Venturing into Ireland's remote North and West
by Matt Adams
It is understandable to be full of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of a golfing trip to Ireland with one's buddies. Our objective was simple enough: four friends meandering our way through the North and West of Ireland, hoping to discover the pure essence of links golf while enjoying the warmth and hospitality that makes Ireland unique.
Our first stop was Portstewart near Bushmills in Northern Ireland. Due to its close proximity to Royal Portrush, Portstewart does not get the attention it deserves. Rugged and beautiful, Portstewart was a tough, yet fair test of links golf that was a fully enjoyable start to our trip.
That afternoon we played the Royal Portrush Dunluce Links. Founded in 1888 and consistently ranked among the top 10 courses in the world, it is the only Irish course to have hosted the Open Championship (1951, won by Max Faulkner) and hosted the Senior British Championship again in 2011. The 14th hole is a 211-yard, par 3, aptly named Calamity's Corner. One must carry the ball the entire way to the green as the right side of the hole is marked by a mountainous cavern with a devious pot bunker protecting the left side of the green.
We next set off to play the Ballyliffin Glashedy Course designed by Pat Ruddy. The course meanders through mountainous dunes and then plummets back down into deep canyons. The variety was fascinating and while the deep rough was unforgiving for a well off-line shot, the fairways were wide and the greens receptive when some forethought was employed as to how to attack the pin. Each hole possessed a singular character.
The Portsalon Golf Club was our next destination. At first glance, Portsalon seems typically Irish, humble and unassuming. Yet all one has to play is the first hole and attempt to negotiate an approach shot close to the pin to realize that subtlety sometimes packs a formidable punch. The fairways are distinguished by wild mounds, slopes and valleys. Portsalon's natural links provided a joyous experience. In fact, we liked it so much, we played the course twice.
Our next stop was the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Course. More than a simple marriage between a hotel and a golf course, this was a true luxury resort. We arrived early enough to play the first 10 holes of the Old Tom Morris Course (Old Tom designed the first 10 holes). Perhaps Old Tom was a friendly man, but old photographs seem to make him look craggy and irascible. I've played a number of courses he designed and each seemed to embody his image. Irregular and unpredictable, the Old Tom Morris course was well worth the effort .
Rosapenna Golf Links lived up to its advance reputation. This Pat Ruddy-designed course is a full-bore test of golf. Thankfully, we were there on a day when the winds were calm. Still, the course placed a premium upon precise shot making. What's more, the green complexes were shaped such that a careless approach, chip or putt would be granted no quarter, but instantly consumed by a deep rough-shrouded swale, or worse yet, an unforgiving pot bunker.
From there, we played the Narin & Portnoo Golf Club. Any golfing trip to Ireland is a journey of discovery. Narin & Portnoo was to me like Burningbush was to Michael Murphy in his book Golf in the Kingdom. Tucked away in Ireland's hidden coast, Narin & Portnoo was rustic, wild and yet so very authentic. Narin & Portnoo called on every type of shot (and every club), always providing for multiple options of how to approach the task at hand. Narin & Portnoo seemed from another golfing universe, worlds away from beverage carts and monolithic clubhouses.
Our next stop was County Sligo Golf Course. The views are striking in every direction. Even surrounded by this beauty, the golf course quickly grabs one's attention. While the course dates to 1894, it was redesigned in the late 1920s by Harry Colt, the same man who designed Sunnydale, Wentworth and Pine Valley. Colt crafted a links that embodies both artistry and pure pragmatism. The course is laid out in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of way. Ingeniously utilizing the natural slope and contours of the land, Colt only took from this property what Mother Nature decided to give him. The result is a sense of fairness that your fate is in your hands.
On the very westernmost tip of County Mayo, you will find Carne Golf Links. The course is set amongst magnificent, unspoiled dunes overlooking Blacksod Bay and this was the last links course to be designed by the late Eddie Hackett. Carne is believed by many to be his greatest challenge and most monumental achievement.
One venue truly not to be missed is the Dunes Course at Enniscrone Golf Club. Formally opened in 1918 and redesigned in 1974 by Hackett, Enniscrone earned the distinction in 2002 of being named one of the world's top 100 courses. The layout of this oceanfront course has been masterfully woven into and within the ancient topography. On some of the fairways of the back nine you are playing so deep within the massive sand hills that it feels otherworldly. Sound is modulated to the point of almost utter silence.
On the coast of Connemara, County Galway near Clifden is Donegal Golf Course and at nearly 7,400 yards is one of the longest courses in Ireland. Donegal is rife with numerous, meandering burns; deep vertical sided irrigation streams, and well placed, steep pot bunkers, some so steep they are fitted out with ladders for easy access and egress.
Ireland's North and West are not always the first place people think of when it comes to an Irish golf holiday. But if one's decision is based upon the criteria of reasonable prices, world-class links courses, luxury accommodations and good, old-fashioned Irish hospitality, then Ireland's North and West cannot be matched.