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 Donegal, Narin and Portnoo Golf Club is a links that deserves to be bracketed with many other natural, unspoilt courses that should be given greater recognition. In truth, the members probably prefer it that way as it doesn’t require hordes of tourist golfers fronting up at the first tee to confirm what a good course they play on.
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 for what clubs like Narin and Portnoo are all about.
After limbering up on the opening few holes, the routing takes you into the dunes where some spectacular holes have been fashioned, none more so that the 7th, the signature 143-yard par three, played over a chasm to a two tiered green on an adjacent sand hill. And speaking of sand hills, be sure to have your camera on hand to snap this hole with the backdrop of what must be the biggest sand dune in all of Ireland across the bay.
The club revamped the course in recent times, fashioning a new 6th hole from the old 6th and 7th then remodelling the old holes from 11 to 15 - in the process creating three back-to-back par fives between holes 13 and 15. Additionally, the Narin & Portnoo clubhouse was completely rebuilt, opening in June 2008.
Ten years later Gil Hanse was commissioned to redesign the course, so Narin & Portnoo's future is certainly rosy. The first phase of the project was completed by Hanse and his design partner Jim Wagner in March 2019. “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.
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?
Narin and Portnoo sits between the cluster of top courses around Sligo (County Sligo GC/Rosses Point, Enniscrone and Donegal GC Murvagh) and the top courses in the eastern part of Donegal (Rosapenna, Portsalon and Ballyliffin). This logistical point is probably the main reason we have only played it once in three years of travelling the North and Northwest of Ireland.
Having played there, however, I see no other compelling reasons to leave it out. In fact, I can think of a few good reasons you should consider including it, even if it might add to your travelling time:
First, I really like the originality of the design, as far away from standard 36+36= 72 as possible. I mean where else would you find three par 5s in a row? Here you find them on the back nine – holes 13, 14 and 15. At least a couple of scoring chances you might think, and so did I...But, instead of salvaging my score I managed to wreck it by being too aggressive. Next time I will be wiser.
Second, I am also fond of courses with an opening hole which offers you a choice between a safe and an aggressive option. At N&P the first hole is only 289 meters (320 yards) with a drain crossing the fairway, which means that you actively have to choose your club already on the first tee. Here also, I will be wiser next time.
Third, if playing as much as you like at your own pace on a very good links course is your thing, then N&P is definitely one to consider. I base this recommendation not only on the single day we visited but also the state of booking sheets I regularly checked during the 2017 summer season to see if we could indeed choose our starting time freely, a definite plus given the variable Irish weather. Next time, I will stay to play more than one round, as long as the weather cooperates.
Finally, if you include N&P and then drive east towards Rosapenna, you will experience one of the most glorious roads Ireland has to offer. One fantastic view follows another. If you think views off the golf course have no place in a review like this, consider stopping on the way to play a late afternoon nine holes at nearby Cruit Island, where the craziest views, and ditto golf holes await. We did and will remember that day for the rest of our lives.
You don't have to be crazy to play Cruit but it probably helps.
Many thanks for your review.
According to the gentleman in the pro shop Narin and Portnoo is about to undergo some further alterations, and some course architects have been engaged to that end. If so I hope they give most of their attention to the start and finish of the course, and leave holes 6-15 well alone.
The first five are decent holes but nothing to write home about. However, the stretch from 6-12 stands comparison with anywhere, really well-designed and sometimes dramatic holes through the dunes with simply glorious views. Thirteen is less interesting, but a fairly brutal par 5 into the prevailing wind, and followed by two more good par 5s at 14 and 15. Sixteen is, frankly, a slightly weak par 3, and 17 and 18 are similar to the opening five; decent holes but not special. The proximity of the caravan site is less than ideal but one can't have everything, and I suppose that even non-golfers are entitled to enjoy the superb beach and scenery.
A very good golf course, two-thirds of the way to being a great one.
Sensational dunes and coastal holes which rank with the very best. Sadly the relatively dull low lying holes drag the overall course down (N&P is in good company, the same could be said of Seaton Carew, Burnham & Berrow, RND, RSD, Aberdovey and many others. At least here the last hole could be improved by reclaiming the lovely dunes currently playing host to static caravans - the perennial beast to the beauty of links golf courses in the British Isles.) I dislike unprotected lateral water hazards in links courses, particularly here where it would (was) be possible to lose balls in quick succession at 3 & 4 to greens tight to the hazard and the wind blowing left to right. Anyway, enough negatives, the course really comes alive on the 5th approach shot and it's all fun from then on. Crumpled fairways, chasms, blind shots, downhill, uphill, threading the needle approaches - they are all here amongst a lovely location. Happily past some financial problems due to the brilliant new holes in the dunes, the course was in good shape and we had a great game at Narin & Portnoo and would definitely return.
Fabulous golf course with the majority of holes in the dunes as good as any at more illustrious courses. The real fun starts at the 5th and continued unabashed until the 16th. The par 5, 15th is a special hole. Yes, there are some weaker “inland holes” but they are still decent holes. If you are planning a trip in this area, make time for a round here.