The Northwest of Ireland is becoming notorious for its golf; most golfers used to ignore County Donegal in their quest to play the more famous courses around Belfast in the north and Kerry in the south. Those in the know now realise that there is quality golf at a sensible price here in Donegal.
The Portsalon golf course runs along the beautiful sandy shores of Ballymastoker Bay, stretching for two miles towards where the mouth of the deep blue Lough Swilly meets the Atlantic Ocean. The beach boasts the EC Blue Flag award for its cleanliness. The Lough is trapped, to the east by the hills of the Inishowen peninsula, and to the west by the Knockalla Mountains. We are on the Fanad peninsula, territory of the ancient MacSwiney clan.
Opened for play in 1891, Portsalon Golf Club is certainly established and it was one of the nine founder members of the Golfing Union of Ireland, along with Aughnacloy, Ballycastle, Buncrana, County Down, County Club Portrush, Dungannon, Killymoon and Royal Belfast.
According to William A. Menton's book, The Golfing Union of Ireland 1891-1991, this stunning links layout was originally designed by the professional at the then titled County Club at Portrush, Charles Thompson and Bernard Darwin considered Portsalon to be “a thoroughly entertaining course”.
However, Portsalon struggled to survive until the members stepped in and bought it mid-1980s. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength and, in 2000, Pat Ruddy remodelled the course, leaving only five original holes unchanged. Nine new holes were introduced and four others were altered significantly, culminating in Portsalon’s yardage stretching from just under 6,000 yards to a challenging 7,000-plus yards.
This is an exhilarating golf course situated in a stunning location with most of the holes weaving their way between sand dunes. The seawater Lough Swilly is often in full view. It’s unpretentious, golf au natural here at Portsalon. The 2nd hole is fantastic, one of the best in Ireland. Winding its way along the Lough, the views are simply breathtaking.
If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the rare European Rock Dove that has made the coastline of the Fanad peninsular its home.
Portsalon provides a wonderful mix of high quality links golf in a beautiful part of Ireland. You could argue that because of its eclectic style the course lacks some consistency but I rather enjoyed the variety it provides.
In all truth the course gets off to quite a messy start. The area around the 1st tee, 18th green and clubhouse has a lot going on, a bit too much in my opinion. Not that there is a lot the club can do about it!
There is a road, trees, housing, a car park, the beach and even a subterranean walkway, covered by a visible green mesh, to get beach-goers from the parking lot to the sand! It’s quite a confusing picture but once you have played your approach to the undulating first green complex, with a basin putting surface, you are off and running and don’t look back until you return to the 18th.
The second is not a traditional links hole as such but it is absolutely incredible. From an elevated tee you must decide how much of the beautiful ‘blue flag’ Ballymastocker Bay to chew off with your drive. However, it doesn’t end there because an inlet to the sea has to be carried on your second shot as well, therefore, to a have a realistic crack at the green you must be aggressive with your tee-shot and risk a watery grave... or if the tide is out a sandy one.
After this brilliantly strategic hole we are well and truly away from the hum of suburbia and we now enter the “Valleys of Portsalon”. For the next ten holes of so we weave backwards and forwards between impressive dunes, at times dominantly large, as we play a series of intelligent holes; four of which share a pair of lovely double greens. The bunkering, especially on the fairways, is minimal and that is thanks to the wonderful, rolling terrain we play across. The greens have lots of appeal too; some are raised with drop-offs whilst others are more gathering in nature.
The final third of the round transitions to holes with a more inland feel. The grass is a shade greener and the golf course not quite as pure. That is not to say the quality drops on this marginally more inland part of the course. The 13th is quite an unusual hole and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it; the fairway abruptly ends before dipping down in front of the raised green, a rocky bank covered with trees also interferes on both drive and approach.
The 14th and 15th are perhaps the pick of the bunch over the closing stretch. The former has a fairway that bends and falls dramatically whilst the next is a cunning short hole with a great green complex and is played uphill at right-angles to most other holes on the course.
Portsalson is a bit of mixed bag but it all comes together quite nicely and complements the other courses in Co. Donegal well. If one is familiar with Lundin Links in Fife, Scotland I would say there are some similarities here.
I will admit I did not get the greatest vibes from Portsalon at the time of asking but the more I reflected on the course the more I appreciated it.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
We played yesterday in light breezes and eventually bright sunshine, and found Portsalon to be a fun, friendly, challenging and beautiful golf course. The mesmerising tee shot over the beach at the 2nd garners the most attention (and my first tee shot) but if anything the holes at the south end are even more beautiful as you get closer to the imposing hills. The course has classic buried elephant fairways in the dunes land, whilst retaining interest away from the water with scary shots and constant sea views (there are however some daisies higher up on the less Linksys turf, curse of the golfer looking for a ball) There's a fair amount of work happening on the holes nearest the club house; once they are completed it will be truly harmonious. Followed by drives around the stunning Fanad and Rosguill peninsulas, a pint at the Harbour Bar in Rosapenna, then dinner at the Rosapenna Golf Hotel watching the sun go down it was one of the best days I've had on a golf trip to date.
