Wednesday, May 22, 2024

In Ireland, the golf — and the Guinness — is good for you

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There was a moment, Guinness-fuelled and foolish, that this odyssey of Irish golfing brilliance was almost temporarily derailed 90 of 144 planned holes in.

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We had just finished a sensational day on the Glashedy course at Ballyliffin Golf Club — a favourite of none other than the island’s golfing hero, Rory McIlroy — and the mood was lifted as a day of great golf does.

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One village up the road in Clonmany, the locals in the splendid pub McFeeley’s seemed in the mood to adopt me as their own. Yes, the Guinness was flowing, as were the stories. And yes, I didn’t want to leave.

“You had the best day for it. Did you bring the weather from Canada?” asked one of the regulars following the rarity of full sun and empty wind on the world-renowned seaside links. “Well don’t take it back with you then.”

And from another corner: “Off to Rosapenna tomorrow are you? Rosapenna and me don’t get along so well. You best have another.”

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And so we did.

The mission was a stout one — eight rounds walking in eight days throughout the north of this magical island. There would be visual delights such as Ballyliffin and Ardglass, the emerging genius of Rosapenna’s St. Patrick’s Links, the wonderfully scenic Royal Belfast and the classic Donegal Golf Club.

The plan was ambitious and the driving anxious at times, but it was all so exhilarating from the first tee shot barely two hours after landing in Dublin, to the two-putt par 144 holes later at Lough Erne.

Along the way there was mastery of the hundreds of roundabouts we navigated (well almost), perfect pints, breathtaking scenery and superb golf.

The itinerary overflowed with those two Irish delights — golf paired with Guinness (and from Dublin to Belfast to Carlingford to Clonmany and Donegal we savoured this as well). The offerings — from tee, to green, to pub — were even more wonderful that you’d expect.

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Tough to match the scenery - or the weather - on our afternoon round at Ballyliffin's Glashedy Links.
Tough to match the scenery — or the weather — on our afternoon round at Ballyliffin’s Glashedy Links. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

MUST-PLAY CLASSICS

Eight courses in eight days was a whirlwind, but the 36 holes on either side of our evening in Clonmany were as good as it gets.

First to Ballyliffin, where the two layouts at this County Donegal beaut are well-regarded treasures. Carved out of the extensive and sometimes massive dunes and with the Atlantic framing the visuals in the distance, the Glashedy is routinely touted as one of Ireland’s best.

I have a fondness for great seaside Par 3s and the 14th immediately soared to the top of the spectacular ones I’ve played. A downhill shot of 200 yards from the back tees (and a less daunting 158 from the middle), the green is guarded by a links staple pot bunker. From that elevated tee, there are spectacular views of Glashedy Rock, a stunning ocean vista from this scenic corner of the island.

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“It’s two brilliant golf courses on a spectacular piece of land,” McIlroy has said of Ballyliffin. “I love it. If anyone has a chance to go to the northwest of Ireland, Ballyliffin should be on everyone’s list.”

So too should St. Patrick’s Links, the newest of the three courses that make up the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort and a layout legitimately climbing on the “best of” lists in Irish golf.

Beware the deep pot bunkers at Ballylliffin and at links courses throughout the Emerald Isle.
Beware the deep pot bunkers at Ballylliffin and at links courses throughout the Emerald Isle. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

Brilliantly carved through more seaside dunes by American design genius Tom Doak, St. Patrick’s mixes a classic links layout with modern touches that make it another must play in Donegal County.

Built along the shores of Sheephaven Bay, which pushes out into the Atlantic, Doak was able to use the land at will, allowing 18 holes to sprawl on a tract that once housed 36.

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Those holes ramble along the jagged dunes land and essentially beckon players to use every club in the bag, be creative with both drives and approaches, all while admiring the scenery that builds and peaks at the delightful corner starting with No. 14 tee.

A course that has only been open since 2021 feels like it has been around as long as the land itself.

And back to those Par 3 masterpieces we love? The 15th, a diminutive 130 yarder, is perched on a rise that may as well be a tourist looking point to take in breathtaking views of the links, dunes and sea that surround it.

St. Patrick’s Links is only going to get better and more renowned with age and is already a bucket list staple for those who know.

The cliffs are daunting and the views spectacular at Ardglass in County Down
The cliffs are daunting and the views spectacular at Ardglass in County Down. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

ON TOUR

One of the many beauties of golf in Ireland is that you can build a multi-day journey with no two being the same.

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We’d recommend adding some time to further enjoy the non links sights but our ambitious itinerary filled the senses with the variety of splendours on offer from Irish golf.

