Appeared in Winter 2010 LINKS
It is often claimed that Donegal is the most Irish of the Republic’s 26 counties. It is consistently rural and thinly populated. The most common surnames are Kelly, Boyle, Gallagher, O’Doherty, McLaughlin, McGinley, McSweeney and McFadden. (Finegan or Finnegan, is, I confess, rarely encountered here.) The largest Gaelic-speaking population is to be met in Donegal, a stronghold of Irish music, song and dance. And is there any Irish fabric so valued as hand-woven Donegal tweed?
The Atlantic Ocean pounds the county at every turn, inevitably producing a spectacularly indented coastline: peninsulas and bays, coves and cliffs, and the breathtaking fjords such as Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. For golfers, the result is a residue of irresistible linksland.
Donegal boasts a lineup of great links—Donegal Golf Club, Narin & Portnoo, Rosapenna, Ballyliffin—and to this list, every visitor should add Portsalon. A truly classic links, Portsalon is sited gloriously on Ballymastocker Bay, an offshoot of vast Lough Swilly. The elegant crescent of beach here is among the most beautiful beaches in Ireland. We are very nearly at the top of the country. In fact, only the links of Ballyliffin are farther north than Portsalon, by only a few miles.
Portsalon Golf Club was founded in 1891. A professional from Portrush named Charles Thompson laid out the original course, only about 5,000 yards long at the time. Over the years, what was conceived as a holiday layout was added to from time to time, but it was not until the beginning of the new millennium that the club made major changes to the layout.
In 2001 Pat Ruddy, the nation’s greatest living golf course architect, was brought in to update and upgrade the course. The man who had designed the European Club, Druids Glen (site of four Irish Opens), Druids Heath, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna and the thrilling Glashedy at Ballyliffin turned his attention to Portsalon.
He added 1,000 yards, built eight new holes, improved almost all of the other 10 and eliminated the excessive quirkiness (well, most of it), unveiling a course of character, charm and challenge.
The Ruddy course stretches to nearly 7,100 yards, but regular play is about 6,300 yards. The start is marvelous; the finish is equally strong. In between, there is a nonstop parade of lively, diverse golf holes from which the sea-and-mountain panoramas are ravishing.
The 388-yard 1st gets us away in style from a nobly high tee. Our drive floats endlessly down to a generous fairway, and our suspenseful second shot rises over tumbling terrain to a green whose surface, but not its flag, is concealed.
Another elevated tee shot encourages an aggressive swing on the 2nd hole despite the threat of a stream on the left, far below. Where this stream bends right to cross the fairway some 25 yards short of the green, it imperils the long second shot. Both shots are thus in jeopardy on this inarguably great hole. Try, if you will, to imagine playing this hole from the championship tee, from where it measures 500 yards and becomes one of the most difficult two-shotters in Ireland.
The holes that follow offer no letup. The 202-yard 5th plays straight away through low dunes to a green that, tilting softly left to right, can be held only if the shot you hit is a mild draw. And the 6th, 476 yards and another genuinely superlative test, presents a narrow fairway curving smoothly left through a dune-corseted corridor to a low-plateau green ringed by little hollows. Blue-tinted Knockalla Mountain makes for a bewitching backdrop, and the lovely fjord shimmers on our left.
The second nine may lack some of the sparkle of the first, but there are still plenty of captivating moments. We hold our breath on the short par-4 13th, where our pitch must be played over violently broken ground to an angled, shallow green. The next hole is just as stimulating, a 432-yarder called “Matterhorn” because of the pinnacle tee and the plummeting nature of the drive to a fairway that corkscrews emphatically downhill to the green. Drives of 300 yards are not uncommon on this hole.
As for the last two holes, they certainly give pause. The 17th is a 550-yarder that curves left as we strive to carry a broad stream with our tee shot. The fairway then climbs to a dangerously swift plateau green. The 412-yard home hole drifts uphill; the long second shot must carry a stream if it is to reach a green defended under the clubhouse windows by both sand and swales.
Thus ends this memorable round, but not the idyllic Irish experience of the village, where golfers can retire to a welcoming antiques-filled lodging house called Croaghross, which overlooks the Ballymastocker Strand.
Guests often gather beside the fireplace in the lounge. John and Kay Deane are the hospitable proprietors, and it is Kay’s accomplished cooking that draws visitors back to Croaghross again and again—along with the exhilarating links itself.