Northwestern Ireland's 'Wild Atlantic Way' blends golf with adventure

By Bob Gillespie
Published on
BELMULLET, Ireland – Two years ago, when I first discovered Irish links golf and Ireland in general, I knew I wanted to return someday. I just didn't realize how much.
After six mostly gorgeous July days of breathtaking scenery, great food, inordinately friendly people and bucket-list golf, I know that now. Trust me on this: golf in Ireland, and the country as a whole, is an adventure that only makes you want more of it.
Checking the savings account, and ... yep. I'll be back.
My first experience came in 2013, at the behest of John Garrity, a golf writer/correspondent with Sports Illustrated and one of the nicest (and tallest, at 6-7) sports writers around. In 2009, he wrote "Ancestral Links," about searching for his family roots in Belmullet, a village of 3,000 on a wild, windswept portion of the western Irish coast in County Mayo. He also discovered Carne Golf Links, a fabulous, rustic and otherworldly course that, along with all 3,000 locals who know him, keeps him coming back year after year.
In 2013, I was one of a dozen golf writers who spent five days with Garrity touring a tiny portion of what is now billed as Ireland's "Wild Atlantic Way" (, a 2,500-kilometer (1,600 miles) stretch of the Atlantic coastline that Failte Ireland (Tourism Ireland promotes as a largely unexplored, spectacular tourist destination. We played three days at Carne, two rounds at other courses – a mere taste.
This time, we would see and enjoy more. Following the Open Championship at St. Andrews, I flew to Belfast to join nine others on the tour bus and play six links courses in as many days, on a route wrapping around the northwest corner of Ireland. Based on the amazing views, that stretch encompasses some of the wildest parts of the Wild Atlantic Way.
At the end, Carne remained my favorite; it's hard to ignore your first love. But the previous stops – Portstewart, Ballyliffin, Portsalon, Rosapenna and County Sligo – all are now on my must-see/must-play list. And there are another 25 links courses along the Wild Atlantic Way, running south to Kinsale near the city of Cork, meaning more discoveries remain.
So here's one itinerate writer's report on what a fellow bus rider called "the golf trip of a lifetime." To which I replied: Hopefully, only until the next one.
Looking for a missing taxi in Belfast International Airport is hardly the ideal way to start a trip, but a friendly young man with a cell phone helped find my ride, and I was on my way to meet the others at Portstewart, just up the road from its more famous cousin, Royal Portrush. Stevie, my loquacious cabbie, kept me entertained for the 90-minute ride, which ended with me scrambling to get to the first tee on time.
Thanks to Kevin Markham, an Irish writer whom I met in 2013, a spare set of his clubs awaited me. Kevin – whose book "Hooked: An Amateur's Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland," is a must-have guide to all 350 18-hole courses – also had the dubious pleasure of playing along with and watching me spray balls into Portstewart's towering, grass-covered dunes.
In "Hooked," Kevin refers to Portstewart as "Ireland's Front Nine," and the view from the elevated first tee – with the ocean and nearby village off to the right – confirmed that designation. We hit our tee shots down into a dunes-lined, dogleg left valley – the first of eight doglegs in the opening 11 holes – and were off.
While the first few holes seemed one up-and-down trek after another, the course eventually offered more gentle slopes, but no less penal rough. I lost too many balls in six days to count, and Portstewart claimed its share. But the par-5 seventh hole was site of my first warm Irish memory: driver, 5-iron, 8-iron to an elevated green, and a 30-foot putt that dropped for a birdie.
We had our first taste of Irish weather (cold, sideways rain) – the rest of the trip would be, remarkably, almost rain-free and around 60 degrees Fahrenheit – and several of us skipped the final two holes to see the end of the delayed Open, watching Zach Johnson's playoff win while our rain gear dried out. A beachfront joint for fish and chips (and sticky toffee pudding for dessert), and we were off to our hotel. One day down, five to go.
