Ireland's Island Golf Club Stays under the Radar

By: Steve Habel

There's nothing wrong with understatement when it comes to self-promotion and hyperbole. A fine example of such that is shown by the Island Golf Club in Ireland, a course that's only underrated and less-well-known than other great Emerald Isle tracks because it wants to be.

Island GC in Ireland

Located in Donabate, just north across Dublin Harbor from the busy suburb of Malahide, Island GC might be the best "pure" links course on Ireland's east coast. Even though the hustle and bustle of Dublin is just across the water on the near shore (and the club a mere 15 minutes from the Dublin airport), the course provides a secluded experience because of the way the dunes buffer the outside world.

Bordered by the Broadmeadow Estuary, Donabate Beach and the Irish Sea, the Island GC's huge, natural dunes - some of the highest in Ireland - are its calling cards.

The venue is also one of the most historic courses in the country. In the 1880s, four wealthy bachelors rowed across the inlet between Malahide and the island to inspect the territory and found the site to be perfect for golf and their solitary pursuits. Eventually a group of 10 locals banded together to lease the land, and the club was founded in 1890.

The 5th Green at Island GC

From there, the Island GC simply evolved. The property is akin to the rugged links of southwest Ireland; some have called it "the Lahinch of the east coast." Nobody knows actually who designed the original golf course, but renovations were made by Fred Hawtree in the early 1970s, implemented and augmented by Eddie Hackett, in advance of the club's 100th anniversary in 1990.

The club remained strictly private until after the Second World War, when a lack of funds prompted the move to selling memberships. Through the years, seven new holes were blended into the original layout and other changes helped rid the course of its many awkward, blind shots. Recently, Martin Hawtree (a descendant of Fred) has been working to refine the course, a job that continues today.

As its name implies, the Island GC is surrounded by water and was only accessible by boat from the Malahide marina until 1973. Nowadays, the course is reached via a 30-minute drive around the peninsula along some difficult, hard-to-follow roads and past a small residential community.

Routing Keeps You Alert

The challenge here is heightened by the site's 25-foot-high dunes; these vaguely lunar crevasses end at demanding and greens with a lot of variety. Wind tends to batter the exposed site, and it's likely you'll never find a flat lie on these rolling fairways. There's nothing manufactured here; these links blend seamlessly with rugged natural terrain and are like being transported into the past.

The Island GC plays to a par of 71 (35-36) and stretches 6,903 yards from its back set of three tees. Its unusual routing is highlighted by eight straight par-4s at the start - the longest of which is the 451-yard seventh, with the front nine concluding at a 167-yard par-3.

The long line of par-4s is exhilarating because of their differences and the way the dunes narrow the player's focus on each shot. Plateau greens on the second (396 yards) and third (431) holes tend to repel weak shots.

Even though the fifth is carded at just 370 yards, the drive is blind and the green is guarded by a bunker at the left and two more traps right. The sixth (327 yards) starts at the highest tee at Island GC and its green looks inviting; but the consequences of going for it are dire as a dune along the left catches many shots and redirects them into the bunker at its base.

The 15th at the Island Golf Club

No. 8, the Island GC's shortest par-4 at just 304 yards, brings trouble into play off the tee and at the green, where the corridor to the putting surface is squeezed to nearly nothing but grass-covered dunes on each side.

The course's signature hole is the 13th, a par-3 of 220 yards. Golfers can use the bailout option just short and left of the green, but the more daring will take on the beach and hope for the best.

The back nine, which many consider the strength of the course, is much more difficult and more scenic as many holes run alongside the surrounding water. Nos. 12-15, which circuit the edge of the peninsula, vies for the best four-hole set on the Emerald Isle. The 12th, a 445-yard, bunker-less par-4, moves leftward to an elevated and sloping green, while the 210-yard, par-3 13th plays across Broadmeadow Estuary and tiptoes up to the edge of the Malahide Estuary with Malahide village as a backdrop.

No. 16 at The Island GC

The fairway of the arrow-straight, 369-yard par-4 14th where the old clubhouse once stood, is a mere 12 yards wide, making it possibly the narrowest in all of golf. It's lined by dunes left and out-of-bounds right. The 563-yard, par-5 15th is like a rollercoaster that twists and tumbles its way towards a putting surface backed by a stand of massive sand hills.

The finishing hole - a 460-yard par-4 - demands a straight drive into or through the valley, where it opens up en route to a 42-yard-deep green set on rising ground.

The Island GC has never held any major tournaments and, as a result, doesn't get the high-profile credentials of Ireland's more commercially oriented courses. However, it will tantalize, tempt, satisfy and infuriate golfers with its eccentricities.

Throughout its history Island GC has valued and protected its natural heritage. It remains a wonderfully idiosyncratic place and provides one of the most stunning, natural and peaceful golf outings in Ireland, ultimately making it a world-class links that rivals the best in the world.

The Island GC's unofficial mantra says it all: "The Island, the best course in Ireland you never heard of. Play it and tell no one."

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Steve Habel is a freelance writer contributing Cybergolf news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, and is a contributing writer for Golfers' Guide and Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog ( features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another ( chronicles his many travels, including playing more than 600 golf courses since 2008. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.