After planning a golf trip to Ireland for almost 18 months, Judy and I finally got there this July (2004). Our conclusion: Ireland is a wonderful place to visit, and golfing in Ireland is pretty incredible.
Home base was about 6 miles outside of Donegal Town in County Donegal way up in the northwest of the island, on the Atlantic side. We had set up a house swap with the owner of a beautifully renovated Irish “cottage” which just happens to be about two miles from Donegal Golf Course.
The Irish have a much deserved reputation for being unassuming, friendly and hospitable, and we certainly found this to be the case everywhere we went. Not that we went very far. Why bother when the Donegal area is just the sort of place we like best: as far away as possible from the tourist attractions of the big cities, with an outstanding, affordable golf course within a mile or two of our accommodation.
The golf course at Murvagh (Donegal Golf Club) is one of the longest in Europe, at 7227 yards from the back tees. Add in the influence of the ever-present hard-blowing Atlantic wind and you have a formidable challenge on your hands.
The contrast with our placid North American courses could not be greater. The landing surfaces are always hard and unpredictable. And the wind almost always makes a simple 75 yard pitch an adventure. This is the kind of pot shot we North Americans assume can be dialed in and dropped within a few yards of our target (in theory at least).
But at a place like Donegal you soon learn why they don’t bother much with yardage markers. Into the wind my most successful 100 yard pitch was almost always a knock-down seven, eight or nine iron. Forget about the wedges unless you want the ball to start coming back towards you.
Then there is the ever-present rough — not that “first cut, second cut” stuff, but what we naively call “the fescue” over here in North America. A shot from off the fairway can range from easy to impossible. Some of the “rough” areas have thin, wispy fescue with easy-to-get-your-club-on lies, and some have thick, almost impenetrable grass where the ground is covered with three or four inches of matted grass where you’re lucky to find your ball. And the difficulty of the rough is magnified several times when it becomes wet. This is where your wedge is important. Don’t be greedy. Open up the club face and get the ball out. But keep it right, because that wet rough is going to grab your club face and close it every time.
And don’t forget to dress warmly with a water-resistant jacket and a sturdy umbrella. When we were there (most of July) it rained just about every day. Not much, and not for long, but I would say there was at least a 75% chance we would get rained on when out on the course. A typical rain only lasts for ten minutes or so. You get pretty wet, and the wet grass makes the rough play that much harder. But a couple holes later you realize the wind has almost completely dried things out again.
We also played Rosapenna and Ballyliffin, both up near the most northern point in Ireland. Unfortunately my camera stopped working. Ballyliffin has an impressive club house (with the least expensive meals we found anywhere). This was the course Nick Faldo called “The Royal Dornoch of Ireland”. He wanted to buy it back in the early nineties and turn it into a super-destination course. We played the old “Tom Morris” course (there is a newer 18 called Glashedy). It is a great layout, but there is only one Royal Dornoch.
Ireland vs Scotland
A few people have asked me if I prefer Ireland to Scotland (which we have visited a couple of times). It is hard to say. Ireland feels more visitor-friendly, at least at first blush. The roads are easier to navigate (Scottish road signs are pretty obscure until you get used to them), and there seemed to be more North American style restaurants within easy reach. Of course our trips to Scotland were both to pretty remote areas.
The landscape in Ireland is what I would describe as more pastoral and “less harsh” than Scotland (the Highlands), although this is not necessarily a good (or bad) thing. In the Scottish Highlands you get a real taste of the unique countryside and the variations from small region to small region by driving on some of those very remote one lane roads. We saw some of this in Ireland, but there was a greater sense of isolation and remoteness in Scotland — miles and miles of winding road with nothing but sheep to keep you company. In Ireland — even up in the very most remote northern part — you were never far from other cars. And there were new houses and (what we call) “subdivisions” going up almost everywhere. We saw almost none of that in Scotland.
As far as the golf is concerned, I think Ireland is probably further ahead in making the game more accessible to a wider spectrum of golfers. I doubt if Ballybunion (which we did not go near) will ever replace St. Andrews as the world’s primary golf destination. And there are probably as many, if not more, second tier big name courses in Ireland for the serious golfing traveller — you know the guys in the expensive rain gear and the 8 man tour bus who want to cover off as many courses as they can in 10 days.
But I’m not sure there are too many courses in Scotland in the mid-range of affordability to compare with Donegal or Enniscrone or even Ballyliffin.
Part of the problem is the inflated value of the British pound. When we were in Scotland in 2001 we played North Berwick, an historic course just south of St. Andrews (North Berwick is also the home of the original Redan par 3). It cost 45 pounds at that time, which converted to roughly $110 Canadian. In comparison, Donegal — arguably a “better” course but lacking the history — was 50 Euros full price (around $80 Canadian). And we were able to negotiate a 50% reduction at Donegal based on our extended stay. So that’s roughly 1/3 the price of North Berwick. Nobody offered me a 50% reduction in Scotland.
The closest we came to this kind of “value” in Scotland was at Brora (just north of Dornoch) (30 pounds/ approx $75 cad), Macrahanish (25 pounds/approx $60 cad), and the Struie Course at Dornoch (also 25 pounds). These courses all have more unique charm (in my estimation), but less “polish” than their closest Irish equivalents.
Having said all that, I have almost no desire to go play the big names or even 2nd tier name courses in Ireland (Ballybunion, Royal Portrush, Portmarnock, Royal County Down), but would gladly go back to play Donegal, Sligo, Enniscrone, Ballyliffin, and many others I did not have the chance to play this time around.
On the other hand, I really would like to play some of the “name” courses in Scotland: The Old Course (of course), Carnoustie, Turnberry, Prestwick, Royal Troon, Muirfield (yea, right!). And yes, I would like to live in Dornoch for at least a year or two and play Royal Dornoch four or five times a week.