A change of plan
If the sun had smiled unseasonably on me the day before, it was now time for the golfing gods to exact some revenge. A howling gale and heavy showers accompanied my drive to the even more out-of-the-way Narin & Portnoo, but then cunningly eased off in order to tempt me out to play. Club manager Connor Mallon kindly supplied a buggy in case shelter was needed... which it was! Whilst there are one or two less remarkable holes, those from 6 to 12 are tremendous, and the back-to-back par 5s at 14 and 15 are as scenic and demanding as they come. I was particularly pleased to hit the green at the short 7th - the course's Postage Stamp - whilst the rain was at its most torrential and anti-social. What better indictment than to play a course in quite lousy weather, enjoy it immensely and be very keen to return?
Although not officially on my itinerary, I couldn't resist the opportunity that afternoon to take the scenic detour to the nine-hole hidden gem at Cruit Island a few miles up the coast. The clouds had cleared, but the wind was now gusting at a borderline unplayable pace. Regardless, I had to play. There are blind shots, short par 4s, small greens and quirkiness by the bucketload. Anywhere else, the course would be great fun, but would win no awards. Here, in this magnificent setting, you cannot help but smile. If there is a more stunning location for golf in the UK or Ireland, I have yet to find it.
It was now time to head further up the coast to the excellent combination of something old and something new at the expansive Rospenna resort. After a beer with local Top 100 panellist Tim Browne, a generous meal in the restaurant and a night in the spacious, restful, golfer-friendly hotel, it was time to tackle the Sandy Hills links with director of golf, Frank Casey Junior. An informed and informative host, Frank guided me round this imperious Pat Ruddy design. Opened in 2003, it is the loftiest in the Golf Monthly Top 100 on my trip at a well-justified 39th place. The appropriately named course runs through some of the most glorious, towering dunes, and is blessed with as strong a set of 18 individual holes as you will find. Unusually for a newer course, there is just the one starting point, but this means that once you are away you can lose yourself in the twisting, turning routing with its elevated tees and greens, marram-shrouded mounds and photogenic views over the bay and mountains beyond. Maintained in fine order, it is as enjoyable as it is tough, as stimulating as it is challenging. The Old Tom Morris course provides a surprising contrast with two distinct nines, each quite different both from Sandy Hills and from one another. The front nine, the Strand, covers some of Old Tom's original layout, but has been redesigned first by Ruddy and subsequently Tom Doak with refinements still taking place. The back nine, the Valley, is a re-sequencing of Morris' original holes and offers excellent, traditional links play.
My final destination was the two wonderful designs at Ballyliffin where the not-very-old Old Course was substantially remodelled by Sir Nick Faldo a couple of years ago. This now provides an excellent, and again surprisingly different, accompaniment to the highly-rated Glashedy Links. Overnight I had been woken several times by rain lashing against the window in gale-force winds, and for a time I worried that I might not get to play. Happily, despite one or two near-drownings, I managed to get round these two cracking courses. One advantage of a gale-force wind is that you dry out in no time at all. The Glashedy, designed by Ruddy and Tom Craddock, is rightly considered the tougher test. Evidence of the wind came at the 404-yard 3rd where, admittedly from some way short of the green, I managed a three-putt four. On the 158-yard, downhill 14th, my tee shot was almost certainly travelling backwards by the time it landed halfway to the green. The Glashedy Links is a true championship course with large, testing greens and greedy bunkers. Nonetheless, it is a joy to play with some very demanding two-shotters, three very distinct and memorable par 3s, and as good a closing hole as you will find. There is a strong argument that the Old is more fun and it provides the perfect complement, full of allure and character whilst still a proper test. There is no doubt that Ballyliffin is one of the very best 36-hole facilities out there.
Time of my life
Eleven courses in eight days is a tall order, so my advice would be to take more time or make a number of visits. Better still, both. There are other fine tracks which I didn't get time to visit. And whilst there is quite a drive between some clubs, this is a bonus because the countryside, loughs, mountains and sea views throughout Galway, Mayo and Donegal are captivating. The hospitality, service, atmosphere and welcome at the golf clubs, hotels and restaurants is consistently high and there is much to see and do. With today's more customer-friendly and flexible approach to green fees, the golf is now excellent value and a good number of the clubs and hotels offer great deals at various times. It really can pay to shop around. After 30-plus years of golfing trips, I would venture to say that this is the best compilation of attractive courses I have ever encountered.
Rob Smith has been playing golf for more than 40 years and been a contributing editor for Golf Monthly for over ten years, specialising in course reviews and travel. He has now played more than 1,170 different courses in almost 50 countries. Despite lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2021, he still managed to play 80 different courses during the year, 43 of them for the first time. This included 21 in 13 days on a trip to East Lothian in October. One of Rob's primary roles is helping to prepare the Top 100 and Next 100 Courses of the UK&I, of which he has played all but nine. During the 2021-22 review period, Rob has played 34 of the Golf Monthly Top 200. He is a member of Tandridge Golf Club in Surrey where his handicap hovers around 16. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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