If you want to play really simple, old-fashioned, unpretentious links golf then you often have to stray a little off the beaten track to island courses like the Machrie on Islay or Shiskine on Arran. Narin and Portnoo is not quite as remote as those two famous Scottish courses but only just. Tucked away in the southwest corner of County Donegal, the Narin and Portnoo links deserves to be bracketed with one or two other natural, unspoilt courses that really should be given greater recognition.
The club was formed in 1930 and they played on a 9-hole layout for thirty-five years until it was extended to its current 18-hole size in 1965. The first green keeper, Jim McCole, held the post for over forty years, from 1934 to 1977 – it’s hearing about people like him that provide a flavour of what clubs like Narin and Portnoo are all about.
At the start of the new millennium, the club rearranged the course – at one point there were consecutive par fives played between the 13th and 15th – and the clubhouse was rebuilt, opening in June 2008. It’s true to say that Narin & Portnoo lost its way around this time but a change in ownership saw a monumental reversal in fortunes for the club.
Ten years later, Gil Hanse and his design partner Jim Wagner were commissioned to redesign the course. “Golfers will be blown away by the natural beauty, interest and quirk that the property offers,” said Wagner. “The new combination of golf holes and greens locations will add challenge and stunning visuals associated with the property.”
Improvements include a new green at the 1st, to the left of the original, a lake which has been taken out of play on the 2nd, with the 3rd and 4th combined to form a new par five. The old 8th is now the new 7th with a blind shot to a new green and two new par threes have also been created on the back nine at the 11th and 15th. The preposterous trio of par fives has also been removed though the round does conclude with a demanding three-shotter that double doglegs around sand hills from the tee to the home green.
I have to be honest and say that before my trip was confirmed this course was not in my plans though the redesign by Gil Hanse caught my attention. And when this week of golf was on the run I got closer to it and was really looking to see what the place had and it outplayed my mind! Piece of land? Immaculate! Routing? Excellent with short par 3s being tough in the wind. Toughness? Well, I have to say that not many courses I played are tougher than N&P. Green complexes? Pfff, world class including a Biarritz green in a 450yds par 4.
The course goes away from the Club House to reach the beach/water on 7th to 10th (7th a great short 4) and then back inland to some brutal long 4s and then back to the water for amazing 15th (Pine Valley 2nd ?), stroke index 1 16th which is the tightest par 4 you can imagine with water on the right (elevated cliff) and brutally penal rough on the left (great double bogey!).
17th is a sort of Postage Stamp with green down some 10/15mts from the tee, small green and roll offs in all 4 sides … only a 9 iron and can be a tragedy. 18th over 600yds into the wind, tough tee shot, tighter second in between bunkers/rough/burn and a very good green make it a great finishing hole.
I have to highlight 2 holes not only due to greatness but due to how I was able to play them:
Par 4 2nd used to be a par 5: 480 yds with water hazard on the right, some bunkers to carry with the tee shot and rough on the left … I holed a 259yds 3 wood which I thought it was an Albatross but was “only” an eagle!
Par 4 12th plays 440yds to a tight tee shot with a huge right bunker to carry and then a blind dogleg right shot … I hit Driver and Driver to hit the green into the strongest wind and rain of the round.
It is a very demanding course, we selected Black Tees and maybe due to climate Gold would have been a wiser decision so when you go and play it just be clever, golf is to be enjoyed! You can put yourself against a challenge but no need of over clubbing your day, the greens will test you no matter the distance you play.
With St Patrick’s getting a lot of attention in the near future with it’s 55th World Ranking and for sure to be improved once it matures, N&P will have collated benefit of this and will hopefully receive many golfers in the years to come and it deserves it, worth every single € paid.
The first three holes here are on the flattest part of the course, though the first fairway has some intriguing humps and bumps. But the new greens on all three are an improvement. The real fun begins at the 4th, a sharp dogleg left with out of bounds on both sides and a green perched in the dunes. Soon after comes my favorite hole, the 7th, a bit of an homage to the Dell hole at Lahinch. It’s a short par 4 with much of the green hidden behind a dune and the ground in front configured to carom a running shot onto the left portion of the green.
I’m a fan of more than the standard four par 3s and Portnoo having five of them is a plus, They run in all directions so despite their similar distances, should require different clubs when the wind blows…..which is pretty much all the time. The rest of the changes wrought by Hanse and Wagner are also well done, especially their trademark contoured greens.
