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15 miles N of Londonderry
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Eddie Hackett, Charles Lawrie, Frank Pennink and Nick Faldo
Ballyliffin is Ireland’s most northerly golf club, located off Tullagh Point on the Atlantic edge of the Inishowen Peninsula. The location is divine; the course hugs the shoreline overlooking the golden beach of Pollan Strand and Glashedy Rock (Ballyliffin’s equivalent of Turnberry’s Ailsa Craig).
It’s difficult to pin a date on the earliest origins of the game of golf at Ballyliffin, though it is clear that the Ballyliffin Golf Club was founded in 1947. The Old course originally started out in life as very ordinary nine-hole course and the club progressed very slowly, often struggling financially. In the late 1960s, Martin Hopkins, a local agricultural advisor, identified a prime stretch of links land nearby, ideal for golf. Eddie Hackett, Charles Lawrie and Frank Pennink were engaged in shaping the new links course and in 1973, the brand new “Old” course opened for play.
The Old is a classic links, with fairways that pitch and roll through wild dunes. This is links golf at its most traditional, where the perfect drive will often find an awkward lie. If you are afflicted with a lack of balance, you will struggle, because you’ll rarely get a flat stance.
For about 20 years, the Old course remained well and truly outside of the limelight. Only those in the know, and Ballyliffin’s lucky members, knew the secret. Then, in June 1993, a helicopter dropped out of the blue sky and landed next to the clubhouse with the world number one on board. After a quick thrash around the Old course, Nick Faldo was spellbound, falling under Ballyliffin’s trance. “One of the most natural courses I have ever played,” he commented. And from that point onwards, Ballyliffin came of age. The Faldo design team was engaged in the renovation of the Old course. With new revetted bunkers, new 'Faldo' tees and two enlarged greens, the Old course is set to rise much higher in the Top 100 rankings. Renovation work is now complete and the Old course hosted the 2008 Irish Seniors Open. Ryder Cup captain Ian Woosnam and his assistants Sandy Lyle and Des Smyth were in the starting line up, but it was Spain’s Juan Quiros who claimed the title by a single shot from a disappointed Des Smyth.
There are many memorable holes on the Old course, but the 190-yard par three 5th, called “The Tank”, will stick in the mind for a very long time. It’s an intimidating tee shot to an elevated plateau, almost stage-like green that is surrounded by dunes.
Ballyliffin’s new Glashedy course has recently upstaged the Old, but don’t make a trip to County Donegal without playing it. Both courses contrast and complement each other supremely well. But for the true links purist, the Old course is the one.
I have now been to Northwest Ireland to play golf three years in a row. Having played most links courses ranked top 100 in Britain and Ireland and many ranked just below, I think no other place offers a better combination of course quality and accessibility. (Not even factoring in the drop dead gorgeous scenery)
I mean, where else can you look out the window and decide on the day – as a non-member - when on the day you want to play two top links courses.......and reasonably expect to play two rounds at your own pace, whether that is a fast 3-hour two-ball match or a game at a more leisurely pace?
With the Glashedy course chosen for the 2018 Irish Open, I think there is a risk that more people will favour that course at the expense of the Old Links. They could not be more mistaken.
To me, it is the combination of the Old Links and the Glashedy and the fact that they are very different design-wise, yet equally matched, that is the Ballyliffin experience. Drive up to the clubhouse in the morning, have a chat in the pro shop to make sure you know where any other groups tee off and then decide which course to play first. If the weather turns ugly (happens), just wait in the clubhouse until it blows over, then start/resume your round. Play 9, 18, 27 or 36 holes, whatever takes your fancy.
So, what could possibly be better? Well, you cannot walk from your hotel room to the first tee. At Rosapenna, two hours away, but at equal distance from Dublin, you can. That would perhaps be the one reason to go elsewhere....
One immediately feels the difference between The Glashedy and the Old Course. The Old has a more classic feel to it. The bumpy fairways have not been leveled so level lie will be found rarely. Especially on The first 11 holes, I all found them good golfholes but in my opinion they lack a bit of diversity. Alsho having played the Glashedy, it seemed that there were a lot of short-mid range par 4’s with a slight dogleg right that played roughly the same and therefore weren’t too special. There are a few standout holes like the brutal par 3 5th. It played downwind with 5 Bft. To a highly raised, shallow green between dunes and a front pin position. Anything short would be 40 yards back down the fairway. Luckily my 5 iron punch worked like a charm and now forms a fond memory. The back nine is where it really gets good, with some holes right next to the sea with sloping fairways, deep swales and some long finishing holes. No surprise that Sir Nick appreciates this course. I’d love to go back but I do feel after having played Sandy Hills (for a fraction of the price) and the Glashedy, that 120 euro’s might not be the best deal in Donegal. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my round on this classic links and Ballyliffin is a great destination that shouldn’t be missed. MO
The Old Links at Ballyliffin may be viewed by many as being inferior to the Glashedy, the younger and more dramatic sibling, but in reality there is not much to choose between them.
As you drive down from the village and look over the magnificent piece of land on which the two courses sit, there appears to be enough ideal ground to build at least two more. What a destination that would make, however remote. The Old Links had to undergo architectural changes to make room for the Glashedy but you would never know it playing there today. Further refinements were made by Faldo in 2006 with some major bunker improvements adding to the charm and interest of this most traditional of links courses. Holes spill in all directions, pitching and tumbling to leave many uneven stances and although not long from the daily tees there is no shortage of challenge even in a rare light breeze. The back nine occupies the land nearest to the sea and this was marginally the better half in my opinion with holes 14 to 18 providing an excellent finish. On my first visit here there was only enough time to play the Glashedy but I made sure not to make the same mistake this time around. Don't miss Ballyliffin and when you arrive remember to say hello to the Gareth, one of the friendliest and most welcoming head pros you could wish to meet. Brian W