For many visitors—especially Americans, myself included—the Ireland often visited is the one connected to the more known areas: Dublin and the southwest region in and around Shannon and Galway, to name just two places of note.
The more secluded, more rural northwest is harder to access but the rewards, as I found out, are well worth the effort.
As a golfer I have been keenly aware of many of the top tier links courses that fall within the northwest, and after spending time in the immediate Dublin area I made plans for several days of golfing and general touring.
After enjoying a day at the renowned Galway Races at the end of July I looked forward to starting my journey. First stop—Belmullet in County Mayo and the famed Carne Golf Links. One doesn’t get to Belmullet in anything remotely close to swift time, and that is what makes the northwest corner of Ireland fascinating—the anticipation for what lies ahead.
Carne Golf Links
Carne opened nine holes in 1992 with the 18-hole layout completed in 1993. The product of Eddie Hackett, Carne was the final links course the famed Irish architect designed. Playing 6,691 yards from the blue markers, Carne is par-71 layout.
Hackett smartly created holes that work with the natural flow of the property. While the outward half of holes is good, the inner half shines even brighter. Most notable is the devilishly demanding par-4 17th. The tee shot is fraught with danger; accuracy is a must. Even hitting the fairway leaves a maddening approach shot—the green is protected by a steep drop-off that will send your ball into utter oblivion.
A new nine opened in July 2013 called the Kilmore Course, a par-35 layout just under 3,300 yards. Ground broke in 2004 but only opened nine years later as funds to complete the project were an ongoing issue. American Jim Engh did the original routing, later completed by Dublin-based architect Ally McIntosh.
The Kilmore fits nicely between the existing nines of the original course but the turf quality is still very raw and maturing. Plans call for the Kilmore to be added to the back nine of the current course which will only add to the overall challenge. The key is ensuring turf quality is equal to what the design provides.
Enniscrone Golf Club
Fifty miles from Carne is Enniscrone. Great golf design often involves an evolutionary process and the Enniscrone Golf Club has gone through much since its inception as a golf club in 1918. In 1999 architect Donald Steel added six new holes within the native dunes area for the main layout along with three new holes in the adjoining flatlands to create the Scurmore 9-hole course.
The newly reconstituted Championship Dunes Course provides a refreshing and striking design, starting off with a rousing opening hole and concluding with five holes stretching alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Two marvellous short par-4’s come in succession with the uphill 12th and the downhill 13th which seduces the player in attempting the bold play from the tee.
The Dunes 18 stretches to 7,033 yards and plays to a par of 73. Enniscrone is not completely solid as the middle holes lack for overall land quality, but when the course shines it shines very brightly.
Just 40 miles north of Enniscrone is the majestic County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point. When you pull into the club entrance you won’t see much of the 6,970-yard par-71 championship course; the revelation happens gradually. The first two holes are a mere appetizer for what awaits. When you stand on the championship tee at the par-5 3rd you can begin to appreciate the totality of how land and Sligo Bay so magically intersect at Rosses Point.
The 18-hole course was crafted in 1927 and is chiefly the byproduct of architects Harry S. Colt, Alister Mackenzie, and Charles Hugh Alison, with various improvements made over the years. A 9-hole Bomore Course was added in 1999 and is a pleasant counterpoint to the main 18.
Golf at “The Point” is a changeable product because of the varying weather conditions one routinely faces—docile at one moment, hellish to the extreme at another. The Point provides a range of routing movements so the wind pattern is not so easily calculated. There are plans, pending membership approval, to undergo major course improvements with designer Pat Ruddy leading the way for a possible future Irish Open there.
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort
Rosapenna in Downings, County Donegal, is not exactly on the beaten track. Getting there takes a bit of time, but the stunning coastal scenery makes up for it. Rosapenna is blessed with two 18-hole layouts along with a 9-hole course originally designed by Old Tom Morris. The legendary Scot made a major contribution to golf, both from playing and designing courses.
Rosapenna’s Strand and Valley nines have a few holes of note. The par-4 6th is a solid two shot holes calling upon solid decision-making before hitting one’s tee shot. The 5th on the Valley Nine is also a gem of a par-3. If you’re up for the challenge take on the second 18—the Sandy Hill Links. Opened for play in June 2003, Sandy Hills is situated on land between the two nines of Old Tom Morris Links and provides incredible views of nearby Sheephaven Bay.
The high dunes that bracket the holes are grand spectacles cloaked in marram grass. Total attention and flawless execution are a must to negotiate the often narrow passageways. The enchanting element about Sandy Hills is that the holes are self-contained—there’s no clutter, no distractions to take away from the golf experience. At 7,255 yards from the back tees, Sandy Hills does not suffer fools gladly—pay heed or pay the steep price.
The Murvagh Links, located on the Murvagh peninsula in County Donegal, was designed to test the strongest of players. The course is devoid of the mounding found at Carne and Enniscrone and doesn’t have the hole variety provided at County Sligo. However, the routing is nicely done as the course moves to different corners of the property. The Murvagh is a muscle course and getting off the tee for both distance and accuracy is a major need time after time. Not as beguiling as the other courses, but one that will not suffer foolish plays with faulty executions.
On northwest Ireland’s fine golf courses, the intersection of water, dunes, land, and high native grasses makes for an experience that is second to none.
For more information or to plan a vacation in Ireland, go to: www.ireland.com
M. James Ward resides in Clifton, New Jersey, and has played over 2,000 golf courses globally. A member of the Golf Writer’s Association of America and past member of the Met Golf Writer’s Association, he served 17 years as national course rating panelist for Golf Digest and has reported on the overall golf industry since 1980 in a variety of forums.
IF YOU GO
- Fly into Dublin International Airport. It has the best flexibility for travel schedules and gives range of big city options either prior to departing or returning from your time in the northwest.
- Be sure to pack high-quality rain gear. Irish weather is renowned for being fickle. Be sure to also take two pairs of golf shoes so one dries as you use the other.
- Leave sufficient time for driving between locations. Irish roads are routinely curvy and quite narrow in spots. Driving 30 miles it can take an hour or more in Ireland.
- Avoid night driving. Roads are partially marked and can be difficult to see when weather is less than optimal.
- Book caddies with your golf reservation. Power carts are not as readily available as in the States. Be sure to bring a lightweight bag so you can either carry yourself or take a pull cart whenever needed.
- If you have a large group—four or more—consider reserving ground transportation with a driver handling all your logistical needs. Costs more than a basic car rental but you don’t have to worry about all the minor details.