John Farren, Ballyliffin's general manager for 11 years, has been a club member "all my life," so he knows his course – actually, courses; the Old, established in 1973 (when a second nine was added to the original nine, which dates to 1947), and the Glashedy, a 1995 project by Pat Ruddy, an architect with many renowned Irish courses to his credit, including the European Club near Dublin.
The original course was built after a dozen farmers sold 367 acres of dunes land to the club's founding members, who designed the course with advice from the late Eddie Hackett, the godfather of Irish golf architects. Ruddy has updated Glashedy's bunkers in recent years, and Sir Nick Faldo did an upgrade of the Old in 2006.
Farren would love to see more tourist rounds played – 20,000 of 80,000 annually; the rest are played by the 1,000 members – up to 35,000. "This club is the main economic driver in the area, and a major tourist attraction," he said. "You can play the courses every day of the week, and they'll be different (due to) wind, rain and the contouring of the course."
Of the courses on the itinerary, Ballyliffin was perhaps the most consistently visually spectacular. Climbing one uphill par 5, you could look at the green set between two towering dunes, then look behind you at the island-sized Glashedy Rock in the bay, and imagine a giant "bowling ball" plowing through the dunes and down the fairway before sinking halfway into the water.
Ballyliffin is Ireland's northernmost golf club, Farren said, yet the two courses are open 365 days a year. "We're the gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way," Farren said. "The gates to Heaven." It's difficult to disagree.
By now, you may have figured out that course names can be confusing. Many Irish courses are identified by both the club and the course names (similar to Scotland's Royal & Ancient, the club, and the Old Course). Portsalon calls its course Cathal, and it held trip honors for both the narrowest fairways (and perhaps the thickest, nastiest rough areas) and the friendliest membership.
By the time club captain Paul Armstrong had gifted us with caps, club histories (two volumes) and club ties with the distinctive boar's head crest, memories of lost balls were forgotten. Kevin Markham designates Portsalon (pronounced Port SAL-on) as one of his "Top Ten Must Play" courses, and views of mountains and water alone justified that.
"We're rising in the (Irish golf) rankings" – 22nd; Golf World rates the course 31st – "and we have to do it with light resources," Armstrong said. The course dates to 1891, and was bought in 1896 by the Barton family (whose crest is the boar's head) for the equivalent of 64,000 euros (about $70,000 U.S.).
One Irish golf tradition is that the game's best players stay involved with the country's courses, and former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley (whose father, Mick, has local ties) has advised Portsalon on needed changes, including widening a few fairways.
Armstrong says clubs such as his in the sparsely-populated northwest have to band together to survive. "(The Wild Atlantic Way) gives us that mechanism," he said. "This will allow those of us under the radar to increase awareness of our courses."
One unique Portsalon feature is the large engraved stone alongside one fairway, dating from the British occupation, which translated from Irish/Gaelic read: "On this place, holy mass was celebrated at the time of penal laws," 28 prohibitions that kept Catholics from exercising their religion and their rights as citizens.
Wow: golf and history, all in one spot.
If you're a single-digit handicapper, or someone who enjoys the cruelties the game can throw at you, Rosapenna is the place. For many of us on the writers' tour, it was simply too much: too much elevation change, too much wind, too much gnarly rough. That doesn't mean we didn't enjoy it, but we had to work at it.
The club has great bloodlines: Old Tom Morris laid out the original course in 1891, and Harry Vardon and James Braid added length and bunkering in the early 1900s. The club's second course, Sandy Hills – the one we played – opened in 2003, another Pat Ruddy design, and Golf World ranks it 11th in Ireland, second only to No. 10 Carne on this adventure.
We saw a statue of Old Tom near the first tee, and the joke was that we could beg him for sympathy, but he wouldn't listen. How tough was Sandy Hills? One member of our crew, Craig Smith of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, tore a calf muscle climbing to one of the elevated greens. Interestingly, the only hole on the front nine where I recorded a usable score was the par-5 eighth – the site of my second (and last) birdie.
