Pictured above: Royal Portrush, Hole No. 5
There may be a better starting point for a soul stirring golf expedition, a more convivial and welcoming place than Dublin, but it’s hard to imagine.
In the land of Behan, Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Wilde, and the rest, there is said to be a pub for every 300 souls. Dublin – and its historic Temple Bar area – is at the heart of it all. The sense of instant camaraderie that pervades the pubs extends to the street corners and shops, and the pro shops and clubhouses. There isn’t a hint of the forced affability that is showered upon visitors in what are now ubiquitously billed as ‘world-class destinations.’ Ireland is in a class of its own; unselfconsciously unique, modestly proud of its rustic splendour, stoically accepting of its troubled history (including the demise of the Celtic Tiger), and generously hospitable.
“It’s the friendliness, yes, that’s it, the friendliness,” said Phelim Davenport, club captain at Ballyliffin GC in Inishowen, Donegal, as he looked out over the club’s two magnificent links courses and the Glashedy Rock in the brooding Atlantic. The question had been what would visitors remember most about their first visit to his club. He could have answered that it was the unrelenting beauty of the two courses, their purity, or their mercurial challenges shifting with each day and each change in wind and weather. Instead, his typically Irish response was about the people.
On the eve of his final Open Championship, Tom Watson said: “The thing about links golf is the uncertainty, you’re not certain how the ball is going to bounce, you don’t know where it’s going until it stops rolling.” The certainty about Northwest Irish links is the drama, charm, and quality of the courses. Most of the golfing world simply doesn’t know that yet.
Ballyliffin, where Rory McIlroy shot a 61 net 65 as a 16-year-old +4 handicap, is just one in a string of dramatic and unforgettable links in Northwest Ireland colourfully and accurately known as the Wild Atlantic Way. A tour of this largely overlooked region, starting north from Dublin, can include the incomparable and justifiably celebrated Royal County Down, and lesser known but classic links like Portmarnock, Portstewart, Ardglass, Rosapenna, Castlerock, and the venerable Royal Portrush, among others. They’re all well worth a round, or two.
North from Dublin barely 25 minutes by car, The Links Portmarnock is a grand introduction to a journey of Irish links. The hotel overlooking the rugged peninsula and the Irish Sea makes this an ideal spot to tarry. The Links – designed by Bernhard Langer with Stan Eby, cool because Langer won the Irish Open at the adjacent Portmarnock private course – opened in 1995 but plays like it’s a century older. Shaped on the old Jameson Estate, yes the whiskey folks, it skirts the grave of Saint Marnock, hence its name. A round on the links, followed by one or two at the Jameson Bar, is a must.
Up the coast, across the border into Northern Ireland, is the stunning Ardglass GC, in County Down, an hour south of Belfast. Perched on the coast below the medieval town with its tower houses – the clubhouse is really an add-on to a 1,000-year-old castle, turrets still commanding views of the Irish Sea – the holes climb and then run back and forth to the black rock formations on the salty shore, before heading out to long views of a bay and fishing village. The golf can easily be lost in the flurry of photo ops.
A half hour up the coast is Royal County Down. To walk it, and reach the 18th tee and see the town of Newcastle nestled against the Mourne Mountains bathed in sunlight with the Sea crashing to the left is to want to book an indefinite stay at the adjacent – it’s a walk to the course from the rear doors – and incomparable Slieve Donard Hotel (named for the local slope known as Donard). To play the course that opened in 1889 – Old Tom Morris was invited over (for a fee not to exceed 4 pounds) and reworked three holes and added six – and to stay at the grand Victorian-era hotel that opened in 1898 should be mandatory bucket list addendums.
On the North shore of Northern Ireland is Royal Portrush where the Dunluce Links is being prepped for possibly hosting the 2019 Open Championship. In 1951 the Harry Colt design was the first to host the Open outside the mainland United Kingdom. After playing brilliant holes with names like Giant’s Grave, Himalayas, and Purgatory, most players agree it deserves to be in the Open rota.
