SPECIAL FEATURE: Golf in Donegal - beauty to take your breath away

A personal view to a beginners' choice - Eamonn Davis takes a tour of Donegal's Golf Courses from north to south

Golf feature

A view from behind one of the greens at Portsalon Golf Club

As the latest easing of restrictions take effect, all golf clubs across the island of Ireland will now have reopened from Monday, April 26th. This date is the first step in the journey to the resumption of full activity and we golfers welcome the fact that golf is one of the first sports which has been allowed to resume under the ongoing Level 5 restrictions.
Now that we are on the verge of our second ‘Return to Golf’ and with so many new participants to the sport, I have recently been wondering if they, or indeed those of us who can claim to be golf veterans, have ever considered how extremely spoilt we are to have inherited so many golf courses on our Donegal shores?
Whether we drive from the most northerly part of our coastline and begin play at the world renowned Ballyliffin Golf Club, with its 36 hole complex complete with driving range, or from the westerly Cruit Island GC., one of the most scenic 9 hole ‘hidden gems’, set on the edge of the wild and rugged Atlantic ocean, [next stop America], we savour unrestricted panoramic views that will take your [and any visitors] breath away.
Counting the aforementioned Ballyliffin Golf Club, which needs no introduction to any golfer, seasoned or beginner, the Peninsula of Inishowen itself has no less than five golf clubs within its one-hundred mile radius, and also having one of the original founding members of the GUI, North West GC.

Gavin Moynihan of Ireland on the 13th Tee box during  the Irish Open Golf Championship at Ballyliffin Golf Club in 2018
Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

North West Golf Club is situated in Lisfannon, Buncrana, an area of natural outstanding beauty, with the club dating back to 1891 where it was one of the founding members of the Golfing Union of Ireland (G.U.I). Measuring over 6300 yards with a css of 70 and nestled beneath the so called “Mouldy Mountains” on the shores of Lough Swilly, this links course has often been called the ‘St. Andrew’s of Ireland’ as it tends comparisons with that of the famous Scottish links.
North West’s fairways have many humps and hollows and extremely good fescue greens with concealed run off’s that are not always visible from the fairway and while the terrain is flat, the holes are nevertheless varied and, as with many traditional links courses, the course is characterized by pot bunkers and concealed runs and bumps approaching many of the greens.
North West is rich with success along its path through history, the latest of these successes coming from the now resident PGA Professional Brian McElhinney, winner of the European Amateur and British Amateur Championships to name but a few of his achievements.
The Club has also seen the opening of the new 4th hole in recent times (2016) constructed along the coast which mirrors one which fell victim to coastal erosion many years ago. A famous quote for this magnificent links course is, “If you can play North West Golf Course, you can play anywhere”

Buncrana Golf Club, just 10mins walk from their North-West neighbours, has been in existence since 1890, is Ireland's oldest 9 hole links golf course and also has the longest par 5 on the Wild Atlantic Way, measuring 595yds.
A secret delight and one of the lesser known golf clubs to overseas visitors but gaining a high reputation amongst its Irish counterparts, Buncrana Golf Club is a superb seaside course, offering enviable views from all around. The original 3-4 hole course that was in existence since circa 1934, was extended to a 9 hole course and was affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1951.
The course is actually situated overlooking the beautiful 'White Strand' on the shores of Lough Swilly and offers a challenging round of golf to players of all handicaps.

Less than a thirty minute drive from both these courses and making the circle complete within the peninsula are Redcastle and Greencastle Golf Clubs, the latter a 9 hole parkland course designed on the grounds of Redcastle Hotel. Popular with golfers and golf groups, its location is perfect for golf breaks and historical sightseeing, being only ten miles from Derry City. The magnificent parkland fairways are dotted with trees and strategically placed traps and visitors can enjoy some of the most breath-taking views in the world on a course which contours around Lough Foyle.

Following the river bends, we approach Greencastle Golf Club, a members’ owned course on the banks of, and with superb views, across Lough Foyle to the golden sands of Magilligan Strand.
A beautiful 18 hole links course nestling in its idyllic surroundings, the club was founded in 1892 as a 9 hole course and during its centenary year opened a further nine very challenging holes, extending its length to 5972yd par 70 for men and a 5425 yd par 70 for the lady members.
The course itself now comprises of six par three holes with a stream/drain coming into play on three of the holes making a very interesting feature.

