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.
In relation to the previous review, it’s like waiting for a bus – no reviews for this course then suddenly two come along in rapid succession! The club have done a remarkable job of turning a holiday golf course into a more serious player on the Donegal golf scene – no doubt brought about by the emergence in recent years of the likes of Ballyliffin and Rosapenna, both of which must be attracting an ever increasing number of visiting golfers away from places like Narin.
If only a golfing millionaire could invest in a new clubhouse and tweak one or two of the opening holes then this club would be raved about. The round starts off very quietly, with five holes on flat ground bordered by fields to the right and their sole purpose is to get you away from the spartan clubhouse and into where the real action is – in the dunes.
The 6th rises in elevation before the full splendour of the course is unveiled over the next half a dozen holes – they are simply breathtaking. You will honestly be hard pressed to find six holes as spectacular around the turn on any course as those at Narin & Portnoo. They plunge and rise against a magnificent shoreline that leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about over places like Pebble Beach.
The club has also taken a very courageous/outrageous step in creating three par fives in a row (14 and 15 are new holes in the dunes reminiscent of the Glashedy at Ballyliffin) to really test your stamina towards the end of the round.
I’m sure society and holiday golfers will object but the club can cater for all ranges of ability if they install a shorter teeing position on every hole. And speaking of tees, why , when I play in Ireland, do many clubs like Narin seem to forget to keep their teeboxes in tiptop order?
A final word however on the positive front: the greens are amongst the top half a dozen that I have EVER putted on – they were that good. I didn’t meet the green keeper but he deserves the highest praise for the standard of putting surface here. I dare you to include Narin & Portnoo on a golfing visit to Donegal then leave a review here that you were not impressed.