at this westernmost point of this enchanting course offers not advice on reading our putt but on a different line of sight: “Right over there is Canada,” he says, pointing to his left.
Right there being straight across the Atlantic, of course, some 3,000 kilometres yonder. Perched as it is on the lip of the picturesque Wild Atlantic Way, Carne is almost literally as close to the eastern shores of Newfoundland as one can get from this side of the ocean.
It’s remoteness makes the journey to play Carne a challenge. It’s natural beauty and sheer golfing brilliance make it worth every ounce of effort the trek entails.
There are golfing masterpieces throughout the Emerald Isle and on this trip we focus on two of them, a pair of perhaps underrated classics at near opposite ends of the aptly christened Wild Atlantic Way, an often breathtaking 2,500-km stretch rolling through nine counties and countless postcard vistas along Ireland’s coast.
Further to the south, in County Clare, the destination is historic Lahinch Golf Club, home to this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the permanent residency of four fairway-dwelling goats.
A course that has its design roots permanently attached to Old Tom Morris (think Carnoustie) and Alister MacKenzie (think Augusta National), Lahinch thus comes by its classic designation rather honestly.
But back up the coast for now to North Mayo, where the Carne experience is emphatically taking root.
Awed by fairways that meander around the dunes – some as high as 45 metres in height and appearing untouched and unspoiled for centuries precisely because that is the case – the playing experience gets better from hole to stunning hole.
It gets especially real from the 10th green onwards. After putting out, the trek to the 11th tee is a substantial climb yet sensational given that the view is the first significant one of the Atlantic.
From here, the navigation seems to get more spectacular by the step. Power carts are available at Carne but almost discouraged and much of the treat in enjoying the trek in and around those dunes is walking anyway.
The land is so stunning that it is said to have captivated noted Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett from the moment he laid eyes on what would be one of his most substantial palettes. Commissioned to design and build a layout that would attract tourists to this remote part of the country, the course designer’s final work is deemed by many to be his best.
Hackett, who died in 1996 mere months after Carne was unveiled, was adamant to keep the bulldozers away and to let his golf course weave around, through and over the design aids provided by Mother Nature.
“All of the work was done with spades and shovels,” says Gerry Maguire, the chairman of Erris Tourism and an enthusiastic patriarch to one of Ireland’s most intriguing golf stops. “There was no land moved. Eddie Hackett was adamant that there was no need.”
At the picturesque corner of Carne where we received our geography lesson, the 13th is a grinding Par 5. But if your gaze keeps drifting to the right, the view either enhances a good shot or deadens the sting of a dodgy one.
Next up, from the most remote point of the course, is the Par 3 14th, a darling of a 147-yard short hole framed by two small pot bunkers and the Atlantic as the backdrop.
And the breathtaking tour continues to more ocean views on the Par 4 15th and another stunning Par 3 at 16, where the tee shot is launched from dune top, with sweeping views of the seaside, to an inviting green well below.
We could continue, but words and pictures barely do Carne justice, as view after view of Blacksod Bay and the Atlantic meet head-to-head with a clever and challenging Hackett-designed masterpiece.
They pour a superb pint of Guinness in the clubhouse, the hospitality in keeping with the small Irish village of Belmullet just down the road. But the star of the show is, as it should be, the golf course itself.
Down the coast lies Lahinch, where there are also dunes and sweeping views of the Atlantic and where, despite the icy waters, the village is known as a surfing town as well.
Golf is central to the village’s heartbeat, however, as an afternoon pub crawl through the Corner Stone, Kenny’s Bar and The 19th Bar attests. Talk, like the decor, invariably turns to the links and as one would expect the Guinness is good for you here as well, just as the old marketing slogan advises.
As sunset nears, one wanders down the street and looks to the right where the beach runs into the links for a spectacular view, especially if the light is just so. Paddy Keane, the enthusiastic general manager at Lahinch, is often in the clubhouse to greet guests and members alike at a golfing shrine light on pretentiousness and heavy on hospitality.
Irishmen have long known the place Lahinch holds among the top experiences in the country — which given the options is saying something. But to show it off to the world in this week’s European Tour event figures to only add to its stature.
“We are very proud of our great links courses in Ireland and Lahinch has evolved to rank as one of the very best,” veteran Irish touring pro Paul McGinley said. “The tournament will honour a great venue, town and people in what is a stunning part of the Irish southwestern coastline.”
Now on to the course. After getting briefed by the flamboyant Lahinch starter Tony, who marks up our yardage books and suggests that we favour the right side of the third fairway and the left side of the 10th for a better approach (as if it were that simple), we’re off.
Following a rather benign uphill Par 4 opener, Lahinch gradually works its way towards the visual and playing highlights, of which there are many.
On the scorecard, the Klondyke (as the fourth is called), is a relatively modest 472-yard Par 5 with the ocean crashing behind you off the tee and a drive that needs to be placed between dunes to the left and right. Once suitably placed, the second shot required a carry over a massive dune in the middle of the fairway – one complete with a fore caddy waving a green flag when all is clear.
Next up is the Par 3, 148-yard Dell, a hole originally designed by Old Tom Morris himself. From the tee, however, you can’t see the flag, let alone the green, trusting that the rock on top one of the dunes is an accurate aiming tool.
We could go on about all 18 holes at Lahinch – it really is that good – but first a word about the goats.
There is a statue of one in front of the clubhouse and a goat appears on the logo — their presence is not just lore, it’s part of the landscape. Four of them still remain and we saw them grazing to the right of the sixth fairway, paying little attention to an approach that drifted to the left.
Because the golf course sits above the beach below, there are any number of enchanting views, whether it be the village itself, the wide sand beach and surfers, or slightly inland, the O’Brien Castle.
Top of our list was the Par 3 eighth, a 156-yard beauty that has the ocean engulfing it on two sides. On a calm day, the yardages plays true, but the locals tell you that when the wind roars here, a driver might not be much too much club.
Just 10 kilometres up the coast from the famed Cliffs of Moher, Lahinch has made its own lasting impression, especially on golfers seeking the classic links experience.
IF YOU GO
Aer Lingus flies twice daily direct from Toronto to Dublin where there’s easy access to all points on the Emerald Isle. For more on what Ireland’s west coast has to offer, check out www.wildatlanticway.com , www.carnegolflinks.com and www.lahinchgolf.com .
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019