Visitors to Ireland or Northern Ireland for the first time are always going to prioritize a tee time at the most well known courses such as Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Portstewart Strand, Portmarnock, Ballybunion Old, Tralee, The European, Waterville, and Lahinch Old.
When I lived outside of London a couple of decades ago, I thought in addition to the nine courses mentioned above, there were likely only another six worth playing. In this list was County Louth, Trump Ireland, County Sligo, The Island, Castlerock Mussenden, and Ballyliffin Glashedy.
I was completely wrong.
After playing many of the “known” courses on the northwest side of Ireland, I have revised my opinion to say there are probably as many as sixty courses that repeat visitors to Ireland/Northern Ireland should try to play at least once. There is a depth of very good/good courses across the country.
The scenery is dramatic, spectacular, and beautiful on the northwest coast of Ireland, certainly equaling the Ring of Kerry. Driving from one course to another is a pleasure rather than a burden despite some longer drives down narrow, bumpy, twisty roads.
Our trip to Narin and Portnoo followed by Cruit Island began at Sligo. We arrived early for our ten am tee time.
I did not know much about the course as it was recently done by Gil Hanse. There were not enough recent reviews on the work that he had done. I did read a recent article in Golfweek by Jay Blasi who praised the course.
Of the courses I played on my sixteen day excursion, Narin and Portnoo and Portsalon were the biggest surprises. Both sit against the sea and beach. While I really liked the land forms of Portsalon that results in some quirky holes particularly near the end, I felt the better of those two courses is Narin and Portnoo due to the consistency of the golf.
There is a lot to like at Narin and Portnoo even if some might think the course gets off to a slow start. I disagree with that assessment as I think the two opening holes are quite good. There are many strong holes here as the routing from the third hole in weaves it’s way in and out of the dunes. The only disappointment I have are in the par 3’s, all of which are short, with two of them feeling as if they are merely “connector” holes. The longest par 3 is 147 yards. This is compensated by several long holes.
The course is kept in excellent condition from the tee box to the greens including the bunkers.
The greens shapes and undulations are interesting. One will find a challenge on the greens, but as they roll true, one should also trust what their eyes tell them.
The bunkering is relatively restrained with a nice placement of bunkers as one would expect from Gil Hanse.
The course currently measures 6904 yards from the back tees, par 70 rated 72.9/120. The next set of tees is 6525 yards rated 71.2/119. As the wind was higher than normal with some significant gusts, the set of tees we played was only 6100 yards at 69.1/113. By the way, nearly every course in Ireland I played on this trip seems to get the course rating correct but not the slope which consistently seems that it is 13-20 points too low.
The course emphasizes playability with only a couple of semi-blind shots such as the approach into the first green. The course runs firm and fast. As it is a seaside course, it has beautiful views of the beach and the nearby hills.
It is a course where there is a nice blend of holes where one should secure a par with a decent chance for a birdie offset by some holes where one is not upset by a bogey. The course has a very good routing taking full advantage of the dunes available to it. One plays atop the dunes, aside the dunes, in between the dunes as corridors, and down the dunes.
Please note the second is being changed to a long par 4 which I believe is scheduled to open up for play within the month. Therefore I will describe the new hole as I saw it. I have listed the par 5 length as I believe the new par 4 will be close to it.
1. Par 4 - 377/350/338. This is a quirky, fun and somewhat terrifying opening hole with the green set atop a dune. The tee shot needs to either carry a sliver of a ditch/burn that bisects the fairway or go left in the landing zone between mounds down the left side of the hill which holds the green atop it. It appears there is out of bounds right. There is a bunker placed right as well as a bunker on the side of the hill. Longer hitters can likely carry the ditch and be rewarded with a straight shot into the fullness of the green but the smarter play is down the left even if this makes less of the green available to you. It takes a precise tee shot. Miss the green left or long and you are facing a semi-blind pitch of perhaps 20 feet up. The green was closed to us on the day but we walked up to look at it. It is narrow at the front widening at the rear with subtle movement and a tilt left. I liked the rolling fairway of this hole.
