Ireland’s Top Hidden Gems

Kevin Markham
Kevin Markham

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While most golfers don’t like the term ‘hidden gem’ we have yet to find a suitable replacement. ‘Undiscovered Fairways’ is syllable heavy. ‘Fairways Less Travelled’ is too long. So, until you can give me a better name… Hidden Gem it will have to be.

First up is to say that given the increased exposure of Irish golf to golfers at both home and abroad, there are certain ‘hidden’ courses that are no longer hidden. For years, Dooks was a hidden gem but it is long past that now, and it is an important part of the south west swing. I no longer regard Dingle in this bracket either, nor Portumna, Strandhill, Ballinrobe, Rosslare, Arklow or Royal Curragh. While golfers from overseas may not know these courses well – if at all – they all make Irish Golfer Magazine’s Top 100 courses.

As a result, for the purposes of this article, I am choosing 15 courses which are not in the top 100. I have promoted several of these before – I am not shy about my love for Scrabo, Portarlington, Rathcore and Fermoy – but I’m throwing some extra ones into the mix, ones you may not know and courses I hope you think about visiting in the near future. How do I determine a Hidden Gem? Simple: It’s a course rarely talked about, little known outside the local area, great value and I would travel 60 to 90 minutes to play it.

Birr, Co. Offaly : Only two courses in Ireland possess eskers of the scale you find at Birr. Esker Hills is well known but Birr, dating back to 1893, rarely gets the recognition it deserves. Sure, it is a little cramped in places with some cross-overs but this is the only ‘negative’ comment you will hear: the rest of Birr is brilliant. The tumbling and rhythmic eskers are so perfect it’s hard to believe they’re natural… but they are. You can find yourself plunging over them, like the waves in a swelling sea, or being channelled through them with the green achingly attractive in the distance. The course is often embraced by deep woods and nowhere is this more prominent than on the exceptional 10th, 11th and 12th, where the forest hugs the right flank. These may be the most memorable holes – and boy is the 10th tricky – but the par-3s also form a superb set with 14 and 15 back-to-back beauties of 163m and 154m, respectively.

This fast-draining and sandy soil makes it playable all year round and gives it certain crisp links qualities, including the occasional blind shot. It is not long and demands common sense over bash and thrash.

Par 70 5,604 metres (white). Par 73 4,904 metres (red). Green fee €30-€45

The Blackwood, Co. Down: I doubt many golfers south of the Border have heard of The Blackwood. Located east of Belfast and laid out on the Clandeboye Estate, there are 36 holes here. The Hamilton is the main event, a par 71 of 6,148 yards. It rambles over undulating terrain and through mature woodland, and every hole is named after a tree (e.g. Hawthorn Alley). If that doesn’t ‘scream parkland’, nothing does. Add in gorse and water, which comes in to play on 11 holes, and you have a big occasion that genuinely feels like a discovery. There are pretty walks through woods to reach tees and several greens are tucked in deep. The wide spaces also give you room to play… although that’s more the case on the front than the back.

The front nine offers a calm start but the momentum builds with a strong closing stretch. Two par-3s stand out: the 7th which plays up to a green nestled in gorse, and the 12th, with water in front of the green.

In 2024, the maintenance contract was given to Carr Golf. Lifting the quality of the course will undoubtedly lift The Hamilton’s reputation.

Par 71 6,148 yards (Yellow). Par 72 5,323 yards (Red). Green fee £29-£35

Clandeboye (Ava), Co. Down: This is a beautifully packaged piece of dynamite. If you’re from outside the local area (Belfast/Co. Down) and you talk about the 36-hole Clandeboye you will most likely discuss the big-ticket Dufferin course. Only a few know the joy of the Ava, a diminutive par 70 that delivers serious punch. It’s like someone took the Dufferin, weaved it with shoelaces and tightened it. The terrain is heathland, and it buckles and twists between mature trees, often creating sharp and mischievous doglegs. Seven par-4s fall between 300y and 330y – including holes 16, 17 and 18 – so this is no place to go mad with the driver and the fairways are not what you’d call generous. Nor are the greens which, despite having minimal bunkering, are rarely easy to find. It all means that position off the tee is crucial if you’re to access putting surfaces effectively.

