NORTH WEST IRE­LAND

Re­mote sea­side links among gi­ant sand dunes. By Stu­art McLean

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents -

THE MANY GOLFERS WHO VISIT IRE­LAND ARE GEN­ER­ALLY THERE TO PLAY a bunch of “bucket-list” cour­ses, so it’s sur­pris­ing to see just eight of their cour­ses in the Golf Digest World 100. Ire­land has been short-changed when you con­sider that Scot­land has 16. But those of us who love play­ing golf in Ire­land will be de­lighted by this rank­ing, be­cause so many of their undis­cov­ered gems will re­main just that. One area of Ire­land where coachloads of golf­ing tourists are less likely to be found is the North West, and it was to the re­mote west coast com­mu­nity of Bel­mul­let in County Mayo that we drove from Dublin last June to be­gin an in­ten­sive golf­ing week. Here, close to the At­lantic Ocean, mid-sum­mer can feel chilly, even on a sunny day, for South Africans used to warmer climes. Our main street ho­tel, the Tal­bot, was a com­fort­able refuge fol­low­ing an early evening stroll around the small town. It was a smart, trendy es­tab­lish­ment, serv­ing whole­some food and drink, busy on a Sun­day evening. PGA Tour golf was show­ing on a big screen in the pub.We may have been in the back of be­yond, but there was no sense of iso­la­tion in our sur­round­ings.

One of the charm­ing fea­tures of golf in North West Ire­land is the re­mote­ness of many of its links. In the main they are in quiet, scenic lo­ca­tions, usu­ally on back roads, and that’s part of the fun of play­ing them.The cour­ses hud­dle against the pre­vail­ing winds on wild lonely coast­lines, or beau­ti­ful bays, away from most hu­man habi­ta­tion.The Carne links at Bel­mul­let is no ex­cep­tion, al­though we were sur­prised by how many hol­i­day cot­tages were on the penin­sula.And there was a fair-sized su­per­mar­ket nearby.

Ire­land is un­like Scot­land in that sev­eral of the cour­ses in the west are rel­a­tively new. In­vest­ment in them was mainly done to at­tract wealthy Amer­i­can tourists to poor west coast com­mu­ni­ties, not for the plea­sure of lo­cals.Yet, thanks to the an­cient ter­rain on which they were built, they look as if they have been there for cen­turies. Carne is one such links. It was opened for play 25 years ago, the last work of Ir­ish course ar­chi­tect Ed­die Hack­ett, who was in his 80s when he com­pleted it.

Hack­ett was the cat­a­lyst in cre­at­ing new cour­ses on un­de­vel­oped linksland at a time (1960s to 1990s) when there was lit­tle money for such ven­tures in Ire­land. He de­signed or re­mod­elled some 85 cour­ses, and has been called the un­sung hero of Ir­ish golf.

A BRISK PACE

One of the re­wards of golf in the North West is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a seem­ingly end­less se­quence of spec­tac­u­lar golf holes plung­ing through big dunes in a beau­ti­ful set­ting; an­other is the brisk pace of play and empty holes ahead of you.And when lo­cals are push­ing from be­hind in a hurry it’s best to let them through. Oc­ca­sion­ally you bump into a slow fourball, but they soon wave you on.

Carne’s front nine is nice enough, but its rep­u­ta­tion as a course ranked No 16 by Golf Digest Ire­land was built on the back nine. Nine fab­u­lous holes tum­ble over and through the coastal dunes, like the big dip­per at an amuse­ment park. The fair­ways are wide, but in the wind it is all too easy to miss them, and see your ball plunge down the steep slopes of a dune, as at the splen­did par-4 17th.

The dunes are so plen­ti­ful that de­vel­op­ment was be­gun on a se­cond course, as they did at Bally­bunion, but Carne does not get enough vis­i­tors to jus­tify 27 or 36 holes.The new holes are now out of play, yet can be clearly seen head­ing off into the rugged ter­rain.

