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Legends of the Green Isle

In northwest Ireland, the winds howl and the rains fall on some of the world's purest and most remote links golf courses
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

If you see high drama in golf, if you see the sport as a theatrical experience set upon an earthen stage, if you see yourself cast as the protagonist in search of the holy grail of par, then there is a place for you.

Golf comes in no greater dramatic abundance than the northwest coast of Ireland. From Connemara in County Galway to Ballyliffin in County Donegal, there is a series of true links courses that, taken as a whole, has no rival. It is a fantasy land for links golfers, for those who want their golf hard by the sea, staged amid dazzling dune land and surrounded by brooding mountains and eerie bogs.

At every turn through the linksland of northwest Ireland there is awe and inspiration, and not a little intimidation. Golf here is not for the faint of heart and the soft of spirit. Along with 14 clubs, your best rain gear and thermal underwear, bring along a sense of adventure and appreciation of grandeur.

Pat Ruddy, Ireland’s golf impresario, has traveled the northwest links for more than three decades. Ruddy is a golf course designer, an owner and a journalist in his own right. There is a sense of theater about the man, in his writing, his design and his speech. He has designed a new course at Rosapenna and revitalized the old one there. He’s designed a course at Ballyliffin and renewed a grand old tract at Donegal.

“It is a magical place, the northwest,” says Ruddy, the owner and designer of the European Club south of Dublin. “The influence of the weather there over time has sculpted the place. You get northwesterly winds from Iceland. It’s a bit more raw there, more manly stuff. It’s more exposed to the North Atlantic and as such, life on land gets a bit more turbulent. But I should say that it is a place that once experienced is always remembered. And I am quite pleased to have my name on the ticket with men like Harry Vardon, James Braid, Old Tom Morris—the men who first came up here to fashion golf courses. I have tried to help a bit, you know.”

This is also the land where Ireland’s most revered links golf designer, the late Eddie Hackett, left his substantial mark. Hackett was a humble man who was humbled further by the grandeur of the northwest coast. He came there not so much to design courses as to discover them. Accepting tiny fees, which he often deferred, Hackett walked the land and prayed to God for the strength to do the right thing. He had little money with which to work, yet the land was so dramatic that it revealed to him the most wonderful sites for tees and greens that never could have been constructed with bulldozers and earth scrapers.

So it is here, to the northwest, that you come with your sense of adventure. The roads, often narrow and twisting, take substantial time to navigate. You may be stuck behind a farm vehicle, have to wait as a flock of sheep cross the road, but it is time well spent in anticipation. Let your imagination take over, let fantasy take flight, then arrive to one of the links of the northwest coast and find reality all the more overwhelming.

Here, now, is a trip through that magic land. And isn’t it all the more appropriate, in the theatrical sense, that this is the land of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats? They weren’t golfers, but they knew a thing or two about the rugged drama of the northwest.  

 

Enniscrone Golf Club
Enniscrone, County Sligo

Oh, Enniscrone, you beauty, you.

The Enniscrone Golf Club, approached by car from the west on the R297, is love at first sight. Without seeing a single hole, you are sure you have arrived and know that you are smitten. How could this massive, muscular dune land not hold a monumental links? How could it not, within its voluptuous folds, hold some of the dearest golf holes tightly to its bosom?

Enniscrone is the collaboration of its far-sighted members, the practical magic of Eddie Hackett and the kindred imagination of Donald Steele. Hackett expanded the original nine-holer in 1974 to a full and respectable 18 that took great advantage of the dunes, but budget constraints kept him from fully utilizing them. However, as the club became better known and attracted more members and visitors, a hardier cash flow put the heavy, heaving landscape of dunes within reach. The architect Steele was brought in at the turn of the millennium to create, or rather discover, six new holes in the dune range on the championship 18 and to build three additional ones, which turned the facility into 27 holes. The transition could not have been more seamless, the result more spectacular.

Steele’s new holes are the second through the fourth, and the 14th through the 16th, and most recently a reworking of the 18th. His new holes on the front nine are highlighted by the par-5 second, one of a quintet of superb three-shotters in the range of dunes. A tee shot through a dune saddle is followed by a right turn toward the ocean. When you get to the green, you find yourself with a front-row mezzanine view of the sweep of Killala Bay, a 180-degree vista that includes the oddly white buildings in the town of Enniscrone.

After the par-5 fourth, you embark on Hackett’s holes that take you from the dunes’ edge in the flatland and along the estuary of the River Moy, a salmon and trout fishery. Then Hackett reaches back toward the sea. His par-4 12th includes a dune of such a striking volcanic aspect that it should be known as Vesuvius or Etna.

