The dramatic links of County Donegal

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May 03, 2012
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

David Brice, CEO of Golf International, reviews destinations on PGATOUR.COM that can be experienced by purchasing a package with Golf international, a leading provider of high-end international golf travel. For more information about this trip or any other of Golf International's destination trips, click here.

Northern Ireland may be tiny, but as the old saying goes, precious things come in small packages and this little country, sitting high on the north-easterly corner of the Emerald Isle is brimming over with so many precious things, including some amazing golf courses.

Ballyliffin is 36 holes of  prime Irish links pleasure.jpg
Ballyliffin is 36 holes of prime Irish links pleasure.
Ballyliffin's Glashedy Course - considered to be one of the best golf course designs of the past 50 years.jpg
Ballyliffin's Glashedy Course -- considered to be one of the best golf course designs of the past 50 years.
The Old Course complements the Glashedy perfectly and is playing better than ever.jpg
The Old Course complements the Glashedy perfectly and is playing better than ever.
Rosapenna's  historic Old Tom Morris Course is a true classic and guaranteed to please.jpg
Rosapenna's historic Old Tom Morris Course is a true classic and guaranteed to please.
Rosapenna's Sandy Hill Course raises the bar a few notches.jpg
Rosapenna's Sandy Hill Course raises the bar a few notches.
Rosapenna belongs on ever golfer's must play list.jpg
Rosapenna belongs on ever golfer's must-play list.
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The exceptional quality shared by practically all of Northern Ireland's almost 100 layouts, makes selecting which should be played now and which could be left for a future visit, a task that is far from easy, but it's something that must be done and it really comes down to whether you prefer diamonds or emeralds. Royal Portrush must definitely be on your play list, as should Royal County Down, but don't ignore the other golfing treats that call Northern Ireland home.

Only complicating the selection process further is another tempting grouping of mostly links courses that lie conveniently close to Northern Ireland's border with the Republic, little more than an hour's drive west of Portrush. This is County Donegal and the Ireland of yester-year, boasting one of Ireland's most hauntingly dramatic coastlines, the kind that produces equally dramatic links courses -- and County Donegal does just that.

This is a part of Ireland less frequented by tourists, where the golf clubs are filled with more local members than overseas visitors and a genuinely warm welcome and true Irish experience awaits all. Venture into these parts and you will discover the real Ireland you have dreamed of and as impressive a selection of prime links courses as exists anywhere. The names may be unfamiliar, but the quality is consistently outstanding and all but guaranteed to astound even the most jaded golf traveler.

Ballyliffin Golf Club is the closest to Portrush and can be easily reached within an hour's drive, taking the car ferry that runs hourly from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, across Lough Foyle on the 10 minute ride to Greencastle in Co. Donegal. The reward for taking this short drive will be Ballyliffin's two totally contrasting, championship links layouts.

The Old Course is an irresistible gem dating from 1947 that's a natural classic and as beguiling a challenge as you are ever likely to encounter. After a recent remodeling by Nick Faldo, this excellent layout has been made even better and is a pure joy to play, perfectly complementing its younger brother, the Glashedy Course, a tribute to 20th century course design.

Ireland's modern-day master of course design, Pat Ruddy, along with partner, Tom Craddock, were responsible for the Glashedy Course, a true work of links artistry that has garnered accolades from around the globe since it first opened in 1995. This is a formidable links test that has confounded the best during the many prestigious tournaments it has hosted, including The Irish Seniors Open, The Ladies Irish Open and the Northwest of Ireland Open.

Fashioned in and around incredible sand dunes, the Glashedy has a defense arsenal that never lets up. Brilliantly placed fairway and greenside bunkers, greens that are not easy to hold and always filled with undulations, sometimes subtle and often not. There are doglegs to be negotiated, serious rough to avoid and always the cantankerous wind blowing and often blasting in from the Atlantic. This is one for the memory book and unquestionably, one of Ireland's very best.

No golfer can visit Ballyliffin and only play one of these two beauties as both demand attention, so maybe you should plan on spending at least one night here and the Ballyliffin Hotel, sitting just a hop, step and a jump from the clubhouse, makes the perfect stopover.

As the crow flies, Rosapenna is only about 20 miles southwest of Ballyliffin, but if you don't have the advantage of wings, driving will take the best part of 90 minutes or so. The drive will be well rewarded with the spectacular Donegal scenery to be experienced along the way and at the end of the journey, another pair of spectacular links courses and a very pleasant hotel for the couple of nights Rosapenna deserves.

The original Rosapenna links course was laid out by the great Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews in 1893, Harry Vardon and James Braid, both journeyed here in the early 1900's to add length and bunkering, wisely leaving Morris's perfect greens intact.

Rosapenna's Tom Morris Course remains very much as it has been for the past century and is a standing tribute to the superb design work of those masters of old. Come here anticipating a piece of historic golf magic and you won't be disappointed.

Located on a spectacular stretch of County Donegal coastline, this is a superb piece of golf real estate that could have been used for nothing other than a very special links.

Bounded to the west by two sweeping bays, the course is made up of a pair of distinct loops. The first ten holes cover some fairly flat ground running alongside Sheephaven Bay. The following eight holes then wind their way around a massive hill overlooking Mulroy Bay before eventually careening over the top and galloping all the way back home.

Exposure to the wind coming in off the Atlantic Ocean produces challenges that are usually greater than anticipated and the bunkers, though always in clear view, make strategy important from start to finish. This is far from a walk in the park and the old fashioned test presents everything the visitor could hope for -- this is classic links golf at its very best. If this was all Rosapenna offered, it would be well worth the trip to experience an extraordinary links layout that has escaped attention for so long... but there's more.

In 2003 a second course opened at Rosapenna, sharing the same wild coastline as the original. This time the designer was Pat Ruddy, the golf writer turned architect who took the golf world by storm with his astounding layout just south of Dublin, The European Club.

To classify Rosapenna's new Sandy Hill Links as dramatic seems almost an understatement. It's a course of gargantuan proportions that bobs and weaves its way through mammoth sand dunes and a lunar-like landscape that is nothing short of spectacular.

On occasions the dunes shield from the wind then, with a total lack of respect for the player, subject him or her to fearsome gusts that find every conceivable way to penetrate the shield. It's the on again, off again jousting with the wind that adds so much to the test, which has to be one of the most arduous in Irish golf.

The ribbon-like fairways slowly thread their way through the maze of sand hills, with thigh deep rough encroaching in from every side, constantly adding to an ever-mounting challenge that tests both patience and tenacity.

There are opportunities to take out the driver, but big hitters beware, hit hard and if you are not accurate, eternal damnation awaits, only too eager to take one more brash visiting golfer into its depths.

This is a course that always rewards precision and a carefully thought out and executed game plan. You will have to sacrifice par on occasion, but play an unflinchingly tenacious game and you could have the satisfaction of pulling in a good scorecard on a course that will crucify others. Rosapenna was worth the trip when there was only one course, but now with a pair of crackerjack layouts, it offers twice the pleasure.

But this is only a small sampling of Co. Donegal's impressive golfing menu and we'll cover the best of the rest in future articles. In the meantime, think of adding this charming corner of the Emerald Isle to your future golf travel list, it has everything you need for a perfect golf trip.

For more ideas and suggestions on getting the very most out of your Ireland vacation, contact the Ireland experts at Golf International by calling toll free, 1 (800) 833-1389 or click here.

©2012 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.

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