As at Ballyliffin and Carne, the towering dunes and winds are Rosapenna's claim to fame, as well as its undulating, devilish greens. Our calm, low-key Irish guide, Rory Mathews, rolled one putt just past the hole, then watched (and uttered a few angry oaths) as his ball continued off the green into a bunker.
That said, Rosapenna's resort hotel is fabulous, the rooms larger (and nicer) than apartments I once rented. Mine had a porch overlooking the beach, a good spot to relax – and, after the golf, recover.
In the U.S., we'd call it, oh, maybe "Flattop Mountain." Here, it's the Benbulbin, a massive land formation that looms over every view of County Sligo/Rosses Point, which Kevin Markham designates a "Top 10 Links" (Golf World rates it No. 12 in Ireland). Not quite as hilly as Ballyliffin or Rosapenna, its fairways are flanked by large (but not huge) dunes and views of Drumcliff Bay, including an offshore lighthouse visible beyond the green at the 12th hole – which is named, fittingly, "The Lighthouse."
After we survived the brutal par-4 17th (a severe, uphill dogleg left) and the blind-tee-shot 18th, club general manager David O'Donovan explained how the course – originally built by Harry S. Colt in 1894 and redeveloped by Pat Ruddy, who "played here as a kid" -- was deemed too short for modern equipment and a candidate in 2014 for lengthening and toughening.
"Pat met with 196 members, and 191 voted for the changes," O'Donovan said. Those were made "on a shoestring," a common lament for northwest courses, and were helped by an overseas benefactor. Tourists account for 12,000 rounds a year, a number he'd like to see climb to 23,000.
O'Donovan is a natural promoter, saying Irish golf is a perfect destination for U.S. golfers, given the strength of the dollar to the euro (almost one-to-one) vs. the UK pound. He believes County Sligo should be ranked with Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Lahinch and Ireland's other world-class courses.
"Our golf courses are just as good," he said. The Wild Atlantic Way initiative is helping inform visitors of that, he said. "They come for the tourism, and they find the golf," he said. "We're a hidden gem, but we don't want to be hidden."
Most of the writers' tour departed for Dublin after County Sligo, but three of us followed John Garrity and his buddy, Philadelphia writer Mike Kern, to Belmullet to stay overnight. Two – Craig Smith and Greenville freelancer Trent Bouts – would be seeing Carne for the first time; I was making an eager return.
I wrote about the pleasures of Carne two years ago, so suffice to say, the 27-hole course puts the "wild" in Wild Atlantic Way. The dunes are the largest in Ireland; the winds are capricious; the fairways and greens are rustic but smoother and more manicured than my last visit. It is like golf nowhere else.
Three of us (Smith rode along in a cart, or "buggy") played the original Eddie Hackett-designed back nine and the Kilmore nine, built by Scotsman Ally McIntosh. You stood on the first tee of both nines and aimed at fairways set between towering dunes that made you think of the Himalayas. You hit a tee shot, headed off after it – and didn't stop smiling the entire round.
There were other delights discovered over six days. The tiny pub, McFeeley's, in Clonmany, near Ballyliffin, where Eamon Sweeney, town councilman and local butcher, treated four of us to 12-year-old Jameson whisky (not "whiskey"); the pub owner who drove all of us to our hotel after we closed his place one night; the huge, delicious dinner at Fun Bobby's in Belmullet, where the chef, John Comry, is a former "Ireland Chef of the Year" who moved back from Dublin because he missed his hometown; the fish chowder that makes a meal by itself; the sticky toffee pudding (in two restaurants) that we declared the greatest dessert on earth; and always, the scenery.
You could not play a single round of golf, and still fall in love with Ireland – but why would you do that? It's a different game than in the U.S., and a fantastic difference at that.
Once every year or so, however often one's finances can afford it, players owe it to themselves to discover that – or, even better, rediscover it.
This article was written by Bob Gillespie from The State and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.