NORTH WEST IRELAND
Remote seaside links among giant sand dunes. By Stuart McLean
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.
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.