Diamonds in the Rough
The hidden gems of northwest Ireland
by Colin Sheehan

It is not difficult to understand why Ireland has become such a hot golf destination. Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Lahinch—the country offers serious golfers the opportunity to make the rounds of some of the finest courses in the world. But its legendary courses are hardly a well-kept secret, and as a result, tee times in the most popular areas—the southwest, Dublin and Northern Ireland—are becoming increasingly scarce. For those in the know, the real secret to golf in Ireland is found in the northwest counties of Donegal, Sligo, Mayo and Connemara. Known for being very laid back, even by Irish standards, the northwest is in many ways the most authentic destination in the Emerald Isle—in fact, it is where the Irish themselves go for vacation. A starkly rugged region of twisting roads, cozy pubs and endless craggy coastlines, it offers a wealth of hidden golfing gems. And though Rosses Point, Enniscrone, Connemara, Rosapenna, Narin & Portnoo, Ballyliffin, Port Salon, Cruit Island and Belmullet may be off the beaten path, their allure is only enhanced by their splendid isolation. Visitors should be not be misled by the modest clubhouses and bargain greens fees—the courses provide a truly unique golfing experience. Exposed to gale force winds and guarded by untamable rough, they play over terrain so ruggedly awesome, the holes defy comparison to other links courses. Indeed, more than a few foursomes come away feeling they have played to the end of the earth.



Not far from the charming town of Ballina in County Sligo, Enniscrone glows with pride after the addition of seven thrilling holes by Donald Steel. Routed over acres of rugged terrain which were too daunting to work with 40 years ago, the new design now elevates Enniscrone to the top echelon of links courses in Ireland.

The 13th hole at Enniscrone



In the remote region of Connemara, far removed from civilization, golfers are drawn to the unique links amid a rocky countryside which could best be compared to that of the moon. The course makes excellent use of its austere terrain, rocky outcroppings and springy turf, and serves as a fine reward to anyone who is willing to make the trek.

The 18th hole at Connemara



Near the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula, in sight of the Glashedy Rock which rises up from the shimmering waters of Pollan Bay, the two courses at Ballyliffin certainly compete with the breathtaking scenery. The Old is routed over the natural contours of the land while the Glashed has been shaped to reflect a modern architectural character.

The 6th hole at Ballyliffen


Cruit Island 

The most obscure of the courses in the region, Cruit Island (pronounced “crick”) is a nine-holer with a thrilling pitch over the ocean.  Though the course only dates back  to the mid 1980s, the links have a timelessness that suggests a 19th century origin, and the stiff winds from the Atlantic ensure that no hole plays the same on the second time around.

The 6th hole at Cruit Island



In the west of County Mayoa lies an unforgettable links experience at Belmullet. The first 18 were completed in the early 1990s, and Jim Engh recently added nine more. In each case, the holes scurry through narrow valleys buffered on both sides by colossal sand dunes, whose windswept peaks dwarf golfers with their awesome presence and scale.

The 17th hole at Carne


Rosses Point

In the land of W.B. Yeats,  Rosses Point treats golfers to the most elegant course in the region, a Harry Colt masterpiece. With dramatic elevation changes-something rare for a links course—the views offer a sweeping panoramic of town, harbor, beaches and the menacing mountain of Ben Bulben, a particular favorite of Ireland’s greatest poet.

The 17th hole at Rosses Point



The Rosapenna Hotel has been attracting golfers to the tranquil shores of Sheephaven Bay since Old Tom Morris laid out the original course over a century ago. But golfers now have an even greater option—the Sandy Hills Links designed by Irish architect Pat Ruddy, who has made shrewd use of the landscape to create some of the best par-3 holes in all of Ireland.

The 15th hole at Rosapenna