Just to the west along the coast you’ll find a golf club that was into its fourth season when the Slieve Donard Hotel opened. Portstewart GC is the classic NW Ireland links that opened in 1894, and had a makeover by no less than Willie Park Jr. in the 1920s. But in 1986, the club purchased an expanse known locally as Thistly Hollow that opened Portstewart into massive dunes and linksland and the creation of seven new holes. The first hole on The Strand Course is breathtaking, and then it just gets more dramatic.
Barely 13 miles west is the distinctly different Castle Rock GC (1901) and its Mussenden Links. Created by Ben Sayer and tweaked by Harry Colt in 1925, Mussenden has a river running through it as it climbs and winds through the gentle dunes, and a railroad beside the opening holes. On occasion, the ‘har’ (mist off the ocean) rolls in like a fog. The short Bann course was designed by Harvey Penick.
Tracing the coast and heading across the border and a bit north into the Republic of Ireland – the ferry is the shorter route, the drive the longer scenic one – the winding road leads back to Captain Davenport.
“I don’t think we get the recognition we deserve because we are so northerly, in County Donegal that is cut off a bit,” said Davenport, of his beloved Ballyliffin that he joined 28 years ago (well, it’s five minutes from his home). “It is a unique experience because you play two courses that are completely different. One is God-made [The Old Links], the other is man-made [The Glashedy Links].”
He may be god-like to some Brits and the odd TV viewer, but (Sir) Nick Faldo did assist the original architect. The links opened as a 9-hole course in 1948, not expanding to 18 holes until 1973. Faldo did a wonderful job in 2003 not messing with the classic 6,600-yard layout, adding sod bunkers and expanding greens only where demanded by the new club and ball technology. Davenport says that Faldo’s rebunkering in 2009 made the Old Course two strokes tougher. The Old Links plays with mounds and dimples and still runs like an old traditional links course, comfortable in its character.
The more dramatic Glashedy Links – made by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock – climbs into the dunes, an ascent allowed by advances in course making equipment. Despite its crescendos, the true linksland allows it to play at over 7,000 yards, with astounding views from the high dunes of almost the entire property and the Glashedy rock out in the ocean. “They used to take their sheep out to the rock in rowboats,” said Davenport. “They would take them up the easier slope at the back, and leave them to graze on top of the rock.” Staring at Glashedy from any of the many viewpoints at Ballyliffin that boat ride, even on a rare calm day, is hard to imagine.
So too is trying to imagine how the Giant’s Causeway was formed millions of years ago, or what life was like at the Dunluce Castle in its prime hundreds of years ago, two must see sights along the way.
Past Sligo and Donegal, after skirting Gweebarra Bay and the Bloody Foreland, on the shore of Downing Peninsula is another haven for golfers: the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Links. Old Tom Morris strolled the gentle swales along Sheephaven Bay in 1891. His timeless links course opened two years later. In the early 1900s, two other Open Championship winners Harry Vardon (of the grip and the trophy) and James Baird took turns adding bunkers and some length to Tom’s design. That’s the way it plays today, 6,500 yards of golf heaven that you could play every day without regret.
A century after Old Tom created his links; the celebrated Irish architect Pat Ruddy created his in the dunes above the Morris course. The 7,000-yard Sandy Hills links is as dramatic as Morris’s is traditional. Ruddy created a remarkable test that provides stunning views of the surrounding countryside, the villages in the distance, and the Morris course below. After booking into the Hotel and seeing the courses, you’ll be sorely tempted to at least double the length of your stay.
Sadly back in Dublin for a final Guinness before the flight home, thinking of all the incomparable links along the Wild Atlantic Way, the infamous Calamity Corner, #14 par 3 at Royal Portrush (uphill 210 yards, usually into the wind, over a gorse lined ravine to a slip of green perched between bunkers) came vividly to mind. After a career 2 hybrid, and a couple of shaky putts, a gentleman golfer from Belgium said: “Well done. You know what they say? Getting a par on Calamity Corner is as rare as meeting an unfriendly Irishman.”
Captain Davenport had it right. It is the friendliness, and new friendships, that make the Irish links unforgettable.
Recommended places to stay (Click on each name to link to their website):
To book a Wild Atlantic Way links tour, click HERE. – www.northandwestcoastlinks.com