Golf Guide to North West Ireland
This region is home to a plethora of outstanding links courses. Kevin Markham, golf author and photographer, has played them all and tells us why they are all so special...
Has there ever been a satisfactory explanation given as to why Ireland’s south west is so highly revered for links golf, while the north west plays second fiddle?
There’s no disputing that Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville and Tralee are exceptional, but so too are Ballyliffin, Carne, Donegal, County Sligo and Enniscrone. It’s an even match… almost… because the north west actually boasts a greater number of links.
When Failte Ireland launched the Wild Atlantic Way in 2014, it confirmed what the Irish have long known in their hearts – that the north and west coast has some of the most inspiring land and seascapes in the world. The ‘Way’ is 1,500 miles long; the roads hugging the coastline, teetering on the edges of cliffs, cruising beneath mountains and beside golden beaches. It also passes the perfect links fairways of some 18 golf courses in the north west.
The counties of Donegal, Sligo and Mayo are among the wildest and least populated in Ireland. This is good news for golfers as the fairways are less populated than down south, the value is always excellent and the welcome is heartfelt and generous.
The starting point for the Wild Atlantic Way is Malin Head, on the Inishowen Peninsula. This is Ireland’s most northerly point, the rugged coastline and cliffs popular with those seeking the Northern Lights. Only a few miles down the road is Ireland’s most northerly course; it will come as no surprise to see Aurora-drenched photos on Ballyliffin Golf Club’s Facebook and Twitter pages. There are two magnificent links here: the Old and the Glashedy. The Old is a bumpy, mostly low-lying links; the Glashedy is bigger and more muscular. Nick Faldo played the Old in 1993: he liked it so much he tried to buy the club. The offer was turned down, but the club’s reputation has been growing ever since… helped in large part by the addition of the Glashedy links and a new clubhouse.
Not far from Ballyliffin, on the road to the region’s main town of Letterkenny, is one of Ireland’s oldest links. North West Golf Club was founded 125 years ago and it remains an enigma… the flat links seen from the road hides deceptive shapes and blissful, natural greens. It is often called the ‘St. Andrews of Ireland’.
The road heads south along Lough Swilly, a sea lough stretching 25 miles from its mouth at Fanad Head to Letterkenny. On the opposite shore golfers will find the perfect fairways of Portsalon, which, along with North West Golf Club, was a founding members of the Golfing Union of Ireland. Its views over Lough Swilly are glorious and the opening salvo of holes run above (and across) one of Ireland’s prettiest beaches. It is well worth a visit and its salubrious claim to fame is the story that 250 sailors are buried beneath the 18th fairway.
Rosapenna is a few miles west of Portsalon. There are 45 holes here (soon to be 91) and with names like Old Tom Morris and Pat Ruddy, golfers can experience two very different links. The Old Tom Links lies closest to Sheephaven Bay, boasting holes that date back to the 1890s, while the Sandy Hills links flows through the bigger, higher dunes. It is regarded as one of the toughest challenges in Ireland.
After playing this nest of six 18-hole courses many golfers will find themselves in a quandary: head back to Letterkenny for the 40-mile cross-country journey through the Blue Stack Mountains to Donegal Golf Club… or take the coast road to Horn Head, Tory Island and Gweedore. This is the wildest of the Wild Atlantic Way, and it includes the adventurous nine hole Cruit Island and the dune-laden Narin & Portnoo. And, in a continued north west/south west face-off, this coastline includes the cliffs of Sliabh Liag, which are even higher than the Cliffs of Moher, in Co. Clare.
Pat Ruddy, the effusive owner of The European Club, designed several of the big links in this county and Donegal Golf Club (originally designed in the 1970s by Eddie Hackett) is another. When the remodeled links opened in the 1990s it was the longest course in Europe. The space and the setting are two of the club’s greatest assets for there are few more charming landscapes in which to play golf. The mountains and hills seem to mirror the rhythm of Donegal’s dunes.
And then on to Bundoran, a seaside holiday town where the golf links presents a stern bump and run education.
After Bundoran you enter Co. Sligo, home to two of Ireland’s most acclaimed beaches: Mullaghmore and Streedagh Strand. We’re not suggesting a sunbathing expedition but if you want to experience the raw beauty of the ocean and the Irish landscape you will discover two sandy strolls with barely another soul in sight. A few miles to the south is Drumcliff, the burial place of one of Ireland’s favorite sons. The famous poet, W B Yeats, is buried here and Co. Sligo proudly promotes itself as ‘Yeats Country’.
Much of the beauty you’ll see from Co. Sligo Golf Club inspired Yeats’ poetry. Perhaps you’ll find a few verses of your own to describe this Harry Colt classic. This is a links with a difference, with three styles of links hole that keep you on your toes. The two constants are the beautiful greens and the looming presence of the flat-topped Benbulbin Mountain.
Sligo is a buzzing city and a perfect place to base yourself, with courses to the north and the west. Close by is Strandhill, a surfer’s paradise and home to another undiscovered links. From the 7th tee golfers can watch surfers perform in Sligo Bay, as well as seeing across to the distant Co. Sligo Golf Club. There used to be a tournament between the two clubs where they played across the four islands which separate the courses.
There are three links courses in Co. Sligo, and Enniscrone is the final one. There are few courses which combine such fun, drama and challenges as Enniscrone. The course is close to 100 years old but it was Donald Steel, in the late 1990s, who added the touches that took it from good to spectacular. At the farthest point, beside the signature 12th hole, stands Cnoc na gCorp (Hill of the Dead). Rising 80 feet high it was here that natives hid when the Vikings landed some 1500 years ago. The bodies of the slain Vikings were buried in those dunes.
It is a long drive over a barren landscape that leads to Ireland’s most mountainous and exciting links. Along the way lie the Céide Fields, where Stone Age houses and megalithic tombs were discovered beneath a blanket peat bog covering thousands of acres. When you reach Belmullet, on Mayo’s most north western tip, you’ll make a discovery of your own: Carne Golf Links. Dunes rise 500 feet above sea level; promising towering drives into valleys below, views stretching for miles and a course that emphasises the natural landscape around it. There are 27 holes here, and every one of them needs to be played at least twice – such is the scale and mystery of those dunes.
From Belmullet, the road runs south to Westport, and a big seaside parkland course overlooked by Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s most holy mountain. Westport Golf Club hovers on the edge of Clew Bay with its 365 islands, next to the town of Westport, one of the prettiest in Ireland... and with some of the best pubs anywhere.
The final links of this epic route lies beyond the Connemara National Park, home to mountains known as the Twelve Pins. They form the backdrop to Connemara Golf Club, a course created thanks to a local priest. Now there’s a story!
A trip to the North West of Ireland is one that every golfer must do at least once in their lifetime. It is a journey of discovery and an education, playing true links and experiencing raw beauty in some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. And, no doubt, you will be looked after extremely well by the locals!
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