Although there are absolutely no Irish relatives sitting on even the outermost branches of the Agran family tree, nor a single red hair anywhere on my body or so much as one white corpuscle in my blood that can be traced back to the Emerald Isle, I simply adore the country, love the Irish and feel right at home there. Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, Antrim to Wexford, Atlantic Ocean to Irish Sea, I enjoy every green inch, narrow road, noisy bar, sodden patch and rocky outcrop. Even the rain, of which there is more than a fair amount, is somehow less bothersome in Ireland.
If it was simply just full of friendly people and breathtaking scenery, it would be worth a visit every once in a while. But there’s much more as it boasts a significant proportion of some of the greatest golf courses in the world which, taken together with the fact that it’s right next door and but a cheap flight away, renders it irresistibly attractive and worthy of frequent visits; more especially now that the recession has pressed down harder on green fees and the cost of accommodation than the combined weight of Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
Although neither Irish nor Catholic, I have a confession to make – the trip on which I am about to report is the fifth I have made to Ireland in the last 12 months. Having been so often, there are very few of the 32 counties I hadn’t already visited. Sligo and Donegal, however, are two of them.
Up there on the top left-hand corner of the country (the north-west if you prefer), they are frequently ignored by those who instinctively head down to the famous south-west coast or feel more comfortable staying in and around Dublin. It might be a legacy of the ‘Troubles’ when flying into Belfast, the nearest major airport, involved roadblocks and other serious obstacles. With life thankfully far more peaceable, now is the time to explore the wild north-west and discover some of the greatest links courses in the world.
Known locally as Murvagh, after the pretty peninsula upon which it sits, the magnificent course at Donegal Golf Club was designed by the famous Irish architect Eddie Hackett for the rather modest fee of £200. Although it feels as if it’s been around for centuries, it was opened just 40 years ago and is modelled on Muirfield in that the outward nine run anti-clockwise around the outside while the inward nine go clockwise on the inside.
This is no place for gentle introductions as the first five holes are among the toughest on the course and climax with the signature fifth, a wonderful par three with the rather forbidding name, ‘The Valley of Tears’.
Thankfully, things gets a little less threatening thereafter and the course opens up significantly on the homeward half. But golf’s never easy when, as is the case here, there are seemingly half-a-dozen or more rather serious bunkers on every hole.
A lot of good work has been carried out on the course recently, including re-designing the 12th, 13th and 14th and the construction of yet more bunkers! If I have one mild criticism of an otherwise breathtaking track it’s that you don’t get to see as much of the stunning adjacent beach and the thundering Atlantic rollers as you would like.
“We’re hoping to improve the views,” explained Leslie Robinson, the pro. “It’s a tricky business but we’re hoping to lower the protective banks in a few places.”
If you play it on August 14, look out for Darren Clarke, an honorary member who usually knocks it round here on his birthday.
County Sligo is another club where the championship course enjoys a pseudonym. Rosses Point is a spectacular links designed by Harry Colt over 100 years ago. A number of great golfers have tested their mettle on it since, including Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and, when capturing the 2006 West of Ireland Championship, the current world No. 1, Rory McIlroy.
One home-grown famous name is that of Cecil Ewing. A formidable amateur golfer and Irish champion, he was a member in 1938 of the first British and Irish Walker Cup side to capture the coveted trophy. He played in five more Walker Cups and famously fought back to halve a foursomes match in which he and his partner lost the first seven holes. If you look up at the imposing Benulben Mountain that dominates the view to the north, it’s said that the outline of the eastern escarpment precisely matches Ewing’s profile. It’s more apparent after a couple of pints of Guinness.
A little under 7000 yards off the back tees, the course meanders out to Rosses Point where it hesitates for a couple of holes before heading back alongside the beach to the finish in front of the pretty clubhouse. The secret to playing it, according to Jim Robinson the pro, is to know when to go for the green and when to lay up. Whatever you decide and whatever the result, you’ll love the challenge of this spectacular links course.
About one-and-a-half hours drive from Sligo, at the end of a rather long and winding road, lies a real gem that goes by the rather quaint name of Narin and Portnoo. Charming yet challenging, this gorgeous links will both test your golf and put a broad smile on your face.
Only nine holes back in 1930 when it opened, it was expanded to 18 in 1965. Following the acquisition of more land, a few changes were made recently including the construction of two new par fives, the 14 and 15th , thus creating a hat-trick of par fives from the 13th. Both new ones would go straight into my top 100 golf holes in the world. The 14th is a steady uphill climb between two rows of imposing dunes while the 15th turns you around and, hugging a steep cliff all the way and with a lovely sandy beach to admire below, takes you straight back down. Simply superb.
The other 16 holes, which weave through the dunes and enjoy enormous changes in elevation, aren’t too shabby either with a couple of the more spectacular par threes leaving you literally and metaphorically gasping for breath.
Further north up the craggy coast is the luxurious Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort. The superb four-star accommodation fronts onto a sandy beach and is just a two-minute stroll from no fewer than three first tees. Since we’re focusing on links golf, we only need worry about the two 18-hole challenges.
Sandy Hills is the newer and will shortly be celebrating its tenth birthday. Designed by Pat Ruddy, it rolls around a vast area of dunes that ripples along the coast and for a considerable distance inland. Deceptively wider that it often appears from the tee but just as long as its 7255 yards from the tips would suggest, it’s a humpy, bumpy, rollercoaster ride that takes you up and down and spins you around. Take bearings from the frequent and welcome views across beautiful Sheephaven Bay and the majestic mountains all around.
Much more so than their inland cousins, links courses are almost living creatures in the way they gently shift and softly shuffle about. So we shouldn’t perhaps be too squeamish about more substantial changes to their layout even when dealing with a design produced by no less a master than Old Tom Morris himself. The back nine of his Old Links course, with later contributions from Harry Vardon and James Braid, staggered back and forth across the main road as if it had spent too long in the bar.
So a new ‘Strand’ nine laid out by Pat Ruddy amidst the dunes opened in 2009 and was combined with what was the original front nine to form a ‘new’ Tom Morris Old course. While the Strand half is not dissimilar to Sandy Hills, what is now the back nine provides a rather less hilly experience and a glorious taste of what golf must have been like here at the turn of the last century. Joyous! Suitably adjusted to remove the threat to traffic, Old Tom’s original back nine is now known as the ‘Coastguard Holes’ and is a separate nine-hole course.
As if 45 holes aren’t enough, owner Frank Casey is contemplating acquiring two adjacent links courses where work was suspended following the economic downturn in 2008. Eighty-one holes plus a breathtakingly beautiful, three-mile long, beach and a classy hotel will make Rosapenna a formidable destination up there with the very best.
Only in the quirky island of Ireland could the most northerly club be found not in Northern Ireland but in Southern Ireland. Anyway, right there at the top is Ballyliffin and its two terrific courses, the Old and Glashedy Links. The former, which has recently benefited from a Nick Faldo makeover, is marginally shorter than its younger sibling. Other characteristics of the less punishing Old that render it rather more appealing include fewer bunkers, rippling fairways and easier walking. Rory McIlroy shot a record 67 around it in June 2006 when his handicap was just a modest plus four. Both he and Darren Clarke are honorary members.
However, if you’re looking for wider fairways, bigger greens and deeper bunkers, then maybe Glashedy Links – named after the Glashedy Rock that sticks up out at sea – might be your preferred option. Over 7200 yards off the tips and designed by Pat Ruddy (again!) and Tom Craddock, it intertwines with the Old but tends to hog the higher ground.
Now that’s over, where in Ireland should I go next?