June Feature Interview
Roads Less Traveled

Three GB&I Regional Tours by Angela Moser,
Robin Hiseman and Clyde Johnson

Additional insight provided by Jeff Warne and Robin Down

As much as any sport, golf offers huge rewards to those willing to explore the roads less traveled. Photo courtesy of Clyde Johnson of holes 14 and 5 at Bamburgh Castle in England.

Donegal, Ireland by Angela Moser (7 courses separated by 156 miles)

Preface by Jeff Warne

You’ve played a few Open Rota courses in England and Scotland, made the pilgrimage to St. Andrews and you’ve done the Southwest of Ireland-complete with the obligatory kissing of the Blarney Stone, the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry and the tourist/Guiness laden pubs of Killarney. Now you’re ready for the “real” Ireland, located in Donegal, in the remote northwest corner of Ireland.

Why Donegal? Why make the effort when the nearest airport without a connection from the US is in Dublin, 3-4 hours away on winding, often scarily narrow roads? Quite simply, Donegal with its otherworldly, varied and often wild scenery, authentic Gaelic speaking pubs, woolen mills and delightful array of links golf as to be found anywhere, is simply the most unspoiled place one can travel to combine all of the above, at a mere fraction of the price to be found elsewhere.

But hurry, that could change with the June 2021 opening of the new Tom Doak designed St. Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna, adding another first tier course to what is already one of the best array of hidden gems to be had in any one region of the UK/Ireland.

The ideal way to see Donegal is to start at the aptly named “Donegal Town”(3 hours from Dublin) and work one’s way around on the Atlantic Drive (www.irelandnorthwest.ie/pThe-Donegal-Atlantic-Drive.html) ending up on the Inishowen Peninsula-or-doing the journey in reverse, stopping and staying in a few of the charming towns and villages along the way. Dunfanaghy and Buncrana are two of my favorites, the former hosting one of the best live music festivals in all of Ireland (www.dunfanaghy.info/festivals).

Past Donegal Town, the Atlantic Drive takes one to such spectacular sights as the Slieve League Cliffs, which dwarf the more famous and widely visited Cliffs of Moher, and winds its way around the coast for hundreds of kilometers, passing through numerous scenic landmarks and charming “frozen in time” small towns and pubs, leading to some of the most unheralded spectacular links courses in the world.

Though the golf is eclectic and special, it is the scenery, sights, craic/music, people and experiences that will keep you coming back. Having traveled to Donegal more than 10 times since my initial visit in 1997, each time I return, I realize how I’d like to continually add to that total – as soon as possible! JW

Suggested detours:

Slieve League Cliffs -near Narin and Portnoo

Horn Head on Atlantic Drive near Dunfanaghy

The DRIVE to Cruit Island

Atlantic Drive near Downings/Rosapenna – long route to the Singing Pub

Rosapenna to Portsalon via Mulroy Bridge

Jazz festival in Dunfanaghy-great time, runs annually in September

Nairn & Portnoo, Portnoo.

 Redesigned by Gil Hanse with Jim Wagner, 2020.

The approach to the 7th at Narin & Portnoo. Photo courtesy of Angela Moser.

The newly created 11th green at Narin & Portnoo. Photo courtesy of Angela Moser.

After numerous and expensive alterations to make the course play longer in 2004, a new investor bought the club to bring in world-renown architect Gil Hanse to redesign the links over the past three winters. The course starts over relatively flat inland terrain, playing outwards to the tip of a magnificent dune system. The humps and bumps, peaks and craters are beautifully used from what is now the 4th hole, a doglegged par-4 with some undulations in the fairway to layup or diagonally hit over to an uphill green. The short par-4 7th still plays out to the point with breathtaking views over Dooey Beach and its massive sand blow-out halfpipe. The green is squeezed in behind a mound in the front and the ocean in the back. Depending on how much you flirt with the fairway’s left side and the possibility to end up in the marram, you will get a better angle into the green. The par-4 8th plays blind off the tee into a dropped down fairway with cool mounding and the green sitting at the edge of the cliff. The new par-3 11th is a short little devil in the highest ground of the dunes with one last view over a dune tip. Here you turn and play back towards the clubhouse, crossing several times over the dune system to play inland and back onto the highest ground of the dunes with beautiful views over Portnoo Beach. Hanse and the cavemen turned up the volume of the bunkers by placing them strategically on the holes and choosing a very natural edge look that fits visually to the course.

As Nairn & Portnoo is one of the remote outposts of Irish links golf; the dining experience runs relatively scarce. The clubhouse restaurant ‘Michaelangelos’ is excellent, but the ‘not to be missed’ recommendation is the fun and quirky experience at Sandfield Pitch & Putt. AM

Don’t miss the pitch and putt at Sandfield. Photo courtesy of Angela Moser.

