The intrepid golfing journalist that he is, Clive Agran was the
perfect candidate for a tour of the lesser-known gems just
waiting to be explored in the rugged north west
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
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
Now that’s over, where in Ireland should I go
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine