The Murvagh peninsula jutting out into Donegal Bay is the home of Donegal Golf Club. It’s an enchanting and isolated setting for a big links course. The panoramic view across the bay is sensational, with the Bluestack Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.
The prolific architect, Eddie Hackett, laid out the course in 1973 and Murvagh is considered to be one of his finest creations. Hackett was given a naturally rugged and crumpled piece of links land to play with and he used it well to produce a monster championship-length layout. Thanks to Pat Ruddy, Donegal now measures a mighty 7,200 yards from the back tees and we recommend that they be left well alone for the pros or for the very low single figure handicappers.
Donegal’s layout is configured in two elongated loops of nine holes. The front nine runs anticlockwise and the back nine runs clockwise, sitting inside the outward nine. The first four holes are fairly ordinary, feeling inland in character, and then at the 185-yard par three 5th, we enter dune country. This one shot hole, called “Valley of Tears”, is a brute. A semi-blind tee shot to a narrow plateau green, we must make sure that we select the right club to traverse the valley and the bunkers in front of and below the raised green. The next three holes are stunning where the fairways rollercoaster up and down, flanked by huge shaggy sand dunes. At the turn, we are faced with a thrilling back nine, including the 12th, a monster par five, and the sadistic par three 16th, measuring nigh on 250 yards from the back tees.
There is no doubt that Donegal at Murvagh is a very challenging links course and it should be up at the top of the must-play list for any serious golfer.
Around 1992, Pat Ruddy was commissioned to update the original Eddie Hackett-designed layout here at Donegal Golf Club and the work spanned a number of years. Pat has kindly provided the following update for us:
"Hole 1… a totally new green running across the inward shot rather than with it. This to lay a premium on the club chosen coming in (good to do at a par-5)... and then I sculpted a front bunker into a dip at mid-point with pin levels left and right sweeping down into it.
Hole 2… new fairway bunkers at left pinch the tee-shot a little and bring the natural out-of-bounds on the right into play for those seeking to get closer to the green. The green itself is totally new… raised by 2-feet or so at the front and 5-feet or so at the back thus allowing for deep bunkering front and sides. The green is angled right to left to reward those who take-on the boundary off the tee.
Hole 4… totally new tees, fairway with bunkers and a new green running left to right with bunkering at front right. All arranged to give strong golf images off the tee, the old set up was a wee bit blind, and it is a vastly improved hole.
Hole 5… new tees to add length and offer differing angles on a classical par-3 to a shelf green.
Hole 12… a new green with stronger bunkering; newly conformed fairway with strong bunkering for the tee-shot; and the approach to the green rumpled and bunkered.
Hole 14… bunkering for the tee shot and fairway elevation changes to slow the drive, a lovely (if I say so myself) meandering stream brought into play in horse-shoe shape in front of the green (inviting golfers to gamble into the horseshoe if they really think that one club less for the third is all-important at this par-5 and a totally new green raised, tiered and bunkered.
Hole 16… bunkered the green at this par-3.
That makes 11 holes heavily revised, refurbished and modernised. It is a remarkably different and better links than before but the analysts seem slow to realise what has happened as the club is not of the boastful type and hasn't broadcast the good news as others might. It was already one of Ireland’s finest but now I feel it is into a brave new place and I fancy that Eddie Hackett would be pleased enough with his co-designer!"
At the start of 2017, Pat Ruddy sent this:
At Donegal, the 17th has been modified and revisions made to the par three 16th, which was a very difficult hole for club players with a minimum measurement of 203 metres. The championship tee remains intact but new member tees have been constructed forward and to the right (to give a lovely new angle) at 160, 165 and 170 metres, with a new greenside bunker on the left balancing the removal of force with a little intrigue and skill.
Donegal is not the 18th-best course in Ireland. Period.
Donegal is a solid, unspectacular design. It is long. That might be it's defining characteristic, and something the folks in the pro shop are proud of. I was informed before my round in July 2019 that one of the holes was being lengthened by about 50 yards, because apparently 7,456 yards isn't quite long enough.
There are some positive things I can say about the course. First, it has a driving range, which isn't a common feature in the northwest. Second, there are a few interesting holes, especially when you reach the high point of the property and hitting down to the fairway like you'll find at the par 5 8th. Also, I thought the landing areas at Donegal were more generous ... and the rough less penal ... than some of the other courses in the northwest (like Portsalon, for example).
If I was planning a return trip to that area, I would put Rosapenna (both courses), Narin & Portnoo, Co Sligo, and Strandhill ahead of Donegal. I wouldn't turn down a second round at Donegal, but I wouldn't go out of my way to play it either.
I'm enjoying your reviews, and it's all about opinions, but I think that you are being harsh on Donegal here - we played in April, so the rough would be less of an issue, but it's an enjoyable beast of a course that was probably the most unrelenting of all the links courses we played from Ballyliffin to Connemara. Provides the shade to the sporty courses like N&P, Portsalon, Strandhill etc, but below the star names.