Cruit Island, Kincasslagh.

Michael Doherty, 1986.

The spectacular 7th at Cruit Island. Photo courtesy of Angela Moser.

The golf course is situated at the far end of Cruit Island with 270° degree views over the Atlantic Ocean, the rough cliff edges, beautiful sand beaches and scattered islands. Cruit feels like you discovered the most beautiful and stunning world’s end.

Although of its relative youth, Cruit has the feel of an old quirky links that has always been there. The nine-hole golf course is unique, an absolute hidden gem and cannot be missed when traveling through County Donegal. The charm starts with the need to honk your car when driving in as the first hole crosses the road. While the views are stunning, the golf doesn’t lack either. The variety of shots is incredible since the course is routed in every direction, with the Atlantic gusts playing a significant role in your club and shot selection. The higher ground in the middle of the property is of great use to tee off from numerous times to play towards the ocean, but also when playing back on its ridges and depressions. With greens sitting at the point, tucked into the side of a hill, a punchbowl, or situated on the crest of a ridge – this course doesn’t get boring and is, with its tiny bunkers, well protected. There are many excellent holes out there, with the par-3 6th being the most photographed, followed by the uphill par-4 7th to a half-blind green that is slightly falling away.

The Caisleain Oir Hotel will be your best stay and dinner spot, with the locals’ favorite Seafood Chowder. AM

St. Patrick’s Links, Carrigart.

 Tom Doak with Eric Iverson, 2021.

Looking down the 8th at St. Patrick’s …

… with this bump needing to be overcome on one’s approach. Both photos courtesy of Angela Moser.

Situated with views over Sheephaven Bay, Horn Head and the Donegal mountain range, the new 18-hole golf course is routed tremendously well through the dunes. With an inland start, you will be playing your way towards the ocean and back towards the clubhouse. But don’t be mistaken, thinking the inland holes are less dramatic, as they play through the biggest sand blow-outs of the area. The second nine start inland as well and play their way around, crescendoing to the top of the hill Maheramagorgan with breathtaking views from the 16th tee over the whole area and Downings Bay. Make sure you give your camera or phone a full battery charge before you get to the course.

Multiple holes include playing over rumpling fairways with some deep pockets or sand blow-outs that you should rather avoid. The 4th and 6th holes share a diagonal natural sand scar that will make you choose your club wisely off the tees, as well as on the second shots. From entirely visable, half, to fully blind, the variety of greens depend primarily on where you place your tee shot. A good example is the short par-4 8th with a mound in front of the green that will make you choose one side of the fairway to approach or even see the small green.

The 1st and 7th greens. Photo courtesy of Angela Moser.

For the best deal, you want to book a package with the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, which offers lots of high quality golf options. In fact, the Old Tom Morris course is a personal favorite of Paul McGinley’s and is one of the hosts for the Irish Legends. The summer evenings are best spent between the nationally awarded Fisk seafood restaurant, located adjacent to the Harbour Bar or the Goose & Gander Pizzeria & Cocktail Bar. AM

Portsalon Golf Club, Portsalon.

From 1891, Pat Ruddy 2000.

Commentary by Jeff Warne

Going in, one of my favorite courses in the world and still is. Great friendly welcome in both the clubhouse and the bar – in short, no better place on earth.

The first hole climbs to an incredibly quirky green, setting the stage for…the spectacular second hole, downhill over and around an estuary which forms a wonderful cape, before turning into a burn in front of the green to punish those who played too conservatively off the tee. The next few holes play along the ocean and while a bit of valley golf, are varied enough (and each great by itself) to separate themselves. Many turns and twists abound and later in the round, after playing along the spectacular beach, the course turns up into the very edges of the non-links land, beneath the mountains. High enough to see out over the spectacular links, beach and town while in a microclimate. Have to see it to appreciate it but holes 13-17 own an enchanting piece of land between the mountain and the links where tees are positioned to play back out onto the links while overlooking the whole scene. Number 17 is a great par 5 looking out to the ocean and playing around a stream, again with links land bordering the adjacent farmland. In heavy wind play the ground game as but only a couple of holes require aerial shots.

One could easily stay in Portsalon for a week and commute outward for the odd round. Eat lunch at Sarah’s (a favorite haunt along with The Stores pub next door) just beyond the clubhouse on the water. JW

North West GC, Lisfannan.

 Current changes by Eddie Hackett and Pat Ruddy.

