How to pair these 6 bucket list courses with a family-friendly Irish itinerary
Next to playing St. Andrew’s Old Course and others in Scotland, I can’t think of a more desirable golfing destination than Ireland. Simply put, the courses here are spectacular. If you have a golfer in the family, the Emerald Isle is likely on his or her bucket list. In my family, my husband is the only one with the desire and more importantly, the ability to play these challenging links.
Our recent family vacation to Ireland was set up to meet the needs and desires of everyone in the family. I started by researching the must-play golf courses in Ireland that allowed for guest players. I then married that list with tourist attractions that my 19-year-old son and I longed to see. We wound up with a 10-day itinerary that began in Dublin, went south to County Cork and County Kerry, traveled north to County Clare and County Sligo, and then went even farther north into Northern Ireland’s County Antrim. I’ll be the first to admit that this 10-day trip was a wee bit aggressive and ideally should have been stretched to at least 14 days, but you work with the time that you have.
Our pattern was this: my husband would spend a day playing a particular course while my son and I explored. On the next day, we’d play tourists together and then repeat, moving our way around the Emerald Isle from south to north. The arrangement fulfilled my husband’s golfing dreams without having him feel like he was on a separate vacation by himself.
Let’s take a look at the one-of-a-kind courses that “drove” our vacation (see what I did there?) and the nearby attractions for the non-golfers in the family.
KidTripster Tip: None of the courses listed require you to have a caddie. However, if you’d like to hire one, plan on paying about $100 to $150 including tip.
KidTripster Tip: These courses all have dress codes which include no denim. Shirts should be collared and have sleeves. Trousers, long tailored shorts, and golf skirts are permitted.
Note: We tacked a free stopover in Iceland onto this trip. We booked the tickets on Icelandair through a KidTripster partner called AirTreks. Each ticket was $450 cheaper than booking directly through the airline! If you book through this link, KidTripster gets some coffee money from AirTreks at no additional cost to you. Thanks in advance for your support!
Photo courtesy: Old Head Golf Links of Kinsale
1/Old Head Golf Links of Kinsale
Kinsale, County Cork
Honestly, I’m not sure that I can imagine a more stunning and awe-spiring location for a golf course. Protruding two miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Old Head Golf Links is located on a diamond-shaped headland that rises 300 feet from the crashing waves below. As you drive through the ancient stone gates, you feel as though you’ve arrived at someplace truly special. Old Head is an exclusive, international members club; however, it does accept some guest players. I suggest booking as early as a year in advance. Also, know that it’s possible to stay on the property, though we moved on to the Parknasilla Resort and Spa. See my review here.
Cost: Low season (mid-April to early May and mid-October to late October) about $224; High season about $392, depending on the exchange rate. Maximum handicap requirements: Ladies 36 and Men 24; official handicaps and home clubs must be disclosed in advance. Note that children (under 12) are not permitted in the clubhouse or on the course.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer is on the links, I suggest a 2-1/2-hour bike tour along the coastline with Wild Atlantic Sports. Owner Ruth brings the bikes to you just outside the gates of Old Head. With Ruth leading, we cycled along the breathtaking coastline before heading inland for some trail riding through a forest. Ruth is very good at tailoring a ride to your family’s specific interests and fitness level. Cost: about $45/person, depending on the exchange rate.
What did our golfer think?
This course is truly exposed to the ocean. While it makes for tremendous views, it also creates challenges. On the day that I played, I had to contend with 60+ mph winds. Unless you can hit a knockdown shot, you’ll likely see a normal 260-yard drive turn into a 200-yard drive.
Old Head is billed as a walking course, even if you carry your own bag. I verified that fact with the starter who said “yes,” as long as you’re in shape. He was right. I clocked more than 8 miles of walking during my round. Some of that I blame on errant shots, but most of it was actual walking the holes. I would rate this course as moderate to difficult for your average walker.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re walking and carrying, look at the player’s book as to where exactly to drop your bag. It will save you some unnecessary climbs.
Both the greens and fairways were well-maintained. I can’t say much for the bunkers as - miraculously - I only found myself in one all day. The ocean? Well, that’s another story! No matter how you’re playing, make sure to take time to enjoy your surroundings. From holes 2 to 5, you’ll have stellar ocean views. As you exit the green on hole 6, check out the ruins of the old lighthouse, thought to have the oldest roof in Ireland. Holes 12 and 17 were my favorite. On 12, you’re faced with an intimating shot to an elevated landing area; anything to the left and your ball will be swimming with the fish. Hole 17 can only be described as magnificent as it runs along the cliff with picture-perfect views of the new lighthouse.
