Top 10 Golf Courses in North West Ireland
A region renowned for natural beauty, golfing heritage and world class links!
Ireland’s North West is blessed with superb links courses… and yet they remain slightly hidden. Here are ten of the best that stretch from Co. Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way as far as Connemara in Co. Galway.
There are 27 holes on this north western tip of Co. Mayo… all links… all brilliant. This is quite probably the biggest dunescape on the planet as dunes rise almost 500 feet above sea level in a random explosion of sand hills. It ripples with muscle, intrigue and entertainment, with tees and greens perched up high or sitting low at the foot of giant dunes. The original 18 were designed by the legendary Irish architect, Eddie Hackett, and opened for play in 1995.
Hackett’s genius was to let the natural landscape dictate the design and, at Carne, that means some truly breath-taking holes. In 2013, a further nine holes (the Kilmore nine) were opened, following the design work of Al McIntosh.
Enniscrone is big dune country, tucked up close to Killala Bay and a beach that stretches for miles. The fairways reflect the rhythm of the shaggy dunes, presenting some major swells as they see-saw towards the greens. It is hypnotic in places, but Enniscrone is as tough as it is thrilling with several blind shots and plateau greens promising constant challenges… you’ll need a deft touch both around the greens and on the pristine putting surfaces themselves.
You’ll encounter unbelievable holes (2, 12 and 13 most notably) and the stretch from 12 to 17 is utterly captivating. You might just be tossed around by the constant swell of the landscape to the point you feel dizzy. The club received a Golf Course of the Year award in 2008, and it gets better every year.
- County Sligo
This timeless Harry Colt classic sits a few miles outside Sligo town. The views over Drumcliff and Sligo bays, and the distant mountains are mesmerizing, but it is the flat-topped Benbulbin that looms largest and is visible for most of the round.
The setting may be magnificent but so too is the links. Routed over a dunescape of contrasting rhythms, 18 delicious holes fall into one of three categories, testing your mettle from start to finish. In places it is almost flat, in others it is unpredictable and bumpy, and in still more it is steep, practically mountainous. And yet it all feels open so that the challenges are instantly visible from the tee. It makes it a pleasure to play, especially with four exceptional par threes and the perfect greens.
- Narin & Portnoo
For many golfers, Narin & Portnoo is Ireland’s undiscovered links. It is rarely talked about and much of that comes down to its remoteness, which is a crying shame because this is one unforgettable links, wrapped around a ridge of tall dunes which lies at the heart of the course.
No other course in Ireland gets you as close to the ocean as Narin & Portnoo. Stand on the 9th tee and you can dip your toe in the Atlantic. Stand on the 8th tee and there is no more beautiful place in Ireland. This is fresh and inspiring, raw and beautiful.
The stretch of holes from 6 to 11 is mesmerizing. It may well be the best stretch of holes in Ireland.
- Rosapenna Sandy Hills
The 45 holes at Rosapenna overlook the serene Sheep Haven Bay on Donegal’s north coast. The original course dates back to Old Tom Morris, and the holes he originally created remain to this day.
Sandy Hills, however, was laid out through the biggest dunes by Pat Ruddy, in 2004. It is quite probably the toughest course in Ireland, thanks to dense rough which crowds the tossing fairways and unforgiving green complexes. Add in the wind and it is not for the faint hearted.
That said, this is a rhythmic links where fairways slide down into and through dune valleys. Golfers will enjoy many high tees and high greens, which show off the beauty of the holes and the landscape.
- Ballyliffin Old
Ballyliffin Old was established in 1973, on the remote Inishowen peninsula in north Donegal. It was a quiet affair until Nick Faldo arrived in 1993, the year after his third Open Championship victory. He loved it so much he stated it was “the most natural links I have ever played.” Ballyliffin’s reputation has been growing ever since… helped in a large part by the addition of a second course, the exceptional Glashedy links, and a new clubhouse.
The Old course is a classic low running links, where hypnotically bumpy fairways can lead your ball a merry dance. This is about smart golf and finding fairways to open up the natural green sites. Bump and run is king here, but there are always different ways to play shots, which adds to the course’s intrigue.
- Ballyliffin Glashedy
Glashedy Rock sits resolute in the bay, a stark and raw reminder of how nature shaped this rocky landscape. It gives Ballyliffin’s newer course its name and golfers will need to be of a resolute disposition to take on the Pat Ruddy designed links. Ruddy has never been one to shirk away from throwing down the gauntlet.
The Glashedy employs the highest and biggest dunes, and the fairways glide smoothly between them. That smoothness is in contrast to the Old, but the same accuracy off the tee is required, especially on the Glashedy’s subtle doglegs. Attacking greens is very tough if you’re not on the fairway. Put another way, you will need the softest of touches if you can’t find the greens in regulation. Steep slopes and punitive bunkering will see to that.
Portsalon is one of Ireland’s oldest clubs (1891) and a founding member of the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI). Given its proximity to Rosapenna and Ballyliffin, Portsalon should never be ignored. It is a beauty.
This is a natural links cast in a bucolic Irish setting of mountains, beach and sea. Golfers will be asked to drive across that beach on the 2nd hole, which is one of the best holes in the country. It is both long and dangerous, doglegging sharply around both the beach and a river.
The opening seven holes rumble through strong, swinging dunes above the beach. The back nine slip inland but, if anything, fairways and holes become more shapely and show off more of the views.
Donegal Golf Club begins with a long, straight drive through forest, heading out onto the Murvagh Peninsula, where the only resident is this great links. The surrounding hills, ocean and Blue Stack Mountains give the course a sense of serenity. But don’t be fooled: once upon a time, this links was the longest in Europe (6,765 metres), so choose the correct tee.
This is an open, spacious terrain covered in low snaking dunes, growing bigger as they approach Donegal Bay. Next to the beach you will discover Donegal’s most thrilling holes, where the dunes wreak havoc on fairways and around greens. The par three 5th is where it kicks off: named Valley of Tears, it’s a highly appropriate name for a hole that has delivered plenty of heartache.
The links at Strandhill rarely gets the kudos it deserves, sitting in the shadow of Co. Sligo Golf Club across the bay. It doesn’t have a renowned designer name – much of it was designed by the members in the 1970s – and with a par of 70 it’s not ‘long’ enough to draw the touring golf crowds.
Yet Strandhill has so much going for it. The sea squeezes in on two sides and holes are routed over intriguing, ever-changing terrain. Strandhill leans on the quirky rather than the classic, which works in its favour because the 5th, 6th, 13th and 15th are hugely fun holes. All day long you will be faced with unpredictable fairways, some severely undulating, natural greens and glorious scenery.
If you ask anyone who has visited and played golf in Ireland’s North West, it will be right up there as one of their all-time favorite golf destinations. Rugged and beautifully raw landscapes define this region as well as links golf to die for and genuine heartfelt Irish hospitality. It’s truly unmissable.
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