Donegal guide

Area guide: Donegal, Ireland

Why County Donegal, the host of July’s Irish Open, is heaven for links lovers

While everyone knows the value of location, location, location, the old adage can also work in reverse, and in the case of County Donegal as a tourist magnet, it suffers from being located about as far from the centres of population of both the Republic and mainland UK as is possible. Perched on the most northerly and westerly corner of Ireland, it is not the easiest place to access, but in a sense this is also its attraction; no hordes of holiday-makers choke its fabulous beaches, or create queues to enter its historic castles or other tourist attractions, and for golfers there is the luxury of playing any of five of the best championship courses on the island practically any time you wish. ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, the 1,500-mile coastal footpath from Malin Head, Donegal’s most northerly point, to Cork in the island’s south, has aided a spike in tourism in the area. Those who visit are rewarded well for their journey.

Rosapenna (Sandy Hills)

Rosapenna was my first port of call, and began with a great welcome from this family-run establishment followed by a fabulous meal washed down with the obligatory Guinness or three and an Irish coffee. The hotel exudes comfort with 30ftx15ft bedrooms furnished with two king-sized beds, a three-piece suite, and a bathroom the size of a living room.

Well-rested the next morning I drew back the curtains to sunshine and a stunning view of Sheephaven Bay, and enjoyed a black coffee from the ‘George Clooney’ machine on the balcony before going down for a breakfast of kippers in the dining room with the same fabulous views.

At the civilised hour of 10, I teed off on the Sandy Hills, just as the stiff breeze and occasional squall came in from the Atlantic. There are two courses at Rosapenna; Sandy Hills, (2003), and The Old Tom Morris, (1893). 

The latter, laid out by the great man, with additions by James Braid and Harry Vardon and latterly, principally by Pat Ruddy, runs parallel to golden sands of the bay and is stunning. Ruddy was also chosen as architect for the new course, set among the high dunes backing the original links. 

Standing on the 1st tee, the vista is of endless dunes like a crumpled blanket of high marram grass with the occasional glimpse of green as the narrow fairways penetrate the wilderness. This, then, is not a course for the faint-hearted. 

Unlike most set among high dunes, this one does not stick to the valleys; it simply charges across the wild terrain, challenging the golfer to place shots on the cut grass or sacrifice it to the deep marram, hard up against the rollercoaster fairways. It is awesome and spectacular, but brutal and definitely for the lower handicapper as the pathetic scores of my battle-hardened colleagues confirmed. 

My tally of four balls lost and four found indicates my own battle; I shall divulge no more. The yardage book says: “The views across the valley towards Sheephaven Bay will console the wounds inflicted by this incredible course”. I’m not so sure; I think the lunchtime Guinness was more effective.

Add another 18…

I shall certainly be back to play the Old Tom Morris Links again, which those who know it told me it was an unalloyed delight. It might be the second course here but it is still ranked in Ireland’s top 50 and makes Rosapenna such a strong resort.

 Rosapenna (Sandy Hills)

Ballyliffin (Glashedy)

Next it was time to drive to the most northerly part of the island, further north even than Northern Ireland, Mallin Head and the small town of Ballyliffin, home of two great links; the Old and Glashedy, venue for this year’s Irish Open.

To begin with, the title ‘Old’ is something of a misnomer, given the 18-hole course opened in 1973. Then in 1992 Tom Craddock and Pat Ruddy were asked to advise on the bunkers. Ruddy took one look at the 400 acres or so of dunes beyond the present course and advised that another course of championship standard be immediately built before new draconian planning laws came into effect. The members were persuaded and the course was opened in 1995.

Standing now on the 1st tee, it is difficult to believe it has not been there forever. And a wonderful sight it is; rolling fairways set between marram-covered dunes, large revetted bunkers protecting even larger greens and all to the sound of the sea adjacent. 

Truly, Ballyliffin is golfing paradise, and one which gets better by the hole, as the course gently climbs anti-clockwise to the 6th green, set on the top of the Great Dune. A further short climb to the 7th tee opens up a stunning prospect, and a 100ft or so below a short par 3 of the most spectacular drama, a green protected by a small lake and myriad bunkers. It is one of the most photographed holes in Ireland.

