One of the best ways to visit Ireland’s “emerald isle” is by car. It’s  easy once you get the hang of driving on the left side and negotiating the round-abouts. Since the country is just 300 miles long and 150 miles wide, the cities and countryside of Ireland are extremely accessible. You can spend the morning teeing up at one of the country’s great links courses and still have time to explore historic treasures like the sprawling Trim Castle or take in “Riverdance” in Dublin.

Our self-drive tour took us in and around Dublin  from Castle Killeen to the K Club, south to the European Club then back up north to Portmarnock close to the airport.

The first three days were spent getting to know Castle Killeen, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course on the spectacular grounds of an 800 year old castle. The castle is currently being converted to a five star luxury hotel opening next year in time for the 21st Solheim Cup.  I was there for a preview of the course and the Ladies Irish Open where I played a knee-knocking round in the Pro Am with Laura Davies who lived up to her reputation for hitting the ball a ton.

An interesting combo of links meets parkland Killeen Castle features thick grasses, slick subtle greens and  tough bunkers,  so tough, I watched Lisa Maguire, one of Ireland’s 15 year old wonder pros, take two to get out of a deep bunker on the first day of the Open.

The imposing grey castle with its turrets and crenellated towers is hardly ever out of sight and water comes into play on several holes including the par 3 hole #16 where you are hitting over a pond all the way. www.castlekilleen.com

Next year you can stay at the Castle or you can check into a more reasonable place like the Clarion Hotel in Dublin. For luxury –in-city digs, the historic Shelbourne Dublin Hotel is the place to be. Dine in the Saddle Room Restaurant then head to  Mulligans Pub on Poolbeg Street for a night cap. (www.mulliganspubandrestaurant.com) 

Driving south to The Kildare Hotel & Country Club — the K Club —  where the 2006 Ryder Cup took place, the grand hotel sits in the middle of everything while the  Palmer Course where the Ryder Club took place and the adjacent Smurfit Course are just out the door.

Well manicured and lush with lots of water, rolling landscape, trees and flowers,, this pair of courses is more like what we expect from a high-end American track. Green fees are likewise high: for walk-ons about $380 (Palmer) and $240 (Smurfit). Stay in the K Club and you’ll pay half that. www.kclub.ie

For a change of pace, head southeast to the coast and Brittas Bay to The European Club. All the balls I had still rolling around in my bag after playing two relatively manicured tracks, found new homes in the grasses, dunes, and sand at this wild and wonderful links track.

The realized dream of a true Irish character, collector of golf books, publisher, golf writer, architect  for 36 courses and author, Pat Ruddy, The European Club is highly memorable. It has two extra par 3 holes for starters, #7A and #12A. Or as Ruddy put it with a gleam in his eye, “I love golf.  Why not?”

Hole number 12 runs 125 yards from front to back; there are 101 really testy bunkers, many shored up with rail ties. But what can you expect from a guy who says, “Bunkers are hazards. They are not meant to be pleasure beaches.” And you gotta know, a man who says, “You don’t add yardage, you add fear,” is bound to have plenty of surprises up his sleeve.

This is a friendly place and a hands-on family operation with his daughter, Sidon, there to greet you and organize things.  (www.theeuropeanclub.com)

Stay nearby at the 92-room Arklow Bay Spa Hotel for under $100 per night where you get a pool, fitness center and really comfortable rooms (www.arklowbay.com) or for a full service luxury option with an elegant spa and  36 holes of golf,  try the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt  farther north towards Dublin. (ww.ritzcarlton.com)

Last stop: Portmarnock. The fact that the Dublin Supreme Court recently sided with the gentlemen who want to bar women from becoming full time members of their prestigious Portmarnack Golf Club, didn’t bother me a whit. We experienced good service when we went up to the dining room for a quick lunch, honored the rule not to change shoes in the parking lot, and set off with our pull carts across the grassy, sandy dunes of the historic links laid out in 1894.

Site of many prestigious tournaments including the Irish Amateur Open, it’s pure links at its best. As Harry Bradshaw, the Club’s well known pro (1950-1990) said, ” At Portmarnock good shots get good results; bad shots never get lucky.” Depending on how you’re playing that day, you’re going to love it … or vow to take up skittles.

Another option, The Links Portmarnock designed by Bernard Langer, can be seen from many of the rooms of the comfortable Portmarnock Hotel. (www.portmarnock.com)

www.discoverireland.com; www.tourismireland.com