There are three hefty par-5s (495y to 542y) and five par-3s (131y to 183y) of which four are over 165y so there’s plenty of opportunity for ‘big’ shots… but this is a course that suits the strategic and accurate golfer, despite the complete absence of fairway bunkers.

Par 70, 5,748 yards (Whites). Par 70 5,058 yards (Red). Green fee £60-£80

Claremorris, Co. Mayo: Claremorris is pure country parkland, in every way. We have dozens of courses like this around our island but Claremorris adds an extra bit of zip. Not only are there some cracking holes here – including the 1st – but you will be tackling some of the smallest and most deceptive greens you’ve ever faced. Claremorris is renowned for them. But the course also has a nice variety of holes with a tossing landscape, space to play, trees that don’t threaten too often and water that does! There are ponds and deep ditches on 14 holes, with water a challenge on nine of these. Use the bridges as a guide: they appear constantly. And holes aren’t that long which presents opportunities for everyone.

The thing is, there’s nothing fancy about the course… nor does there need to be. This is a course that thrives on its simplicity and country charm. The stretch from 6 to 14 is a joy.

Par 73, 5,835 metres (Whites). Par 73 4,892 metres (Red). Green fee €25-€50

Clonmel, Co. Tipperary: Clonmel has much in common with Claremorris, being a country parkland with bite. Set in the hills above the town (Bulmers Cider, anyone?) this course takes off and races over elevated and tumbling terrain, through pine trees and forest, heading first towards a ridge above the town and then in the opposite direction, furrowing its way into the foot of the mountains. The 178 yard par-3 14th sums up Clonmel perfectly: you play down into a dell of trees with nothing but mountain and forest around you. It’s enchanting – you’ll hit two tee shots, I guarantee it – but this entire course keeps you engaged with tricky fairways and trickier greens… all of which possess slopes to fool you. Pure country fun.

Par 72, 6,054 yards (Whites). Par 72 5,513 yards (Red). Green fee €20-€40

Fermoy, Co. Cork: My first visit here made me appreciate what country golf is all about. Courses like this are here for the joy of golf not the pristine-pernicketiness of cash-flashing Americans. There is a freedom to Fermoy, and it flows over the sides of Corrin Hill, above the town. This is fun, sure, but the changes in elevation, the slopes and the flanks of pine trees test your skill constantly. On the clubhouse side of the road the holes are smoother, gliding between those pines towards smallish greens. There are plenty of changes in elevation… but not like those across the road where the fairways tilt left and right and the heathland flourishes shine through. For several of these holes you need to be able to play shots from uneven lies… as you’ll find on the 420-metre par-4 13th. It is one of my favourite holes anywhere. You drive down over a buckling fairway that drops into a gully, before it rises to a green at eye-level. The greens are uncomplicated affairs and are nearly always accessible thanks in part to the low number of bunkers. Par 70, 5,533 metres (Whites).

Par 70 4,675 metres (Red). Green fee €30-€35

Portarlington, Co. Laois: A member’s parkland course that snapped me to attention as early as the 3rd hole. Neatly routed over low terrain, with towering beech and oak flooding the course, it pushes all the way to the edges of the River Barrow. The trees and red squirrels add considerable colour to your day while some excellent holes lift Portarlington above the average. The straight Index 1 par-4 7th is a peach… and a nightmare for the wayward as an enchanting corridor of oak offers no forgiveness for 400 metres. The sharp dogleg 14th starts a brilliant run of four holes, with the Barrow very much in play on 16 and 17, and trees looking to embrace you far too often. There is a peaceful pace to this course and while there are a few crossovers and some water features this is nothing but a slice of golf happiness. Thank you, Eddie Hackett.

