After promising myself I would do this kind of stuff all the time, and making exactly one golf trip since moving abroad almost two years ago, I jumped a flight from Amsterdam to Dublin for a weekend ball striking extravaganza at some of the best courses the east coast of Ireland has to offer for my first ever experience with Irish golf. My buddy Barry O’Hanrahan from the A Good Talk Spoiled Podcast picked me up at the airport, and we drove directly to The Island Golf Club (Check out my review of The Island Club here in Part I). After some pizza, whiskey, and a few hours sleep, we were off for more incredible golf at The K Club (full review here). A quick pint and some lunch were had at the clubhouse, and then it was off to Portmarnock Golf Club. (Check out our review of all four courses in podcast form here).
Keeping up with the theme of alternating links golf with parkland style, for our final round we made our way to Killeen Castle on a rainy Sunday morning. Before you reach the clubhouse, you pass the namesake of the course, Killeen Castle itself. The parking lot is surrounded by walls, which makes you feel like you’re inside a fortification. This may seem a bit contrived, but it feels more authentic than it does fabricated. We checked in with Andrew in the pro shop, and asked him what kind of walk we had in front of us.
“Not a tough walk, but a long one.”
After 54 holes carrying, and with the steady sprinkle showing no signs of letting up, we went for the cart (or “buggy” as they call it), which was 100% the right call.
Joined by Barry’s friend Will, we took some pictures with the Nicklaus statue on the first tee, and our tee balls were in the soggy air. The typical traits of a Nicklaus course were apparent from the beginning: generous fairways, left-to-right shaped holes, deep bunkers, complicated green complexes, and immensely pure turf. Consistent with what we saw at the K-Club, there was not a blade of grass out of place.
Killeen Castle hosted the 2011 Solheim Cup, and you can tell that it is a course that is designed to host championship golf. In addition to the holes themselves being long, they are spaced out significantly at times. There’s plenty of space to the sides of each hole and around each green for galleries to gather and maintain a vantage point. As mentioned in the K Club post, there’s something inherently intriguing about playing on a golf course that is set up a bit like a theater.
The castle casts a shadow over the 18th green, and is easily viewable as well from the first tee box. It is viewable several other times during the round, and serves as a great backdrop for photos (although the pictures don’t really do justice to the size of it).
I’m not sure if it was the rain, the fact that we were playing at sea level, or a combination of the two, but I swear at one point I had to double check to make sure the yardages on the card weren’t measured in meters. The ball wasn’t going ANYWHERE, and it took almost a full 18 holes before I realized that I needed to swallow my pride and take an extra club to get the ball all the way to the pin. The tees that we played weren’t set up too deep (about 6,800 yards), but it felt like 7,200.
With that in mind, you can imagine how shock and admiration as to where some of the tee boxes were stretched to. The black tees at Killeen Castle play to a distance of 7,600 yards. I am not exaggerating when I say that I think it would feel more like 8,000 yards than 7,600, if played in the conditions we were playing in. There were at least four or five par four’s that I would have been hitting three wood into, and seemingly half a dozen holes that I would struggle to reach the fairway. It was truly something to behold.
Once a month at Killeen Castle, they host an event called Black Sunday, where participants play it all the way back at the tips. According to Andrew, Danny Willett has the unofficial course record from the tips at even par. No one has ever broken par from the black tees! This was not surprising to me at all, considering I would have trouble reaching those tee boxes with a 9-iron from the white tees that we played from.
But even from the white tees, this golf course is more than a sufficient test of skill. Consistent with the above statement about there not being a blade of grass out of place, the greens were in immaculate condition. Perfectly true putting surfaces, but they posed a stiff challenge. Quite the opposite of our experience at the K-Club, it seemed like the type of place where you may need several rounds to learn the predominant slopes within the greens, as there were instances on long putts where I 100% misread the direction, and ended up ten feet offline.
The greens are mostly elevated, with strong, deep bunkering protecting them. The rain helped soften everything, and I was able to show my Irish friends the art of the American flop shot, which was the only part of my game that I actually had dialed in on this day (if anyone has tips on how to grip the club in the rain, I’m desperate). The par fives, in vintage Nicklaus style, provided some relief from the strenuous par fours, as they were gentle and gettable.
Of course, as we played the final three holes, the rain stopped just in time for us to finish. We stopped in the pro shop to give a quick thank you to Andrew, and he asked us how we would rank the four courses we played. We ducked this question like Muhammad Ali dodging a punch in his prime. It’s an absolutely impossible question to answer, as each course was truly unique and different, and offers such variance in your experience.
I loved the Killeen Castle experience, and would strongly recommend it to anyone in the area. It may not be the traditional Irish links golf style that you may have the image of in your hand, but it is a fun, fair, and challenging test to mix into your trip itinerary. Just make sure you’re not showing up on Black Sunday, because I promise if you’re reading this blog, you don’t have the game for it.