Moving along to the west coast, I have often wondered if there is any other region in Ireland that has no less than seven golf courses along its coastal waters within a one to two hour drive, those courses being Portnoo GC, Cruit Island, Gweedore GC, Cloughaneeley GC, Dunfanaghy GC, Rosapenna GC and Portsalon GC. Driving towards the south of the county from Portnoo and you will find the famed championship course of Murvagh on the outskirts of Donegal Town and slightly further on, Bundoran Golf Club.

The ancient Celts believed that Narin & Portnoo was the ‘edge of the world’ – a powerful, spiritual place where the next stop was the Heavens. Recently re-designed by Hanse Golf Design, this masterpiece is built into the natural terrain of fescue and sand and has been transformed into one of Ireland’s links gems, something truly special. The rugged beauty of the course is a synonym of the whole surrounding area of County Donegal. At Narin & Portnoo Links, you are, with each step and shot, treading through an extraordinary natural golf links which will make your visit truly memorable.

A truly Gaeltacht ‘Cead Mile Failte’ awaits the visitors to both Cruit Island and Gweedore Golf Clubs. With both being true natural links courses, Cruit is a 9 hole golf course at its best, where every shot must be methodically thought out. With the signature hole being a par 3 that measures only 137m, choice of club would rely solely on the weather of the day. A short flick of a wedge? A fully struck wood? You decide!!
From the scratch golfer to the fresh beginner, you are guaranteed to enjoy this little piece of heaven created as recently as 1986 by the late City of Derry Golf Club PGA Professional, Michael Doherty. The views from the cliff tops are simply stunning and the course gives you raw, elemental golf from bygone days. Measuring just almost 3,000yds, the course has seven par 4’s and two par 3’s, with the above mentioned signature hole playing along the cliff edge.

Gweedore Golf Club is, without doubt, the ‘hidden jewel’ in the middle of the Donegal Gaeltacht. This superbly upgraded golf links layout at Magheragallon, [Machaire Gathlán],has received an imaginative revamp which has helped develop the course into one of the most natural and picturesque links courses in the county with its unrestricted panoramic views and now comprising of fourteen distinct holes carved out of the natural landscape which lies next to some of Ireland’s most picturesque and unspoiled beaches.
A testing links course, offering a variety of golf to all standard of player, it boasts small landing areas on deceptively difficult par three’s and two strategically placed ‘blind’ par 5’s. As in most links golf courses, if playing against the elements of wind and rain, it's tough in parts, but certainly fair. That, however, is the expectation that comes with playing a great links course and when the wind gets up it makes course management and accuracy a pre-requisite.
The spectacular scenery of the links will be difficult to surpass with the signature hole, the indexed one 14th titled “An Bhinn Bhui”, [The Cliff End] one of the most natural links golf holes you will play anywhere in Ireland and is the beginning of their ‘Amen Corner’

Cloughaneely Golf Club is a beautiful 9 hole golf course with well manicured greens, tee boxes and fairways that are nested between the famed Derryveagh Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, offering magnificent views of Horn Head and the surrounding islands. The rolling fairways are cut out through mature trees offering a classic parkland experience with wonderful views of Muckish Mountain, Falcarragh Strand and with, once again, majestic Errigal Mountain in the background.
Situated in the rolling meadows of Ballyconnel Estate and designed once again by Michael Doherty, the course was officially opened in 1997. This challenging par 70 course is a test for any golfer’s handicap but also offers plenty of scope for enjoyment to the beginner.

Dunfanaghy Golf Club is a true 18 hole links course set beside the sea with spectacular views from the majority of the holes. Nestled on the western shores of Sheephaven Bay with its blue flag beaches and stunning scenery, the course sits on the edge of the picturesque village of Dunfanaghy in the shadow of Muckish Mountain. Golf has been played on this seaside links for over a century and it truly is golf on the Wild Atlantic Way and well worth a visit!
The course was laid out in 1905 by Mr Harry Vardon, six times winner of the British Open. Many years later a young boy named Paul McGinley learned to play golf on its fairways and, as history tells us, that young boy became Europe's Ryder Cup Captain in 2014. Paul remains a regular visitor to the area and is a great supporter of the club which, as a true links course, offers year-round golfing.
Dunfanaghy offers an enjoyable challenge for golfers of every ability with spectacular views
of Killahoey, Sheephaven Bay and the harbour of Portnablagh.
After holing out on the 18th green, a warm welcome awaits you in the Vardon lounge
where you can relive your round over some well earned nourishment!