Par 71, 5,736 metres (Whites). Par 74 5,136 metres (Red). Green fee €25-€35

Rathcore, Co. Meath: Rathcore is a punchy, modern parkland, very cleverly routed over some strongly rolling terrain. There are no big climbs but two hillocks host tees and greens – along with two ring forts and a fairy ring – and give attractive course views. The gorse, the rock-faced water features, the big trees and the sweet holes. What’s not to like? And the variety created across its 130 acres is testament to some smart design by Mel Flanagan.

There are big, booming tee shots to be hit… and there are just as many that demand real caution. There are four very short par-4s where your driver will stay firmly in the bag. Overall, this won’t beat you up on length but smart thinking is the key to this course. Perhaps what sums up Rathcore’s brilliance best is the signature pairing on the par-3 11th and 16th. They face in opposite directions and use the same reed-laced pond. The 11th steals it as it hits from the high hillock with the green jutting out into the water, but the 16th is a touch longer at 178 yards… and at Index 6, far tougher. Par 72 6,318 yards (Green).

Par 72 5,321 yards (Red). Green fee €30-€40

Rossmore, Co. Monaghan: More country wonderland golf, this time outside Monaghan town. There are similarities with other courses on this list because Rossmore sits in a bucolic setting and is cleverly routed to make the most of its big, heaving drumlins. They plunge in every direction. And, like Clonmel and Fermoy, the design favours simplicity over earth movement. The rhythm of the land dictates the roll of the holes and that land rises and falls as easily and as fast as breathing after a 10-mile run. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the double-dipping par-5 1st.

Rossmore is a big driving course and those changes in elevation just highlight the thrill of hitting hard at distant countryside. Now toss in some old stone walls, sweeping doglegs, lakes, and streams to enhance the colour. Greens are usually above or below you and while there’s no great trickery to them… the trick is to find them through the doglegs.

Par 71 5,922 yards (white). Par 72 4,864 yards (red). Green fee €35-€40

Scrabo, Co. Down: Scrabo plays across rugged, bumpy, unpredictable, sometimes unfair but always adventurous and adrenaline-inducing, hilltop terrain. Gorse swamps the edges while, from up high, views spill for miles. People look at me like I’m mad when I express my love for this course because it is tough on your legs, tough on balls and tough full stop. But nature gave so generously when the designer rolled up over 100 years ago. The 1st plays from a high tee, driving over a wide dip before racing straight uphill, the razor-sharp gorse rising with you. A small, steep green awaits at the foot of Scrabo Tower. It’s a par-4 of 459 yards and it is Index 1… and it is my favourite opening hole on our green and glorious island. This sense of wild adventure remains untamed for the entire round.

You have to wait until the par-3 4th for your first bunker and you’ve already played Indexes 1 and 3. There are eight on the front nine and just two on the back… both of which are on the short, blind, tight par-4 18th. It’s a mad world but boy is it all the more beautiful for having Scrabo in it. Par 71 6,270 yards (White).

Par 72 5,216 yards (Red). Green fee £20-£30

Shannon, Co. Clare: After Scrabo, Shannon will seem positively calm and tame. There’s not a single climb, you shouldn’t lose golf balls, and this favours elegant to electrifying golf. This parkland is tucked away behind the airport, drenched in dark corridors of unforgiving trees and a sweet dose of the Shannon Estuary at the farthest point. The course flows like honey, such is the easy rhythm of holes, while flower beds offer bursts of colour time and again – a sweet contrast against the shadow of the trees. You may have guessed but brawn is not always the answer here: picking your way through the trees is key and par-4s vary greatly in length… so expect to use most of the clubs in your bag.

The par-3s are all strong, especially the long 17th beside the estuary. It is the only hole where trees can’t ruin your card… that’s left to the estuary, which you must cross.

