Ben Smith plays one of Ireland's most famous links courses to see whether it lives up to its global reputation
Even at first glance, it is obvious Lahinch is not just another seaside town.
Golf is woven into the fabric of this unprepossessing village on the County Clare coast. It feels like it’s on the lips of a everyone in town, in the craic. It’s in the pubs (one of which is called the 19th hole) and restaurants, it’s wonderfully unavoidable. And that’s because the churches, shops, pubs and homes of this charming coastal village of roughly 700 people sit just a pitching wedge to the south of what is a truly stupendous golf course.
Lahinch Golf Club is a mythical destination for golfers all around the world. It’s a place of impossible beauty, challenge and, above all, adventure. It’s a calling, a pilgrimage for many. And nothing about it disappoints.
Despite its standing, there is no air of pomposity or privilege. There are no gates or walls to prevent people from getting in. The opposite is true, in fact. Local kids could be found practising on the putting green on the day we played: learning the game, laughing with friends, being made to feel this club somehow belongs to them. The warmth and humour of staff was only exceeded by the pride in belonging to Lahinch. Who can blame them?
This, after all, was the venue for the 2019 Irish Open,won by the Spaniard Jon Rahm. The tournament came to this part of the world not because Lahinch bid for the right to host it but because Ryder Cup legend Paul McGInley asked the club if it would do him the honour of hosting the tournament.
This course is no stranger to the greats of the game. For years, they have flocked here ahead of The Open Championship, to acclimatise, practice and get the feel of the game. Mark O'Meara was a regular visitor in the 90s, Jim Furyk, and Greg Norman too. Phil Mickelson is an overseas member and Tom Watson, who has done so much to enhance the reputation of links golf in these parts, is too. But golf is always changing.
Paddy Keane, Lahinch’s charming general manager, comes out to meet us before our round. He is a busy man with a vast to-do list but he is also clearly a man bursting with pride to represent this wonderful club.
The bond between place and golf club is something you see a lot in Ireland. The grand private clubs of the United States or England tend to want to protect their exclusivity. But on the links of Ireland, at least, community and every day town life are bonded together as one. But few do it as effortlessly as Lahinch. And it only adds to the allure.
The Irish Open here was an event for the many, not the few. It touched, in some way, everyone who lives here, not just those who work at the club or even play golf. It’s a place that lives and breathes as one.
And so to the golf. What of it? The practice area across the road from the 1st tee is beautifully set up, even if it is only to tune up your short game. The starter is a real character, a bundle of energy, barking instructions that are both important and useful as you prepare to get going. I remember thinking I wish I had recorded a video on my phone of what he said but it was marvellous nonetheless. The rain stopped just as we began our round. And didn’t return again until the 16th tee.
The opening hole is a gentle start, a 373-yard par 4, with room to miss the fairway on either side, which I duly did. The par 5 2nd is an excellent hole at 523 yards, shaping downhill off the tee and to the right. But it feels like the course really begins on the 3rd tee.
Beyond this tee, slate grey and whipped into foam flecks by the stiff westerly that blew straight back into his face, is the ocean. Red flags, standing out starchily on a lifeguard's turret, a playground filled with children and the noise of joy sits just the other side of a fence. This is the kind of tee shot where you stand over your ball, screw up his eyes, put your hands on his hips and gaze towards the narrow, dune-flanked corridor of a landing area up and over a mound. All carry. No easy way out.
My tee shot, for once, was perfect. Bounding down this 418-yard par 4, to within a 7-iron of the green. The putting surface sits below the fairway and behind it the ocean awaits, it’s a picture perfect golf scene. The next two holes, Klondyke and Dell, are unique and charming. Klondyke is a reachable par-5 at 472-yards. You tee off with the waves of Liscannor Bay crashing behind you and must land your ball between the dunes and into a deep, narrow valley. From there, you are faced with a towering dune in the centre of the fairway - the Klondyke.
To reach the green you need to hit it over the aforementioned dune, where a hardy man will stand with a red flag or a green one telling you when the green ahead is clear. When it’s wet or wild he retreats to a small shelter that clings to the far side of the dune. Who can blame him? We visited before the world’s best arrived for The Irish Open. When I ask the man with the flag if he will be there too, he replies with a wink ‘I’ll be playing in it!”
The 5th is equally whimsical. Dell, a 148-yard par 3 requires only a short iron or wedge for most, but there’s no flag or even a green visible from the tee. You hit at the directional rock atop the steep dune right in front of you, then walk through a gap to see where your ball came to rest on the shallow green, enclosed on three sides. The caddies will often look on from higher ground to watch shots come in and have even been known to cheer as if the player has made a hole in one, placing balls in the hole while golfers walk toward the hidden green. Beware.
The opening 11 holes are as good as anything you will find anywhere in the world, with the greens at three, six, seven, eight and eleven all within near sight of the ocean. The par 3, 156-yard 8th is a stunning hole. One of many. The par 5 514-yard 10th is another tremendous hole, shaping around the beach where river turns to sea.
The 13th, a driveable par-4 at 279 yards, is another wonderful hole, with towering dunes and a dip on the right of the fairway that eats up wayward tee shots and makes par a huge challenge. From the 14th tee on, the course settles down a little and you know you have left the best of it behind. Not every hole can be as good as the opening 11 at Lahinch, which are indisputably some of the most beguiling in all of links golf. It is generally thought that the front nine here and the back nine at Ballybunion Old just up the coast, would make a course unbeatable anywhere in the world. It has to be said, Lahinch itself comes close to that boast all on its own.
The clubhouse after the round was abuzz. Great characters and storytellers, recounting their best shots, drinking away their worst but everyone to a man, woman and child, toasting Lahinch. I will count the days until I return. And I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who has the opportunity and means to go. It’s a real treat. Please don't miss out.
- Best hole: The 8th – 156yd Par 3. A majestic par 3 surrounded by the ocean on two sides. Take an extra club to carry the ball uphill and all the way to the hole and avoid the bunkers right and left at all costs. If you end up in the right hand bunker you will be playing downhill and it’s almost impossible to stop the ball.
- Most memorable hole: The 4th – 472yd Par 5. A straight drive down the right side of the fairway will leave you a chance of clearing the V’ in the Klondyke. Take a club less and run the ball into the hidden green using the natural run of the links. The green runs right up against the road behind, so don’t go long!
- Hardest hole: The 15th - 439yd Par 4. As the course begins to flatten out, the 15th is a reminder that Lahinch can still bite. A tee shot down the right side of this fairway, avoiding the bunker at 270 yards will open up the safer left side of the green for your second shot. But it will take two good shots to get home.
Phone Number: +353 65 708 1003
Designers: Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie and Martin Hawtree.
Cost: €201 to €160
Where it ranks: On the first page of any list of repute.
Length: 6,613 yards from the white tees. Par 72.
WHERE TO STAY
The Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel.
A wedge away from Lahinch's famous Blue Flag beach and a short walk to the golf club, this hotel is right in the heart of this wonderful village. The rooms are comfortable and mine was modern and recently refurbished. The breakfast is hearty and you are right in the thick of the pubs and restaurants that come alive in the evenings.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
The restaurant in the clubhouse at Lahinch is excellent for food and drink, but if you want to venture into the village you can’t go wrong with The Moy House features, which has a modern menu with Irish influences built on amb, duck, game, lobster and shellfish. Once the food has gone down, walk across to Kenny’s Bar on the main stretch, a block from the golf course. From there proceed up to Kettle Street for a uniquely Lahinch experience at Frawley’s Bar, where proprietor Tom Frawley has been singing and pulling the Guinness for over 80 years.