KidTripster Tip: Bring rain gear as the weather changes frequently. I teed off on hole 1 in bright sunshine, but by the time I putted, I was pulling on my rain jacket - only to take it off on hole 3. Also, the wind makes the round colder than you may anticipate. Bring a winter hat to keep your head warm.
2/Waterville Golf Links
Waterville, County Kerry
A true links course with a mind-boggling number of dunes dotting its fairways, Waterville Golf Links is among Ireland’s finest courses. Established in 1889 as a modest 9-hole beachside course, its first golfers were men who’d come to work on the first transatlantic cable that relayed messages from Europe to North America. In 1973, the course was reconfigured into a more complex, 18-hole challenge. In addition to golfers, Waterville House also welcomes anglers who come to catch the abundant salmon and sea trout. Again, we opted to stay at Parksnilla Resort and Spa.
Cost: Low season (early November to late March) $84; High season weekdays about $235; High season Wednesdays, weekends, and holidays about $258, depending on the exchange rate.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer is on the links, I suggest a day trip to Skellig Michael, a craggy island seven miles off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula and home to a well-preserved 6th century monastic settlement. More recently, it was the secret outpost of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This UNESCO World Heritage Site can only be visited on a permitted tour. We traveled there on a The Skelligs Force Awakens trip that departed from Ballinskelligs.
KidTripster Tip: The boat trip here can be difficult. Once the boat passes the headland, the open sea is rough. On the day that we went, the swells were 7 feet high though I would have sworn they were 15 feet! If you’re prone to seasickness, make sure to pre-medicate. Because of the rough water and length of the trip (an hour each way in the boat), I’d recommend it for ages 10 and up. Some boat operators have a minimum age of 12. Cost: about $134/person, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: You’ll likely see puffin on this island, so have your camera ready!
KidTripster Tip: Some kids on our tour dressed in Jedi robes which made for cute photos. Another passenger brought a stuffed Yoda.
There’s no gimmicks or trick shots here, just pure golf. The course is easily walkable even when carrying your own bag. While I didn’t use a caddie, the others in my group did. The caddie John was very knowledge (he’s been on this course for 30 years!) and willing to give advice to everyone. He also had an amazing ability to track the ball and pinpoint its landing - handy, especially when I’d miss the fairway! I found the holes on the interior of the course to be the most interesting and challenging, but the ocean views on holes 3, 4, 16, 17, and 18 couldn’t be beat. Of all the courses that I played in Ireland, Waterville Golf Links was my favorite.
3/Ballybunion Golf Links
Ballybunion, County Kerry
Full disclosure, my family and I didn’t actually make it to Ballybunion Golf Links. The itinerary that I describe in this article was about 10 days. If we had two weeks, we’d have definitely made it happen. I’m including it on our list because now - after having been to Ireland - I consider it a “miss” on our part. Other American golfers that we encountered couldn’t believe that we weren’t going to Ballybunion, as it was among their very favorite courses. So learn from our mistake.
Ballybunion Golf Links has two courses: the Old Course and the Cashen Course. The Old Course gets most of the attention with accolades such as “Best Links Course in Ireland” from Golfing Magazine to a number of placements in the Top 25 in the world. The club quips that the Cashen Course would garner more attention if it didn’t sit next to the Old Course - “It’s hard on a girl if her older sister is Sophia Loren!”
Morning tee times are available to guest players from Monday through Friday from mid-April to early October. Old Course cost: about $256. The Cashen Course is open to visitors during the mornings and afternoons during the week. Cost: $89, depending on the exchange rate. Weekend play is reserved for members only, so take that into account when you’re building your itinerary.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer is on the links, consider having a beach day in Ballybunion. The beach to the left of the castle (if looking toward the sea) is called the Men's Beach, and the one to the right is called the Ladies’ Beach, because men and women used to bathe on the beaches separately. Today, the beaches are open to everyone, though Ladies’ Beach has a bit more to offer with a cafe, ice cream shop, hot seaweed baths, and shallow caves. You also can take a walk along the sheer cliffs pass Nine Daughters’ Hole (a sea arch) to scenic Nun’s Beach. This beach is only accessible down a cliff via a fixed rope handrail. Your teens probably will love the challenge, but it’s not appropriate for younger kids.
Photo courtesy: Ballybunion Golf Links
4/Lahinch Golf Links
Lahinch, County Clare
Described as “The St. Andrews of Ireland,” Lahinch enthusiasts are quick to point out that this links course stands on its own merits. Lahinch Golf Links encompasses two courses: the Castle Course and the more challenging Old Course which hugs the shoreline. One of the more unique features of this course? The goats. The original Lahinch goats were owned by caddie Tommy Walsh who lived near the third tee in the early 1900s. They served as weather indicators. If the goats hovered around the clubhouse, the weather forecast wasn’t good; if they grazed in the outer sand hills, golfers were in the clear. You still can see goats on the course today, as they serve as the course’s official mascots.
