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 is located in north west Ireland.
It has a pure links course with all of the early holes in the primal dunes hugging the coastline.
The second hole is world class,and just a joy to play- but the quality links holes just keep on coming.
Although the back nine at times moves a little inland the holes retain a links character throughout.
It has a very natural feel- as if the holes were discovered rather than created.
And it is an easy walk- it's a lovely place to play golf.
Notable holes include:
- hole 2, an all world hole! This long par 4 requires a tee shot from an elevated tee to carry ocean & beach, and the approach to carry a watercourse running across in front of the green.
- hole 3, a delightful true links hole running parrallel to the beach
- hole 6, another links hole on the beach- this one a longer par 4
- hole 10, the prettiest of par 3's with a short downhill tee shot to a green in it's little dell
- hole 14, a medium length par with a tight and rumpled landing area
With the recent opening of St Patrick's Links at Rosapenna, travelling golfers will become increasingly aware of the quality of golf available in the north west: Portrush, Portstewart, Castlerock, Ballyliffin.
Each of these courses has multiple courses, and the quality across the board is high.
Make sure you include Portsalon in that itinerary and everyone will go home happy.
The introduction to Portsalon is not overwhelming with a wire mesh barrier crossing the fairway at about 150 yards. At first I could only think its purpose was to keep balls out of a stream, but on closer inspection saw it covered a deep pedestrian walkway from a carpark to the beach.
The abundance of Portsalon’s strategic options begin at the dogleg second hole, a Cape version daring the golfer to cut off as much of the beach to shorten the hole. Not quite as dramatic as the opener at Machranish, but close. The strategy is a bit subtler in subsequent holes, but time and again there’s a single bunker guarding the left or right half of a green, making the best approach from the opposite side of the fairway but requiring the golfer to play close to the rough to gain the best angle. The single bunker look also allows for options on the approach shot—either aerial or running. Most of the green sites are nicely done, with enough contours to provide challenges…..challenges which were appropriate to the 10.5 reading I got from my stimpmeter.
Portsalon was my penultimate course among 10 played in the north and west of Ireland on this trip and my favorite. I’ve played all of the Irish top 10 on this site and it’s my view that Portsalon would fit nicely among that group.
Portsalon is a hidden gem and those traveling to area should play it.
I considered some of Portsalon’s holes be the equal of North Berwick West in its quirkiness, albeit not coming near North Berwick’s famous template holes.
We had a relatively low windy day, which helped after having battled high winds for ten consecutive days.
As I often do, I did question the routing of the course which plays closer to the beach and sea on its outer nine than it’s inner nine and wondered if somehow the course could have moved inland for the third through the fourteenth with fifteen connecting back to the three finishing holes. But we evaluate the course we see.
The course offers everything from dramatic elevated tee shots, to playing between the dunes, a double green, some flat fairways and some fairways that are filled with humps and balls as it tumble down. Some holes are straightforward and some have semi-blind shots ether from the tee or to the green. The result is a mixture of easier holes and challenging holes.
The greens are interesting with a mixture of flat greens, greens with humps, greens with fall-offs, a few sharply sloped, and undulating greens. They are in good condition and consistent.
The bunkering is restrained as the defense of the course relies on wind, a few burns, dunes, and tall grass for balls hit astray.
The views from the course are terrific adding to the joy of playing the course.
The course plays to 6770 yards, par 72 and the member tees are not much different at 6671 yards.
1. Par 4 - 388. This hole goes down then up with the safe line down the right side due to the trees down the left with the beach beyond, you cross over a wire mesh barrier to prevent balls from dropping onto the walking path to the beach set below the fairway. The hole rises to a blind shot to the green with humpy mounds blocking one’s views. Both of us guessed wrong and under-clubbed leaving our balls in a notch left of the tallest hump. The line to the green is just over that notch. The green has steep fall-offs to the right and rear. It’s a quirky, fun hole.
2. Par 4 -433. The second is one of the finest holes one can play as a dogleg left paralleling the curve of the beach. From the elevated tee one has to cut the dogleg as much as possible as the approach shot needs to cross a wide, deep burn set in front of the green. The green has a small sharp edge to its front and a mound on its right front. To the right of the green is a tall dune. It is a dramatic, visually attractive hole filled with challenge.
3. Par 4 - 358. From an elevated tee you play through a corridor of dunes where the only bunker guards the front of the green which is shared with nine. Hit a good tee shot and the hole is easy although the green is set off to the right so the left side offers a better angle in.