From Bel­mul­let, trav­el­ling along the Wild At­lantic Way, it’s an hour’s drive to an­other re­mark­able links, En­nis­crone. It pos­si­bly sur­passes Carne in terms of beauty and gi­ant dunes. Ar­rival at the club­house gives you no idea of what lies ahead. Flat golf holes lie in abun­dance around you. But don’t be dis­mayed, this is a 9-holer for less in­trepid lo­cals.The golf club cel­e­brates its cen­te­nary this year, but the Dunes Course is a 1970s cre­ation that has been ex­ten­sively al­tered since then.

You ven­ture into the dunes early in the round, once you fin­ish the first hole and find your­self close to a broad white beach.The holes ahead quickly con­vinced me that this is one of Ire­land’s great cour­ses if caught on a warm, sunny day. Many of the holes seem sur­real, and ev­ery tee shot an ad­ven­ture into the un­known. It was built to en­tice tourists, and on a day such as the one we en­joyed it is a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, plus a chal­leng­ing one. The rough was fiercer than at Carne, as was the fin­ish­ing stretch of holes.

Golf clubs such as Carne and En­nis­crone both have an over­seas mem­ber­ship cat­e­gory, and the an­nual sub of €360 is a good op­tion if you plan to stay even just a week in the area.With vis­i­tor green fees start­ing at €100, as an af­fil­i­ated mem­ber of the Golf­ing Union of Ire­land you gen­er­ally get a 50 per­cent dis­count on that.

ROSSES POINT

En­nis­crone is not far from Sligo, the se­cond largest cen­tre in the west, al­though with still a rel­a­tively small pop­u­la­tion. Here, on pic­turesque Rosses Point, at the en­trance to Sligo har­bour, is one of Ire­land’s cel­e­brated cham­pi­onship links, County Sligo, where golf dates back to 1894.An old sec­tion of the his­toric club­house has been re­tained.We stayed at an el­e­gant look­ing Radis­son Blu, and pop­u­lar gas­tro pubs can be found on the wa­ter­front near the golf club.

The County Sligo links, dis­tinc­tively over­looked by a flat-top moun­tain called Ben­bul­ben, is an un­usual course, a Harry Colt de­sign from the 1920s, that tra­verses three dif­fer­ent lev­els, and has wa­ter on three sides. From the club­house you can’t see much of the scenic land­scape, but you climb a steep hill early on, and from the lofty third tee a mag­nif­i­cent out­look over the bay and sur­round­ing area presents it­self.

At No 5 you launch a tee shot high off the side of a ridge to a fair­way be­low.There are 9 holes in this flat area along­side the sea.You climb again into a low­ish dune at the far end of the links. The tide had ebbed while we played, and we watched a soli­tary dog walker cross­ing a vast area of dry sandy bay.A

off­shore is the aim­ing point to lo­cate the green of the par-5 12th.

From the sev­enth on­wards you are play­ing a course which chal­lenges the good player in nu­mer­ous ways. Pars come only with ac­cu­rate shots.The 14th into the wind was a fierce and mem­o­rable par 4 with bunkers to be car­ried off the tee and a nar­row stream with your se­cond.That day the green was out for reach for two. County Sligo is ranked No 11 in Ire­land, and de­servedly so.

North of Sligo is County Done­gal, which has a rich vein of cour­ses, new and old.We were head­ing to the Ros­apenna re­sort, where a ho­tel and golf course was es­tab­lished in 1893. Even to­day, it’s not the eas­i­est of places to lo­cate, so imag­ine how early golfers made their way there in an era be­fore the mo­tor car.

Ros­apenna was one of the high­lights of our trip.The re­built ho­tel – the orig­i­nal was de­stroyed by a fire in the 1960s – oc­cu­pies a splen­did po­si­tion on the wa­ter’s edge. How­ever, while pro­vid­ing su­perb ac­com­mo­da­tion on a grand scale, it did lack en­ter­tain­ment ar­eas with at­mos­phere, which meant we vis­ited Down­ings to seek re­fresh­ment.We found the de­light­ful Har­bour Bar high above a bay full of in­lets and coves, an Ir­ish pub not much big­ger than a shed of the kind vis­i­tors love to fre­quent. It was small, rough and ready, cosy.The Guin­ness tasted bet­ter there than any­where else.

