Co. Donegal's cream of Irish links, rises to the top

June 16, 2009
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

The hauntingly beautiful county of Donegal sits remotely in the most northwesterly corner of Ireland, as far from the rest of the island as it is possible to be. It's this splendid isolation that creates a large part of the region's great appeal. Forgotten by time and ignored by the modern day world, this is the Ireland of yester-year, where Mother Nature reigns supreme and the beauty of her handiwork abounds for all to enjoy.

Ballyliffin's Glashedy qualifies as one of Ireland's toughest links.
Ballyliffin's Old Course is no walk in the park.
Rosappena's Sandy Hills - another of Ireland's top 25 links.
Portsalon is a centenarion recently improved by Pat Ruddy.
Murvagh is a big hitters delight but be prepared for the worst.
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It's not a part of the country that springs immediately to mind when thoughts of an Irish golf trip are being mulled over, which is a pity as there are some extraordinary golf courses waiting to be discovered. More importantly, the very welcoming golf clubs of County Donegal seem to specialize in providing that true Irish golf experience, increasingly difficult to find in other parts where during the season, you stand more chance of bumping into a member from your home club than you do a local Irishman. Come to Donegal to enjoy the outstanding golf and stunning scenery, but also come to get to know and enjoy the friendly locals on their home turf -- it's the real Irish experience.

There's no better place to start a Donegal golf trip in style, than with a couple of days in Ballyliffin, situated on the Inishowen Peninsula at the far north end of the county. Ballyliffen Golf Club has a pair of outstanding links layouts, each quite different from the other and both demand to be played. Making things even more accommodating is the excellent 4 star, Ballyliffin Lodge Hotel that overlooks both layouts.

Ballyliffen Old Course first saw the light of day in 1947 and has always been one of Ireland's true hidden gems, but after a recent makeover by Nick Faldo, who considers it the most natural golf course ever; the gem has become even more precious. The setting is rugged, almost austere, with the layout running along rolling fairways between the crashing Atlantic Ocean and endless stretches of sand dunes. The remoteness of the location creates the feeling that you could be the very first to ever play a course that has been sitting here for centuries.

The Old Course, as challenging as it is, provides only some preparation for the visitor before they attack its younger brother, Ballyliffin's Glashedy Links, arguably the toughest links in all Ireland. Sitting in an almost lunaresque landscape of massive sand dunes, studded with a generous helping of fairway and greenside pot bunkers, the almost notorious name Glashedy has gained in the ten short years since it first opened, is well deserved. This is a layout that grabs your attention from the word go with three merciless par-4's and never lets up. Nerves of steel and real golfing ability are demanded throughout this track that has no use for the word forgiveness. Not a course for the high handicapper, the accomplished player will be pushed to the extreme, but what a feeling of achievement when you eventually reach the clubhouse.

As the crow flies, it's only 25 miles to reach Rosapenna where another 36 holes of links magic awaits, but mere mortals will have a 75 miles drive around beautiful Lough Swilly to accomplish the transfer. Make the most of it and take the trip at a leisurely pace to savor the magnificent scenery of the Inishowen Peninsula. A stopover at the charming resort town of Buncrana is well worthwhile with its castle and vintage car museum. The mill here, known for its tweeds and hand knitted goods, also offers an excellent shopping opportunity.

Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Links is a very special golf haven, guaranteed to please even the most jaded golf traveler -- a top drawer, 4 star golf hotel and a pair of great links layouts, both demanding enough to keep the most ardent golfer, happy for a week.

The Old Tom Morris Course has been here since 1893 - a slice of Irish golf history, not to be missed. It's one of the few designs golf's greatest architect attempted outside of his native Scotland. After being re-shaped by James Braid and Harry Vardon in the early 1900's and again by Eddie Hackett in 1993, only to be further improved by Ireland's Pat Ruddy even more recently, the layout may be one of Ireland's most finely tuned and the end result shows it.

Bounded on both sides by sweeping bays, the course is made up of two distinct loops. The first ten holes cover some fairly flat ground running along Sheephaven Bay. The following eight holes turn inland to a hill overlooking Mulroy Bay; careening over the top then galloping homeward. It's classic links golf at its best and exposure to the erratic Atlantic winds with an abundance of shrewd bunkering, makes an excellent test for the golf strategist.

With maturity far beyond its tender 6 years of age, Rosapenna's second course, Sandy Hill Links, takes on a totally different character that delights in the bobbing and weaving path it follows through the giant sand dunes. One minute shielding from the wind, the next, exposing the player to the full force of the elements, it's a test of patience, links skills and tenacity all the way. Ribbon-like fairways, vicious rough, clever bunkering and unpredictable wind gusts make this a stern examination of links acumen, all the way.

Four superb and quite different links golf tests, shared between two conveniently close locations, would be reason enough for most to spend a week or so in County Donegal, but there's more to the story.

It's only an Irish half hour's drive to get from Rosapenna to Portsalon, where another piece of golf history dating from 1881, the warmest of welcomes and over 7,000 yards of pure classic links pleasure awaits at Portsalon Golf Club. Add another half hour to the driving time and you could be playing one of the longest links courses in Europe at the Donegal Golf Club's, Murvagh Course, just be prepared to play 10 strokes over your handicap.

If you are playing Murvagh, there are plenty of other temptations to the south, just 45 minutes drive away in County Sligo, where Rosses Point, one of Ireland's top 10 links layouts demands your attention While you're here, don't miss Enniscrone, another cracker-jack links sitting just 30 miles up the road and a real treat for any connoisseur of real links golf.

From Ballyliffin, Northern Ireland is also only a short 45 minute drive away, opening up a host of other links beauties -- Castlerock, Portstewart and the fabled Royal Portrush, ranked number two among all Irish courses.

If you need further proof of the quality of links golf in and around County Donegal and its close neighbors, take a look at the latest rankings of Ireland's top courses, just published by Golf Digest --Ireland. Each of the 11 links courses mentioned here is ranked among the top 25 links layouts in all of Ireland, leaving just 14 more shared between the rest of the country.

County Donegal is much more than a pretty face -- it's a wealth of exceptional golf treasures, still waiting to be discovered. How it has managed to remain a secret for so long may be one of the great golf mysteries of our time, so better get there before the crowds start arriving. For a few more ideas on where to find the best, click here.

©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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