Golf writer & photographer. Author of ‘Hooked’, the most comprehensive guide to Ireland's golf courses, and ‘Driving the Green’. Published by Collins Press. Editor for Destination Golf Ireland, feature writer for Irish Golfer Magazine freelancer for Irish Examiner. Golf is in the blood. http://www.kevinmarkhamphotography.com
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
The Hidden Golf Links of Donegal
By renting a cottage on Donegal’s coastline I was satisfying
an urge to return to the grand dame
county of Irish links golf courses. There are ten 18 hole courses after all,
stretching from Bundoran up to Ballyliffin, and no other Irish county can boast
such riches. Wherever I went, I’d be close to a fairway and dunes.
I should have known better. It’s hard to contemplate the
sheer length and ruggedness of the coastline here and the roads don’t exactly
make it easy – they’re not bad, but they weave in many directions and rarely in
the one you wish to go.
Still, when your cottage has views like this, it’s worth the
extra drive. We were in Kilcar, ten minutes west of Killybegs, in a house that
was completely isolated and looked straight out on Donegal Bay and across to
Sligo and its mountains.
[Photo: the views over Donegal Bay to Sligo, from my outdoor 'office']
My wife – and our dogs to a lesser extent – are well aware
that any holiday in Ireland comes with golf attached. We arrived on a Saturday
evening and on the Sunday we were heading north to Narin. There’s a beautiful
beach, I promised… one that just happens to run beneath the delightful Narin
and Portnoo Golf Club. The course’s dunes stretch across the landscape as the
R261 from Ardara dips down into the village. It is a beautiful spot, but the
club does not help itself because golfers will be somewhat bemused as to how to
reach the links. The course is accessed through the mobile home park by the
beach, but visitors may be put off by the ‘Private Property’ sign that greets
them at the entrance to the park.
[Photo: Narin’s beach curves in an S-shape that wanders
right beneath the 15th fairway (in the distance)]
Still, once through, it was great to see the recent
clubhouse additions, with the glass front to the bar/restaurant offering more
space and views over the 18th green and 1st tee. The club has had a difficult
year with the death of Connor Mallon, the Club Pro, but the course remains as
mesmerising and intriguing as always. I love this place and I got quite a buzz
when I picked up the club’s leaflet to discover a quote from Hooked was being
used on the inside pages, alongside one from David Owens, the Golf Digest writer.
[Photo: a panorama from Narin and Portnoo's 7th tee box]
The day was as perfect as you can ask for on a links and
after a clubhouse lunch it was off to enjoy what I still consider to be the
most exciting run of golf holes on the island – starting with a par three on
the 7th and ending with the par three 11th.
I will always recommend Narin and Portnoo to golfers
contemplating a trip to this part of the world. The views of Donegal’s
mountains, beaches, ocean and solitude make it all the more embracing. Perhaps
David Owens sums it up best:
“I set a record for… saying ‘wow, great hole’ every time I
opened my mouth.”
[Photo: the stunning 8th hole at Narin and Portnoo]
Donegal Golf Club came a couple of days later, after a trip
out to the Slieve League cliffs – some very under-appreciated and strikingly
under-marketed assets in Donegal’s scenic arsenal – Glencolmcille and down to
the rocky tip that is Malin Beg.
[Photo: Slieve League cliffs. The highest sea cliffs in Europe, apparently]
The day started promisingly enough, sunshine lacing the
scenery with light, but by the time we reached the golf club it had turned a
muted grey that did the course no favours… especially after the colourful drive
that slides through the woods which stretch across the neck of the Murvagh
Peninsula. At the end, you reach Donegal’s clubhouse, the only building on the
[Photo: the drive in to Donegal... it goes on for quite a while]
Donegal, or Murvagh, is well known for its length but the
run of holes by the sea will impress anyone. Starting at the well-named par
three 5th ‘Valley of Tears’, you are taken on a thrilling run pressed tightly
to the rolling dunes that separate land from sea. On the 7th and 8th you walk
up onto the dunes so you can see all around you. It’s an inspiring sight, grey
skies or not.
[Photo: view back down the 7th from the high 8th tee box at Donegal]
Time and again I have been told that Cruit Island Golf Club
deserves to be in Hooked.
“It is the most beautiful spot you could imagine,” Ronnie,
one of my regular golfing partners, told me.
It is, unfortunately, a nine hole course and therefore fails
on the most basic criteria to make it into the book: it has to be 18 holes.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to visit it when I was so close (to be reviewed
on this blog in due course). We set off north again, passing Narin along the
way, only to be stymied outside Dunglow by a maze of roadworks. A new road was
being built across the bog, which involved two sets of lengthy traffic lights
and a specially built diversionary road. Now, if only the roads in these parts
were as good as the diversionary road, we’d have reached Cruit Island in no
time. As it was, once we reached the island, the drive across it went on and
on, bringing with it a sense of remoteness that only added to the anticipation.
And it was worth the wait. You drive across the 1st hole on your way in, and
you know something special awaits. Take a look at these photographs and you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s the 6th, which has to be one of the best holes in the country.
[Photo: the stunning 6th/13th at Cruit Island]
After I walked off 9, I met Jimmy, the Manager.
“What did you think?” he asked.
I was in awe of the place. It may only be a 9 hole course,
but try telling that to holes like 3, 5, 6 and 7 which would sit comfortably on
any of the world’s best links courses. It is utterly natural, entirely
unassuming and there are moments when your breath will be taken away.
“You know that American fella who walked around Ireland? Jimmy
“Tom Coyne,” I replied.
“Yea, him. Now all the Americans who come here stop for ten
minutes on the crest overlooking the 3rd green to have their photographs
[Photo: the drop to the 3rd green at Cruit Island]
And it’s no wonder as the views stretch over the sea to
Gweedore, with Mount Errigal grabbing most of the attention.
There is a possibility that some land next to the opening
hole, on the south west side facing Aran Island, will come up for sale in the
near future… if a new 9 new holes were to be built, and they were as good as
the existing 9, then Cruit Island would comfortably be up there with the best
of them. Time – and money – will tell in this remote, beautiful spot.
But even as a 9 hole, this brings Donegal’s links count to
My wife – and dogs – had one more visit to endure. As we
headed home, we called into Bundoran Golf Club. I wanted to meet Noreen, the
General Manager, to ask a few questions for an article I’m writing on the West
Coast Challenge. It was bright and sunny, and for a weekday the course was
buzzing. As was Noreen’s office: in the wind the office door sang like an angry
wasp the entire time I was there. She barely noticed.