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Roads not taken lead to Ireland and Scotland's lesser-known links golf courses

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

DUBLIN, Ireland - To American golfers, their names take on a mythic glow. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Troon. Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Baltray.

Laytown and Bettystown Golf Club
Laytown and Bettystown Golf Club is an affordable links course near Dublin.
Laytown and Bettystown Golf ClubWoodenbridge Golf ClubDuff House Royal Golf Course

There are many U.S. imitators, courses that call themselves "Royal" and style themselves "links." In truth there, are very few actual links golf courses in the States - such a course being defined as one built along the natural contours on the link between land and sea.

In America, anything flat and tree-less can be called links golf, even if it's in Kansas.

To American golfers, going to Scotland and Ireland to play these true links courses, these hallowed names, is like a trip to Mecca. They flock like pilgrims to the shrine, damn the expense.

But it isn't like there aren't other golf courses in Ireland and Scotland. There are, including some excellent ones at very affordable rates. The problem is that not many Americans see them, for several reasons.

Most trans-Atlantic visitors understandably want to play the famous courses, the ones they've read and heard about most of their lives. They may be able to afford only one or two golf trips to Europe in their lifetimes and they want to play the best. Golf packagers mainly stick to these legendary links, catering to their clients' desires.

Getting to Scotland and Ireland's hidden gems

To get to Scotland and Ireland's hidden gems takes a bit of work, a little initiative and, most daunting of all, a lot of driving -- in cars with the steering wheel on the "wrong" side, on roads narrower and more winding than most Americans are probably comfortable with. Over here, you don't have convenience stores at every interstate exit.

On a recent press trip, for example, one American golf writer expressed astonishment when he learned I would be renting a car and setting out on my own.

"You're going to drive yourself?" he said. "On these roads?"

Yes. And it does take a little getting used to. But driving those narrow roads, with sheep farms, mountains, heather and old stone cottages out your window, can be as much fun as the golf. That's part of the charm of these courses, some located in familiar places but some well out of the way.

Like the Duff House Royal Golf Course in Banff, Scotland, hard by the North Sea. Banff's downtown is a riot of faded Georgian elegance, with sweeping views of the sea from its perch on the rocky cliffs. The area is known to Scots as one of the driest in Scotland, a welcome thought when you've been battered by the coastal rains playing the famous links courses.

Sitting on the grounds of the magnificent Duff House mansion, the course may not have the dramatic elevation changes many Scottish courses sport, but it makes up for that with a stylish design by famed architect Alister MacKenzie, featuring multi-level greens in great shape, stately firs and mammoth pine trees, and a parade of challenging holes. The River Deveron comes roaring by several holes, and at times you can spy seals swimming up the river snatching great bites of their salmon lunch.

From Mt. Temple Golf Club in County Westmeath you can see the remains of an old Norman fort where the locals used to hide their cattle from ravaging wolves. Unknown to most Americans, this is a very Irish course in the very heart of Ireland - you can see Mt. Temple from the 30-foot spiral that marks the dead center of the island.

That's not all you can see from the plateau. You can see Limerick on a clear day, and you can see for maybe a hundred miles in all directions from the right places. If you want to see Ireland, play Mt. Temple.

Woodenbridge is located in the garden spot of Ireland, in the Vale of Avoca, favorite vacation spot for scenery-hungry Dubliners. The course is set in an amphitheater of sorts, in one of the four valleys that dominate the area.

Woodenbridge is ringed with green-tinted hills and the high, forested, dark banks of a fine estate, from which one can sometimes hear the gunfire of the landed gentry hunting pheasant. Those pheasant that don't end up on the dinner table under glass can be seen walking the fairways.

There are also some excellent links courses just inland from - and sometimes almost in - the Irish Sea, like the very affordable Laytown and Bettystown Golf ClubThe front nine plays up and down and through grass-covered sand dunes rising 20 to 30 feet up.

"From Dublin north, this coast is dotted with little links courses like this," said Frank Fitzmorris, who lives about 40 minutes away. "There are dozens of affordable links courses around here."

Every one of the people I talked to at Irish and Scottish golf courses like these said almost all of the Americans they see are those who are "doing" the country and want to throw in a little golf.

That's a shame, because you get to see some amazing parts of these two countries and play some great golf too, without breaking the bank. You'll also get away from the stuffy atmosphere you sometimes find at the more famous clubs. The locals are always glad to see Americans who have gone out of their way to find these great lesser-known courses.

And you'll discover that you don't have to be Donald Trump to play some of the best golf Ireland and Scotland have to offer.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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