Par 72 6,448 yards (White). Par 74 5,634 yards (Red). Green fee €70-€80

Wicklow, Co. Wicklow: This is another course that divides opinion and I’ve never understood why. The complaint seems to be aimed at the climb on the 15th. It’s but one hole… and this is a wild golf adventure with holes tumbling above the clifftops, rising and falling in rhythm with the tides. At times it feels like you might slide off into the sea.

The terrain is often chaotic presenting hollows, humps, ridges, and swales that can be cruel even to the best struck shots…. but it all adds to the thrill. As do some fun par-3s – the uphill 7th is a riot and the downhill 11th a terror – and short par-4s. You might think you can open your shoulders… but smart golfers will appreciate the risks of doing so. The trees aren’t overwhelming – scarce even – but the wind plays its part as you seek out exceptional greens. They are big, devious, and fast.

Par 71 5,801 yards (White). Par 71 5,010 yards (Red). Green fee €50-€65

9-Hole Courses

Connemara Isles, Co. Galway: A joy, an education, a revelation. Opened in 1995, Connemara Isles is a nine-hole course tucked away between mountains and sea. They have probably sung traditional songs about the beauty of a place like this… and the golf course fits right in. It is not of a grand scale or immaculately maintained like the nearby giants but that is to miss the point of Connemara Isles, which is unadulterated fun. I would go so far as to say you may even be disappointed if you do not lose a golf ball as you play over and alongside the sea all too often. Only the bravest or best will be fearless.

The 1st is a gentle enough introduction, but the 2nd takes you out to the glory of this place where a green is tucked low beside the water. The par-3 3rd is all carry across the water, and you should note that there is a different tee for the 12th hole. Now you are out on an island for two holes, with the 412y par-5 5th promising a shot over the sea, either with your second… or a very ambitious drive! This might well be where you drown that ball. The par-3 9th delivers one final jolt of thrill/humiliation: it measures 186 yards and is index 1. And yes, there’s the ocean alongside.

Par 70 5,260 yards (White). Par 68, 4,368 yards (Red). Green fee €20-€25 (Daily)

Mulranny, Co. Mayo: A sweet, exposed links on the edge of Clew Bay, where sheep are companions and greens are protected by barbed-wire fencing. This is golf of a different hue… but always mind your step. The views are of the exceptional kind, stretching south to Croagh Patrick, and no matter how many shots you take there are more islands in Clew Bay than the final number on your scorecard.

This is crumpled, open land where nature was the designer so expect the wild and the wonderful. That said, the super greens in their barbed wire prisons are a joy, with fun shapes and smooth rolls. A high ridge separates the clubhouse from the coastline and most of the holes here, and you must wait until the 3rd to venture out into that exposed lunar-like landscape. Now the wind will taunt you as holes hug the sea, while the unexpected climb to the 9th green may take the wind out of your sails. But, wow, those views more than make up for it. Par 71 5,551 metres (White).

Par 72 4,836 metres (Red). Green fee €20-€30 (Daily)

Rush, Co Dublin: Rush is a delightfully punchy 9-hole links which I imagine many people have heard about but never actually visited. For years, I was always told I would love it… and when I finally went, I did. The first two holes especially would sit very comfortably on any links in Ireland, and the 8th and 9th also pack a punch. One of the highlights, and no disrespect to the golf holes, is the walk up to the first tee and the views that stretch out ahead of you, over dunes, beach, sea and islands.

Sure, there are a couple of tamer elements inland – around the 3rd and 5th greens – but there is so much more going on with links quirks and qualities in abundance. There are some divine green sites, too, with the 1st and 2nd shining once again, one tucked down low in the dunes and the other sitting up high on the rise. But the fourth green is an absolute peach as it is tucked behind a ridge and feels like links golf of old, where the landscape was untouched, and the designer had mischief in mind.

Par 70 5,416 metres (White). Par 70 4,601 metres (Red). Green fee €35-€45 (18 holes)

This article featured in Irish Golfer Magazine – to check it out in full CLICK HERE

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