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 surpassed my expectations by some way. I can understand why other reviewers find it something of a let down after playing other north west courses laid out on more dramatic property but I felt it was a very honest layout that reminded me in places of other under rated tracks like West Lancs and Silloth.
After a relatively quiet start with OOB down the right of the first four holes, the three holes along the shoreline coming back towards the clubhouse from the 6th (“The Long Ridge”) to the 8th (“Moyne Hill”) are fantastic - and tough - with sensational views over the course from the big dune on the 8th tee.
The routing on the back nine is very good, making great use of drainage ditches in front of both the 12th and 14th greens. The third of Murvagh’s three par three holes at the 16th (appropriately entitled “Big Dunt”) is over 230 yards from the medal tees so pray that the wind is still at your back or you’ll struggle for a par here.
The overall yardage from the shortest of the Gents tees is 6,500 yards so Donegal does play long. Greens were in great shape and I liked the way many teeing areas for the next hole were masked by grassy banks, keeping golfers on the tee box out of sight of those playing to the previous green.
My Canadian golfing companions agreed with me that Donegal was a better course than nearby Sligo but, as already mentioned, the high quality of courses in this corner of Ireland is such that direct comparison is really pointless – they are ALL great courses, each with their own merits that really should be viewed in isolation.
Suffice to say, Murvagh is a must play on any serious golfing itinerary to Donegal.
The approach to the course and the clubhouse is very unusual, along a lengthy driveway flanked by mature trees...you may think that you are about to experience a heathland course rather than a links. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed my recent round at Murvagh, not least because I actually managed to better my handicap - for a change - although we steered clear of the back tees. Does the course really need to be more than 7,400 yards long? Length aside Donegal is certainly no pushover and scoring well will depend a lot on the wind (it was a benign day when we played) and accurate driving. The views across Donegal Bay are gorgeous, but I failed to connect with the course possibly due to Donegal's relatively flat topography unlike the rollicking Carne or Enniscrone which I much preferred. I found the more interesting holes at Donegal on the outer front side and the back inside loop rather anti-climatic and a little too up and down for my liking. However, it's certainly worth playing Donegal if you are in the area.