4. Par 5 - 514. A copy of the previous hole but longer this time featuring two right bunkers at the green which is shared with the eighth.
5. Par 3 - 200. This plays atop the dunes but with higher dunes more so on the left. The dune to the right of the green hides a fall-off behind it which will drop one down eight feet. It’s a good par 3.
6. Par 4 - 448. A long par 4 from an elevated tee playing along the beach set between corridors of dunes. This is the number one index which is surprising given the second hole. There are no bunkers as the somewhat narrow fairway is adequate defense.
7. Par 4 - 370. This hole doglegs to the right playing to the farthest corner of the course. You are again playing between dunes. There is one bunker on the right front corner of the green.
8. Par 5 - 512. This hole is now in the open as a dogleg left. I did not think the bunkers were much of a consideration. The hole has a green with good movement in the green surrounds.
9. Par 4 - 450. This hole moves right with dunes down most of the right side and much of the left side. The bunker to the right of the green can be hidden. I liked the hole from a visual standpoint.
10. Par 3 - 165. The bunkers to the right of the green are not overly deep. This is one of the weaker holes.
11. Par 5 - 548. A straight hole that one has a good chance for par or better.
12. Par 3 - 175. The angled green out in the open has two bunkers on its left front. It has a decent green.
13. Par 4 - 350. Let the fun begin from this elevated tee playing as a dogleg left with high ground and trees to your left and a dune Bank down the right. You must find the right side of the fairway to this large green with exposed space behind it. I loved how the green opens up,at the turn.
14. Par 4 - 433. From another elevated tee you play across the caller to rumpled ground with various rises and falls until it stops at the last fall to flatten to the green. The right side has a final high mound fronted by a valley. The green is exposed but tall grass is behind the green for the ball hit too far. This is another visually attractive hole,
15. Par 3 - 154. This is perhaps the best par 3 on the ciursebalongsdevthevfifth. You play uphill to a green with a dramatic long false front and fronting bunkers, the green is sloped back to front and quick.
16. Par 4 - 388. From an elevated tee this hole plays out to the left but the safe play is towards the right where lumpy ground and tall grass await. The green is set on lower ground behind a burn. It is another visually attractive hole.
17. Par 5 - 553. This hole sweeps to the left flat then uphill to the green. A burn and tall trees are down the left side. The burn bisects the fairway but should be easily carried from the tee. Go too far right and you will add length to the hole. The fairway narrows as you approach the green with the left side dropping to a lower shelf. The green is fronted by two bunkers and has another false front. The green is sloped back to front. It’s a good hole.
18. Par 4 - 402. The hole plays straight with longer hitters carrying the wire mesh over the beach access. The green is on slightly higher ground with a bunker on the back right. There are a few mounds short of the green. The green is tilted to the front with good inner movement. It is a nice finishing hole.
I would highly recommend Portsalon for a visit as it has many visually attractive golf holes. If there were a few more bunkers and slightly more movement in the greens, it would be better. But as is, it is very playable and mixes well both challenge and fun.
We played Portsalon in the first week of April and it was in remarkably good condition after a long winter. The fairways, though not perfect were in playable shape and one didn't; even need to roll the ball to improve the lie. Very noteworthy for April. The greens did have winter burn but not enough to concern yourself with.
It is a course well worth the visit and while in the area we also played Narin & Portnoo and Donegal Murvagh. Portsalon was easily the best of the three in our opinion.
Give it a play. The area is outstanding. The beauty and fun is one that you'll remember and give you a reason to return.
Martin, how was your weather for your April golf trip to Ireland? Am planning a trip there in 2023 for same time of year.
We had fairly nice weather in the first two weeks of April. A bit of rain but nothing to make the day unbearable. Temps in the 50s and low 60s F.
Been awhile since I visited here but got back last week and so glad I did. If nothing else just to play the 2nd hole which is one of the very best in Ireland. This is a very nice course and finishes with a few strong holes. Just a fabulous selection of holes and a joy to play.
Portsalon GC – the rumpled terrain at Portsalon on the Inishowen Peninsula is as natural a setting for links golf as it gets. The par 4 2nd hole is among the most spectacular in Ireland from the elevated tee box overlooking the beach. The carry to the diagonal fairway is a shot you’ll never forget. Portsalon will test any golfer to hit very imaginative shots along the ground and through the dunes. The layout is tight in places with many holes fighting a crosswind. I really enjoyed the out and back routing and was thrilled with the overall experience. In terms of quantity and quality, there are more “great” courses concentrated in the northwest compared to any other area of Ireland.
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.