Fair enough, although I wasn't trying to suggest that Donegal is awful. Only that that I don't think it is the 18th best course in Ireland. I'm sure lots of people disagree. (I also think Portsalon isn't as good as the consensus would have it, but as you said, it's all about opinion.)
One other thing I'll point out: I played Donegal after having just played Ballyliffin and Rosapenna, which were far more dramatic and quirky. It's possible my opinion of Donegal is less than it might be had I played it first. I've been giving that a lot of thought lately ... how order of play on a golf trip might affect my appreciation of a course. The same thing happened later in my trip, when I played Connemara after playing Enniscrone and Carne. Except for a few holes on the back 9, Connemara didn't have the massive dunes and blind shots of the other two courses, and I think that may have had an impact on how I would rate it.
The peninsula where the course is now located is virtually surrounded by water (Murvagh meaning land surrounded by water), and what is so very impressive is that this particular tract of land has no housing, or roads – other than a narrow 1 km lane entry though the forest. It is an isolated and utterly tranquil site for golf.
Looking out from the new clubhouse your eye is drawn to the large dunes in the middle of the course with a real sense of anticipation.
But the course starts quietly with 4 quality golf holes through low-lying territory outside the main dunes. They are not spectacular holes, but are decent nevertheless.
Hole 5 changes things up big time, with a dramatic longish par 3 set in an amphitheatre of large dunes- right by the sea. The green is raised and the hole is called 'Valley of Tears' in reference to the valley in front of the green. It is a steep drop off and 'more than a few' balls roll back into the valley! 'Valley of Tears' may well be the best hole on the course.
Donegal is a good test of golf, and a great challenge for golfers of all standards. The course can play long off the back tees, but played off the appropriate tee is quite playable- albeit quite difficult for the ladies. Players do benefit from multiple plays as a number of the hazards are unseen on first play.
With a course on a peninsula surrounded by water, I did find it a little strange that the water views were rarely featured, as holes largely play through the dunes.
Donegal is a quality course, but a little understated compared to others in North Western Ireland which feature more spectacular dunescapes. I can only hope you get to play Donegal on a fine sunny day with blue skies and light winds like I did. It's a treat.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
On the mile-long drive along a tree-lined, single-lane track towards Donegal Golf Club one would be forgiven for wondering if there was a links course within 100 miles of the dense woodland you are travelling through.
However, one soon emerges onto the open Murvagh peninsula and the sight of rolling duneland lifts the spirits.
The course is laid out over a spacious expanse of land on the stunning promontory, requires some big, accurate hitting and for the most part offers an exciting, raw links golf experience. Par is 73 and the top yardage is a mighty 6,819 meters! Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal Bay and a designated Special Area of Conservation, it is one of the longest golf courses in Europe. As you can perhaps imagine Murvagh can be tough taskmaster and is often dubbed the “Muirfield of Ireland”.
Holes one to four are not the most inspiring start to the course but there is some solid, strategic golf on this fairly flat, almost pastoral section of the links where the arable land meets sandy ground. The evil centre bunker just short of the first green is an early highlight and the cruel drop-offs at the following two holes add much interest…. or pain, depending upon your perspective.
However, Murvagh starts to have some real fun from the 5th where we embark on an amazing stretch of links golf. Not only is it a wonderful and invigorating walk along the coast but at 5, 6, 7 and 8 we enjoy four dazzling golf holes.
The uniqueness of each one is wonderful, from the “Valley of Tears” par-three to the pair of intriguing par-fives at six and eight; the former of which has a killer greenside bunker/crater close to the semi-punchbowl green which is deviously out of sight on the approach. The cascading fairway at the seventh is also a delight to play.
The back-nine, routed inside the outer looping front-nine, is less dramatic but the fairway bunkering continues to impress and a burn is well used to make one think too. I particularly liked how the fairway bunkers were actually in the fairways and not periphery in the rough! It is easy to see why this powerhouse of a course is admired by so many.
I’m never truly going to warm to a course with five par-fives and at times Donegal can feel like a bit of a slog but there is more than enough good stuff to place this course close to the top of a golfing itinerary when visiting the North West of Ireland.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
We played Donegal as the last stop on a 12 day tour of the Wild Atlantic Way, so perhaps fatigue (and the previous evening’s extravagances) coloured our impressions. Even so, I agree with Ryan’s review of July 10. We played around the same time, and the standard of conditioning was far below what we had seen elsewhere, particularly greens and tee boxes. The course has plenty of strong moments; as pointed out in most of the other reviews, holes 5-8 are outstanding. The view from the 8th tee is one to savour. The whole of the course splays out in all its rumply, quirky splendour. From here, Donegal looks closest to the true links of the Open rota, like a BBC crane-camera shot of Troon. There are a few good holes on the inward nine as well, and the course is certainly a challenge. But memorable moments are rare, and, at 95 Euro, value was deficient. Bonus points are added, however, for the friendly and unpretentious attitudes found in the clubhouse. This place is about golf and is for golfers. It is the kind of place where the punters in blue jeans lacing up their spikes on the rear bumper of their Ford are treated with the same respect as those who might helicopter in.