Situated on the ‘other’ edge of picturesque Sheephaven Bay, Rosapenna Golf Complex is the proud home to the Old Tom Morris links, designed by the famed ‘Old Tom’ of St. Andrews in 1893, and a modern great in the Sandy Hills course laid out by Ireland’s own Pat Ruddy.
The latest addition to this golfing paradise, the eagerly awaited St. Patrick’s Course due to open in June, was designed by Tom Doak and he and his team have certainly breathed new life into this spectacular site along Tramore beach where they have fashioned 18 unrecognisable yet unforgettable holes, a sprawling links course that is surely destined to become one of the modern greats.
The routing of the course takes golfers on a journey through huge dunes to heights above Sheephaven Bay, along the coast then back through some more gentler dunes……and that’s only the front nine! With plenty of width and an eclectic mix of naturalised bunkers, this course is unlike anything in Ireland or UK, or anywhere else for that matter!

Golf has been played on the Portsalon Links since the 1880's, with the club also being one of the original founder members of the GUI, the oldest golfing union in the world. Originally designed by Charles Thompson of Portrush, the layout has evolved over the decades with significant changes being undertaken under the guidance of Pat Ruddy in 2000 and, continuing its progress, with the 2014 Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley guiding further improvements.
Currently ranked at no.16 in the top courses in Ireland, Portsalon Golf Club is nestled under the Knockalla mountains and stretches along the magnificent Ballymastocker Bay for two miles to where Lough Swilly meets the Atlantic. A true test of links golf measuring a challenging 7,000 plus yards, the holes weave their way between valleys and dominantly imposing sand dunes with the signature hole, the par 4 second, now regarded as the no.1 par four in Ireland. From an elevated tee, the golfer’s first decision is on how much of the bay to bite off to reach fairway and then, with your second shot [ or indeed third] carrying the twenty foot wide inlet to reach the green. This is indeed an exhilarating golf course situated in a stunning location offering a natural, unpretentious lay-out to the ardent golfer or the beginner.
Such is the variety of holes at Portsalon that many well-travelled visitors have compared the course to a ‘mixed bag’ from the best of Scottish courses but, whatever impression you get when you play, it will certainly be a lasting one.

One of Donegal's most popular courses - the beautiful Donegal Golf Club at Murvagh

Donegal Golf Club, generally referred to as ‘Murvagh’, is located on the beautiful Murvagh peninsula in Donegal Bay. The golf links is cut off from the outside world by a forest of evergreens, washed on one side by the great Atlantic Ocean and by Donegal Bay on the other, with panoramic views of the Bluestack Mountains and the beach that runs along the Atlantic bordering it, it is one of the finest in Ireland.
This 18 hole, par 73 links course offers the greatest challenges, unsurpassed beauty and tranquillity that is almost impossible to find in the modern world. This outstanding design offers a genuine challenge to the accomplished golfer and is an all-round ‘true’ test of golf. Often described as the Muirfield of Ireland, it is similar in terrain with two loops of nine holes, yet it is on a peninsula, the first nine holes, an outer loop, and the second nine an inner loop running in the opposite direction like the great Saint Andrews. At almost 7,300 yards (championship) or 7,000 yards (medal) this course is long but very enjoyable.
Those less serious will still enjoy this wonderful links as it offers a chance on each hole to win a battle, if not the overall war. The reputation of Murvagh, designed by the legendary course architect Eddie Hackett, has been further enhanced in recent years by the new designs of Pat Ruddy.

