How I discovered the secret of the Best Golf Vacation in the World

Tiger Woods knows this secret. So does Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, David Duval, and other top golf pros. So does Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle, Michael Jordan... even Neil Armstrong.

As Golf Digest's Peter Dobereiner recently reported: This is "the ultimate experience in the game. I am convinced that this golfing life has nothing richer to offer."

Dear Reader,

I recently decided to take a month off work to find the perfect golf vacation.

I hopped on a plane in late September, and flew 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.

Then I traveled 2,200 miles by car and ferry—playing almost four-dozen golf courses along the way in four weeks.

This was a golf adventure, not a relaxing tour.

No museums. No shopping. No cathedrals, bar-crawls, or boat rides. I woke at dawn each morning, ate breakfast, played golf, then hopped in the car to find the next course. I often played one course in the morning, drove 20-30 miles, and played another round in the afternoon.

I showered... ate dinner, then drank beer and talked golf with the locals until it was time for bed. Then it was wake, eat, and repeat.

You see, I wanted to get the full story on the secret mid-summer getaway of many of the world's top pros.

It's the only golf destination I know of where you can play courses built more than 100 years ago, year-round, without ever breaking a sweat. Where the combination of mountains, valleys, cliffs, and the roaring ocean nearly takes your breath away after every shot.

I'm talking about a place where every course is open to the public. And most importantly, where there are about two-dozen of the world's best golf courses—on an island that's about the size of West Virginia.

I'm talking about Ireland.

Of course, Irish golf is not the secret it was 20 years ago.

But as far as I know, no one has ever played all of Ireland’s great courses in one trip... or even in one year.

And what I found during my travels is that, if you look hard enough, a good many secrets still remain.

Ireland's best links are situated in the country's most spectacular settings. Photo courtesy of: The European Club.
For example...

There's a great course in County Donegal that even hard-core Irish links fanatics have probably never heard of.

It costs just $40 a round—and, incredibly, is one of the 10-best courses in the entire country. It's located next to one of Ireland's most beautiful beaches... with spectacular valleys... mountains in the background... and golf holes that take your breath away.

Or how about this: The best golf resort in the county also happens to be one of the best bargains—and it’s almost totally unknown, hidden next to two sweeping bays and several beautiful beaches.

The place has 36 of the best golf holes in the country... a spa... a great bar and dining room overlooking the sea... yet rooms cost less than $100 night.

I’ll give you more details on these places in a moment, along with dozens of other secrets I learned on my recent journey.

But first let me explain why Ireland is the secret golf getaway for Tiger Woods, David Duval, Stuart Appleby, Tom Watson, and dozens of other top pros...

Only 150 in the world

What most golfers don't realize about Ireland is that the country has a unique type of golf course you simply won't find in America.

These rare beauties are called "links" courses. And they alone make a trip to Ireland worthwhile.

While there are more than 300 total golf courses in Ireland—only 44 of them are "links." In the entire world, there are only about 150 true links golf courses. So Ireland has nearly one-third of the world's total.

What is a "links" course exactly?

In short, it's a golf course that's next to the ocean, peppered with giant grass-covered sand dunes, excruciatingly high maram grass rough, deep valleys, and spectacular views of the cliffs and sea.

For centuries, this terrain was of no agricultural value, so farmers used it to graze sheep and other livestock. Rabbits and sheep kept the turf trimmed low and provided natural fertilizer. This made it the ideal location for the first-ever games of golf in Britain and Scotland, about 200 years ago. (The game moved to Ireland shortly after.)

Links courses simply evolved. They were formed by the wind, water, and shifting sands.

60-foot high grass covered dunes often await if you stray from a links course fairway. Pictured here: Ballybunion's Cashen Course.
Links land is where the game of golf began several hundred years ago. It is the hardest golf you will ever play—but also the best by a long shot.

As golf architect Michael Clayton says: "Links are the soul of the game—the greatest places on which to play, and they teach us much about the way the game ought to be."

