I set foot in Ireland for the first time in 2003 as a newbie golf writer.
It was my introduction to links golf, a shock to the system that opened my eyes to what a golf course could – maybe the word is 'should' – be. The slightly brown fairways. The native grasses, longer than my stubby legs, waving in the breeze. Gorse more golden than the brightest sun. Bunkers with sod walls stacked like legos. It was all so foreign, and it still felt like home.
I tell people all the time that I was born on the wrong side of the pond. The golf gods gave me a game more suited to links golf – where my low and straight ball flight sends shots bounding down firm fairways. The creativity around the greens – sometimes putting or using a hybrid from 30 yards away – inspires me to focus more than America's game. Going to Ireland stirs my soul. Maybe that's why I've made more golf trips to Ireland and Northern Ireland – a dozen or so – than any other golf destination in the world.
I'm using all these rounds as research to rank the best courses on the Emerald Isle. I've played all the top courses except the European Club at least once. I've experienced them in sun, in rain, in wind, in wonderful weather. They play so different from day to day.
Nobody is going to agree with my choices, and I'm cool with that. I'm not even sure I do. I've told people I want my ashes spread at Tralee, yet the scenic Arnold Palmer design didn't even make my top five.
There are so many great places to play that I feel guilty leaving out amazing dunes-laden links like County Sligo and Carne Golf Links. A foursome of stout Irish Open hosts (Strand at Portstewart, Glashedy at Ballyliffin, County Louth, Royal Dublin) and a past Ryder Cup venue (the Palmer course at the K Club) and likely future one (Adare Manor) didn't make the cut, either. Neither did the scenic Ardglass with the oldest clubhouse in the world. I also disqualified the new Hogs Head and one of my all-time favorite golf experiences, Old Head Golf Links, since they're mostly private members clubs with only limited public access these days.
The return of The Open to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951 – the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland will host July 18-21 this summer – and the final season of Game of Thrones, filmed mostly in Northern Ireland, signal two good reasons to shine a spotlight on such a diverse destination. Before you get too upset at where your favorite course ranks in this top 10 of Ireland and Northern Ireland, remember this list is splitting hairs. No. 8 could easily move up to replace No. 3. It's that close of a call from one links to the next …
Want to debate my selections? Let me hear your thoughts with a comment below.