Ballyliffin is Ireland’s most northerly golf club, located off Tullagh Point on the Atlantic edge of the Inishowen Peninsula. The location is divine; the course hugs the shoreline overlooking the golden beach of Pollan Strand and Glashedy Rock (Ballyliffin’s equivalent of Turnberry’s Ailsa Craig).
It’s difficult to pin a date on the earliest origins of the game of golf at Ballyliffin, though it is clear that the Ballyliffin Golf Club was founded in 1947. The Old course originally started out in life as a very ordinary nine-hole course and the club progressed very slowly, often struggling financially. In the late 1960s, Martin Hopkins, a local agricultural advisor, identified a prime stretch of links land nearby, ideal for golf. Eddie Hackett, Charles Lawrie and Frank Pennink were engaged in shaping the new links course and in 1973, the brand new “Old” course opened for play.
The Old is a classic links, with fairways that pitch and roll through wild dunes. This is links golf at its most traditional, where the perfect drive will often find an awkward lie. If you are afflicted with a lack of balance, you will struggle, because you’ll rarely get a flat stance.
For about 20 years, the Old course remained well and truly outside of the limelight. Only those in the know, and Ballyliffin’s lucky members, knew the secret. Then, in June 1993, a helicopter dropped out of the blue sky and landed next to the clubhouse with the world number one on board. After a quick thrash around the Old course, Nick Faldo was spellbound, falling under Ballyliffin’s trance. “One of the most natural courses I have ever played,” he commented. And from that point onwards, Ballyliffin came of age.
In Pat Ruddy’s book Ballyliffin: Golf’s Great Twin Miracles, the author details changes that were made to the Old course when the Glashedy was built: “We did not make any changes to holes 1-6 but we created a new par-3 7th and a new par-4 8th to allow the old par-3 9th, which ran alongside the car park, to be eliminated. On the back-nine we had nothing to do with holes 10-12, 17 and 18. But we made a lot of improvements besides.
We created a glorious entirely new par-4 13th running up a valley that had been an unused flood plain. The old 13th [now the 14th] played from a tee near the now 12th tee on Glashedy links and we realigned the first half of the fairway onto higher ground. We regretted having to eliminate the old par-4 14th… we compensated by creating a smashing new 15th which is a downhill dog-leg right to a really exciting green. Our final input on the Old Links was an even more important one at hole 16 which was a problem hole at the time... the hole now has much more variety and many more playing options”.
Ironically, the renovation work that Pat Ruddy had originally been brought in for (before a decision was made to build a second course) was assigned to the Faldo Design team in 2004, when they added new revetted bunkers and new ‘Faldo’ tees, in addition to enlarging a couple of greens.
There are many memorable holes on the Old course, but the 190-yard par three 5th, called “The Tank”, will stick in the mind for a very long time. It’s an intimidating tee shot to an elevated plateau, almost stage-like green that is surrounded by dunes.
Ballyliffin’s new Glashedy course has recently upstaged the Old, but don’t make a trip to County Donegal without playing it. Both courses contrast and complement each other supremely well. But for the true links purist, the Old course is the one.
The Glashedy was my favourite at Ballyliffin when I played here before but I fell in love with the Old course this time around. The Faldo bunker changes that have been incorporated so sympathetically into the design were a delight to behold, blending in so unobtrusively into the golfing landscape. I loved “The Tank” (so reminiscent of the wonderful uphill 13th at Muirfield) on the front nine and the run of holes along Pollan Strand between the 14th and 16th (with exhilarating tee shots from positions beside the sandy shore) were a delight to play. It was marvellous to listen to some of the members back in the clubhouse describe the original, elementary nine holes that were laid out back in the late 1940’s, comparing what had gone before to the magnificent modern day 36-hole complex now in play – a links setup that everyone on the Inishowen peninsula can be justifiably proud of. A lot of water has flown under many a golfing bridge since my untrained eye surveyed the scene here six and a half years ago so, in the light of experience gained since then, my original 5 ball review is grossly inadequate for either the Old or the Glashedy at Ballyliffin – nothing short of 6 balls will suffice for two of the best links courses that I have played in GB & I. Jim McCann
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I thoroughly agree with the closing paragraph, the Old is a course for the purist. It's far more traditional and to an extent, far more engaging than the Glashedy. Although I think there's a delightful and complementary mix between the two courses. I've never seen fairways like the Old...they make the fairways at St Andrews Old and Rye look tame. The Faldo work was taking place when I played and there's no doubt that this will be a much-improved course once it's completed. Look out Glashedy, in time to come, the Old might well upstage you.