So it's no wonder the world's best golfers love real links golf:

  • As Pat-Ward Thomas says in the World Atlas of Golf: "Tom Watson fell in love with links golf from the moment he made his first trip." Watson would later add: "It wasn't until I'd been over here several times that it occurred to me that this was golf, not what we played, that this was the way the game was meant to be played."

  • Tiger Woods said in his recent book, How I Play Golf: "I love links golf so much. You get to use every ounce of your creativity, sometimes on the same hole."

  • Golf architect, Donald Steele adds: "There is a joyous sense of space and freedom about most seaside links, a feeling of escape that makes you glad to be alive."
But why go all the way to Ireland?

The best links in the world in one spot

As I mentioned, there's no such thing as a genuine "links" course in the United States.

You might think you've played a true links course before, because the term is loosely (and mistakenly) used to describe almost every course with high grass and hilly terrain. But as golf writer Robert Frick says, "You may think you've hit the links after playing links-style courses in the United States, but that's like saying you've done Europe after visiting Epcot."

We have lots of links imitations in the United States, but no real links. And while Scotland and Britain have the most famous links courses in the world—Ireland has the best collection.

The country’s 3,500 miles of coastline is a landscape of granite and red sandstone mountains... unspoiled white-sand beaches... rugged cliffs that drop 400 feet to the sea... and ancient dunes—all millions of years in the making.

Plus the lucky convergence of warm Gulf Stream currents, temperate weather, and lush vegetation help create one of the most spectacular golf settings on Earth.

As Henry Longhurst, Britain's most famous golf writer of the 20th century once said: "Some of the Irish links, I was about to write, stand comparison with the greatest courses in the world. They don't. They are the greatest courses in the world, not only in layout but in scenery and 'atmosphere' and that indefinable something which makes you relive again and again the day you played there."

It's no wonder golf pros sneak away to Ireland for a vacation—it's peaceful and private, with amazing golf. Pictured here: Royal County Down.
This is why the world's best golfers, including Tiger Woods, David Duval, Mark O'Meara and many other golfing pros go to Ireland before the British Open every year. It's their secret getaway—where they can play the world's best links in privacy.

In fact, Sports Illustrated reported just a few weeks ago that before the 2006 British Open, Tiger helicoptered around Ireland to play links golf and dabble in world-class fly-fishing.

But here's the amazing thing about Ireland's great links—you don't have to be a golf pro or country club member to get onto the best courses...

That's because every course is open to the public.

In other words, every golf course... even the best links, which have been around for almost 150 years, is open to visitors.

This gives Ireland a clear edge over Scotland and Britain, where some of the best courses remain private.

Imagine being able to play the best courses in America—Augusta National, Oakmont, Winged Foot. Odds are, unless you have a lot of money, or a rich and well-connected uncle, you'll never even get onto the grounds of these places.

But in Ireland, you can play the best of the best. As Pat Ruddy, Ireland's leading golf architect, says, "The Irish still view golf as a game of the people. We don't view it as a business opportunity or a game of the elite. We view it as a game that can be played by all, the rich alongside the poor."

Of course, great links golf is not the only reason to travel all the way to Ireland...

Don't forget your knee-high socks

You'll realize during your first round that Irish golf is different than the game you are used to playing at home.

There's a reverence for history and tradition at every course in Ireland—none of which count for much in America anymore. For example:

  • To use a golf cart at Dublin's Portmarnock Golf Club, which is one of the oldest and most famous links in the country, you actually have to present a note from your doctor.

  • If you wear shorts at Royal Portrush Golf Club in the North, you have to wear Bermuda-style, knee-high socks. No kidding.

  • Everyone plays by golf's proper rules in Ireland. That means provisional balls. No mulligans... no gimees... and no touching the ball, except when it's in the cup or on the tee.
Irish golf is a much faster game than the American game too.