Old Course cost: Low season (mid-March to late April and early October to late October) about $202; High season about $258. Castle Course cost: Low season about $39; High season about $45, depending on the exchange rate.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer is on the links, explore the world-famous Cliffs of Moher, prominently featured in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and just a 15-minute drive from the course. Arrive at the opening and skip the indoor exhibits at the Visitor Centre. When you reach the cliffs, turn right and head toward O’Brien’s Tower for the best views. Or hike south to Hag’s Head to avoid the crowds. General admission cost: Youth (under 16) Free; Student about $6; Adult about $9. O’Brien’s Tower admission: Youth about $1; Adult about $2, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Check the weather before you go. If the cliffs are socked in with fog, it’s not worth the trip. You’ll hardly be able to see in front of you.
KidTripster Tip: You may be tempted to go to nearby Burren National Park. To be honest, my son and I found our hike here to be unremarkable.
While in County Clare, we stayed at Dromoland Castle Hotel, one of our all-time favorite stays anywhere in the world.
What did our golfer think?
Lahinch is another great, links-style course that requires precision play. I had enjoyed playing the previous courses with other guests, but on this day, I wasn’t paired with anyone, so I decided to get a caddie. I had what’s referred to as an “intermediate caddie,” named Thomas. He was a 16-year-old lad, just out of school for the summer and in training. While this was only his second round caddying, he provided good advice and some history about the course and the area that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. Plus, using a caddie gave my back a much-needed rest.
KidTripster Tip: If you have the opportunity and want to save some money, ask for an intermediate caddie.
The course does not have a driving range for warming up close by, so be prepared to take a few mulligans. The course flows naturally through the dunes and along the ocean. Precision is the key to scoring low on this course as any shot into the rough is surely a one stroke penalty for the average golfer. My highlight was birding the long par 5 over a burn. Of course, I bogeyed the next par 3!
As mentioned, Lahinch’s mascot is the goat. I ended up catching up with a herd of goats on the back nine. At one point, I thought that they were looking for my wayward shot, but alas they were just grazing.
KidTripster Tip: If you do get stuck out during a storm, you’ll find wooden shelters around the course. Thomas said that some golfers have had to seek refuge in those shelters for hours, so do keep an eye on the weather… and the goats.
Photo courtesy: Lahinch Golf Links
5/County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point
Sligo, County Sligo
County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point is situated on a headland in the shadow of Ireland’s table mountain Benbulben on one side and Knocknarea on the other. Of all the course mentioned in this list, Rosses Point may be the least discovered… and that’s a good thing. There are two courses here: 9-hole Bomore Links and 18-hole Colt Championship Links. The third tee on the Colt Course boasts expansive views of the countryside, said to be immortalized in the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Cost: Low season (early November to mid March) about $62; High season (Sunday-Friday) about $196 and (Saturday) about $219, depending on the exchange rate.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer is on the links, hike to the top of Knocknarea to visit the grave of Warrior Queen Maeve, whose story is detailed on the trailhead’s placard. The views from Knocknarea are absolutely stunning. On a clear day, you can see five counties from its top. I would describe the 984-foot ascent as semi-strenuous with too many staircases to count, but my son and I did see kids as young as 5 years old make the climb. Pace yourself and start early.
KidTripster Tip: The frontside trailhead for Knocknarea is located across the street for the Sligo Rugby Football Club. There’s also a Centra gas station and convenience store there, too, where you can buy snacks or a sandwich to take on your hike. While it’s possible to hike up the back side of Knocknarea, down the front side, and then around to your starting point, you likely won’t have that kind of time.
KidTripster Tip: Hikers customarily grab a stone from the bottom of Knocknarea to place at the grave on top.
KidTripster Tip: Bring your camera! In addition to the vistas, there are flocks of sheep at the top. You’re able to get some excellent photos at close range.
If hiking is not your jam, Sligo has a thriving food scene. Consider booking one of the Sligo Food Trail experiences.
What did our golfer think?
Rosses Point is a bit of a hidden gem where you’ll find many locals playing. It doesn’t have a fancy pro shop or clubhouse, but the course has Irish charm. The holes, again, require a degree of precision. You’ll have many shots where you’re unable to see the landing area. Without my partner’s app that provided aerial views of the holes, we sometimes would have hit our shots in the wrong direction.
Wind, again, was a challenge, especially on the back nine. Not to mention, the entire way back to the clubhouse is uphill. You’ll definitely get in your steps on this course!