2. Par 4 - 524/476/465 (previous par 5 yardage provided). I believe the hole is going to play flat but it might play from the elevated tee next to the first green. The ditch/burn crosses early but is not a factor. The fairway seems generous but a collection of three bunkers center-right is a real danger. Two bunkers are farther up the left side in play only for shorter players. The fairway is rumpled at times and I wished it was even more so to add to the visual appeal of the hole. This was a par 5 with the green set well off to the right fronted by wetter/taller grass and a flattish green. Now the hole plays straight but dangerously close to out of bounds fencing off the right. The new green has incredible inner movement with crowns and swales. It is also angled to the left seemingly bringing the fence line and a burn even more into play. There is also good contouring just off the left side. Although not in the dunes, this will be a memorable hole.
3. Par 5 - 607/597/548. Another flat hole on a wide fairway where again I wished the fairways rolled just a bit more. Out of bounds is down the entirety of the right side in the form of fencing and a burn. About 75 yards from the green is a large cross bunker with another bunker to its right. The final bunker is on the left front corner of the green which I recall being relatively straightforward. The hole needs a bit more going on other than it’s length.
4. Par 4 - 446/336/325. It is a different hole from the back tee and too simple from the other two tees. This is a dogleg right which plays uphill into the dunes after the turn. The ground is rumpled as it climbs the dune with a substantial valley on the right followed by a mound while the left side falls off. The green sits on higher ground with a bit of a bowl in its middle front. I don’t recall a bunker on this hole.
5. Par 4 - 427/367/353. This hole plays as a dogleg left climbing up. A bunker slashes in from the left center of the green while the back center has a hidden bunker. It has a nicely contoured green.
6. Par 3 - 140/140/137. You play over broken ground to a green on a higher plateau. The green is tilted to the front. You have to hit the green or you will likely tumble down the hill fronting the green. The front of the green has a sharp edge to it so there is no opportunity to bounce a ball onto the green.
7. Par 4 - 325/325/311. From a very elevated tee you play downhill to a green that is well defended by a deep swale and a mound on the right just short of the green. The fairway likely kicks balls to the left. For those trying to play safe left of the bunkers there is a single irregular bunker waiting for them. The mound hides much of the green if coming in from the right. The green is small with a lot of slope to the rear. Much like the first, this is a fun hole.
8. Par 4 - 422/422/373. Some might say the course really begins here but I disagree given the strength of the first two holes and the fifth. We have finally reversed direction. This hole hugs the coastline going uphill making the hole play a bit longer. The ground heaves up and down early in a visually attractive way. I don’t recall any sand bunkers on the hole but they would be unnecessary given the movement in the land. A grass bunker/hollow with another sharp edge guards the front middle of the green which appears to be shallow but is not. The green is out in the open making it appear smaller than it is. The green is perfectly situated to provide a lovely backdrop of the sea. This was one of my favorite holes on the course.
9. Par 3 - 135/135/126. You play to a green angled to the right. The setting is very attractive. This would be a better hole if it was not similar in length to the other par 3’s.
10. Par 5 - 530/530/503. This is a very attractive hole playing parallel to the coastline. It offers a generous fairway for the tee shot but the fairway tightens as you approach the hole. The green is set off to the right with all sorts of trouble fronting the green if you try to be bold and carry the broken ground and tall grass. The tee falls slightly while the approach shot climbs a bit. I really liked this hole despite messing it up.
11. Par 3 - 138/138/127. For me this is the best par 3 on the course playing level with the left side protected by a tall mound and the right side a smaller dune. The green is narrow at the front and has a fall off of its left side. There is a bunker well,short of the green which I did not understand and one closer to the green on the front right. Another one is placed off the right middle of the green which is deep and must be avoided. There is a significant bank on the back left of the green.
12. Par 4 - 468/478/431. This is a difficult hole because it generally plays into the breeze. You play from an elevated tee sharply downhill. A large blowout bunker is in your line of sight on the right but should not be in play. This hole doglegs to the right so the temptation is to try to cut the dogleg. The green is well above the fairway set in a bit of a dell. This hole begins a set of three challenging holes.
13. Par 4 - 482/430/401. This hole plays along the side of a dune with the fairway tilted to the left. The green is partially hidden from the left side by a dune. The green has subtle, but noticeable movement.
