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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

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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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