Day 1 Barely landed on the Emerald Isle after an overnight flight, we began our odyssey at the Jameson Links course at Portmarnock, a smart layout with the Irish Sea as the backdrop. The back nine, in particular, prepares us for some of the spectacular play that awaits.

Day 2 Next up is Seapoint Golf Links where the heart of the action comes on the closing holes, including more powerful views of the Irish Sea on holes 16-18.

Day 3 After a night to test drive the pubs in Carlingford, we arrive at Ardglass, a must-play for the clifftop brilliance of the first two holes alone. The visually appealing layout has views of the Irish Sea from all 18 tees and greens. Oh, and Ardglass being a working fishing village, the chowder in the legendary clubhouse is fresh and to be devoured.

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The Cathedral Quarter in Belfast is jumping with activity on a Friday night
The Cathedral Quarter in Belfast is jumping with activity on a Friday night. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

Day 4 The weekend begins in Belfast with a quick shift in the world-class pubs of the Cathedral Quarter then an early morning tee time at Royal Belfast, a parkland layout with stunning views of Belfast Lough. The oldest course in Ireland boasts McIlroy as an honorary member, a privilege he’s known to use when home.

Day 5 As our island roaming continues for a lively Saturday night in the pubs of Derry, we move along to Ballyliffin for our sun-splashed day on the Glashedy Links. A perfect afternoon followed by fun and frivolity (or craic as it is called here) in Clonmany.

With Ballyliffin Rock off in the distance, the Glashedy Links at this remote part of the island is one of Ireland's truest tests and more scenic layouts.
With Ballyliffin Rock off in the distance, the Glashedy Links at this remote part of the island is one of Ireland’s truest tests and more scenic layouts. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

Day 6 The harrowing drive to Rosapenna brings us to St. Patrick’s Links, the newest of the three courses that comprise the resort. It’s well worth it, though, as sheer brilliance awaits at every turn, tee and green.

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Day 7 Following an evening in Donegal Town — with some lively music and good craic at the Reel Inn, we played the Donegal G.C. Murvagh, a delightful layout originally designed by Irish legend Eddie Hackett. The course has evolved over time and is currently getting a design refresh from the country’s Ryder Cup stalwart, Paul McGinley. With the Atlantic and Donegal Bay surrounding, this Par 73 that extends beyond 7,400 yards is a bruiser, though with plenty of roll on the bumpy fairways it doesn’t play as long as the scorecard suggests. It’s easy to see why it’s so well regarded, another reason to add and expand the Donegal region to your itinerary.

Day 8 Homeward bound, our final stop is at the Lough Erne Resort and a twirl around the Nick Faldo-designed parkland course. Weaving through the lakes in the Fermanagh region, there’s a Muskoka feel to some of the holes, particularly on the back nine.

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A perfect pour of the perfect pint at Peadar O'Donnell's Bar in Derry.
A perfect pour of the perfect pint at Peadar O’Donnell’s Bar in Derry. Rob Longley/Toronto Sun torsun

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

  • The 14th at St. Patrick’s Links, a stunning 340-yard dogleg Par 4 with the Atlantic Ocean off in the distance. Sheets of rain on the tee, the green bathed in sunshine and every step a delight. The pure Irish golf experience, all in 15 minutes.
  • Built in 1405, the castle that is the clubhouse at fun and visually fabulous Ardglass is billed as the oldest in the world. “No one has disputed it so we’re going to run with it,” says Flinn Morgan, the young assistant pro and my playing partner for the day.
  • The Guinness. It truly is a nectar over here, fresh and frothy and in most pubs poured to perfection. The Irish are proud of their golf and their Guinness and the two can be a fine mix. Of the pubs we sampled, elite pints were served at (in no particular order) Taaffes and P.J. O’Hares in Carlingford, Bittles and the Duke of York in Belfast, Peadar O’Donnell’s and Lizzie O’Farrells in Derry, and that first pour of the trip at Gibney’s in Malahide.
  • The halfway house at Jameson Links at Portmarnock is right on theme. Guinness on tap at the green trailer with old Jameson barrels as tables. And yes, the land has roots to the famed Irish whiskey family.
  • A perfect golf morning at Donegal, sun shining and playing solo in two hours and 50 minutes. Idyllic it was.
  • The “Rory Drive” at Lough Erne. The downhill Par 4 7th hole, with lakes all around, measures out at 389 yards from the back tees where a monument is erected saying, “Rory McIlroy was the first person to drive this hole during the Lough Erne Challenge, 2nd July 2009.
  • And finally, the “Have a Guinness when you’re tired” sign in a Belfast pub. Does it work, I asked? “Of course it does,” a voice confirms. “Guinness has iron. It’s why it’s good for you.” Who was I to argue?

rlongley@postmedia.com

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