As it is ranked 17 in Ireland, I expected great things. Unfortunately Donegal GC fell short of my lofty expectations and most of that fall can be attributed to poor conditioning. I left DGC disappointed because I know all of the essential elements are in place. It is a big and raw piece of land, it has some good views and interesting holes but the greens were very poor (bumpy, patchy and poorly maintained) and the tee boxes were well below average. The fairways were generally acceptable and I thought the rough was fair.
As others on this site have pointed out the first four holes are bland but the course does come to life after this. The par 3 5th hole (the valley of tears) is a really testing par 3 which sparks a good stretch through to the par 5 8th hole. Holes 9 to 11 are shortish par 4s and offer some scoring opportunities. Holes 12 and 14 are strong par 5s. The final four holes are solid but unspectular.
It would be wrong of me not to give an honourable mention to the members. I chatted to a few members on my way around the course. They were friendly, relaxed and welcoming (this isn't a stuffy place). The ladies in the pro shop were also great and really enhanced the DGC experience.
Maybe DGC was having a bad day, a bad week or a bad month (it happens from time to time and I am not sure what the weather has been like in recent months) but the green fee was steep and I really expect more for that sort of money.
The warm welcome I received would make me give DGC a second chance but in my view it really needs to up it's game significantly to justify it's ranking.
Played Murvagh in a 3-club wind and, from the 12th to the 14th, a violent squall off the Atlantic. Under those conditions some of the longer holes are very long indeed, even off the 6500-yard green tees that were the only ones in play on the day. However, I was fortunate to play with a member who was kind enough to tell me where the trouble was. Highly useful, because some of it is far from obvious.
This is just a rock-solid, high-quality traditional links that will test pretty much every aspect of your game. Very fair and playable, with some big fairways to drive into, but often penal if you go off line and calling for plenty of improvisation when running the ball into the greens. Absolutely loved the stretch from 6 through 12, but the whole experience was to be recommended. Wish I could play here every week.
Donegal is a big course in a great location, bring your A game ! We played mid Sunday afternoon in intermittent sunshine and a 2-4 club wind. The first is a gentle opener along the driving range, after that the course bares its teeth and never really relents until the well appointed 19th. As with every other course we've played in Donegal this is long. Since the course was busy by Donegal standards (read populated, on a fine ish Sunday afternoon we had to wait on about 7 shots) we elected to play off the 6600 yds or so Orange tees and it was very hard for 10/12 handicap players. However, it was never less than fun with absolute stand outs like the par 5 8th with its steepling roller coaster fairway amongst the biggest and best we've played, up there with the likes of Royal Aberdeen, Machrie and Perranporth. If you don't have a handicap from these parts forget your gross, if you get 30 points congratulations !
In my view the best pure golf experience in the area which is praise as the Rosapenna and Ballyliffen resorts are nearby.
The course hits you square in the face at the 2nd and 4th where 2 shots with big clubs are needed. The 5th is an attractive par 3 and the 6th the first hole where par is a reasonable expectation. 7th is a brute but stunning. 8th is my favourite hole from an aesthetic perspective. The stretch 10, 11 & 12 are the best consecutive holes on the course with excellent variety. 16 is brutal and 18 is a strong finish. In summary, a big golf course which although brutal is an absolute joy.
There are some courses (and, if you’re lucky, some clubs) where you just feel comfortable with from the moment you park up in front of the clubhouse. For me, Donegal is just that sort of place. Three years almost to the day, I teed it up here yesterday on a cold and blustery morning day that threatened to deteriorate but which managed to stay on the dry side of tolerable.
The wind was blowing from the non-prevailing east, which made the par three 5th an absolute brute of a hole - and what about that devil of a bunker in the hidden dip in front of the green that I’d forgotten about? I’m not a fan of the grassy mound that fronts the 9th green or the non-indigenous vegetation behind the 10th green but those are minor agronomy quibbles in the wide scheme of things at Murvagh.
The fiendish bunker to the front left of the green on the wonderful par five 6th and the big dipper fairway on the par five 8th are memorable features on the front nine whilst the wee burn on the back nine (that also crosses a couple of fairways on the inward half) is obviously designed to give grief to the unwary golfer at the par fives on the 12th and 14th.
There was a temporary green on 17 as the hole is being lengthened by moving the greensite back (who said Donegal was too long?) so the club is obviously still tweaking the odd hole here and there to keep pace with the modern game. Then again, I suppose you don’t hope to retain your status as a Top 100 course in GB&I by resting on your laurels and not striving to improve what you already have – there are some courses you never tire of revisiting and Donegal’s one of them for me.