Ireland has the best collection of links golf courses in the world—in a country that's about the size of West Virginia. Pictured here: Ardglass Golf Club.
The average round in Ireland will take you less than four hours. No lining up putts from three different angles. No half-dozen practice swings. Get to your ball, select your club, and get on with it. Be ready to hit when it's your turn. You will come to love this faster pace, I promise.

It's no secret that Ireland is also famous for its hospitable people.

But Irish golfers take hospitality to a whole new level. When was the last time you played a round of golf with complete strangers... and then received an invitation to dinner at their house?

Or when was the last time you called a golf course and were told you'd have a cart and scorecard waiting for you the next morning, in case you arrived before the employees?

When was the last time the owner of your hotel agreed to get up an hour earlier than normal to serve breakfast, just so you could have a hot meal and a cup of coffee before hitting the road?

These things rarely happen to me in America, or any other place I've visited in the past decade. But in Ireland you find this kind of hospitality all the time.

That's why I love links golf... and Irish links golf in particular.

So which links golf courses should you play in Ireland?

That's why I took a month off work... to identify the best links courses in the country.

I landed at Shannon Airport, drove straight to Waterville in Ireland's southwest corner, then raced clockwise back to Old Head, south of Cork. 44 courses in 30 days. (See the map on the right.)

If you are a golfer who has played Ireland's links, you know why I made this trip. If you are a golfer who has never been to Ireland, you simply don't know what you are missing. As Tom Watson said: "this is the way the game was meant to be played."

I believe Ireland is, hands down, the best golf destination in the world. If you enjoy the game at all, it is a trip you will never forget.

And here's what I found on my trip...

The #1 Links Course In Ireland...

On my journey, I ranked every Irish links course from top to bottom, based on design, challenge, condition, the welcome, and the facilities. Like a bottle of wine, each course received a score from 1-100.

My final results were surprising...

As Tom Watson says: Links golf is "the way the game was meant to be played." Pictured here: Tralee Golf Club.
I found many spectacular and affordable courses that I'd never seen anyone write about before. And I found several over-rated links that simply did not live up to their reputation or price tag.

Of course, I learned lots of secrets along the way about how to have a great golf trip in Ireland.

So I decided to write a book about my journey...

You see, the problem with most Irish golf guidebooks is that "bad" and "overrated" links courses simply don't exist. There are just varying degrees of "good" and "great."

I believe this happens for two reasons:

1) Some of Ireland's famous links courses earn high marks by reputation alone. To me, there's nothing more frustrating than making a long drive and spending $150 on a mediocre golf course. I was determined to write a book so that anyone using it would never experience this disappointment.
2) As far as I know, no one has ever played all of Ireland's links courses in one trip—or even in one year. Most rankings are done by committee, and there's no way every committee member has played every Irish links course. I personally visited every one of Ireland's full-size links courses. And I did it all in one month, so I can tell you how the courses stack up against one another.
As I mentioned, Ireland's links courses aren't the secret they were 20 years ago. Today, more than 250,000 foreigners visit the country to play golf each year.

But many good secrets still remain. For example:

  • Ireland's most private golf location offers you a great place to stay, and one of the country’s 5-best golf courses. Bob Hope, Richard Nixon, and Jack Lemmon came here in the 1970s... followed by Tiger Woods, Stuart Appleby, Jim Furyck, Ernie Els, and others today. (page 22)

  • Some golf courses post restrictions for visitors... but there’s a secret way to get onto just about any course in Ireland, no matter what the visitor's restrictions say—even if you don’t have a tee time. (page 209)

  • Ireland’s undiscovered golf bargain—There’s a little-traveled region that has a handful of the best golf courses in the world. And everything here costs at least 1/3rd less than what you pay in the popular tourist spots. (page 199)

  • Ireland's 5 most over-priced links rip-offs. Believe it or not, Golf Digest ranked three of these courses among the very best in the country—but I guarantee you will be disappointed if you shell out the high fees to play these over-priced links. (page 215)

  • How to save 50% off the price of regular greens fees of some of Ireland's best courses. This secret is simple, but without knowing it, you'll never get the discount. (page 213)
    The European Club is one of Ireland's 10-best courses. Golf Magazine ranks 3 of the course's holes among the world's top 500. Photo courtesy of: The European Club
  • Jack Nicklaus' secret Irish project—few people know about this course right now, but in a year or so, it may be one of the best links courses in the country (page 118)
My book, called Secrets of the Irish Links, is not just a listing of the best and worst courses. And it's not just a travel guide either. To me, there's nothing more boring than reading a hole-by-hole description of even the best golf course.