KidTripster Tip: As a single golfer, you’ll likely be paired up with another single or group of golfers when you arrive. In most cases, your partner will be another tourist. At this course, I was actually partnered with someone who lives in the same city as I do!
6/Royal Portrush Golf Club
County Antrim, Northern Ireland
The Royal Portrush Golf Club is often the stage for national and international championships, both amateur and professional alike. The famed Dunluce Links is rated as one of the most challenging and spectacular links course in the world. Its sister course, Valley Links, is often overshadowed but still is an acclaimed course in its own right. Guest players may have more difficulty getting a tee time for Dunluce as slots are limited. Depending on the tournament schedule, you may be required to “play off the mats” or the course may be closed altogether. Make sure to consult the club’s website before making plans.
We arrived in Portrush just a few weeks before The Open. Preparations for this international tournament were already underway, and golfers were required to play off mats. For this reason, my husband chose not to play Royal Portrush. However, we’ve included it on our list because a visit to the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland absolutely should be on your itinerary.
Dunluce Links cost: Low season (November to December) about $119; High season about $270-$290. Valley Links cost: Low season (November to December) about $33; High season about $66, depending on the exchange rate.
What to do off the links?
While your golfer in on the links, be sure to visit nearby Giant’s Causeway, home to one of the finest examples of hexagon-shaped basalt columns in the world. This National Trust and UNESCO World Heritage Site is extremely popular. You can arrive at dawn or simply get here when the Visitor Centre opens at 9 a.m. to get a jump on the tour bus groups.
KidTripster Tip: If you get here early, the Visitor Centre cafe does serve breakfast and good lattes.
The Visitor Centre is well done and smartly organized. Spend at least 15 minutes investigating the exhibits before heading outside. At the back of the Visitor Centre, you’ll find a projection show that tells the story of how this geological wonder was formed and the myth of giant Finn McCool. Or you can elect to pick up a headset and follow the audio tour which is included in your admission fee.
KidTripster Tip: Normally, I like a guided tour, and the guided tour here is included in the price of admission. However, I’d strongly suggest skipping it. Perhaps it was just our guide, but I found the tour too heavy on folklore and too light on actual information about the geological formations. And it took way too long to get to the columns that you and your kids will be itching to climb.
Now that my family and I have been here, I’d recommend doing it differently than we did. In addition to skipping the tour, I’d suggest going against the grain. Instead of exiting the Visitor Centre and heading down the hill directly to the columns, take the Red Trail that follows along the cliffs, giving you a bird’s eye view of the Giant’s Causeway below. Then take Shepherd’s Steps down and head to the right to check our the Organ and the Amphitheater. Afterwards, you can double back and head down to explore the Grand, Middle, and Little Causeways before climbing up the hill back to the Visitor Centre. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth about $7; Adult about $13; Family about $33, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: You can take a bus back to the top for a small fee.
KidTripster Tip: Another reason to arrive early? Finding a parking spot can be difficult. If you arrive at opening time, you’ll be able to park right near the hotel and Visitor Centre. Do not park alongside the road. You’ll likely get towed.
Just a 20-minute from Giant’s Causeway is another National Trust attraction, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Especially during high season, this location is swarming with tourists. You even need to buy a timed ticket for the bridge. From the ticket booth, it takes about 30 minutes to walk to the bridge. Along the way, you’ll be treated to stunning cliffside views; the water color here is comparable to the Caribbean! Be prepared to wait in line at the bridge. The bridge is short and narrow. A few people will cross going out to the island and then a few people will cross heading back to the mainland. I can see this crossing being a thrill for little kids, but my teenager was unimpressed. If you have to choose between visiting Giant’s Causeway and the rope bridge, choose the causeway. Cost: Youth about $4; Adult about $9; Family about $21, depending on the exchange rate.
As a side note, the scene from Game of Thrones where Brienne of Tarth defeats Loras Tyrell in combat was shot here. It’s one of several GOT locations that can be visited on a day trip around this region. We included the Dark Hedges (aka the Kingsroad), Ballintoy (aka the Iron Isles), Fair Head from a distance (aka Dragonstone), and Cushendun Cave (aka birthplace of Melisandre’s shadow baby) which is near one of the Game of Thrones doors at Mary McBrides Bar. End your day at Harry’s Shack on Portstewart Strand (aka the coast of Dorne) for dinner, but be sure to make a reservation in advance.
KidTripster Tip: The Dark Hedges has become an must-see destination. If you want stellar photos with no one there, arrive no later than 8 a.m. Afterwards, head straight to Giant’s Causeway.
While in Portrush, we stayed at a renovated barn with views of Royal Portush Golf Club that we booked through Airbnb. We highly recommend this spot!
While editor Shellie Bailey-Shah was on her high school's golf team, it was mainly to get out of taking gym.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.