14. Par 4 - 454/445/433. You reverse course playing to a generous fairway playing between the dunes. A large blowout bunker is on the right set into a high dune. To the right of the green is a substantial fall-off of rough ground and tall grass. The green has another sharp fall-off on the right front of about 3 feet acting like a wall. The fairway sort of snakes right and left. It is another strong hole due to the precision required of the approach shot.
15. Par 3 - 144/144/117. Probably the weakest hole on the course as it seems to be a connector hole to get to sixteen. It plays slightly uphill set between the dunes. The green does not hold balls so they need to land near the front.
16. Par 4 - 488/444/409. The number one index hole is wonderful set atop the dunes curving perfectly with the beach below. You have now turned for the clubhouse. Miss the fairway right and you tumble into tall grass with a downhill lie if you find the ball. The right side has a line of tall dunes and exposed sand. The green is on a shelf with the right side and rear offering no relief to a ball hit right as it will go for the edge. It is both an attractive and very well designed hole.
17. Par 3 - 147/147/130. This hole plays downhill and is straightforward. I do not know if it is possible but perhaps this is the chance to lengthen this hole by re-routing the eighteenth tee. One might have to move some earth to do so.
18. Par 5 - 650/602/574. This is a stellar finishing hole playing from an elevated tee with a carry over sand and out of bounds right. The hole turns right with flanking bunkers where most players might land their second shots. The green has a slight fall off on the left where there is a collection of bunkers. The delightful and attractive clubhouse sits off to the right behind the green.
The par 3’s being the same distance let down the course a bit particularly the final two which interrupt a very good stretch of holes. If not for those two holes, it would be a really good stretch of holes on the back nine. However, the good holes at Narin and Portnoo are very strong and fit in perfectly with the land.
Anyone coming to this part of Ireland should play here. One will find the course a good mixture of enjoyable holes and challenging holes. With a few more tweaks, this course would be even better but it is certainly worthy now.
I just played N&P in mid April on a golf trip and found the course a work in progress. As a group we played: Connemara; Enniscrone; County Sligo; Portsalon; Donegal; and N&P.
My ranking of N&P in this group was #5 out of #6. A low ranking. perhaps due to the stiff competition and perhaps partly because of its relative newness. The PAR 3s are all similar length and a few seem like an afterthought to cram in. A few of the PAR 4S are quite long and seem unlikely holes for the mid handicapper to PAR, much less birdie. Why the PAR 70?
Of the group of six that we played only Donegal was rated below N&P by our group of four players. And frankly, in retrospect, I might prefer to play Donegal more regularly.
An awful lot has happened at Narin & Portnoo in the 14 years since I was last here. The newly built clubhouse back in 2007 has been extended and upgraded into a very chic establishment (which now attracts non-golfing visitors to its restaurant) and the course has been totally revamped to maximise its full potential, thanks to the intervention of new owners who were able to secure the services of one of the best golf design companies in the world.
Gone are the three consecutive par fives on the back nine, with the par for the inward half reduced from 38 to 35 (matching the front nine). The back nine still starts with a par five but the new tee is set a lot further forward (accommodating the new par three 9th) and a new green is located further up and to the right, forming an epic 3-shotter which is now one of my all-time favourite holes.
The early, more mundane holes have been redesigned, starting with the 1st, where the teeing area is now screened behind dunes close to the clubhouse, with the green repositioned to a new location on a formidable sand hill. Holes have been combined, fairways moved closer to the dunes, and natural sandy scrub areas introduced.
The new short par four 7th plays sharply downhill to a green that’s sneakily tucked in behind a dune on the right hand side of the fairway. Enjoy freewheeling here because the par four that follows is a beast, now that the green has been pushed back into the very corner of a little peninsula – and it must have taken some effort to bury the herd of elephants that now lie just below the surface of the fairway on this stroke index 2 hole!
All three short holes are new on the back nine, nicely spaced out at the 11th, 15th and 17th. The toughest of these par threes is the 148-yard 15th, played across a sandy wasteland gully to a green perched high in the dunes, with a far larger putting surface to work with than appears from lower down on the tee box.
The old closing par four is now a finishing par five, weaving past the caravan park on the right which sits immediately next to the wonderfully curved beach. I know a lot of people believe that holiday homes have no right to be located next to a golf club but I think they add character to what is, after all, a special place alongside the coastline that should be shared by everybody – not just those selfish golfers who front up occasionally for half a day!
