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.
I played the course in August 2003 and was blown away (almost literally by the stiff breeze off the Atlantic!) by the place. Flatter and shorter than the newer Glashedy, many locals still prefer this to play their golf on. The course manager told me when I returned in October 2004 that a Nick Faldo design team were proposing 1 million euros worth of upgrade work over the next two winters to the course to 'bring it up to scratch again' (that's some money to be ploughing into such a remote outpost) but what a venue for links golf!
This piece of land was made for golf – fairways and greens just blend into the landscape as if they were always there – and it's a wonderful place to play. The welcome in the clubhouse is as friendly as you would expect and prices are very reasonable, especially if you use a discount voucher as they are accepted here, affording a round on both courses for under 50 quid – thanks very much!