What I learned during my adventure is that the stories behind these courses are often as amazing as the links themselves. So in addition to ranking the courses from top to bottom, I also tell the most interesting stories I learned along the way...

How links golf makes men do crazy things

For example, it turns out that my #1 ranked Irish links course was actually built by a former newspaperman, who scrimped and saved every penny 15 years ago to buy a beautiful stretch of earth along the Southern Coast.

This fellow got a loan, re-mortgaged his home, sold his life insurance policy, and traded in his car. In short, he spent every penny he had (plus lots of borrowed money too) to build a new seaside links golf course.

With literally no money to spare, this burly Irishman did the construction work himself, with help from friends and family. He actually dug the ditches, drove the tractors, and put down the grass seed and sod with his own two hands.

As he told me: "It is safe to suggest that no other golf course designer's wife has spent so many hours on her knees weeding young greens. The work simply had to be done to ensure the financial future of our family. Our links required major investments, especially for a family of modest means. Simply put, we risked everything to build what we thought was a great golf course, with the hopes that the golfers would come."

Irish golf is not the secret it once was—but there are still many undiscovered gems, such as this beauty in the Northwest—it's only $50 on weekdays. (page 123)
In Secrets of the Irish Links, you'll meet a whole cast of Irish characters—including men who mowed their golf club's fairways with their own lawnmowers... priests who doubled as golf course developers... Viking invaders who are buried in the middle of a fairway... and golfers who threatened their landlord with a 3-iron.

Every great Irish links course has a story to tell... and I tried to capture the most interesting tales about each one, rather than replay a dry, hole-by-hole description.

Of course, if you plan to take a golf trip to Ireland, Secrets of the Irish Links is filled with practical advice that will make your golf trip easier, cheaper, and more fun. For example, I explain:

  • How to save hundreds of dollars on a rental car. Rental cars are much more expensive in Ireland than they are in America. But you can save considerably by making two simple moves before you leave home. (page 210)

  • The best brand of waterproof clothing on the market. Spend a week in Ireland, and you're almost guaranteed to see rain. It's no problem if you have the right gear. I learned this the hard way. (page 204)

  • The easiest way to find your own castle, cottage, or manor house anywhere in the country, perfect for a golf vacation. (page 202)

  • The secret to not getting lost on Irish roads—ignore this advice at your own risk. (page 210)

  • Best Irish Golf Itineraries: Where to go on your first golf trip to Ireland (page 197), your second trip (page 198), and your third (page 199).

  • Where to go if you plan to take the wife and kids (page 200), and how to have a great Irish golf vacation without ever having to pack up your suitcase and change hotels (page 200).
I think you'll enjoy learning about the history of golf in Ireland—so I included a chapter on how the game and the country as a whole have changed over the past 100 years.

Don't worry, this is not a history lesson. You'll learn just enough to get by in a barstool argument—which will happen if you spend any time in an Irish pub.

The fact that these great golf courses survived at all is amazing, when you consider the fact that Ireland was firmly under British rule for the first part of the 20th century... and was one of the poorest nations in Europe for almost 60 years after independence.

Many golf courses went out of business during this period—and many of today's top courses barely held on, with as few as two-dozen members during the lean years.

How did these courses survive—and what happened to catapult Ireland up among the richest nations in the world? It's all explained in Secrets of the Irish Links.

