The Magic of Links Golf in Donegal & Northern Ireland
Travel Editor Andy Waple flew into little-known Derry Airport in Ireland to discover fantastic links golf all around.
The city of Derry/Londonderry with its turbulent history is well worth a visit in its own right. It’s fascinating to explore and to learn about centuries of conflict that have given it alternative names depending on religion or political convictions. These days it’s a tourist Mecca with lots of bars and restaurants to satisfy any visitor.
But what if you are a golfer and, in particular, have a soft spot for links courses? To be sure you will be faced with a dilemma, but a very pleasant one too. For no matter which way you turn you are heading to some of the finest links golf the world has to offer.
You could head off east on to the fabulous Causeway Coastal Route of Northern Ireland and play the likes of Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock, or turn the other way, cross the border into Donegal at the tip of the awe inspiring Wild Atlantic Way, and take in rugged links such as those at Rosapenna, Ballyliffin, Donegal GC and Portsalon.
During a recent visit I boxed clever by doing a bit of both - playing Royal Portrush, Ballyliffin Old Links and the relatively new Tom Doak masterpiece, St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna, all do-able thanks to flights from the UK to the charmingly low-key Derry Airport, served by Ryanair and Loganair.
Head east into Northern Ireland and a pleasant 50 minute drive takes you to the seaside town of Portrush, which is just over one hour’s drive from Belfast International if you choose that route.
The Dunluce Links here is the star name of a clutch of great links courses in the vicinity, that includes the courses at Portstewart and Castlerock. I played this pair in 2022 and a full review is here.
Situated on the edge of town, the club has a second challenging course, The Valley, which runs alongside its illustrious big brother.
The Dunluce Links staged the Open Championship in 1951, 2019 and will host the famous tournament again in 2025, and it’s easy to see why.
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean it’s named after the medieval castle used as a location in the Game of Thrones.
Harry Colt was involved when the original holes were relocated a little further away from the town in 1929 but it has evolved over the years to keep it in tune with modern tournament requirements. Most recent changes came in 2015 when Martin Ebert was hired. He introduced five new greens, eight tee boxes, 10 new bunkers and two new holes, the 7th and 8th, using land previously used by The Valley.
Now it’s 7,333 yards off the tips but length from the tee is not necessarily the main advantage.
The holes, running through the dunes, offer such a variety of strategic challenges that golfers need to constantly think about which is the best way to play them. All possible links skills are required, including the ability to tolerate a stiff breeze even when conditions are at their most benign. A good golfing IQ concerning club selection is a must at all times.
With a notable lack of bunkers, approach shots could be considered to be reasonably straightforward. Yet the greens are so small it isn’t easy to hit them and the ball tends to easily wander off down perilous run offs. A very sharp short game is definitely required!
A tough challenge indeed but not one to be missed. The par three 16th “Calamity Corner” will be just one hole to remain in the memory for many years, and those having an off day will always be cheered by the amazing coastal scenery.
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort
Heading west from Derry soon you are seamlessly over the border and into County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.
A 50 minute drive will take you to The Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, situated on the shores of Sheephaven Bay, in the most wild and secluded location imaginable.
The first hotel was built in 1893 to accommodate golfers who had travelled from afar to play the Old Tom Morris Links. It is famed for being the oldest golf resort in the world.
It was joined in 2003 by the Sandy Hills Links, designed by Pat Ruddy of The European Club fame.
As if having two links courses of the highest quality was not enough, the owners decided to go one step further to create a third masterpiece and hired Tom Doak to sharpen his pencils and get down to his drawing board.
His course, named St Patrick’s Links, was opened in 2021.
The concept of links golf stems from the genesis of the game so somehow the idea of a newly built one doesn’t sit right for some people. It is foolish however to dismiss modern links as an attempt to recreate something that was created by nature in the mists of time.
There have been reports of disappointing conditioning while it beds in but there was no fault to find during my visit in October 2023.
Tom Doak has taken modern links to the highest level with his mesmerising St Patrick’s Links here in Donegal.
Just a few years old, it looks as if it was there from the dawn of man.
Sprawling through the most amazing sand dunes overlooking a huge, deserted strand, it is in an almost unearthly location. Anyone who likes solitude when they are deciding between a knock-down six iron or a long chip with a hybrid will be in heaven here. A true modern masterpiece and an absolute must play.
Ballyliffin Golf Club
You have to retrace your steps to get to Ballyliffin from Rosapenna, travelling around the outskirts of Derry once more. It takes about 1 hour 30 mins to make the journey but it’s worth it. Ballyliffin is a small village on the north westerly tip of Inchgower with a few shops, pubs and the charming old fashioned Ballyliffin Hotel, a perfect retreat for traveling golfers, especially those with a hearty appetite.
The famous golf club is very close by and has two courses. The Old Links opened in 1973 while The Glashedy Links, another Pat Ruddy creation, swung into play in 1995. The pair will host The Amateur Championship in 2024.
We played the former, in the worst of Irish weather. Soaked to the skin by the end, it was remarkable how well the course held up - no flooded greens or swamps on fairways, the ground simply soaked everything up like a sponge.
The course has had a number of upgrades over the years, notably by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock in 1995, and further work was carried out under Faldo Design in 2005 who were amused to find only four fairway bunkers on the entire course. A further 32 were added to improve the required strategy off the tee, and a number of new tees were incorporated to give golfers a view of the dramatic coastline.
Despite the somewhat recent changes and its relative youth, The Old Links really lives up to its name - it appears and plays as if it has been there forever, with considerable elevation changes on the fairways meaning you rarely get a level stance. Firm turf and greens complete the classic traditional links set up, as the course snakes its way through the omnipresent dunes.
There are plenty of stand-out holes here, but the one that sticks most in my mind is the par three 5th, named The Tank. A mere 130 yards off the yellows, it’s all uphill to a plateau green with the entrance guarded by dunes. A par here is almost a miracle.
A special word needs to go to the clubhouse which is first class on every level including the catering which is second to none.
Lovers of pure links golf would be in heaven at any of these courses and more than one trip would be recommended.
Derry is a fascinating city and makes a great starting point for visiting both Northern Ireland and Donegal, worthy holiday destinations in their own right. Both are visually stunning, steeped in history with much off-course interest, including Giant’s Causeway and Game of Thrones locations. For more information see www.ireland.com/golf and for booking check out our travel partner Golfbreaks.
A stay at the old-world Bushmills Inn for comfortable rooms and great dining is recommended when golfing and exploring the Causeway Coastal Route.
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