Along with great Guinness and a sinking pub, the Dublin area offers luxurious resorts and magnificent golf.by Rob Duca
We were on the road to nowhere, speeding down narrow, twisting roads in pitch-black darkness. Signs of civilization were non-existent. The journey was supposed to take 15 minutes, but we quickly realized that it was “an Irish 15 minutes,” so nearly one hour later we arrived at Roche’s Pub in Donadea, Country Kildare, outside of Dublin.
The week was to be spent being exposed to golf courses around Dublin that showed one doesn’t need to book tee times at the more famous Royal County Downs and Ballybunions to experience magnificent, challenging Irish layouts. We played golf at five courses and stayed at a different resort every night, with each destination as luxurious and historic as the last.
But this night was for rubbing elbows and swapping stories with locals, while, of course, savoring a Guinness or two. Maybe you’ve never heard of Roche’s Pub, but once there you’ll never forget it. Built in the 1800s on a bog, it has been slowly sinking for more than 100 years, so you might feel tipsy even before your first drink. The floors are lopsided, the bar is tilted and the music never stops. In 2006, it drew the American Ryder Cup team, which showed up unannounced to shoot darts before competition opened at The K Club.
Like the Ryder Cuppers, we headed to The K Club the following day to play the Palmer Course. Only 20 years old, the club’s claim to fame was hosting the 2006 matches. Everything about the atmosphere is lavish from the moment you walk into the ornate clubhouse, where a replica Ryder Cup encased in glass is on display. This is a parkland course, which led to some criticism by the press who felt that the debut of the matches in Ireland should have been held at a links course. But the layout is superb and strategic, especially on the back nine where water comes into play on nearly every hole. The 16th and 17th holes are majestic tests of nerve and decision-making. The par-5 16th demands a forced carry over a hazard off the tee and an approach to a smallish green protected by water. The K Club isn’t a classic links course, but the conditions are impeccable, the scenery is lush and you won’t be disappointed.
The same can be said for our accommodations that evening at The K Club’s luxurious Kildare Hotel, which overlooks the course. Built in 1832 on the banks of the River Liffey, the house was modeled on a French Chateau and retains much of its original architectural features, artwork and antiques. One room is dedicated to the Irish Expressionist painter J.B. Yeats and features many of his most important works.
It felt like I was roaming through a Newport mansion from the Gilded Age, except that I got to sleep there, checking into accommodations that included a 25-foot ceiling, a four-poster bed, a separate sitting room and a spacious bath with Jacuzzi and stand-alone shower.
This opulence was evident from the first day of the trip when I checked into the Powerscourt Hotel in Enniskerry. Tucked into a valley, surrounded by trees and Great Sugar Loaf Mountain, the property doesn’t come into view until moments before you arrive at the entrance. Formerly a Ritz-Carlton, it stands apart for its amenities, which include 93 four-room suites among its 200 rooms. Even those not staying at the resort come to view the magnificent gardens. The property includes
two parkland golf courses, the David McLay Kidd-designed West Course and the Peter McEvoy-created East. I played the East Course, which features rolling terrain, undulating greens and lots of bunkers. It isn’t especially long, but the ball must be played in the air, something you don’t necessarily anticipate in Ireland, while approach shots require precision.
The following day was reserved for a classic Irish experience at The Island Golf Club in Donabate. Established in 1890, it is surrounded by the sea on three sides and is one of Ireland’s original clubs. Until 1973, it could only be approached by boat. Original members gave the club its name because that’s what it looked like when they rowed across the estuary from Malahide to play the course. This is links golf at its finest. Holes are carved out of giant sand dunes and follow the rugged, natural terrain. The wind blows fiercely. Missed fairways are lost balls. Greens are isolated and severely sloped. It’s a sensational journey back in time.
Virtually every hole is distinct and memorable, but the par-3 13th and the par-4 14th stand out. Water surrounds the 13th, which plays toward the end of the spit and affords stunning views across to the town of Malahide. You then shift directions to play Ireland’s narrowest fairway. Bordered by dunes on the left and the sea on the right, it is a mere 17 yards wide. Keep the driver in your bag.
Lodging for that night was at Carton House, a 1,100-acre estate built in 1739 that has housed more than its fair share of celebrities, including Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly and Peter Sellers, who lived in one of the wings in the 1970s. The bell room in the old section of the house (there is also a new, contemporary wing) provides a stark reminder of its past, with the bells still hanging from the wall that once notified butlers that their services were required.
The estate’s boundary wall is nearly six miles long and the resort stretches into two counties. On the Colin Montgomerie-designed course, you tee off the first hole in County Mealth and play your second shot in County Kildare. Home to two courses, the Montgomerie Course has hosted three Irish Opens and the Irish Amateur Championship, where a 16-year-old named Rory McIlroy finished Top 10 in 2005. The Montgomerie course was created on open ground, with links-style bunkering and high, wispy grasses. The Mark O’Meara-designed layout is more tree-lined and plays along the River Rye.
Next on the agenda was Druids Glen Hotel & Resort in Wicklow. We checked into the hotel, which is set in seclusion with a mountain backdrop, before heading to the Druids Glen Golf Course, one of two on the property. I had read the literature that proclaimed Druids Glen to be the “Augusta National of Europe,” and wondered if that were true. Guess what? It is. Designed by Pat Ruddy, who also built and owns the dazzling European Club, it features some of the most dramatic holes I have ever played. With lush plantings lining tee boxes, fairways and greens, and extraordinary elevation changes, it dazzles the eye from start to finish. The par-3 12th is a masterpiece of visual brilliance. The elevated tee looks down upon a sloped green protected in front by a snake-like stream and sublime stonework, including a replica of the famous Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews. The treacherous par-4 14th of 491 yards is equally memorable with water slithering left to right, requiring forced carries on the first two shots. Druids Glen lives up
to its reputation in terms of aesthetics, design and challenge.
Our final stop was the Mount Juliet Hotel in Thomastown and a Jack Nicklaus-designed course that has hosted numerous events, including the Amex World Golf Championship won by Tiger Woods. Challenging yet playable, this parkland layout is in superb condition and features a series of creative, challenging holes. You’ll know you are somewhere special from the moment you drive through the gates toward the Mount Juliet House, which looks as though it were built in the 1800s.
So what did I learn from this five-day journey of playing golf and checking in and out of a variety of resorts all within a two-hour drive of Dublin? That while Ireland certainly has more famous courses along the Ring of Kerry and to the north, the Dublin area is a trip worth taking, both for the golf and the truly grand lodging choices.