Golf in Ireland has been on the up over the last few years; it started with Padraig Harrington’s 3 Majors but has recently been dominated by Northern Ireland’s trio of Darren Clark, Graeme McDowell and possibly the most exciting Rory McIlroy. Where though is the best Ireland links golf ? The South of Ireland is well publicised and the classic southern links courses of Ballybunion and Old Head are stunningly beautiful, but carry a price tag that would make the most well healed golfer wince. The K Club and Carlton House near Dublin are both good courses but are resort based and in truth could be anywhere in the world.
So where is the best region for Ireland links Golf ?
County Sligo and County Donegal, which are situated in the far top left corner on a map of Ireland, is the place to go to play a wonderful selection of world class ireland links golf courses. This small region comprising two counties has 5 Courses in the UK and Ireland top 100, (19 Courses in the Republic, and 3 in the North made the top 100 listings for 2012) it also can boast 9 Courses in Ireland’s top 50.
We were invited by the Irish Tourist board, Failte Ireland, to visit the Sligo and Donegal regions too see first hand why we should be promoting North West Ireland as a golf holiday destination.
With a schedule that would keep an Olympic athlete in the peak of health Quality Golf Destinations Robbie (finally escaping from the office) and Rachel embarked on an adventure to find out exactly why this region was voted European Golf Destination of the year in 2011.
We experienced 10 golf courses (playing 7) in an action packed 5 days, stayed in a different hotel each night as well as visiting a few more on-route, made sure that Guinness taste’s better in Ireland than the UK (it does no question, we tried it many times to make sure) and sampled some fantastic food from top class hotels to local pubs.
County Sligo is a three hour drive from Dublin (130 miles) the far North of Donegal is a four hour drive (175 miles) Belfast is within a 2 hour drive and the closest regional airport with decent connections to the UK is Knock 35 miles from Sligo town. Alternatively you can fly into Belfast or Dublin. The most popular and best value entry points for Ireland are usually the ferries, with your own car and no luggage restrictions it’s a good combination for the holidaying golfer who has time to enjoy the experience. Fast crossing are under two hours (Holyhead – Dublin) and a standard ferry takes approximately three and a half hours, ferry also run from Liverpool and Stranraer in Scotland. We took the High Speed ferry from Holyhead in North Wales to Dun Laoghaire just to the south of Dublin.
Driving in the Country
Ireland has an excellent road network out of Dublin, as you go further north (or any other direction) the good roads become fewer and farther between and a straight line is something a traditional Irish road builder dislikes. This makes getting from A to B or in our case hotel to golf course quite a time consuming pastime (especially if your behind one of the many tractors), always allow more time than you think to get anywhere in this part of the world, if you think 40 minutes allow an hour, life here though is at a bit more of a slower pace than the UK so relax and go with the flow and enjoy the scenery which is consistently spectacular. A good tip is to make sure you have a good road atlas, or an up to date Sat-Nav system as occasionally road signs can be somewhat intermittent when finding locations away from the main towns.
After arriving in Ireland and (eventually) making it on to the M50, Dublin’s Motorway ring road that all the national (N) roads link too, we were soon admiring the fruits of Irelands boom years as we made excellent time on very good and modern N roads, nearly all the towns are bypassed and before we knew it we were arriving at our first destination Sligo. We checked in to the very well appointed Radisson Blu just out side Sligo town, a great base for links golf in the area and close to the Famous Co Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point. Many rooms have great views overlooking the Lough in front of the hotel, great sized rooms, a large ground floor spa area and a very comfortable lounge bar perfect for that pre dinner drink. Unfortunately we did not have time to dawdle, golf clubs were drawn and we were off to the great Rosses Point course at Co Sligo Golf Club only 5 minutes from the hotel. We were greeted by David O’Donovan, General Manager at Co Sligo, and were soon walking down the 1st under blue sky’s, sadly we only had time for 10 holes the course is mostly classic ireland links golf with a few holes on the raised headland around the club house and is a wonderful opener to golf in the area and simply a great course. An empty belly was soon rectified at dinner in the Radisson’s excellent and busy restaurant before we happily enjoyed a good night’s sleep.
Day 2 in County Sligo started with an hours drive to Enniscrone Golf Club. Under grey sky’s we set out on what is simply a remarkable golf course. Enniscrone is best described as Ireland links golf on steroids. Huge dunes line the fairways giving quite a lot of shelter in parts, best advice is don’t miss the fairway and you will be fine. Also leave the back tees to the low single figure handicappers the green tees still measure a very respectable 6400 yards not short by anybody’s standards. Excellent large greens, some with wicked breaks made putting tricky but we both played the course well, despite getting a soaking on the 15th hole. A quick look around the Diamond Coast Hotel which overlooks the links at Enniscrone and in a good position for golf in the area and has possibly some of the biggest standard rooms I have ever seen (and we have seen a lot of hotel rooms).
Next stop was Castle Dargan Hotel a few miles from Sligo town and a change from the links golf so far. Castle Dargan has a new Darren Clarke designed course and makes a nice change for those of us more used to parkland golf. The greens here were absolutely superb (USGA greens and tees). We were due to play 9 holes but the weather decided to play mischief with a downpour of biblical proportions, a buggy was supplied and we had a drive around the course which was very good. Castle Dargan Hotel is a popular wedding venue, the hotel has great selection of well appointed rooms with out being too large. The restaurant and bar area overlooked the first and eighteenth holes and make a perfect back drop to relax to. The food at Castle Dargan was again excellent and gigantic in proportions.
