Here's a good powder keg to set off the next time you're engaged in a 19th-hole symposium with a few well-traveled friends: Ask 'em to name their Top Five courses in the Republic of Ireland. The general consensus basically spots the group three entries—Ballybunion Old, Lahinch and Portmarnock—but with Northerners Portrush and County Down taken off the table, the debate over the last couple of slots should get plenty interesting. Glamorous layouts like Waterville and the European Club will doubtless find their partisans, as will County Louth, the cerebral links north of Dublin. One entry on this observer's list, however, would be County Sligo Golf Club.
County Sligo, which also goes by the familiar place-name of Rosses Point, dates to 1894. Situated at the tip of a peninsula extending into Sligo Bay, the club is one of the oldest in Ireland. Visitors are greeted by a warm and attractive Tudor clubhouse—and charming clubhouses are not something that should be taken for granted in Irish golf.
The layout we play today was set down in the 1920s by none other than Harry S. Colt (who was named in LINKS' Fall 2013 issue as the greatest golf architect of all-time). In reviewing a golf course, at times one fears going into too much hole-by-hole detail, but at Rosses Point it's fairly hard to avoid. In no small part this is due to the terrific diversity of its property—one cannot simply pull out one or two highlights to represent the whole. While some links sites are all "of a piece," here there are distinct sections for the player to explore—it's as much a journey as a round of golf. For example, the first pair of holes scale a rather steep and high hill—visitors will have their cameras out early—while the 3rd plunges back down to open a dramatic par-five heading toward the clubhouse. After another downhill three-shotter at the 5th, this one downwind and temptingly reachable in two, the routing tracks through flatlands crisscrossed by deep burns. These ditches protect the greens of both the 7th and 8th holes. In the case of the former, the number-one handicap hole, only a lofted shot will do. But at the latter the hazard extends some 30-40 yards shy of the green, giving players a chance to land the ball short and run it on. These are important considerations, because Rosses Point can play blazingly firm and fast—in the summertime, gaining the green and holding it are cousins rather than siblings.
After a very fine crosswind par-three at the 9th, which affords a stunning view of the hulking tabletop mountain Ben Bulben, the routing moves to terraced coastal land, the highlight of which is the 12th, a par-five playing straight out to sea and featuring a green that falls away from the player. One can only hope that the card is in good shape up to this point, for now in its final act the course turns dead into the breeze. Hazards that would have been summarily dismissed on the first nine—like a pair of innocent-looking bunkers at the very beginning of the 14th fairway—are now a factor. This closing stretch is nearest to the sea and most resembles traditional linksland.
However, the golfer must inevitably move from the coast back to the high ground upon which the clubhouse is set, and this gain in elevation is completed with just two (we hope) bold strokes. At the 17th, a bruising, 456-yard two-shotter, a couple of extra clubs will be needed to climb up to the amphitheater green—an approach made all the more difficult by a canted fairway that tends to kick drives toward the longer angle. And finally, on the finishing hole the player is faced with a sheer wall of rough hillside to surmount—with the hurting wind, the drive must be well-struck and on a high trajectory for any chance of a par to remain intact.
As the longtime home of the prestigious West of Ireland Amateur—won a dozen times by the Hall of Famer Joe Carr, as well as the likes of Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy—Rosses Point has the type of championship pedigree that appeals to travelers seeking out Ireland's strongest challenges. But it also fits in well into northwestern itineraries involving quirkier links like Carne and Enniscrone.
Sligo, of course, is Yeats Country, and the poet can be found in the shadow of Ben Bulben at nearby St. Columba's churchyard. Yeats has one of the great gravestone epitaphs: "Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by." Although the "horsemen" are now in cars, visitors do not follow his bidding—just as they should not obey any instruction to pass by the grand and unique links just up the road.