As one of the founding members of the GUI, North West is one of Ireland’s oldest golf courses. Charles Thompson, a pro from Royal Portrush, who also laid out the course at Portsalon, designed nine holes at the shore of Lough Swilly in 1891. It has seen a lot of changes, which fall partially to coastal erosion in 1968 and 1983. With only 30ha (75acres) property left, the 18-hole course has its limitations and is tight. If you can overlook this weakness, you will find a dazzling links course. It has character, is fun, charming and old-fashioned.

The course starts at the beach, playing 11 holes counterclockwise on the boundary, with the finishing holes inside the broadest part of the property. While the land looks primarily flat, surprisingly remarkable landforms add to the flavor of the course. There are still original fairways and greens from 1891, and they are entertaining to play. The par-3 16th is one of them and probably referred to the most. It can only be described as a cute but wicked hole. ‘Fairy’ measures 93 yards from the back tee with extensive bunkering and an undulated green that falls away towards a creek. The two par-4s’ Inch’ and ‘Witches’ add tremendously to the links flavor, as they are fantastic two-shotters with undulated (!) fairways and challenging greens. There are still some hints and footprints of the old outstanding bunkering. One great example is the pockets of sand between the 7th and 12th green, which used to divide the holes beautifully and stopped long shots from running onto the other green.

7th on left, 15 playing up, 16 is the short par3, 17 tee below the lake, 4th green above lake. Photo courtesy of North West GC.

Between the fancy The Red Door restaurant in Fahan and the rustic, charming The Drift Inn in Buncrana, you will get fantastic food. A good addition to the trip is Wild Ireland, a zoo in Fahan. AM

Ballyliffin GC (Old Links), Ballyliffin.

From 1947, Eddie Hackett 1973, Nick Faldo 2006.

commentary by Jeff Warne

Located on the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula, Ballyliffin is the northernmost course in Ireland with views of Pollan Strand beach and Glashedy Rock. The Old Links (‘old’ is a relative term here as the course dates back only to 1973) is a traditional links course with many rolls, pitches and unlevel lies. The sense of place is one of a more modern take versus that of oldish quirk/distinction. The most memorable hole on the front nine is the par-3 5th, ‘The Tank’ with its elevated tee and its green perched 179 yards away. Some great views are to be had as well as some really good closing holes with great variety and memorability. The spectacular par-5 14th,

‘Bulbin’ along the shore and the doglegging par-4 15th, ‘Ardacanlan’, playing downhill at 480 yards are of special note

Certainly a very good two course destination when combined with its newer, sister course Glashedy Links which opened in 1995. Eat lunch and/or dinner at the club as the people everywhere are polite and will be quite happy to see you. JW

Greencastle GC, Greencastle.

1892.

A quaint, perfectly situated clubhouse with a pint and lunch – a great way to start your trip after an overnight flight.

First hole a bit contrived 90-degree dogleg driveable by playing over a 100% blind large heather covered hill. The second rises to high ground revealing views out over the property and water. Greencastle’s front nine feels mainly inland but has a number of good holes and still includes the expansive views across the water and property. The par-3 5th hole sits on a rocky peninsula amidst spectacular scenery that Pebble Beach would be proud to have in its arsenal.

The 12th at Greencastle features a a dramatic drive over Lough Foyle and an approach to a blind green that nestles on the water beneath the lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Clyde Johnson.

The back nine is closer to water and linksier in feel with the highlight being the simply stunning 12th hole – a dogleg right along the water with a lighthouse in background and a sunken green located behind a heathery rise in the fairway. There are quite a few good holes on the back including the linksy 11th benched against a giant dune that the 12th tee sat atop as well as a well- sited tee on the 13th, the good returning 14th and the 16th. Number 17 is a bit average, a safety-tree infested par 4, but the home hole is a decent elevated tee par-3 back to the clubhouse

Greencastle is definitely time well spent, especially on a sunny breezy day. A few of the views look more like Casa de Campo than Donegal with palm trees and rocky cliff backgrounds. The true closest comparison would be Ardglass. JW

Scotland’s Grampian Coast by Robin Hiseman (7 courses separated by 77 miles)

Preface by Robin Down

From Findhorn to Fraserburgh, this north facing coast is defined by fishing villages, the remnants of conflict and a string of magnificent golf courses. It is the sea that dominates – throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it was the primary source of a life and a living for the villages scattered along its shores.
Scottish fishing boats were small-sailed vessels with open hulls and a shallow design to allow them to be launched from beaches. In the great storm of 1848, 124 of these fragile boats were lost and 100 fishermen drowned. It was this tragedy that prompted the building and improvement of the many small harbours that pepper the Moray and Aberdeenshire coasts.