And the bar­man told us to be off to a ho­tel in the vil­lage where it was “din­ner night.”We walked into a packed din­ing room and fes­tive at­mos­phere – ev­ery­one lured by a spe­cial three-course meal which in­cluded a bot­tle of wine. Ex­actly what was needed af­ter a 36-hole day play­ing the two Ros­apenna cour­ses.

Old Tom Mor­ris de­signed the orig­i­nal course at Ros­apenna, but only nine holes of that re­main, ter­rific links holes low on the shore­line.The re­sort fell on hard times in the 1970s when the Trou­bles were at their height in North­ern Ire­land, which bor­ders Done­gal. Ros­apenna’s saviour was Frank Casey, who bought the com­plex for a song in 1981. Over the last four decades he has trans­formed it into a pros­per­ous re­sort, boast­ing 81 holes of golf on Sheep­haven Bay.

A HID­DEN WORLD

The sig­na­ture course is Sandy Hills, de­signed by Pat Ruddy (of Euro­pean Club fame) and opened in 2003, which eclipses ev­ery­thing else on the prop­erty. Built in the dunes be­hind the Old Tom Mor­ris nine, play­ing this links was one of the most in­tensely sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of my many golf­ing trav­els. It’s full of strik­ing holes which un­du­late this way and that through an enchanting wilder­ness.Yes, you need to be play­ing well to en­joy Sandy Hills, but no golfer can fail to be en­er­gised by the beauty of this hid­den world among gi­ant dunes.

Sadly, Sandy Hills is avoided by most vis­i­tors to Ros­apenna, par­tic­u­larly the so­cial groups nurs­ing morn­ing hang­overs. It has a rep­u­ta­tion as a fear­some test.We played it in the morn­ing be­fore the wind came up, and found it em­i­nently fair – it has been made more playable with re­cent changes. Chal­leng­light­house ing shots ex­cited us rather than had us trem­bling. A high-handicap might have dif­fer­ent opin­ions, though, which is why they were play­ing the gen­tler Old Tom Mor­ris lay­out along­side.We were ab­so­lutely alone, van­ish­ing from the out­side world for four hours.The only per­son we saw was a mem­ber of the course staff.

Hills and wa­ter in­ter­min­gle in this leafy and lonely part of Done­gal, vil­lages few and far apart, and it was a scenic yet short hop to our next course, Portsalon, on the shore of Lough Swilly. Play­ing golf in Ire­land, ev­ery day you can count on be­ing en­rap­tured by the scenery. Portsalon’s set­ting is dra­matic, its club­house on a cliff over­look­ing a mag­nif­i­cent de­serted beach, backed by the Knock­alla hills. I’d rec­om­mend view­ing each of the club’s web­sites for fab­u­lous images.

Portsalon is one of the best cour­ses in Ire­land, yet even to­day flies un­der the radar in terms of tourist vis­i­tors. It is re­mote, yet so too Bal­lylif­fin, fur­ther north across Lough Swilly, which is host­ing the Ir­ish Open in July. Portsalon is a far bet­ter links than ei­ther of the two at Bal­lylif­fin, but its fa­cil­i­ties are smaller and it hasn’t en­joyed the same amount of mar­ket­ing.

Portsalon has tons of char­ac­ter, start­ing with its quaint club­house where you can curl up at a win­dow seat and dream­ily view the land­scape.The mem­bers are friendly, and we were soon chat­ting to Martin Blaney, who com­mutes more than 30 kilo­me­tres from Let­terkenny to play here. It’s an old club from 1891 with a tra­di­tional out-and-back links, founded like Ros­apenna as a hol­i­day ho­tel out­post.