Apart from the theatrical dunes, upholstered in the dense and defensive marram grass, and the seminal presence of the sea, what stands out on Steele’s holes is the absence of sand bunkers. Not a one. And there is not the slightest need. The dunes and rough are sufficiently penalizing to require accuracy, and the greens so naturally and challengingly contoured with short-clipped rolling surrounds that sand bunkers would be redundant.

Enniscrone’s lively head professional, Charlie McGoldrick, has not lost an iota of enthusiasm about the place in more than a decade of manning his small, well-stocked shop and providing instruction on the practice ground. He freely gives to nearly every visitor a sound bit of advice: Don’t cut corners. It would be rather like trying to scale Everest by cutting across K2. Aim for the fairways and the wider parts of the greens and be satisfied that bogey is a good score on most holes.

When you are done, you will surely come back. After all, if Sophia Loren were available for a second dance, are you going to leave the ball before midnight?

Carne Golf Links
Belmullet, County Mayo

This was Eddie Hackett’s last links layout and one that leaves a lasting impression on all who play it. Carne is but a baby born along the coast of County Mayo and overlooking the Atlantic and Blacksod Bay. The first nine holes were opened in 1992, the second nine in 1993, along with the modest clubhouse. But true to Hackett’s form, Carne seems to have been there for an eternity.

The fairways at Carne toss and turn fitfully over the heaving landscape. You can get a month of links bounces in one round at Carne, where not every good drive is rewarded nor every bad one punished. The ’umps and ’ollows that so characterize links golf are in abundance at Carne and a perfectly struck ball may end up in the bottom of a pit. But a poorly struck shot might also benefit from an unexpected carom.

While the front nine is challenging with some interesting holes, it is the back nine that will burn an indelible stamp in the memory. From the par-5 10th, its green sitting in a pocket in front of an immense dune, to the tortured roller-coaster ride of the par-5 18th, the back nine at Carne never fails to impress or inspire.

The uphill par-4 15th makes you wonder whether you need a caddie or a Sherpa. To the right, all the way up, is an enormous dune ridge with about as much exposed sand as you are ever likely to see in Ireland. The club is planting the face of it with marram grass to ensure that the ridge is not worn down by the winter gales, but the gaping exposure of sand is wondrous.

The par-3 16th plays steeply downhill into an amphitheater of dunes and you could well imagine the mystical community of Brigadoon taking shape at the bottom of the hill. The long, tough
par-4 17th has two deep pits that threaten tee shots on either side of the fairway. But it is the view of a huge dune canyon to the right that can stop any golfer in his tracks. The canyon has no golf hole at the moment, but the club has some ideas for the future.

The 18th presents a very substantial challenge. The green on the par 5 can be reached in two by longer hitters, but the average player will have to decide between laying up more than 150 yards from the green at the top of the hill, or letting his second shot roll down to the bottom of a ravine fairway and face a severely uphill blind third shot. Carne will take the measure of anyone who plays it.

Connemara Golf Club
Ballyconneely, County Galway

Ed Hackett’s credo—“Nature is the best architect. I just try to dress up what the good Lord provides”—may be expressed best at the Connemara Golf Club, due west of Galway at nearly the exact middle of the Irish Atlantic Coast.

Connemara was the dream of Father Peter Waldron, a young priest who realized the secular necessities of the poor Irish coast in the late 1960s. The area needed something to draw both Irish and international tourists, something to bolster a depressed economy.  Golf seemed like just the thing, and as it turned out, Hackett was just the right architect. When he arrived at the site in 1970, Waldron told him that there wasn’t any money yet to build a course. That
didn’t stop Hackett. He put pins and stones in places for the tees and greens and told the locals to pay him when they could, to construct the course when they could.

So with a dreamer of a priest, an icon of an architect and locals willing to build their first golf course, Connemara Golf Club was born. In the end, it is a very natural and humbling place, 27 holes of charming golf that will keep you wanting to come back for more.

Connemara doesn’t have the dramatic dune landscape typical of northwest Irish courses. The land is distinguished by rocks and rock outcroppings, though they seldom come into play unless you hit a very bad shot. The rocks provide backdrop details for the holes, props at the side of a stage. They are most apparent at the short par-3 13th, a hole chiseled out of a rock basin. It is the first of a series of dramatic holes that conclude the marvelous back nine and provide a fitting climax to Father Waldron’s dream.

