Pioneer Golf Note: Bill Hogan is the new CEO of Pioneer Golf, an Austin, Texas based golf travel company which facilitates over 2000 guests per year overseas. Pioneer Golf is an Authorized Provider of St Andrews Links tee times and specializes in value packages and luxury golf tours to the UK and Ireland. Last week, Hogan returned from an 11-day buddy trip to Ireland and shares his thoughts below:
For over 25 years, my buddy Jeff and I have organized a biennial golf trip named “Bill & Jeff’s Most Excellent Golf Adventure”. The groups have varied in size over the years and have included seven different countries to date. A week ago, we returned from an epic adventure to the northwest and southwest of Ireland, the Emerald Isle.
We landed in Shannon and drove two hours north for a few nights at the luxurious Mount Falcon Estate, a country lodge known for its great fly fishing and other outdoor pursuits. Due to recent heavy rains, the rivers were too high and we were limited in our salmon pursuits but did experience some trout fishing in the Estate ponds, some fun clay shooting onsite and best of all, enjoyed some special meals in The Kitchen Restaurant which is certainly one of the best dining choices in all of Ireland! Mount Falcon is certainly a place to live it up!
The glorious Mount Falcon Estate
Mount Falcon is well positioned for the nearby links golf too! Enniscrone and Carne golf clubs are both famed for the natural linksland and fairways carved between the towering dunes. The courses are uncrowded, in great condition, provide a great visitor welcome and both are ranked in the top dozen courses of Ireland. If they weren’t so remote, they would probably rank higher, but perhaps that’s part of the charm of Carne and Enniscrone that they are not overcrowded, and you feel as if you’ve discovered something special.
I’ve played both of them a number of times over the years, and every time I return, Carne and Enniscrone exceed my fondest memories. They are really worth the effort!
We then repositioned to Doonbeg and the Trump International Ireland and stayed in the luxurious Links Cottages which are four-bedroom, four-bathroom units with large living and dining areas. These are perfect for small groups wanting some extra room to spread out and less expensive than the hotel rooms in the main buildings.
Interestingly, we checked into Doonbeg as Vice President Mike Pence and his entourage of a hundred or so were leaving, so we saw the motorcade and witnessed first-hand the huge security presence everywhere. I doubt there was a place you could be, on the hundreds of Doonbeg acres onsite, that a set of eyes wasn’t watching you!
The round at Doonbeg was unfortunately hindered by some very unseasonal 40 mile an hour winds, but the boys weathered through it and fortunately the next day at Lahinch the winds diminished.
So everyone knows about Lahinch and the Old Tom Morris and Alister Mackenzie work and the Golf Magazine World #35 ranking. Well, it’s better than that. When I first played Lahinch back in the 1980s it was a tad scruffy and needed some investment. It got all of that and more, and now it’s firmly positioned as one of the top 10 authentic links in the world. In fact, on the last night of our trip we always rank the top courses played and Lahinch won the best course on this edition of the Bill & Jeff’s Most Excellent Golf Adventure.
Golfing lads at Lahinch
The Ballybunion Old Course is always special, and no wonder Tom Watson ranks it among his top three. “Bally” starts off hard, because a slice on the first hole winds up in a real graveyard, and the second hole is a ball-buster number one handicap index and I think about a 745-yard uphill par four always into the wind or something (run on sentence intended). All kidding aside, Ballybunion never lets up and it has some of the most memorable holes in golf and features probably the toughest set of par threes anywhere. Ballybunion remains a great test and being ranked #17 in the world, it is a must play.
Don’t think for a second you will shoot your handicap at Ballybunion, and in our group the closest anyone got to their handicap was our scratch handicapper who shot an 80. And it was a great 80! In summary, Ballybunion Old Course is a tough but scenic beauty and I’d go back there tomorrow if given the chance.
Next up on our agenda was a parkland course and many in the group asked “why are we playing a parkland course in Ireland?” But by dinnertime that night the echo had changed to “can we just stay at Adare Manor for a week and play here every day?”
The Golf Course at Adare Manor
Although not official, I think Adare Manor is the first six-star golf resort in the world. The stunning castle property with impeccably maintained grounds and over-the-top-service, also features a parkland course that has been aptly called “the Augusta of Europe”. The Golf Course at Adare Manor will host the 2026 Ryder Cup, and never before will there have been such an elegant venue or such a strategic risk-reward layout for the event (Tom Fazio did an extensive renovation of a Robert Trent Jones Sr 1995 course).
