North West Golf Club was one of nine founder members of the Golf Union of Ireland in 1891 (under the name of Buncrana) when it became the first club association in the world. The club was formed the same year when the professional at Royal Portrush, Charles Thompson, laid out a course at Fahan, just south of Buncrana in County Donegal.
The holes are routed on relatively flat links land on the shores of Lough Swilly and the club has fought a constant battle against coastal erosion over the years, resulting in huge rocks now being placed along hundreds of yards of shoreline in an attempt to keep the mighty Atlantic at bay.
The course measures 6,334 yards and has only two par fives, both at the end of each nine on the 9th and the 18th holes. Fairways criss-cross on this old-fashioned layout at the 4th and 17th holes – in fact the 17th also crosses the fairway of the last hole too!
A feature hole at North West is the shortest par four on the card, the 345-yard 4th, called “Kinnegar.” It doglegs sharply to the right and has a lateral water hazard running from the dogleg along the fairway to the right of the putting surface. The golfer is tempted to cut the corner off the tee but a potential birdie can so easily become a bogey or worse if the fairway is not found.
North West are so proud of having Brian McElhinney (2005 Amateur Open Champion) as a member that they have a picture of him and the famous old trophy on the front of their scorecard. There is absolutely no doubt that playing on such a fine links like North West stood Brian in good stead and helped him overcome all the opposition when he won at Royal Birkdale that year.
I returned to the North West course 14 years after my last visit a couple of weeks ago and it somehow felt as if I’d never been away. The course is one of the most unpretentious you’ll ever come across, providing good, honest links golf with the minimum of fuss. This is authentic golf by the seaside featuring wonderful firm and fast underfoot conditions, wide fairways and huge, beautifully bunkered green complexes with large run offs that allow all sorts of recovery shots to be played.
The club has not has its troubles to seek in terms of coastal erosion – thank goodness it was allowed to previously install the type of massive boulder defences along the strand which are now being denied elsewhere in Donegal under a “no active intervention” policy – and a few of the holes are really tight along the R238 road to Derry, forcing the club to recently realign the 10th hole and move out of bounds in from the perimeter fence to the right edge of the fairway.
To be honest, it’s astonishing that this historic old club (one of nine original Ulster clubs involved in setting up the Golfing Union of Ireland in 1891) has managed to survive into the 21st century on such a restricted site, where eighteen holes have somehow been shoe horned into rather a confined space. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no land available for expansion so perhaps the club may be forced into erecting even higher wire fencing along the road to make the neighbours (and motorists) feel a bit safer.
And if you're in this area with a few more hours to spare, you should have a look in at the wee course at Buncrana, just five minutes along the road, where the club claims its members play on the oldest 9-hole layout in Ireland. The course occupies an area of no more than 26 acres so it’s something of a minor miracle that nine holes exist at all in such a confined space that features old-fashioned crossover holes at the 7th and 8th and back-to-back par threes at the 2nd and 3rd.
There’s interest on every hole here, evidenced immediately on arrival when you see the wonderful spine that runs right through the long, L-shaped green on the par three 9th next to the car park. Not every green is as wildly contoured as this but they’re all lots of fun to play -- it's a pity wee clubs like this are largely overlooked on golf trips but you'll not regret finding a little time to sample golf from a largely bygone era when you tee it up at places like this.
This is an underrated course in the region. The course is a little compact, apparently suffering from coastal erosion. It is one of the oldest courses in Ireland and an original GUI founding member. The course offers up a really enjoyable links experience with terrific views of Lough Swilly and the town of Buncrana. There are some terrific holes including the difficult par 4 7th, the terrific out and back par 4 holes 10 & 11, and the wonderful short 16th hole. This course pairs up well with nearby courses such as Ballyliffin and Portsalon. Course maintenance is top notch and the staff is very friendly. All-in-all, it is a terrific NW Ireland golf club.
North West Golf Club, a founder member of the Golf Union of Ireland located on the Inishowen Peninsula at Buncrana, is a hugely underrated links course laid out on a narrow and compact tract of land.
It is probably the cramped property that holds back this course, situated between the shore of the Swilly and the “Mouldy Mountains” on the dramatic Wild Atlantic Way, from being more widely known and talked about when it comes to discussing golf in the North West of Ireland. It is simply too tight to offer truly great golf but it makes the most of its small nature. And should one be able to forgive it this main weakness – hardly its fault because coastal erosion has played its part over the decades – then you will discover some scintillating links golf.
After just one hole I was left in no doubt that there is some real quality here; the bunker scheme, the quality of turf, a fine green complex and the low-lying ground undulations all screamed of excellence. It was abundantly clear that you were going to get more of the same for the next 17 holes…. and you do!
Indeed the opening four holes – all played into a fierce wind on my visit – are a joy.
The flatter fifth and sixth are not quite up to the same standard and are a bit up and down, as is the 10th and 11th, but the remainder of the course is very strong. In fact surprisingly some of the holes in the middle part of the property provide the best golf. The excellent run from the 12th to the 16th delivers a couple of outstanding holes and this stretch ends with one of the cutest holes I’ve played; at just 93-yards “Fairy” is a little tease of a hole with cunning bunkering and a bewilderingly, undulating green where you must cross a charming little bridge to get to the green.
North West provides 18 highly engaging golf holes and this is mostly thanks to the brilliant green sites throughout and the aforementioned low-level movement in the land on what looks like a flat property upon first inspection.
When I say that the course is narrow I mean just that and with the proximity of the R238 main road the eighth hole (clearly not part of the original routing) is an insurance claim waiting to happen. Indeed the large slice I hit on the sixth hole 20 minutes earlier could also have had severe consequences had my ball hit any of the passing traffic, which it fortunately avoided, but for the eternity of time my ball hung in the air I was wondering if my own golf insurance covered me in the Republic of Ireland. It was a rank bad shot but at this hole, the short 8th and also the tenth it could all spell danger. In the health and safety world we live in it wouldn’t surprise me if further alterations to the course were made in the future.
None of this should really take away from the quality of the golf though. On a trip of eight golf courses in Donegal the one at North West proved to be the surprise package of the lot. The excellent fescue greens were a joy to putt on, the green-fee was more than reasonable and the 6,342 yard, par 70 course just exuded fun as well as having lots of character.
North West is perfectly located for golf throughout the North West of Ireland and especially Ballyliffin. My simple advice would be to include it in your trip to this part of the country.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
As a boy in the 1960s, I used to holiday in Lisfannon on the shores of Lough Swilly, beside the North West golf course. I was intrigued by the nearest hole to our wee cottage, the very short par three 16th, called “Fairy.” My fascination was all to do with how golfers could swing at a golf ball on a tee and reasonably expect it to end up near the flag with a hundred yards of carry to a semi blind green surrounded by a stream, sand bunkers and thick, thick rough – often into a stiff cross wind coming off the lough.
I suppose that was the start of my love affair with links golf and forty years later, I’m still as smitten as way back then.
North West is not the best links you will ever play but it is a little charmer, with the feel that not an awful lot has changed to the course itself over the past a hundred odd years. It retains a very old-fashioned aura with no modern day trickery or tomfoolery – what you see is what you get on an uncomplicated links layout that will transport you back to an era when golf really was fun to play.