On the tee at Bundoran Golf Club

Bundoran Golf Club is a golf course situated on the stunning North West Atlantic Coastline. Founded in 1894, it is one of the oldest golf clubs in Ireland, a clifftop links on a rugged headland overlooking Donegal Bay on the Wild Atlantic Way. With panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and a backdrop of the magnificent Dartry Mountains, this intriguing course presents a challenge to all golfers.
Re-designed in 1927 by Harry Vardon, the golf course is a testing 18 hole, Par 70. His design philosophy was “to give pleasure to golfers of all degrees” with the most recent changes to the design of the course coming in 2006 when designs of bunkers and greens were changed. Christy O'Connor Snr was professional at Bundoran from 1951 until 1957 and the current head professional is David Robinson who has been the Professional at Bundoran Golf Club for over 30 years now.
Surrounding the course you may see surfers enjoying the rolling Atlantic waves, locals strolling on the famous cliff edge of Rougey Walk or even marine visitors such as dolphins and seals but whatever you find, we are sure that you will enjoy your golfing experience and the warm welcome that you receive at Bundoran Golf Club.
So it brings us to the end of our Donegal links courses but I feel that it would be remiss of me not to mention our two gloriously lush, mature, parkland courses with tree lined fairways and picturesque views of the Donegal Mountains, the valley of the Finn River and the beautiful and historic Lough Swilly.
I write, of course, of Ballybofey & Stranorlar and Letterkenny Golf Clubs, both set on the outskirts of their respective towns and within one hour’s drive of all of their links contemporaries.

Ballybofey and Stranorlar Golf Club was designed by architect P.C. Carr so therefore, proving a mark of any good golf course, every club in the bag is regularly required.
Now one of the most admired courses in the country in recent years due to the extensive drainage and improvement works which have left the course playable almost all year round and the greens which have been conformed to USGA specification and are now noted as among the best greens in the North and West of Ireland, it is a course on which every level of golfer can enjoy tremendous value along with the challenge of ‘marking a card’ without humiliation.
It is widely agreed that the signature hole of the course is the dramatic par five 7th which is played around Lough Alan and a scenic hole to tell visitors about, with the clubhouse towering in the background creating a magnificent setting complemented with the stunning views, it just about sums up this fine course but, as golf shots and course management goes, I have to admit to my favourite being the par four 11th, where a bogey or worse is on the card if the correct selection of club and shot is not made on the tee!
The state-of-the-art clubhouse at Ballybofey and Stranorlar complements the course perfectly where members and visitors are assured of a warm welcome from a golf club which is a “club” in the truest sense of the word and, all in all, it is my belief that Ballybofey and Stranorlar Golf Club also perfectly complements the world renowned links courses of the North West Region.

A look back down the 11th at Letterkenny Golf Club 

Letterkenny Golf Club stands amid 146 acres of mature parkland at Barnhill just on the outskirts of the town. Since redevelopment under the direction of course designer Declan Branigan it has emerged as one of the finest parkland courses in Ireland and attracts a membership of some 600 golfers. According to GUI records Letterkenny is documented as having “started activities” in 1913. By then golf had spread nationwide having been introduced from Scotland and ten other clubs were already in existence in Co. Donegal.
In 1966, they engaged the renowned course planner Mr.Eddie Hackett to design the 18 hole course which took just 3 years to complete and Letterkenny Golf Club at Barnhill was up and running.
Drainage was a perennial problem but an enlightened strategic review was undertaken and implemented by successive committees over the past few years which involved considerable expense but, under the direction of Declan Branigan, redesign work on the course commenced in 2006/7.
European Touring Professionals Paul McGinley and Shane Lowry have both visited and played Letterkenny Golf Club.
Paul, Captain of the winning Ryder Cup Team in 2014, marvelled at the transformation of the course following the Club’s investment of over one million Euro’s and, followed by a large gallery, Paul took time to admire the spectacular views across the Swilly Estuary and thoroughly enjoyed his round on the testing course and has re-visited the club on a few occasions since.
Shane visited in late 2013 in the middle of a winter storm and whilst unable to play a full round, took time to take on some of the risk/reward shots on the course, almost driving the Par 4 first hole across the trees and lake. Little did we know he was practicing for his spectacular approach shot to the 18th green on his way to winning the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in 2015 or his win of the Open Championship in nearby Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2019.

Whatever golf club you choose to join, just remember that GOLF is a sport to enjoy!

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