Inadvertently, I’ve been following John Garrity and his Top 50 golf courses in the world, having played 9 out of the top 10 courses in recent years, only missing Prairie Dunes…so far. With the “holy grail of golf”, Askernish, at the top of his list, I knew I was in for a treat when we set out on the journey to his #2, the Carne Golf Links.
The trek to Carne, on Blacksod Bay and the Atlantic, near the small village of Belmullet, is a full five hour drive west from Belfast, 4 hours from Dublin, There are choices of breaking up the ride from Belfast with a number of classic links layouts including Nairn & Portnoo, Rosses Point, Murvagh, and Enniscrone. In all likelihood, this wouldn’t be your first choice for a trip to play links golf in Ireland. You can’t really plop down anywhere in Co’s Mayo, Sligo, or Donegal, and play a week’s worth of golf courses nearby, it’s a bit of an ordeal to travel in Ireland’s Northwest. This expedition is enjoyed by the true links purists who savor long drives across desolate, but strikingly beautiful landscapes and coastlines only to discover a world-class golf course at the end of the rainbow.
Carne Golf Links is Eddie Hackett’s encore, and as he admitted, his finest. Hackett was the Irish contemporary of Pete Dye and Robert Trent Jones, Sr., but with the caveat that he didn’t move much earth, preferring to “dress up what the Good Lord provides.” The land at Carne is rolling and heaving linksland with some of the highest dunes our savvy group of Linksters have experienced in the British-Irish Isles. The course was literally laid over the existing terrain with the greens on natural plateaus or coves, and fairways winding through the dunes. It was virtually untouched by the architect, though I’ve read there was a bulldozer involved, but it was closely watched! It’s not the classic out and in links course, the couple of loops of the routing provide varying wind impact, although the high dunes do provide some protection. There’s only 18 bunkers at Carne, the uneven terrain, heavy marram grass borders, and wind are the course’s main defenses. Accuracy is the key here, distance is generally not rewarded, this is a thinking man’s course that builds, hole after hole to the finish, and a supreme finish it is. In his Ancestral Links, Garrity talks a lot about #17- named An Muirineach, a monster par 4 of 399 meters. Monster it was, out of our group of twelve, including a few single digit handicappers, there was one par in three days, and that was a fluke! All I will say about the par 5 18th, is that when your caddie says on the second shot, “hit either a 3-wood or a 7-iron, you’ll end up in the same place”, well I’ll just leave that to your imagination!
Carne is relatively new, having opened in the early 1990′s. They’ve been in the process of building the Kilmore 9 hole course here, which is opening in early August 2013. It’s routing is interspersed between the massive dunes corridors of the existing 18, and while you have occasional peeks of the new nine, there will continue to be true isolation from the rest of the golf course.
It’s clearly the resident love of golf that created and has maintained Carne. The economy is so poor in most parts of Co Mayo that the homes on our drive out were darkened, not due to vacancy, but the residents can’t afford to use the electricity. While, recently, there’s been some oil/gas exploration off the coast, which has aided the economy, the main industry in the area seems to be peat farming and tourism, and Carne is a popular destination.
The love was on display at Carne on the evening of our second day at the course as we paused after our dinner in the clubhouse. The membership of the club, maybe most of the village descended on the dining room for the presentation of the President’s Cup. Everyone was dressed to the nines, a most formal affair where presentations from the most recent competitions’ were made, from young to old. The recipients were grateful, humble, and respectful in receiving their awards, with endearing, but short acceptance speeches. They sung the praises of their mentors and fellow competitors, and having this wonderful golf course in their community.
We couldn’t have agreed more!