As an avid golfer I have always dreamed of playing golf in Ireland. Not just golf, but links golf. After watching the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club in County Kildare and Padrig Harrington win the 2007 Open Championship I was even more determined to make the pilgrimage overseas and ensconce myself in a links golf experience. Fortunately my dream came true as I was recently invited to the Emerald Isle for an 8-day golf getaway that would include some of the best links courses in the world. With over 400 courses scattered throughout the counties that comprise the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland, golf has emerged as one of this country’s most popular sports. Scotland may be the home of golf, but Ireland may be the home of links golf with 40% of the 150 true links courses in the world found here.
Much of our trip took place in the most northern regions of Ireland along the Atlantic Ocean. After landing in Belfast, we were escorted by coach to the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Links in Downings, County Donegal. The origins of the property date back to 1891 when renowned Old Tom Morris was asked to design a golf course along the sand dunes of Sheephaven Bay. Shortly afterwards a hotel was commissioned to accommodate the numerous golfers who had traveled from Britain and Ireland to experience the course. Today, in addition to the fabulous second generation hotel, two great golf courses complete the Rosapenna experience – the original 6,450-yard Old Tom Morris Course and the new 7,255-yard Sandy Hills course designed by golf writer turned architect, Pat Ruddy.
Both provided a perfect introduction to links golf as we were faced with the challenge of hitting penetrating knock down shots and navigating our way between the fescue covered humps and hillocks that lined both sides of the fairways. In Canada, finding a true links test of golf is as difficult as recording a hole-in-one since few of our golf courses are built by the sea. After two rounds at Rosapenna, I quickly discovered that in addition to the unique landscapes, it’s the awkward stances and piercing wind that makes links golf so unpredictable and challenging.
Our next stop was the Portsalon Golf Club. Located an hour or so east of Rosapenna along the shores of Lough Swilly, Portsalon is one of Ireland’s lesser-known golf courses. Founded in 1891, Portsalon has a distinguished history, being one of the four founding clubs of the Golfing Union of Ireland. For years the club struggled mostly due to its remote north Donegal location. Today however, Portsalon is a thriving member’s club thanks in part to the redesign efforts of architect Pat Ruddy who extended the course to 6,472 metres in 2002. In true links form, Portsalon features narrow, undulating fairways that wind naturally through deep, fescue-covered dunes. What makes Portsalon special are the majestic mountains of Donegal that provide an idyllic backdrop on every hole.
There is no such thing as a direct route in Ireland. What may appear to be a short one-hour drive on a map will likely take two to three hours. Fortunately it’s hard to tire of the lush green countryside and Irish farmlands en route to your next destination.
Such was the case as we traveled from Portsalon around the Lough Swilly to the Ballyliffin Lodge and Spa. Located on the Inishowen Peninsula, Ballyliffin is Ireland’s most northerly golf club. Ballyliffin has two exceptional and contrasting links courses to savour; the classic 6,910-yard Old Links and newer 7,217-yard Glashedy Links. We had the pleasure of playing the Old Links course on a mild and sunny October day. I can remember standing on the first tee looking out in awe towards the Atlantic Ocean and Glashedy Rock and wondering where the fairway was. Unlike the courses I had previously played, the fairways on the Old Links course seemed to twist and turn in every conceivable direction. The golf course was a pleasure to play bristling with charm and character on every hole. As I walked toward the 18th green I recall thinking to myself that there is something surreal about walking down a fairway with the wind in your face watching the waves of the Atlantic crash along an adjacent beach. Such was my experience at the Ballyliffen Golf Club.
After departing Ballyliffin, our travels continued through the towns of (London) Derry and Limavady en route to the seaside town of Portstewart. We were now in Northern Ireland in a region famous for its Bushmills Irish whiskey and the Giants Causeway – a spectacular stretch of coastline featuring towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations dating back 65 million years ago.
The pride of Portstewart is the Portstewart Golf Club. The club is comprised of three golf courses but it is the 6,895-yard Strand Course that receives all of the accolades. Opened in 1908, the Strand Course is renowned for its front nine. From the first tee you’re immediately introduced to the character of the golf course. Huge fescue-covered mounds border the narrow fairways leaving you feeling somewhat claustrophobic as you navigate your way from tee to green. In a recent edition of Golf World’s 100 Best Courses in Britain and Ireland, Portstewart was referred to as, “beautiful, wonderful, simply golf heaven.”
The next day we were on our way to our final golf destination – the Ardglass Golf Club located on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. Founded in 1896, the course meanders through a historic fishing village alongside the Irish Sea. Although modest in length – the course measures 6,268 yards – Ardglass is a formidable test of golf. By this time on our trip I had learned not to concern myself with the yardage on the scorecard but rather, and more importantly, the weather forecast for the day. Fortunately we had another warm and sunny day on the golf course. I thoroughly enjoyed Ardglass especially the six opening holes that lead you out atop craggy cliffs alongside the pounding sea below. I found the rest of the course to be equally impressive. In particular, I enjoyed my walk up the 18th fairway toward the 14th century clubhouse reminiscing about the time I played the Old Course at St. Andrews a few years ago. In addition to the great panoramic ocean views, it was the history of the fishing village and golf club that intrigued me most about Ardglass.
Before returning home our group was treated to a final night at the luxurious Slieve Donard Resort in Newcastle, a short 30 minute drive from Ardglass. In addition to the hotel, Newcastle is home to the world famous Royal County Down Golf Club. Although I did not play, I did have the opportunity to walk the golf course and hope to return one day to tackle what many say is the best golf course in the world.
As with any memorable trip, the time I spent in Ireland passed too quickly. Nevertheless, I was fortunate to play a collection of outstanding courses in a country that truly defines what links golf really means.
Air Canada has regular direct flights from Toronto and Montreal to Belfast
Great Places to Stay:
Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Links
Ballyliffin Lodge and Spa
Radisson SAS Roe Park Resort
Slieve Donard Resort and Spa
Golfing Union of Ireland