The images of Irish golf are unmistakable: towering dunes, wispy grasses and flags snapping in the wind.
To those who have never set foot on a true links course, the game can look entirely different in Ireland. The lay of the land is certainly different in Eire, but it's always adventurous and hospitable.
So to help plan your road map for your golf vacation to Ireland's west side, here are 10 things you should know.
Ireland's west side is home to some of the world's most towering seaside dunes, and scores of golf courses have been plotted out through them.
But the difference between golf in the southwest and northwest counties is still vast.
The southwest is an established collection of links that are some of the most well-known and popular in the world. World-class accommodations -- coupled with destinations such as the Ring of Kerry and the city of Cork -- attract millions of visitors, golfers and non-golfers alike.
The northwest counties of Sligo and Donegal, on the other hand, make up Ireland's most rural region. The towns are smaller, and getting between points isn't always straightforward due to one-lane bridges and other occasional obstacles. But to those who come here, the appeal is discovering an adventurous part of the country that is sparsely populated with a slower, remote vibe.
While Dublin is the largest city in Ireland and the economic center with the most international flights, golfers coming to Ireland shouldn't look further than Shannon Airport on the west side near the city of Limerick.
From here, it's a slightly shorter flight from North America, the airport is smaller and easier to get around, and flights are often less expensive.
And the west side has more world-class links than the east side. In fact, it's just an hour's drive to Doonbeg, where a hot breakfast and driving range await before you take to the links.
Ireland's links courses date back to the 19th century, but Ireland has made great strides since the days of Old Tom Morris. Some of the new courses are set on the most spectacular Irish turf and demand a place at the table. They include the Arnold Palmer-designed Tralee Golf Club and the Greg Norman-designed Doonbeg Golf Club. Old Head Golf Links -- on a 220-acre diamond of land surrounded on four sides by the sea -- is undeniably one of golf's most spectacular settings.
For years, many of golf's greats -- such as Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara and the late Payne Stewart -- have prepared for the British Open by spending the previous week in Ireland.
O'Meara won the 1998 Open after preparing in Ireland. In 2009, Stewart Cink stayed at the Lodge at Doonbeg and played the links of the southwest before taking home the Claret Jug at Turnberry.
The links of Ireland don't shy from blind shots. In fact, they're famous for them. At times, the only line you have to the pin or fairway is a small pole, aiming stone or the wise advice of your caddie.
Lahinch Golf Club is home to two of the most famous blind shots in golf, laid out at the hands of Old Tom Morris more than 100 years ago, and they come back to back at the infamous "Klondyke" and "Dell."
Tom Watson is one of many famous legends who helped put Ballybunion Golf Club on the radar for touring links golfers. But all it takes is a trip to the center of the village to find out the locals' favorite guest.
President Bill Clinton, now immortalized with a statue in the center of the town, arrived for a game in 1998. In front of 10,000 onlookers, he sliced his opening drive into the cemetery right of the first fairway -- just like so many of his constituents have done before and after him.
With long summer daylight hours, it's easy to play 18 holes in the morning, relax over a long lunch and a stiff whiskey, then head out for 18 more.
Many golf clubs in Ireland have built secondary courses to complement their medal courses, including Lahinch's Castle Course, Ballybunion's Cashen Course and the Glashedy Course at Ballyliffin Golf Club.
At most clubs, discounted afternoon replays are often available if there is availability on the tee sheet.
Northwest Ireland is perhaps the finest value in links golf anywhere in the world, with green fees between 50-70 Euro, but the gap between the southwest has slimmed recently.
If it's been a few years since you checked green fees and golf package deals in the southwest, take another look. The best links have reduced green fees in recent years -- up to 20-40 percent in some cases.
Many Irish golf courses, both north and south, offer packages with discounted afternoon replays or invite you to return at a discount later in your trip.
Links courses are why you're coming to Ireland. But don't be afraid to head into Ireland's scenic countryside, where you can also groove your swing after a few days out in the wind.
For some of the finest parkland courses in west Ireland, visit five-star Adare Manor Golf Club, the Killeen Course at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, Dromoland Castle or Lough Erne.
Between the blind shots, tall fescue rough and the ever-changing weather, first-timers to Ireland will need the luck of the Irish and an eraser on their pencil to best their handicap.
Team best-ball and match-play competitions are the way to go. So if you lose a ball in the gorse or get stuck in a pot bunker, there is no need to shred your scorecard.
And if the time is right, you may very well be able to talk some local members into a match of their choosing. They won't go easy on you at their home club, but they will certainly make it up to you over a few pints or whiskeys at the 19th hole.
May 23, 2011