I don’t even know where to start in explaining Adare Manor without burning 2000 words and sounding like I’m exaggerating everything. So, what I will tell you is to go there, pay the price, and enjoy one of the best golf experiences of your life. And, if you have the wherewithal, stay at Adare Manor too, with your spouse, in one of the fireplace adorned royalty-ready rooms. You won’t regret it, and if I get my way, that’s where Michelle and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary! Are reservations being accepted for 2022 yet?
What’s a trip to Ireland without a round at Old Head Golf Links on a bright sunny day with a soft breeze and frequent pauses to apply more sunscreen? It happens all the time, right? Interestingly, that’s the third time it’s happened to us so I’m starting to think that Kinsale has a Hawaii-like microclimate and that they should sell more shorts in the Pro Shop. What’s with the raingear and wool sweaters anyway?
Old Head Golf Links
Old Head Golf Links is pure fun, and it has been since it opened in 1997 on the 220 acres of south facing peninsula some 400 feet above the crashing waves. It features magical holes, ancient ruins, an iconic lighthouse and views for miles and miles of Irish coastline. I know we use the “must play” moniker too much, but the experience at Old Head Golf Links is the “must play of all must plays” in southern Ireland. Just make sure to book a sunny day too!
While enjoying Old Head, we stayed at the always trusted Trident Hotel overlooking Kinsale Harbour, a four-star beauty in one of the most charming towns in Europe. Both the Trident and its sister hotel, Actons, offer great locations, lovely rooms, phenomenal Eggs Benedict for breakfast (I indulged … twice) and views of the sailboats and village. It’s here in Kinsale that we had two superb dinners, one at Man Friday and the other at Finns’ Table, both white tablecloth seafood specialty restaurants which turned out to be the best dining nights of our adventure.
To be frank, we had heard mixed reviews of the new Hogs Head Golf Club in Waterville out on the tip of The Ring of Kerry. Some told us in advance that the course and club facilities were too modern for this part of the world. Some said the Robert Trent Jones Jr course was not “linksy” enough and it would never compare to the other great Irish courses on our trip.
Ricky Rainbow at Hogs Head
What a load of crap. Hogs Head is a blast. It’s big, it’s dramatic, it’s beautiful and it’s super fun! Tee time increments are every 15 minutes and that’s probably to spread out the groups out who tend to stop every 100 yards and take photographs of the mountains and Ballinskelligs Bay. The course is rather wide open off the tee, so you can rip it and still find the fairway. But when you approach the green complexes the course tightens up, and it requires precision to have a decent putt at birdie. That seems to be the current fashionable design genre of our age (Bandon, Sand Valley etc) and Hogs Head does it very well.
The Dali Swette gets “into the mystic” at Hogs Head GC
Now add to the Hogs Head golf course a superb five-star clubhouse, casual but gourmet dining room and gorgeous luxury lodge rooms, and it’s no wonder why memberships are selling like hotcakes. If you want to visit Hogs Head Golf Club, and I highly encourage it, do it soon before the membership is full and preview visits are cut off forever.
Our last course was Waterville Golf Links, the 1889 original club renovated by Eddie Hackett in 1973 and tweaked by Fazio in 2006. Waterville always ranks among the top three southwest Ireland courses, and this year was no different. They just completed a total clubhouse renovation and the facilities are wonderful. The staff is always on cue and the venerable Noel Cronin (Secretary Manager) has run a tight ship for decades.
Again, we caught Waterville on a Chamber of Commerce sunny day and the course conditions were excellent. Guys love the feel and flow of Waterville and the traditional links nature of the layout. The bunkering is fair and the putting surfaces are not overdone. It’s a warm golf course and was perfect for the last day where nobody got their score murdered and everyone walked away with a smile on their face. We even saw Liam Higgins, the longtime pro (famed for the “Liam’s Ace” 16th hole at 386 yards) who joined us at lunch and shared a story or ten!
In all it was a fantastic visit to Ireland where the product gets better and better every year. Its never too soon to plan your next Pioneer Golf trip to Ireland and I’d be happy to give you some insight anytime. Even if you have been there before, combining some of the old links courses with the new venues is a great recipe for a really good time!
– Bill Hogan is the CEO of Pioneer Golf and has played golf in 58 different countries since entering the golf travel industry over 30 years ago. Hogan serves as a Panelist for the Golf Magazine World Top 100 and for Platinum Clubs of The World. Hogan can be contacted at (512) 334-6443 or at Bill@pioneergolf.com