Ireland's spectacular landscapes and dramatically changing weather provide some of most epic golfing challenges on earth. The island has well over 400 courses in stunning locations, including a third of all coastal links courses worldwide. Golf is now Ireland's most popular activity among visitors after hiking, and playing a round here is a highlight of a trip.
All of Ireland's golf clubs welcome non-members (book ahead), but some of the most prestigious require you to have a handicap from your home country. Detailed information is available from the Golfing Union of Ireland (gui.ie). Dress codes are common (no jeans, shorts or trainers); top-notch facilities include pro shops, lessons and club hire. If you're planning to hit several courses, a great option is to rent a customised set of clubs at Dublin, Cork or Shannon airports through clubstohire.com, which you can drop back at the airport when you leave. For discounted green fees, visit teetimes.ie.
Lahinch Golf Club
Links courses don't come more pedigree than Lahinch Golf Club (lahinchgolf.com), 10km southeast of the Cliffs of Moher in the surf mecca of Lahinch, County Clare. Founded in 1892, when it was marked out through the dunes by Black Watch Regiment British Army officers, Lahinch was subsequently designed by Old Tom Morris, whose legendary blind-shot Klondyke (4th) and Dell (5th) holes still remain, then reworked by Alister MacKenzie in the 1920s, and by Martin Hawtree at the turn of the millennium.
Along with the par 72 Old Course is the flatter (and cheaper) par 70 Castle Course - the 7th hole overlooks ruined Dough Castle. Roaming the fairways, Lahinch's goats have been a distinctive sight since the early 20th century, when their ancestors belonged to a local caddie, and still act as a barometer - if they're in the outer dunes, it's unlikely to rain; if they head towards the clubhouse, consider following them. A five-minute walk away, Lahinch Golf & Leisure Hotel has a bone-soaking spa. Atlantic-fresh seafood is served in a cosy cottage 3.5km south at Barrtra Seafood Restaurant.
Fota Island Golf Club
A three-time host of the Irish Open, most recently in 2014, Fota Island Golf Club (fotaisland.ie) encompasses three state-of-the-art championship golf courses: Deerpark (par 71; site of the Irish Open and famed for its strategic bunkers), Belvelly (par 72) and Barryscourt (par 73), as well as a golf academy. They sprawl over the 780-acre Fota Island Resort, set on beautiful Fota Island in Cork Harbour (linked to the mainland by bridges), 10km east of Cork City, which is included in the Inventory of Outstanding Landscapes in Ireland. Golf is believed to have been played here as early as 1886, but the site wasn't redeveloped until the 1990s. The resort's facilities include a five-star hotel; the most atmospheric place to drink and/or dine is the beautiful old stone clubhouse in a converted lakeside farmhouse. In nearby Cobh, Gilbert's has contemporary rooms and an excellent restaurant.
Adare Golf Club
Situated 16km southwest of Limerick City in County Limerick, magnificent 1897-completed Adare Manor is now home to a regal hotel and the Adare Golf Club (adaremanor.com) in the manor's wooded demesne. The River Maigue wends through the leafy par 72 course (brace yourself for the riverside 18th hole), which also incorporates a 14-acre lake on the front nine holes. An Irish Open venue, it was the last major course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr (complete with his signature cloverleaf bunkers) and is a favourite of Ireland's winning 2014 Ryder Cup Europe captain Paul McGinley. Next door is the separately run, Eddie Hackett-designed Adare Manor Golf Club (adaremanorgolfclub.com), a par 69 parkland course with amazing views of ruined 12th-century Adare Castle. Accommodation/dining options nearby include the elegant Dunraven Arms.
Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland
Formerly the Lodge at Doonbeg, the monumental links course and palatial hotel that make up Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland (trumphotelcollection/ireland) in the tiny village of Doonbeg, County Clare, is now owned by, you guessed it, tycoon Donald Trump. Perched at the edge of the Atlantic, the par 72 course was designed by Greg Norman (he and Irish golfing great Pádraig Harrington played the inaugural round). It carves through wind-buffeted sand dunes alongside Doughmore Bay's sweeping White Strand beach, with native fescues, bentgrass and ryegrass making up its fairways and greens. As you'd expect, the attached hotel has every conceivable luxury (to go all-out, book an Ocean View suite), as well as fine dining. For something less rarefied, nearby Morrissey's has boutique pub rooms and sublime seafood.
Holywood Golf Club
World number one Rory McIlroy's home club is the Holywood Golf Club (holywoodgolfclub.co.uk), an undulating parkland course situated 11km northeast of Belfast, County Down in the Holywood Hills. Its elevated position provides incredible views over Belfast Lough and the Antrim Coast. The par 69 course is ideal for brushing up your game (the front nine holes are considerably easier than the back nine), and it's cheaper and more relaxed than many top clubs. There are three bars and a restaurant; just 100m away, 19th-century Rayanne House has beautiful rooms and a destination restaurant.
Other great courses for seasoned players
Waterville Golf Links (watervillegolflinks.ie) With a history stretching back over a century, this illustrious Eddie Hackett-designed par 72 championship links course, frequented by Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara and the late Payne Stewart, among others, borders Ballinskelligs Bay on the scenic Ring of Kerry loop drive, County Kerry. Handicap required.
Old Head Golf Links (oldhead.com) Strikingly set on a lighthouse-capped promontory 15km south of Kinsale, County Cork, nine of this par 72 course's 18 holes are played along the dizzying cliff tops. Handicap required.
Ballybunion Golf Club (ballybuniongolfclub.ie) Esteemed Ballybunion Golf Club, in Ballybunion, northern County Kerry, is beloved by Tom Watson – and by former US President Bill Clinton, as attested by the statue of him wielding a club. The 1893-established Old Course is a par 71; the Robert Trent Jones Sr-designed Cashen Course is par 72. Handicap required.
Ballyliffin Golf Club (ballyliffingolfclub.com) Ireland's most northerly golf club, in Ballyliffin, on the Inishowen peninsula, County Donegal, incorporates two championship links courses, the par 71 Old Links and par 72 Glashedy Links. Handicap required.
Royal County Down Golf Club (royalcountydown.org) Beneath the Mountains of Mourne amid flowering heather and gorse, this hallowed par 71 links course in Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland, was designed by Old Tom Morris and incorporates two awe-inspiring nine-hole loops. No handicap required, but book several months ahead.