True "links" offer you the most exciting challenge in the game of golf. Look at the giant green-guarding mounds at Strandhill, in the Northwest.
Of course, there's a lot more in this book that I simply can't go into detail about here:
  • How to get around in first-class comfort... on a shoestring budget (page 206)

  • Secret shortcuts that will shave hours from your driving time (page 213)

  • The secret to staying dry and warm. Hint: It's not about having the right clothes. (page 209)

  • How the Irish rules of golf are different from those in America (page 211)

  • How to save 15% on everything you buy (page 209)

  • How to stay at Ireland's most luxurious resort, and be within reach of 5 of the country's top-10 golf courses (page 201)

  • How to play the 10 best courses all over Ireland, while avoiding the Irish roads altogether (page 197)

  • How to play Ireland's great "undiscovered links gems." On several of these courses, you won't see another foreigner all day. (page 216)

  • How to save about 75% off the regular phone rates to Ireland (page 210)

  • How to play the one course in Ireland that's been used for the British Open—and was the site of a recent British Senior's Open. (page 141)

  • The least crowded top-10 course in Ireland (page 160)

  • The best course near Dublin (page 166)

  • How to bet like the Irish (page 207)

  • How to find out how much better Tiger Woods is than you. (page 160)

  • Here's Ireland's newest (and perhaps last) links—a Greg Norman course with spectacular evelvations and views of the sea. (page 49)
    The best place to own a golf cottage in Ireland (page 215)... and the best place to build a links course of your own (page 80)

  • When to go (page 203)... what the weather will be like (page 203)... what to bring (page 204)... what to leave at home (page 204)... and much, much more.
One word or warning: If you are looking for a book written by a professional golfer or golf architect, this is not it. I am simply an Irish golf fanatic, who was determined to create the ultimate guide to Irish links golf.

I've been to Florida... Bermuda... Vegas... Arizona... California... the Carolinas... Scotland... England... Wales... and dozens of golf hotspots in between.

But for me, none of these places comes close to Ireland as far as the quality of golf, and the warm welcome you receive.

As Dan Hicks, NBC's Ryder Cup golf anaylst recently said: "If you're a golf purist, this is one of the stops you have to make."

I've made many trips to Ireland, and have lived there on two occasions—once in Waterford, and once in Limerick.

I'm a writer by trade—my work has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including Golf Digest and International Living. And I do have a decent perspective—I've played golf all over the world—and have visited about 30 countries in the past decade.

Secrets of The Irish Links does have one chapter written by a golf professional—that's golf architect and course owner, Pat Ruddy, Sr., who details his experiences playing links golf courses... and building them 50 years later.

If you'd like to order a copy of Secrets of The Irish Links, it costs $24.90, plus $4.50 for shipping and handling.

I think that's a bargain, especially when you consider the hundreds of dollars it will save you... and the fact that playing the right course on a golf vacation is really priceless. As a friend who is about to take his father on an Irish golf trip recently told me: "This advice is worth at least $5,000."

Believe me, I would have paid a lot of money to learn all of these secrets before my trip. I learned the hard way. But you don't have to.

In fact, if you read Secrets of the Irish Links and find yourself dissatisfied for any reason, you'll have 90 days to receive a full refund (minus shipping and handling).

I am selling the book through Atlas Books, a division of a company called BookMasters. It's a family-owned business that has been around for 30 years. I found their rates and services to be much more friendly to small publishers like me, compared to giants like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

To order Secrets of the Irish Links, click here. From there, you can either place your order on their secured web-site, or call customer service, toll-free.

I hope you benefit from my book as much as I enjoyed putting it together.


Mike Palmer

P.S. One more thing. When I was researching my month-long trip to Ireland, I picked up just about every Irish Golf book on the market. After seeing them all, I strongly believe Secrets of the Irish Links is the best book about Ireland's links out there. Of course, you'll have to judge for yourself. One thing I couldn't believe was how anyone could write a book about Irish golf without including lots of photographs. That's why I included 171 color photos, so you can see the courses for yourself before you get there. The photos on this page are just a small sampling of what you'll find inside the book. To order, click here.