After stops at Waterville, Ballybunion, Tralee, and Lahinch, the dream western Ireland golf trip moves on to our final destination, Carne Golf Links in Belmullet.

Carne Golf Links

This course came highly, highly recommended to me by a friend, but I’ve always had such a great curiosity for the this place due to the way that Sports Illustrated’s John Garrity talked about it.

In case you skipped the link above, the words he used, and the sincerity behind it had an impact on me, and served as possibly the strongest endorsement for a golf experience that I’ve heard.

“Every summer I leave Kansas City to spend a week on what I call the finest stretch of golfing ground in the world. It’s not Cypress Point. It’s not Pebble Beach. It’s not even the Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s the Carne Golf Links in County Mayo, the Republic of Ireland.”

It was these few sentences that inspired me to schedule a Friday morning tee time at Carne, knowing it would be about a four hour drive from our Thursday gaunt around Lahinch. The driving in this part of the world is less than ideal, and for an American used to driving on the other side of the road and from the other side of the car, it can be quite intimidating. But if a respected golf writer is going to endorse a place that strongly, it has to be worth the trip, right?

For our final round on the trip, it was only fitting that we got one more perfectly sunny day. Another wide open links style golf course, but yet again, a completely different challenge from the day before, and a monumentally different golf course from any other track we experienced throughout the week. The winds whipped as strong on this day as they did on our first day at Waterville, and did not let up for one single hole.

Winds have ripped this flag to shreds

One thing that John Garrity most certainly did not lie about was the dunescape. I’m not sure how many times in these recaps I’ve mentioned that pictures don’t do a place justice, but perhaps nowhere is this statement more relevant than when discussing the size of the dunes that frame the holes at Carne. (Unfortunately, I lost a ton of my photos due to a faulty iPhone). What came as a surprise to me was the remarkable undulation of the fairway to match it. This added an entirely new layer to the challenge, leading to many blind shots, uneven lies, and even fatigue. This was our 7th round in six days, and little did we know, we had saved the toughest walk for last.

The first hole, before my phone crapped out

An example of the extreme undulation in the fairways

If I had to choose a word to describe Carne, it would be raw. Perhaps I felt that way just compared to the other courses, but it was easily the least groomed and manicured course that we played on the trip, and I mean that in a good way. People often say that a good quality of a golf course is one that feels “discovered” rather than “designed,” and Carne is probably the best example of that of any course I’ve played in my life. They will proudly tell you that they did not use bulldozers to shape the holes or the dunes, and it’s easily believable.

There are no smooth walkways between the holes. The turf seems a bit more firm, and is harder on your feet. The wind whips just a little bit harder. The bounces are more extreme, and the putting surfaces less predictable. If any of this is perceived as faint praise, trust me, it is not. This golf course is so incredibly unique that I feel like playing it just the one time was not enough to appreciate how special it truly is.

Massive. Dunes.

It’s difficult to describe just how remote of a location Belmullet, Ireland is. Throughout the entire day, we saw two other groups on the golf course, and only a handful of people working in the pro shop and the bar. I’ve traveled all over the world in the last two years trying to find Anthony Kim, and for the first time, I felt like I was finally in a place I might see him. If there was ever somewhere a golfer wanted to go and hide out from the world, it would be this golf course.

From many of the elevated tee boxes, you can see for miles. But you don’t see much. A few houses sprinkled in the distance. The bright blue sea at the horizon. And without exception, a challenging golf hole in front of you. I’m looking back at my pictures, the scorecard, the yardage book, and the website, and I can’t think of one hole I would call easy.

One of the signature holes, #11. Biggest dunes I’ve ever seen on a golf course.

I’m getting nostalgic all over again just looking at these

Dad on one of the signature holes, the par-3 14th

It’s hard to pick one hole as a signature hole, but if you held my feet to the fire, I would say the 16th (pictured below) takes the gold, with the 11th and 14th (above) on the other two podiums in some order. And if you played out there, your top three holes might include three I haven’t even mentioned in this post.

Coming off the 15th green, you climb a huge hill to get to the plateau that is the 16th tee box. On this day, it was easily the most exposed piece of land on the entire course. With no dunes around to protect you, the wind hits you with its full force, and you’ve got a few seconds to try to figure out a plan to get the ball out of the air as fast as possible. On this day, the wind was straight off the right, and playing 175 yards. With this significant of an elevation change, with no wind, I would have opted for an 8-iron under normal conditions, but the thought of the golf ball getting more than 20 feet above my head gave me vertigo. The wind might just take that ball off the property.

I took out a 5-iron and opted for about a 65% swing, trying to basically just punch it through the wind. While I managed to miss the green long and right, I’m still not sure what the right strategy is on a shot like this, and I can’t say I’ve ever had to hit a shot like that in my life.

The par-3 16th

Can’t remember what these putts were for, but I can promise it wasn’t for birdie

The Hackett course at Carne was the most unique blend of elevation change mixed in with a links course that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think I was fully prepared for it, and would love to get another chance to play there again.

More dunes

The Kilmore Course

One more splendid perk of the Carne Golf Links is that after 18 holes, you’re not done (well, if you’re my dad, you’ve had enough of a beating and you’re done). There’s a new nine holes, built in 2013, called the Kilmore course. If you thought the first 18 holes appeared “discovered” and not “designed,” then it’s hard to even call the Kilmore discovered. The greens have not fully taken shape, and the nine holes wander through the property seemingly haphazardly. Legitimately on more than one occassion, I walked off a green and did not know where to go to the next tee. There’s no walkways, and the location of the next hole doesn’t necessarily even make sense. The course guide helps you a bit, but for the most part, you are pretty much alone out there trying to “discover” where the next tee is. It’s awesome!

The par-3 2nd hole on the Kilmore Course (photo credit Eamon Mangan)

This may sound like a criticism, but it most certainly is not intended to be. Those nine holes were some of the most unique nine holes of golf I can ever remember playing. It felt like one of those extreme courses you unlock in a video game once you’ve mastered all of the pedestrian courses. The same elevation changes, enormous dunes, and an heightened sense of freedom made for a pretty special way to wrap up this trip.

More enormous dunes on the Kilmore Course (photo credit Eamon Mangan)

For more photos from the Kilmore course, check out this incredible album from Eamon Mangan.

As much as we enjoyed the golf experience at Carne, my dad and I both agreed that we may have overdone it a bit. I wasn’t sure when I would have the chance to play in Western Ireland again, and with the things I had heard about Carne, I did not want to miss it at any cost. In hindsight, having this walk as our final round, after a week’s worth of 18/36 hole days, hours of driving, and little sleep, was probably a bit too much. I would love to play Carne again with full energy and the mental preparedness required for this tough of a walk. It may sound like we’re giant wusses (and we very well might be), but until you’ve had those 30 MPH winds hitting you in the face while you’re going up and over these ridiculous dunes, you likely can’t relate.

In summary, Carne as a golf course is 100% worth it, and meets the hype. It just didn’t make the most sense with our itinerary, and our eyes were a bit bigger than our stomachs. With the luxury of more time, we would have gladly spent a few more days in the area and played a few rounds at County Sligo and Enniscronne, which are also top notch courses in the area that we basically had to drive by. This corner of Ireland is absolutely worth a visit, and there is plenty of golf and culture to experience up there that make the trip worthwhile.

And with that, the dream Ireland golf trip was a wrap. We shared one last Guinness before making the four hour trek back to Dublin. It was pretty much the perfect week of golf. Thank you, Ireland.

(I summarized this trip in podcast form for those interested.)