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, like most of the coastal courses in Donegal, is not easy to stumble upon. You don’t happen to drive past and think, I’ve got the clubs in the boot, I think I’ll stop off for a round here – no, they are so remote that you have to make an effort to arrive at the end of a long, narrow and winding road where the golf course is virtually the last stop before the highway reaches the Atlantic.
Part of the pleasure is the anticipation on just such a golfing journey and the hope that the effort has been worthwhile once you have arrived. Portsalon will not disappoint in that regard.
It’s a cracking old course that has been tweaked here and there to keep pace with the modern world – where, for instance, have you last come across a sunken sandy walkway leading to the beach cut across a fairway? They have just such a pathway across the 1st and 18th here.
And on the old-fashioned side, they have not one large double green (at the 3rd and 9th) but two – the other one linking the 4th and 8th holes.
The tee shot from the first hole is testing but the drive from the second is even tougher as, from an elevated tee, the corner of the beach must be skirted before the approach is played over a river in front of the green; it's a fantastic hole.
The next five holes lie immediately beside the shoreline, running away from the clubhouse before the routing returns to run back and forth over slightly higher ground away from the beach, culminating in several mor parkland-type holes near the end – the 525-yard 17th (“River In”) is a real uphill tester.
All in all, Portsalon is a great links with a wonderful, modern clubhouse to ensure your off course experience is as good as the one you’ve had on the course.