Ireland is truly the land of golf. With over 400 courses to choose from, picking a destination can be almost overwhelming. Dublin with many fine courses like Portmarnock, The Island, Royal Dublin. The southwest with the likes of Old head, Ballybunion, Doonbeg. Northern Ireland with Royal County Down, Portrush, Portstewart. The list goes on.
Sometimes forgotten or low on the list is the northwestern corner of Ireland. Tucked away to the west of Northern Ireland, with only a small land connection to the rest of the Republic, it is the most remote and rugged corner of Ireland. It is also the home of some of the very best courses in Ireland. We visited two of the very finest: Ballyliffin and Rosapenna.
If you follow the Wild Atlantic Way to its very northernmost point, just as it is about to head back south, and look out to the north you’ll see a magnificent land perfectly suited for links golf. And lo and behold, there’s a golf course right in the middle of it: Ballyliffin Golf Club.
Actually, there are two courses. The Old Course, designed by the legendary Eddie Hackett just after WWII, and the new Glashedy Links by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock. Two quite different, but equally challenging courses.
The Old Links is a traditional links course, laid out mostly on the flat lands near the water. And here I use the word “flat” loosely; it is anything but flat when you walk down the fairways. As we walked down the fairway of the first hole I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they cut the grass on such a bumpy fairway (the answer turned out to be special pivoting mowing cylinders only 4 inches in diameter). If you are considering renting a golf car – don’t, it’s just too bumpy (and bad form anyway).
Playing the Old Links requires a bit of strategy. On some of the holes you have several possible routes to choose from already on your tee shot. Choosing the correct one requires knowledge of the hole, and of course also of your own abilities. Add in the prevailing wind, and you can start to imagine the difficulties. Study the course guide carefully.
Glashedy Links is quite a different beast. While still a links course, it incorporates more modern design elements, such as large undulated greens protected by numerous sand traps. But what really sets it apart from the Old Links are the spectacular views. While the Old Links is mostly down by the water, Glashedy climbs up hills and high sand dunes. Many of the holes wind their way between the hills, and it is not always obvious where to aim if it is your first time on the course. Again, study the course guide carefully. Pat Ruddy is known for putting obstacles in areas that can’t quite see from the tee, and he has certainly done so here.
So which course should you choose? Both are fantastic, championship courses. But if you have to choose, play Glashedy. It is a unique and wonderful experience, as long as you are willing to let the course beat you on your first try. It just makes you want to come back for more.
Rosapenna is only 30 km from Ballyliffin as the crow flies. However, there’s not a straight road to be found in this area, so count on at least an hour and a half by car.
Rosapenna has a history that goes back a lot further than Ballyliffin, something that can be gleaned from the name of one of the courses; Old Tom Morris course. Tom Morris was indeed involved, as was other legends such as Harry S. Colt and Eddie Hackett. The course was at the top of Irish golf for over 100 years.
In the mid-nineties it was time for an update and expansion, and, just as at Ballyliffin, Pat Ruddy got the job. The idea was to expand with a more modern 18 hole links course, and at the same time move nine holes from across the road. The new Old Tom Morris Course ended up with a completely new nine hole track, ending at the club house. The new holes have several of Pat Ruddy’s trademarks; there is always a hazard where you can’t quite see, but suspect there might be one, and the landing areas are often much more generous than what it seems looking from the tee. A very pleasurable nine holes.
Pat Ruddy’s second task was to restore the second nine holes that Old Tom designed at the beginning of the last century, called “The Valley”, to as close to the layout Old Tom had intended. The Valley is well protected from storms and blowing sand inside the dunes along the beach. Most of the holes are fairly flat, since it was not possible to move a lot of dirt in those days, but several of the holes have tee boxes on top of the dunes along the beach, for some fantastic views of the course and also of the bay and the Rosapenna Hotel.
The new course at Rosapenna, also from the hand of Pat Ruddy, is Sandy Hills, opened in 2003. This is a modern course, built to modern standard with the help of modern equipment, on top of the hills of Rosapenna.
Here is where it gets really exciting. Especially so on the holes with high tee boxes and fairways in the valleys below. Often times the valleys meander a bit and it is crucial that you put the ball in the right spot, otherwise you more often than not end up with a blind second shot. Many of the holes also have raised greens, further complicating your approach. And that’s not even taking into account the often hidden-from-view sand trap behind the insignificant little hill in front of the green. Pat Ruddy is a master at fooling the eye, making the holes look much more difficult than they really are.
If this all makes the course seem impossible, that is not so. Everything is well thought out, and the course is set up so that with simple means it can be easier or harder, depending on what the demands are. But you do have to pay attention, and, again, closely study the course guide. Best is of course if you have time to play the course a couple of times, and gain an understanding of all the intricacies.
I almost forgot to mention the views. From almost all of the tees and greens, you can see for miles and miles. Do remember to take a break from golf every once in a while and just take in the wonder of it all. It’s an almost heavenly experience for a golfer to wander around in the dunes, taking in the views and imagining all the golf history that has taken place here. Take a few panoramas with your camera to remember it all on a cold winter evening at home.
Sandy Hills is routed like a traditional links course, nine holes out and nine holes in, whereas on the Old Course you come back to the clubhouse after nine.
Which course should you play? The Old Course is the shorter and easier course, so it is a good warm up. But Sandy Hills is not to be missed, even if it can be punishing on your first time out.
If you have read this far you have probably spotted a lot of similarities. Rosapenna and Ballyliffin are in many respects mirror images of each other. Each has two courses, both links. One is old, really old, and one is more modern. One is fairly “flat”, and one runs along the top of the hills and sand dunes. Both have views second to none. And Pat Ruddy has had his hand in both.
One minor difference is that Rosapenna has a hotel right on the premises. You can ride your golf cart right to the front door of the hotel, and a fine hotel it is, with a wonderful classic dining room with excellent food, further enhanced by the view of Downings Bay.
At Ballyliffin, the new clubhouse has a nice restaurant, but the hotels are a little bit further away, in town. No further than a few minutes walk though, like a long par five.
Both the town of Ballyliffin and Downings Bay a few minutes from Rosapenna have several restaurants and pubs to choose from for your evening entertainment. If you want to try a genuine Irish pub, try the Harbour Bar in Downings Bay.
So which course should you choose, Rosapenna or Ballyliffin? Old course or new links? Well, if you’ve made it all the way up here, you really can’t be in that big of a rush. Do as the locals, take your time, play all four courses. You’ll be glad you did.