The first-time visitor to Enniscrone would swear he was playing a course at least a century old. On the 10 holes that plough up, down, in between and, on occasion, over and across the colossal dunes that separate the clubhouse from Killala Bay, there is a timeless quality that brings to mind an age where drivers were wooden rather than made from titanium and golf was more of an art than a science. But like so many links courses in Ireland, the truth is rather different and while the game has been played at Enniscrone since 1918, the championship course that stands today is not the first, or even the second, incarnation.
In fact, until as recently as the mid-1970s, this was a modest nine-hole layout. That was before Eddie Hackett, the patron saint of Irish golf, arrived and upgraded it into 18 holes. Even then, restrained by a modest budget, this was not a layout described in the same breath as other Irish west-coast classics such as Lahinch and Ballybunion.
Hackett’s problem was that he was not provided with the financial means to utilise the spectacular dunescape close to the Moy Estuary. Hence the holes, rather teasingly, ran alongside a piece of land that might have been expressly created with links golf in mind.
So it remained for a further quarter of a century, until as recently as 1999, when Donald Steel was called in. By creating six thrilling new holes, no fewer than four of which happen to be par fives, Enniscrone can now truly be considered one of Ireland’s premier links venues.
Located in County Sligo, around a 45-minute drive west of Sligo town and within perhaps four hours of Dublin, a trip here, as it does to more or less anywhere on the Atlantic seaboard, involves a concerted effort. But such trips to the west coast are invariably worth every last kilometre – Ireland is metric these days – down the winding road.
Stretching to a shade under 7,000 yards from the blue tees, Enniscrone is undoubtedly a big course, though it must be noted that a quintet of par fives make for a par, unusual these days, of 73. A more realistic measure of its nature is to note that, even off the tips, there are only four par fours of over 400 yards. So this is golf on a grand scale, undoubtedly, but it is certainly not the case that hole after hole calls for a drive and a wood or long iron to get home. Far from it, in fact.
You will play few courses with as much in the way of variety. Naturally, the wind dictates strategy and no two days are the same in this part of the world.
The fun begins immediately – or should that be almost immediately. Steel was responsible for half of the opening hole, namely the second half. What begins as a relatively bland opening drive rapidly and sharply turns to the right to set up an approach to a green beautifully sited on a shelf in the dunes.
The first of the par fives comes next and is a typically boisterous affair, a roller-coaster ride through the dunes, curving ever further to the right towards a green with a quite stunning backdrop of the beach and ocean. After the short 3rd comes the next of Steel’s long holes and another dogleg to the right towards a green that can present an elusive target if not approached from the correct angle, which is as far left as possible.
From there it is back on to flatter ground and Hackett’s part of the course. A pair of long and worthy, if not necessarily memorable, par fours follow, before another three-shotter, this one ending at a green evilly positioned across a small valley and which can appear impossible to locate and hold – and that is with a wedge in hand.
Holes 9 and 10 are played along the edge of Scurmore Beach before the course moves back into the dunes with a particularly testing short hole played towards a two-tier green set at an angle to the tee.
Then the fun really begins again. The 12th is the kind of hole which features unique topography. In truth, only having played it once, and stood on the green looking back, can you truly appreciate it. The view from the tee is both intimidating and confusing. A 345-yard dogleg left, there are at least to ways of tackling this short par four. One involves a sensible lay-up, the other a daring tee shot sent out into what looks like oblivion.
The next hole offers more of the same thrills and spills. Similar in length, the player is again faced with making a choice between safety and glory. And just as at the 12th, it is wise to play safe unless you know exactly what you are doing.
Then it is back to Steel’s work and the third of his par fives. This one begins on an elevated tee, involves a drive into a valley frames by gigantic dunes and rises up, turning right, to the green. Now back alongside the beach, the key feature at the stroke one hole is a mound that juts out in front of the front-left portion of the green, pretty much exactly where you would like to land your ball, pushing approaches to the right.
Of all the holes at Enniscrone, the 16th must surely be the most photogenic. In the right conditions, this par five can certainly be reached in two but the key is in guiding your ball down the channel of the fairway and then finding and holding a green that is raised slightly.
That concludes the Steel holes, but the standard is certainly maintained at a fantastic point-to-point short hole to a tiny green that rejects in all four directions. It has been compared by the locals to the 17th at Sawgrass, not because there is any water but on account of there being no bail-out.
The closing hole sweeps back towards the clubhouse, which is both genuinely friendly and comfortable. The locals have no pretensions whatsoever here – and many probably do not quite know just what an exceptional course now lies on their very doorstep. They are fortunate indeed, but then so are any visitors who will not only enjoy an unforgettable day at Enniscrone but also find exceptional value for their money.