It is easy to leave very good courses off the itinerary because there are great courses nearby. I would argue that anyone who ignores Portsalon and puts Rosapenna Sandy Hills and Ballyliffin Glashedy on their list instead makes a mistake as they risk being beaten up twice the same way!
Pat Ruddy has also designed many of the holes at Portsalon, but the overall end result is a lot more benign without being tame.
We played Portsalon in between the courses at Rosapenna and those at Ballyliffin and everyone in our little group really enjoyed the variety it offered between big, bold, “dunesy” holes and more understated flattish ones where placement and club selection mattered more than raw power. Case in point: hole 13, short par 4, probably not everyone’s favourite due to the non-linksy turf on the left, but that is not where you should be! The tee shot needs to be placed as far right as possible to avoid being blocked by the big tree on the left hand side of the fairway. However, the fairway slopes strongly, you probably guessed, from right to left!
Wish we could have played the course twice on the day, but it was not to be this time. My first visit to Portsalon certainly will not be my last!
Cant believe this is ranked above Tom Morris course at Rosapenna.
Portsalon was the second course we played last week and the drive along the Wild Atlantic Way got us right in the mood. After a warm welcome by some members we teed off on the rather peculiar first hole, where one drives right over the entrance to the beach, which leaves a net across the fairway. Same thing on the 18th hole, where I think it's a shame that it lays right in the landing area. Since there were no courseguidesto be found in the shop, it was hard to guess your way around the course being a first timer. The second hole is worldclass, gorgeous and unique. Certainly one of the best in Ireland. The course is pretty compact, with some quirky features such as driving over the green of the hole before. The holes themselves are all very good though and I can't blame the architect for these little compromises. I really liked the back nine as well, that is a bit wider but positioning is increasingly important. the 14th is great, with a sloping fairway to the right. If you can get a good kick, you'll have a wedge left but if you play safe there is a bunker left and you'll have a long iron approach. Looks can be deceiving at Portsalon! Portsalon is a charming course and every bit as worth playing as the more highly regarded courses in Donegal. MO
I often arrange trips to Ireland for my friends. When visiting the northwest, I always start at Portsalon, a course most are unfamiliar with. The course is always met with enthusiasm at the end of the round.
As many before have stated the initial 12 holes are high quality links holes with the last 6 being good holes but away from the dunes
Played first this course will not disappoint but might pale in comparison to nearby Rosapenna SHills, Ballyliffin or Royal Portrush if played afterwards
Portsalon is worth the trip
Lovely lovely golf course with an out and back feel. Some great links holes, especially on the front 9, (hole 2 is the most dramatic). Excellent variety on the back 9. A course that is definitely worth playing.
Portsalon does not have a posh club house (although the view from the restuarant is wonderful!), any practice facilities at all, or even a yardage book. What it does have is a stunning location next to the Ballymastoker Bay and a dozen superb links holes.
First a par 4 where after a good tee shot you'll hopefully see the flag in a small v-notch in the hill in front of you, a short iron into punch-bowl green. Fun start! Second hole is the best, as many have written before, having played 6 rounds in a 4 days across Donegal it's still a hole that stands out in your mind.
From then on you play in the valleys among the dunes, among the most charming and fun links golf I've played. After 12 holes unfortunately the dunes run out as you move further inland, the holes feels a bit more tricked up and cramped until they open up again for 17 and 18. They're not bad, and I'm sure I'll appreciate them on a second visit (or with a yardage book), but they're not as fun nor as good as the first dozen holes.
All in all, well worth visiting for 75€ greenfee, even more so with the discount card we had.
I’d visited Portsalon several times before but I’d never, for various reasons, completed a full round (a year ago in April when last here it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t even get started). This time I got to play the full eighteen, which merely endorsed my opinion of how good a course it is.
The opening stretch from hole 1 to 7, running out along the beach, is as good a sequence of links holes as you’ll find anywhere with spectacularly rumpled fairways, elevated tees set in the dunes and hidden swales in front of wonderfully contoured greens. In particular, the left doglegged 2nd, aptly named “Strand,” is a really terrific hole, diving downhill to the left towards a green that’s protected at the front by a small river.
On the back nine, which moves inland to higher ground, both the 14th and 16th begin with thrilling tee shots played from vantage points set behind the preceding green and these were probably the most memorable for me. There’s also a very tough end to the round as well – an uphill par five at the 17th sandwiched between a couple of par fours which sees these three holes rated 6, 8 and 4 on the stroke index – so the golfing challenge is sustained all the way back to the clubhouse.
Portsalon’s not always included in the itinerary of golfers visiting Donegal but it really should be.