As the northernmost golf course in all of Ireland, Ballyliffin can be considered something of an outpost. Indeed, arriving in this tiny Donegal town (population approximately 500), it is hard to imagine it could be home to one let alone two internationally renowned links courses. Not many people know that northern tip of Ireland is actually in the Republic, rather than, as you might logically expect, in Northern Ireland. But the wild county of Donegal, for so long overlooked as a holiday destination on account of its remoteness, in fact stretches from the west coast up into a dramatic area of jagged coastline, from where the next land heading north is Scotland’s western isles.
So even given the Republic’s vastly improved road network (it is now possible to bypass the bottlenecks of Sligo and Donegal towns on your way up the west coast), it takes a certain amount of determination to get to Ballyliffin, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and, to be more precise, Pollan Bay. But as with so many of golf’s great pilgrimages, taking the trouble to come here is more than worth your while.
The Old, which is not actually especially old at all, dates back to 1947 while the Glashedy Links opened just 12 years ago. But it is evident that much changed in the world of golf architecture in the near-half-century that separates them. The Old, which measures 6,600 yards from the back tees, was originally laid out by committee members and significantly remodelled by Eddie Hackett, the godfather of Irish golf, 20 years later.
But as with so many of golf’s great pilgrimages, taking the trouble to come here is more than worth your while.
It is simply a reflection of the peculiar topography of the land. Few other layouts boast quite so many corrugated fairways that mean a level stance is approximately a three-times-a-round experience. Given the spectacularly exposed nature of this area, these uneven lies add much to the strategy. It is simply impossible to determine which way the weather is coming from as it rolls off the Atlantic and around the mountains that form the backdrop to Ballyliffin.
Find yourself with an uphill lie and it is a skilled links player indeed who can avoid hoisting his shot way up into the air and therefore at the mercy of the wind. Similarly challenging is trying to predict the bounce of the ball on a downwind shot when the fairways are firm.
In fact, that does not happen to the same extremes as on Scotland’s dryer east coast in warm summers. So much rain falls in this area – do not even consider coming to Ireland’s north or west coasts without some decent waterproofs regardless of the time of year – that Ballyliffin rarely loses its green tinge.
Like many venerable seaside courses, the Old would be much diminished without its omnipresent weather, but as it is the holes change character from one day to the next – and sometimes several times in between. Highlights include the par-five 5th, that curves gradually to the right down what the locals describe as “the fairway of a thousand shadows” when played on a sun-kissed evening.
Elsewhere, the holes are of a consistently high and challenging standard while rarely straying into the boundaries of greatness. The best stretch of holes comes towards the end, where the sea is nearer and a couple of fascinatingly contoured greens (especially at the short 16th) add intrigue.
Nick Faldo fell in love with this course on his first visit and recently carried out some modernising work on the Old Course, adding some bunkering and redesigning tees. Needless to say, it all fits in with the overwhelming naturalness that it would be a crime to diminish in any way.
Those who have played both courses in the same day will be even more ready for rest and refreshment, which is best achieved with a seat by the window in the first-floor bar with a pint of Guinness in hand. From there it is possible to look right across the links and ponder what might have been – or, of course, bask in the glow of the memory of a rare birdie or two.