The cur­rent course is mod­ern, re­designed by Pat Ruddy in 2000, and cur­rently be­ing up­graded by Paul McGin­ley. The long par 4 se­cond hole is one of the most stun­ning in all of Ire­land. From a high tee you look down on a fair­way run­ning di­ag­o­nally away from you. Be­low to the left is a river es­tu­ary.You can choose a safe route right, or shape a drive across the river to set up a shorter ap­proach to a green on the other side of the river.

Portsalon is flat com­pared to Carne or Sandy Hills, yet has a sur­pris­ing amount of un­du­lat­ing ter­rain that keeps your in­ter­est through­out the round. It’s one of those cour­ses you would love to play ev­ery day, be­ing a rel­a­tively easy walk, and playable for ev­ery­one.The club’s Open week in July at­tracts over a thou­sand golfers from more than 100 dif­fer­ent clubs, ev­i­dence of its pop­u­lar­ity.

FERRY TO BAL­LYLIF­FIN

The short­cut from Portsalon to Bal­lylif­fin is obliquely across Lough Swilly, on a small car ferry from Rath­mul­lan to Bun­crana, which has an 18-hole links worth a round. It’s prob­a­bly quicker to drive the 75-kilo­me­tre route, yet the ferry is an en­joy­able al­ter­na­tive, and an op­por­tu­nity to chat with other pas­sen­gers. They are a valu­able source of in­for­ma­tion.

We were now on the windswept Inishowen Penin­sula, and all my vis­its to Bal­lylif­fin have been marked by blus­tery and cold winds. If it blows dur­ing the Ir­ish Open, the golf will be spec­tac­u­lar to watch, be­cause it can be trou­ble­some. The two links, the Old (Hack­ett from the 1970s) and the Glashedy (Ruddy in 1995), each have plenty of width to make them playable in the strong­est of breezes.

I’ve never been a fan of Bal­lylif­fin, per­haps be­cause of the wind and the gen­er­ally flat and bleak na­ture of the golf­ing ter­rain, and con­sider the rep­u­ta­tion of its cour­ses to be over-rated. The Glashedy, which will host the Open, has sev­eral im­pres­sive holes among a dune ridge – in­clud­ing a scary sig­na­ture par 3 played from the top of a dune to a green far be­low, guarded by wa­ter – but this is mostly a flat site with more plain holes than you would think pos­si­ble for a links rated among the top 10 in Ire­land.That high rank­ing is a mys­tery.

The rea­son might lie in the fact that Bal­lylif­fin is a golf­ing busi­ness rather than a mem­bers golf club, and has pro­moted the venue ex­ten­sively. The en­tire place, with its cheer­less mono­lith of a club­house, has more of the look of a pay-and-play fa­cil­ity. That’s con­firmed with the green fees be­ing far more ex­pen­sive than any­where else in the North West. It costs €160 to play the Glashedy, or €240 to play both in the same day.

I was sur­prised when the Euro­pean Tour chose Bal­lylif­fin as the Ir­ish Open venue, be­cause it is dis­tinctly out of the way for an event that at­tracts ex­tremely large crowds. But pro tour­na­ments have been held there be­fore, and the Glashedy has the length to test to­day’s best.

I’ll re­mem­ber Bal­lylif­fin more for a week­end spent at the North Pole. It’s the name of a fam­ily-owned B&B at a cross­roads in the coun­try, com­fort­able and friendly, and ev­i­dently where the lo­cals love to so­cialise. Wak­ing in the early hours to a dis­tant hum of chat­ter, I went down­stairs to the pub which at 2am was burst­ing with ac­tiv­ity.The pa­trons weren’t go­ing to leave, so my only so­lu­tion was to join them.

LU­NAR LAND­SCAPE Golf holes tum­ble through the dunes at En­nis­crone on the west coast of Ire­land. In the fore­ground is the short par-4 13th.

TOTEM POLE A carved wooden tee marker at Portsalon, with the vil­lage in the back­ground.

TRAN­QUIL SPOT The rugged beauty of North West Ire­land golf is cap­tured here at the Ros­apenna re­sort in Done­gal. This is the Old Tom Mor­ris course.

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