The second nine uses the same dramatic principle, but this time the holes wrap themselves clockwise around the Great Dune, culminating in the magnificent par-5 13th. Step onto the high 14th tee and another fantastic prospect meets the eye; this time a lovely downhill par 3 with a green protected by a deep pot bunker and a fiendish mound in front, and beyond, Pollan Bay and Glashedy Rock which gives the course its name. Every hole is to be cherished here though, not the least the 18th – which is a fitting end to a challenging yet delightful course. I managed to get round with the same ball, proof that this is not only one of the great championship links but also a delight to play.

Add another 18…

The historic North West club near Buncrana was one of the founding members of the Golfing Union of Ireland and it is home to a fabulous links that runs along the shores of Lough Swilly on the Wild Atlantic Way. It was established as an 18 holer in 1891.

Ballyliffin (Glashedy)

Ballyliffin (Old) and Portsalon

Ballyliffin members told me they love the Glashedy… but some ventured that they love the Old even more. 

Again Ruddy can take a lot of credit for much of this; at the time of building the Glashedy, he raised several fairways that earlier had been subject to flooding, amongst several other improvements. Ruddy didn’t however improve the bunkers he had been asked to look at 20 years before; no sooner had he given Ballyliffin the Glashedy than the club appointed Nick Faldo to review the bunkers!

In any event, the Old is a superb compliment to the Glashedy; more playable, just as beautifully conditioned and equally as packed full of characterful holes.

A much older course awaits for the afternoon round though. Portsalon was founded by Colonel B.J Barton in 1891, when it was – along with Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Royal Belfast, Killymoon, Dungannon, Aughnacloy, Ballycastle and Buncrana – one of the founder members of the Golfing Union of Ireland.

The course was designed by Portrush’s professional Charles Thompson and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best in the country.

In 2000, a major redesign was undertaken by that man Ruddy, who was tasked with upgrading the links to keep pace with the modern game. Considerable length was added and nine completely new holes were added.

Portsalon starts with a short par 4 to a green tucked in a elevated corner to the left and then comes a replica of the legendary 1st hole at Machrihanish, swinging right to left around the corner of the bay; spectacular yet seriously challenging. A sporty 4, a snaking par 5 between dune ridges and a sweet short holelead you to the 6th, which is a cracker – nearly 450 yards off the tips and playing between the dunes, it one of Ireland’s strongest two-shot holes.

The front nine might be more consistently excellent but there are also superb holes coming home, in one of Ireland’s most under-rated links.

Add another 18…

Buncrana is just the sort of nice surprise you get in Ireland and especially Scotland; a super nine-hole links with lovely views given its location overlooking the ‘White Strand’ on the shores of the Lough Swilly. It is Ireland’s oldest nine-hole links.


Travel essentials for your trip

When to go

Needs little explanation as it is Ireland – but there are some climactic quirks worthy knowing. It is surprisingly mild – but there is rainfall throughout the year, with even the driest month still having a lot. However, the driest months are notably April and May. The average temperature never drops close to 0C.

The costs

A real benefit of Donegal because the cost of playing, staying and eating here is way, way below what you would expect to pay at the stellar links of Dublin and the famed Ring of Kerry names. So if you want to experience the raw, rugged and spectacular golf of Ireland without taking out a small loan, Donegal is ideal.


Rosapenna is the obvious base. This sprawling hotel boasts spacious bedrooms, a snooker room, fabulous bar and, best of all, the Vardon restaurant, which offers striking views of Sheephaven Bay and spectacular evening sunsets. It specialises in local seafood with shellfish caught off the headlands.

Getting there

I took the short hop from Glasgow to Belfast and then a much longer coach trip to the far west of the island. If you have never taken the former, I can only recommend in the strongest terms that you do so. On a clear day the views from the air of the Ayrshire coast, the Isle of Arran, the Kintyre Peninsular and the Belfast Lough are stunning; a real bonus. The same cannot really be said of the three-hour journey across Northern Ireland, the invisible border and Eire’s most northerly county, but it got me there.

Key details



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Chris Bertram

Chris Bertram is a specialist in all things golf courses.
He was born and brought up in Dumfriesshire and has been a sports journalist since 1996, initially as a junior writer with National Club Golfer magazine.
Chris then spent four years writing about football and rugby union for the Press Association but returned to be Editor and then Publisher of NCG.
He has been freelance since 2010 and spends the majority of his time playing golf and writing about the world’s finest golf courses.

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