Review: Carne Golf Links (Belmullet, Ireland)
Designer: Eddie Hackett
“This feels like we’re at the edge of the world.”
That was uttered by the inimitable Yannick Pilon, the learned golf architect from Montreal, as we approached the town of Belmullet, on Ireland’s west coast. Next stop, Iceland.
You can see Carne from a long distance, which it turns out is often the case with Ireland’s mighty dune-filled links. We saw Lahinch from the hills 10 km out of town, and saw the towering dunes of Enniscrone as we were approaching a few minutes away by car. It certainly increases the anticipation factor. On this trip there was never a spot where I thought, “Ho, hum, another links with 100 foot dunes. Where have I seen that before?”
That said, Carne came with some expectations. I’d read looked it up on the web, seen some incredible photos in a couple of coffee table books I have, and read about it being Eddie Hackett’s last design. Hackett was a golf pro with some degree of ability at finding a strong routing. He had his hand in most of Ireland’s good links, though many have brought in professional designers in the meantime (see Enniscrone).
My first impression was that Carne wasn’t what I was expecting. Thought the first hole dog-legged to the right on played into a dune, the front nine was more low-lying than expected. The dunes were present, but were often smaller and choppier. They didn’t dominate the scenery like those at Enniscrone, though the land was never as flat as that at County Sligo or the lesser holes at Enniscrone. The front nine was fun to play, with Hackett giving you room off the tee and occasionally using the smaller dunes to obscure an approach and to add strategy, like on the mid-length sixth hole.
While the routing moved along nicely, the course wasn’t exactly strategy-filled. Bunkers were pretty much rudimentary, often slightly off the greens and rarely in the fairway, with less than a bunker a hole through the front nine. I must admit, though I enjoyed Carne to this point, I was surprised some held it in such high regard.
The back nine changed that perspective, though I still think Hackett had a better handle on routing than strategy, and even that is slightly challenged on the back nine. However, it starts off with a bang, with the terrific par 5 10th, with an amphitheatre-style green, followed by the drivable 11th, which runs alongside a massive dune. This was, in fact, one of the best short fours we saw on this trip, though I was startled by the line one would have to take to have any shot at hitting the green. My attempt, which was cutting and well over the right of the dune, still ended up bounding off the fairway 10 yards short of the putting surface.
The 12th, another short four where the fairway runs away from the golfer, was far less endearing, and the 14th, a par 3 with a hard sloping green, should have been a standout. But the movement in the green really limited what should have been a great short one-shot hole.
All of this was made up by the terrific holes coming home. The 15th, a mid-length four to a partially-blind green perched behind the rise of a dune, was fantastic, and it was followed by the cute and sporty downhill 16th, a par 3 that was smart, and interestingly well bunkered considering how few are on the course. The 17th, a long par 4 into the prevailing wind to a green on a shelf bordered by a dune on the right, was arguably the best on the course and it finished with a par 5 that moved around a massive dune on the left and ducked downhill before emerging on a green in front of the clubhouse.
Despite a couple of let downs, the back nine at Carne was almost as good as anything we saw on the trip. Interestingly American architect Jim Engh has routed a new nine at the course, odd considering the existing course is hardly full and often not on the radar of those making the trip to Ireland. Regardless of how that nine turns out — or when it opens (they’ve been building it in-house for a couple of years) — Carne is a delightful rustic retreat that I’d recommend heartily. The course is great fun, the people in the clubhouse are thrilled to have you there, and overall the experience rates near the top of the golf we visited on the trip. Well worth the drive to this out-of-the-way spot.
After the round we drove to Galway, about two hours away. We stayed in downtown Galway at the historic Hotel Meyrick, which overlooked the town’s square. It was spacious, and had character, even if it were a little old-fashioned. We were there on a Saturday night — and it turns out Saturday night is alright for fighting as wrestlers in the square kept Pilon up through much of the night. I think he wouldn’t have noticed had he simply had another, or perhaps three, Guinness at the Malt House, the restaurant where we had a delightful dinner that night.