For years, Ballyliffin Golf Club was the Shangri-La of Irish golf, a place so remote that while many golfers knew of its existence, few had actually made the trek up to the rugged northeast corner of County Donegal. Those who did brought back reports of the amazing linksland they found there, of fairways that rippled and rolled through shaggy dunes, almost as if they were an extension of the waves on Pollan Bay.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen fairways like it on any links course in the world,” marvels Guy Hockley, the chief architect for Nick Faldo Design, which recently completed a restoration of the club’s Old Links. “They’re so full of undulations.”
His boss, Faldo, was smitten when he first visited Ballyliffin in 1993, helicoptering in for some quiet practice before the Irish Open. Faldo, who came to play nine holes but stayed for 18, stood on the 1st tee and looked out over the heaving turf. “Do you play bump and run here or do you just run and bump?” he asked in mock bewilderment.
At the time, there was little else at Ballyliffin to enchant visitors. From its founding in 1947 as a nine-hole course laid out by members on flat land they leased from local farmers, Ballyliffin has always prided itself on its plucky, can-do attitude. It is a club of ordinary working people, where everyone pitches in. For years, the members themselves maintained the course. “They’d unload mowers from their cars or off the back of their tractors and cut the greens before they played,” says John Farren, the general manager.
Even after the momentous decision in the early 1970s to buy nearly 400 acres of linksland and build an 18-hole layout, Ballyliffin never prospered. The club staved off bankruptcy several times in the mid-’70s by hosting music nights, organizing bazaars and holding raffles.
It was also the first club in Ireland to host an “Open Week,” when visitors could come and play at reduced rates. That scheme was not only a reflection of the club’s populist spirit, but also an acknowledgment of the difficulty of luring golfers to the northernmost course in Ireland. The roads were bad, and its proximity to Northern Ireland made the journey seem fraught with danger until recently.
“The Troubles affected us greatly,” allows Farren. “People stopped coming to Donegal because we are right on the border. That made it difficult for our main market to thrive in times when the rest of Ireland began to prosper.”
While the “Celtic Tiger” began to awake, Ballyliffin lagged far behind. Ten years ago, there were only two small, family-owned hotels in town; to this day the area’s main tourist attraction is the Famine Village. By adding the Glashedy Links in 1995 and then hiring Faldo to update the Old Links, the club showed it understood the role golf could play in sparking economic growth.
You did not need to be Faldo to see that the Old Links did not live up to the magnificent site it occupied. Its weakness was not length—although at 6,600 yards, more distance was necessary—but bunkering. There were only four fairway bunkers on the entire course, and they were pathetic little holes that looked as if a dog had scratched them out.
Faldo and Hockley set out to sharpen the strategic demands of the course by adding bunkers and tees. Where possible, they moved the course closer to Pollan Strand. “Every time you got near it you could hear the waves crashing on the shingle beach,” says Hockley, “but there was nowhere where you actually ever saw the ocean or got close to it with golf.”
They were also sympathetic to the members’ concern about making the course too difficult. Ballyliffin already had Glashedy, which stretches more than 7,200 yards with deep, very penal bunkering.
The Old Links, which re-opened in June, now has 36 fairway bunkers, which were added on virtually every hole and force players to think hard about strategy. “The first bunkers we did were quite shallow and not too steep on the revetted bunker face, to introduce the members to what we were trying to do,” says Hockley. “The feedback was good. They said, ‘Can you make these bunkers tougher?’”
They almost certainly are not saying that on the par-4 9th, where Faldo decided to cut a bunker in the middle of the fairway, 255 yards from the new back tee. “It’s caused a degree of resentment,” admits Farren, who says the members question why a ball struck down the middle should find a bunker.
“Obviously that is not the correct line,” counters Faldo, who is adamant about keeping the bunker, pointing out that there are 15 yards of fairway to the left and 20 to the right. In addition, Hockley cites the 4th hole at Woking, outside London, as inspiration and justification. There, the addition of a similarly situated bunker a century ago riled the members but turned a mundane hole into a tactical conundrum. “It just makes you think more about what you want to do, a far more interesting hole,” says Hockley.
They also knew what to leave alone. The 184-yard 5th, “the Tank,” is the most memorable hole. The tee shot, usually against the prevailing wind, must carry up to the green sitting atop a hill and surrounded by dunes. A shot that falls short can roll back 50 yards or more down the slope. “It’s almost as if it’s sitting in a little volcano,” says Hockley. But the existing green was small and took a lot of abuse; Faldo extended the surface for more hole locations and opened up the back to increase airflow.
For similar reasons, he decided to tweak the 17th green, the only feature retained from the original nine-hole course, and long the favorite of members, who love its gothic eccentricity. Its biggest wrinkle was a bowl about the size of a hot tub. “I should think the number of holes-in-one there was pretty considerable,” says Hockley. “It was like a funnel.” It was also impossible to mow the grass there at the same height as the rest of the green. Faldo raised the bottom a few inches and added two greenside bunkers.
Faldo’s lone major routing change came at the 561-yard 14th, where he lifted the old green and moved it higher into the dunes, creating a slight dogleg and bringing Pollan Strand closer into play. He also added a back tee—one of 12 that he built—with a spectacular view.
Stand there and you will know in an instant why this hole is Faldo’s favorite: Directly ahead is the dramatic land, rising and falling like the ocean in a storm. In the background, dark cliffs form a wall, rising 1,200 feet high behind the town, while almost at your feet the blue water of Pollan Bay hammers the beach. As you pause to drink it all in, you just might forget to tee off. But you will always remember why beautiful Ballyliffin is well worth the trip.