Day 3 and beautiful blue sky’s welcomed us to a little gem of a golf course at Strandhill, as with many of the golf courses in the area the links sit on a peninsular between the Sea and Lough. Located 5 miles from Sligo town this course is still a good test of golf but not as long as other courses and a little more generous off the tee, this is countered with some small undulating greens to concentrate the mind. The clubhouse sits on the highest point of the course and gives excellent views over the course and coast.
Donegal Golf Club
Crossing the border north in to Donegal, we visited The Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh Beach. One of the things that kept amazing us was the beautiful coast lines; The Sandhouse Hotel has one of the best sea views imaginable and set only a few paces from the beach in the sleepy village of Rossnowlagh. This coastal area also has a great surfing and water sport scene and makes a perfect location for a family holiday. We continued northwards past another links course we wanted to play but time would not allow at Bundoran (apologies Noreen, next time) onwards to our afternoon round of golf at Donegal Golf club (more commonly known as Muvagh to the local golfers and pronounced Merv with a good Irish drawl accent) a delight to play, with superb greens and interesting designed holes its easy to see why this is one of Darren Clarke’s favourite ireland links golf courses. We exited the course just before the rains started and thought it only right to see if the Guinness was up to scratch. The hospitality was as good as the golf course. The clubhouse has an upstairs lounge and balcony which has some great views over the links, and yes, the Guinness was excellent. Our Hotel for the evening was the stunning 5 star Lough Eske Castle Hotel. Everything about this hotel lived up to its 5 star billing, excellent rooms, an amazing spa, top quality restaurant with perfect service to boot made us wish we had a few more hours to enjoy this wonderful hotel.
Day 4, after a splendid breakfast (full Irish for me, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for Rachel) it was an early start to travel to one of our favourite golf courses of the week Narin and Portnoo Golf Club. This course has a gentle first few holes as you play out to the proper dunes, once in the dunes however you are treated to some great golf holes and spectacular views of Gweebarra Bay as the course threads through the sand hills back to the clubhouse. We played the course with a good breeze blowing and the yardage book was soon assigned to the back pocket after playing a 3 wood to the “short” 150 yard 7th hole, great fun. After our windblown mornings golf we had been recommended a traditional Irish pub for lunch “Nancy’s” in the small town of Ardara, run by the same family for countless generations, Nancy’s specializes’ in some great seafood. The seafood chowder is apparently their signature dish, washed down with a pint of the black stuff in a packed pub was a great way to recover from a round of golf. We then had a very pleasant afternoons drive north to the very tip of Ireland and the beautiful seaside village of Rosapenna in the quaintly named Sheephaven Bay and the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort. The resort has two championship courses, the Old Tom Morris links was originally staked out in 1891. All 18-holes are still in play but the “old” Coastguard nine is now used as an academy course with a new “Strand” 9-hole course bringing the old course back to championship standards. In addition to this a new course “the Sandy Hills Links” was opened in 2003 and runs entirely through the large dunes. This course has won many fans since its opening with its elevated tees and somewhat strangely for a links course a lot of elevated greens.
Day 5, today was a 36-hole marathon, after breakfast we had the short walk from the hotel to the clubhouse to play “Sandy Hills” under a beautiful blue skies and no breeze to speak of. I am glad we played here under perfect conditions, the raised greens make a traditional links running shot into the green’s a very tricky task unless perfectly executed especially on a course of well over 7,000 yards. With probably some of the best putting surfaces of the week I managed to score more than respectfully but after leaving the course we both felt this course would defiantly take no prisoners when the wind was blowing.
We then headed east to Ballyliffin Golf Club for our final round on this packed trip. We had definitely saved the best to last, and that is saying a lot considering the superb quality of the golf courses up to now. Ballyliffin sits on the Inishowen Peninsula and is blessed with 36 holes of majestic proportions. The term hidden gem is often used to describe a great course which is not widely known about however it’s unusual to have 36 holes of truly world class Ireland links golf to enjoy in one location. This is honestly one of the planets must play golf courses, The Old Links and the “New” Glashedy Links (which looks and feels as if its been here for a hundred years) are simply superb and are complimented with a majestic clubhouse to match the splendor of the courses. The 18th Green of the Glashedy and its approach are in full view of the clubhouse. My run of 5 pars on the bounce came to a very tired end after finding the sand off the tee before shanking one deep into the cabbage, Rachel of course always plays to a crowed and just missed her birdie putt and took last day bragging rights as well.
Narin & Portnoo Golf Club
That evening at dinner at the very comfortable Ballyliffin Lodge we sat contemplating what had been a great trip over another excellent pint of Guinness. We are extremely lucky to play a lot of different golf courses each year around the world, some are good and some are ok but you sometimes leave thinking that’s another overpriced golf course. It’s great to go somewhere where the golf is of such a high standard but priced so everyone can enjoy the game without breaking the bank. Ireland Links golf is not everyone’s bag but even away from the golf course this area has a lot to offer.
There are exceptional country hotels and friendly bed and breakfasts, food seems to be more than just a meal and if you love seafood you will be in for a treat. The scenery changes as you drive north through the hills and the rugged coast line is impossible not to admire, every few miles a beach comes into view that would not be out of place in the most exotic holiday advert (although the sea temperature may need a touch of work). Whatever you do and where ever you go in this region you will always be met with a smile and everyone has time for a chat. We must thank everyone we met and reacquainted with, especially with all the golf courses and hotels we stayed in and visited, this is a place where friendly welcome is assured.
The North West of Ireland was the winner of the IAGTO golf destination of the year for Europe in 2011 so next year make a point of discovering for your self, head for the North West of Ireland and play golf as it shouldbeplayed, you wont be disappointed.
Glenshedy course – Ballyliffin Golf Club
The Quality Golf Destinations team visited the following Hotels & Golf Courses, Click on the logo to visit there websites or use the link to Quality Golf Destinations website