Donegal marks the entry to Ireland’s Northwest Passage through a land that’s surely the most desolate and dramatic in all the Isle. A windblown landscape of smoke-blue mountains and forlorn moors that sweep along towering cliffs above the Atlantic, this terrain is so sere and stark, sheep cannot even graze here.
Against this rugged backdrop lies an equally punishing links. Donegal Golf Club is situated nine miles south of town on the Murvagh Peninsula, a claw of land consisting of an evergreen forest that opens onto broad ridges of dunes spread across Donegal Bay, with the Blue Stack range hovering in the distance.
More commonly known as Murvagh, this muscular layout fits snugly into its surroundings. The golf club was chartered in 1960 and members opened a nine-hole layout the same year at Tullycullion, a patch of land adjoining Donegal. In the early ’70s, a group of members explored the rushy dunes of Murvagh and discovered a links-in-the-waiting; the late Eddie Hackett, the country’s golf architect laureate, was brought in to do the gem-cutting.
Hackett, took his typically minimalist approach at Murvagh, but cleverly routed the holes using Scotland’s Muirfield as a model. The front nine runs counterclockwise, tacking around the perimeter of the peninsula, while the back forms an inner, clockwise loop. The resulting variety of wind direction and views includes a procession of seascapes featuring the green isles that form a miniature archipelago in Donegal Bay.
Upgrades since include an attractive clubhouse that opened in 1998 and course renovations performed by Pat Ruddy, Ireland’s leading contemporary course architect and designer/owner of the highly regarded European Club. Ruddy reconfigured several greens, added strategically placed bunkers and angled fairways to bring hazards and natural out-of-bounds areas into play.
Murvagh’s first four holes run along the estuary of Donegal Bay, where rows of oyster baskets are revealed at low tide. These lovely holes, which overlook the tree-canopied islets of Belle’s Isle and St. Ernan’s Island, are followed by an even better stretch—Nos. 5 through 8, which contribute greatly to the course’s rugged and untamed character.
No. 5, nicknamed “Valley of Tears,” is one of the premier par 3s in Irish golf. The green is set in a cleft in the dunes, facing Donegal Town across the bay and beyond that the Barnesmore Gap in the Blue Stacks.
There are two fine straightaway par 5s on the back nine, the 12th and the 14th, the latter guarded by a serpentine creek. The 17th is a short but exhilarating par 4 that runs out toward Donegal Bay. On the 18th, which turns back to the clubhouse, Ruddy cut a notch in the dunes so that the drive is no longer entirely blind.
Donegal Town is a delightful place owing to its basic Irishness, rather than because of any particular sights or attractions. The central square, known as the Diamond, is wrapped with festively painted tea shops, pubs and clothing stores selling the world-famous Donegal tweeds.