Narin & Portnoo was the biggest surprise in a recent 4-day trip to Donegal. I liked it in its previous incarnation, awarding a 4.0 ball mark, so I’ve absolutely no hesitation in giving it 5.0 balls this time around because the recent Hanse/Wagner makeover has elevated the layout quite a few notches higher. It just shows what you can do when you bring in the right golfing expertise to make the most out of a terrific piece of land.
This course at Narin Portnoo just doesn't get the respect it deserves. The Gil Hanse reconfiguration is superb. The first hole use to be a pushover but now with the green up on the hill with that cavernous bunker....Wow. The holes out at the end of the property are some of the very best in Ireland. Maybe they had to jam in a short par 3 to get the 18 but I'm telling you this is a place you could spend much time and never get bored.
Had the pleasure to play N&P recently, after a relatively long initial handshake the course finds its pitch as you get into the dunes on the 4th. Gil Hanse’s team have created a number of new holes in addition to amalgamating a few others.
N&P is the epitome of fun golf, tempting, teasing and entertaining in equal measure.
The bunker work is chunked perfection that has that lived in feel.
N&P is a must play when in the Rosapenna area, my advice would be to play here first on route to the main event at Rosapenna.
Narin & Portnoo – the fact that the club secured Gil Hanse to overhaul the course is incredible on many levels. I was fortunate to play with a member who gave me a lot of historical perspective about the evolution of the links. The Hanse product is absolutely sensational, and it’s only getting better with time. Do the locals know how lucky they are?! There are more “great” courses concentrated in the northwest compared to any other area of Ireland. To think that both Doak and Hanse were working on two separate projects in County Donegal at the same general time frame is a testament to how good the region is for golf.
I played here for the first time in July 2019. I was staying in Dunfanaghy and worked my way down the coast. I started with Ballyliffin, then hit Portsalon, Rosapenna, Cruit Island, Co Sligo, Strandhill, Enniscrone, Carne and Connemara. Of that group of courses, the one I am most excited to go back and play again is Narin & Portnoo. It might not be a perfect course the way Dornoch and Shinnecock are, but holy crap is it fun. I found the front 9 to be significantly easier than the back, but I didn't see that as a negative.
The very first hole is a pretty easy tee shot to a rumpled fairway. It was playing dead into the wind, so I left driver in the bag and hit a 3-iron that barely eeked over 200 yards. That left a relatively short second into an amazingly intimidating green, elevated and protected by a creek and fronting bunkers. Falling off steeply on the sides. And into a 30 mph breeze.
By the time I got to the 2nd tee, I had a huge smile plastered on my face that remained there for the rest of my round. N&P has some pretty straightforward holes, and others that are just as quirky as you'll find at North Berwick. The variety is incredible.
The biggest knock I had was that the par 3s were all relatively short. Also, the new routing wasn't complete last summer, so a new par 3 on the back was not yet in play (but it looks fun). I was told the finishing hole was going to change ... they are going to combine 17 and 18 in some fashion to make for a longer finish. I hope they don't lose all the great movement that's found in 17 fairway, because that is far more interesting than the rather flat and bland current 18th.
Anyway, if you're in Donegal, N&P is a must play, in my opinion. And the perfect day would be 18 at N&P, and then a short ride to the wacky and remarkable Cruit Island to finish the day. I could do laps on either course all summer.
Narin & Portnoo Golf Club is located in a delightful seaside resort in south west Donegal. The site is surrounded by the Atlantic Coast on one side, with sweeping views of Gweebarra Bay, and a picturesque lough on the other. As many classic links course do, Narin & Portnoo starts quietly with the first four holes routed through low lying flattish land before building through some lower dunes and coming to a crescendo with some dramatic holes in large dunes with glorious views. The course finishes with some pure links holes in smaller dunes. Overall the course has a very natural feel, and is cleverly routed to get best use of the dunes and views.
The green complexes are simple, natural and have enough movement to retain the golfer's interest. There are quite a number of world-class holes, none of which have been overdone.
Narin & Portnoo is as natural as they come. The setting is gorgeous and the course is a joy to play with a succession of world-class holes – and it is getting more dramatic and more scenic as Gil Hanse weaves his magic.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Peter, that's a really recent visit. Was Hanse pretty much finished with his work there?