County Sligo Golf Club
Rosses Point, County Sligo

The County Sligo Golf Club is poetry, and well it should be. Sligo was home to the poet William Butler Yeats and he once referred to Rosses Point in one of his works. Not the golf course, mind you, but the dramatic peninsula setting, a thumb of land sticking out into the Atlantic and reaching toward the Americas.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim grey sands with light
Far off by furthest Rosses We foot it all the night —W.B.
Yeats, The Stolen Child

County Sligo was founded in 1894, with its present layout designed by the noted Englishman Harry Colt and opened in 1927. Pat Ruddy spent much of his childhood there. The course is the home of the West of Ireland Amateur Championship and holds a legendary status within the country, certainly equal to courses such as Ballybunion, Portmarnoch and Royal County Down, which are better known internationally.

The course pitches and tumbles along the peninsula. The tee shots at the third, fifth and 10th holes are dramatically downhill and bring a rush to anyone standing with a driver in his hands. The fifth hole is aptly named “The Jump,” with the tee on a cliff and the fairway far below. The 10th plays down through a valley of dunes to a green that has as a backdrop Ben Bulben mountain, a brooding rock tabletop of lore. Yeats is buried in Drumcliff churchyard at the base of the mountain.

The par-4 17th at Sligo has few equals, and if it was on the British Open rota, it likely would be as famous as the 17th at St. Andrews, the Road Hole. Sligo’s 17th is 455 yards of pure muscle and dread. It takes two prodigious and accurate shots to get home, and even then the green pitches so severely from back to front that two-putting is not assured. Though Sligo is less than 6,700 yards, it is one of Ireland’s strongest courses.

Donegal Golf Club
Murvagh, County Donegal

Another of Eddie Hackett’s jewels, Donegal Golf Club occupies a significant portion of the Murvagh Peninsula. Typically, Hackett worked with a limited budget when he fashioned the course in the early ’70s. And typically, when the course started making some money in the ’90s, the club called in another architect to spruce up the joint. That was the ubiquitous Pat Ruddy, who designed a few new greens, reshaped some fairways and made a stream running through the property more prominent and ominous.

Surrounded on the west by the Atlantic and by low hills to the east, Donegal is elegant and graceful—and long. When it was completed in 1976, it was nearly 7,300 yards, then the longest course in Europe. For his work, Hackett got 200 Irish pounds.

Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Links
Downings, County Donegal

Way up in the northwest corner of Ireland there is Rosapenna, 36 holes of golf that might seem beyond remote. Then Pat Ruddy wryly points something out. “From the Dublin Post Office it’s the exact same distance to Killarney as it is to Rosapenna. People are quite amazed to find that out.”

Ruddy has been finding his way to Rosapenna  for more than 30 years and in 2002 he opened 18 new holes through high dunes there for owner Frank Casey. The original course at Rosapenna was laid out by the legendary Scot Old Tom Morris in 1891, and the vaunted English players James Braid and Harry Vardon had a hand along the way. Rosapenna was considered among the top links in the world, and vacationers from Scotland often made their way there. It was an important golf destination for Europe and had a lavish hotel.

The resort thrived until the late 1960s and the arrival of The Troubles, the decades-long confrontation of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and suddenly Rosapenna dropped off the map. Now it deserves to be a grand destination once more, offering splendid isolation by being newly accessible. Ruddy’s new course is magnificent and he has also revamped several holes on the old course.

The old hotel burned down in 1962 and the new one isn’t quite so lavish, but it’s certainly quite comfortable. It’s open seasonally from spring to fall. The courses and the hotel offer a lovely, beckoning retreat, one not easy to leave at the end of a journey.

Ballyliffin Golf Club
Ballyliffin, County Donegal

At the top of the Irish republic sits Ballyliffin, thrusting itself toward the polar ice cap. A remarkable 36 holes are here, designed by Tom Craddock and that man Ruddy again. Eddie Hackett gave his advice on the original 18. Ballyliffin is such an intriguing spot that six-time major champion Nick Faldo has visited it before the British Open Championship, and at one time tried to buy the place (on the cheap, according to the locals).

The courses meander through the most beguiling of linksland, with dunes, rocky outcroppings, perfect greens and enchanting views of the coast. It takes a while to get to Ballyliffin, and it takes a while to leave.

Golf in the northwest of Ireland is not limited to these splendid courses. Port Salon and Narin & Portnoo (once known as Portmoo for the cattle roaming the fairways) are worthy destinations. The remote nine-holer Cruit Island (pronounced “Critch”) is a rare find, if you can find it. The courses that were reviewed here are within the Republic of Ireland, but just to the east of Ballyliffin are the storied courses of Portrush and Portstewart in Northern Ireland. The courses at the very north, most stuck at the end of peninsulas, are far easier to get to these days with regular ferry service in place.

But golf in the northwest is so much about the journey, through the towns and into the linksland. There is, in large measure, a primal innocence to the game here. Though the sport is revenue-driven, the courses all represent a dream. For those who are called to the linksland, it’s a fantasy come true.

 

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.

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