Travel a short distance inland and there are disused railways, abandoned airfields, pillboxes, gun houses and anti-invasion cubes. History has made its mark on this landscape but, as time passes, nature is slowly hiding the evidence.
Except for RAF Lossiemouth, the military has moved out, the steam trains no longer ply the country lines and the fishing industry has turned large-scale and industrial, leaving fishing villages as the preserve of tourists. At first glance, golf appears to have survived unscathed but, at the end of the of the 19th century and the height of golf mania, there were many more courses along this northern shore – Findhorn, Forres, Burghead & Duffus, Buckie, Portsoy, Banff, Rosehearty, Inverallochy. Many closed during the World Wars and did not re-open. We must be grateful for what remains.

Follow the A98 from Cullen to Fraserburgh and the best of these northern shores will be missed. Instead, divert along ‘B’ roads, take the road less travelled and meander from one coastal gem to another – Portsoy, Whitehills, Macduff, Gardenstown, Crovie and, the best of them, Pennan. A row of solid fisherman’s cottages stretches along the village’s single street, squeezed between the cliffs and sea with a small harbour to the east. Pennan was made famous in the 1980s as one of the prime locations for the film Local Hero starring Burt Lancaster. The red telephone box that featured regularly in the film remains in location and attracts a regular stream of visitors even though the original was a prop. RD

Covesea Links, Duffus.

2010.

Commentary by Robin Down

Drive through Lossiemouth and the presence of golfing terrain is obvious. By contrast, Covesea, accessed by an unmade track, could be too easily missed. Make the effort and find it because this place is special.

In the foreground is Covesea’s 8th green and beyond is its vexing 9th. Photo courtesy of Robin Down.

Unusually, Covesea is not a members’ club, so the course is entirely the domain of the owner, Andy Burnett. It thereby avoids the plague of the grumpy golfer who will seek to blame all his misfortune on anything but his inadequate game. Consequently, the usual rules, regulations and members’ priority are entirely missing. “We’ve always run the place without any airs and graces – everyone is welcome to come and play”. It is an attractive operational model.

Andy is an accomplished greenkeeper and, it shows – well tended fairways, beautiful greens, this is links golf as the gods intended. The first four holes track back and forth, parallel with the immediately adjacent Moray coast with an 1846 lighthouse providing a majestic backdrop. However, it is at the fifth where the genius of Covesea begins to reveal itself. A blind uphill par 3, a short iron must deliver the ball 33 feet above to a narrow banana-shaped green sitting at the high-point of the course. The par-3 sixth plays from a wildly elevated tee, the seventh plays blind over an enormous rock, the eighth plays blind between rocks and the ninth plays from under the rocks to a small green shaped like an upside-down mortar dish. Make no mistake, this is as difficult and entertaining as golf gets and it is all achieved within the kind of acreage that some parkland courses would struggle to accommodate a couple of holes.  Like I say, make the effort and find it. RD

Moray GC (Old), Lossiemouth.

Old Tom Morris, 1889.

The 16th is but one fine green complex out of many at Moray Old. Photo courtesy of Clyde Johnson.

A charming characteristic of the first generation of Scottish golf links is how the courses start and finish almost on the high street. Think of St. Andrews and North Berwick. To complete this triumvirate there is Moray (pronounced Murry), which replicates the hole arrangement, but with better, more dramatic dune terrain. The Moray Golf Club belongs to the town of Lossiemouth, which juts defiantly into the southern Moray Firth on a sandstone headland, with one of Britain’s best beaches to the east and 36-holes of quality links golf to the west. Once an important fishing town, Lossiemouth is now almost entirely dependent on the adjacent RAF Lossiemouth for trade. It’s a busy base and more often than not, golf at Moray is accompanied by the air-splitting soundtrack of screaming Typhoon Eurofighters taking off and landing. Moray Old is a tough, championship-proven, thoroughbred links, set out on mostly flat ground and heavily defined by banks of gorse and heather, with a liberal sprinkling of traditional revetted bunkers. It opens out on the back nine as it nears the beach and the final run for home is particularly fine, climaxing with arguably the best 18th hole in all of Scottish golf. RH

Spey Bay GC, Spey Bay.

Ben Sayer, 1907.

A punchbowl green sits beyond the ripple of micro contours that characterize Spey Bay. Buckie is in the background, where Buckpool and Strathlene Golf Clubs can be found at either end of the town. Photo courtesy of Clyde Johnson.

The Spey is one of Scotland’s great rivers, famed for salmon fishing and whisky. It spills into the North Sea at Spey Bay, surging through a spectacular pebble ridge. You may well spot the occasional Dolphin out to sea, which often outnumber visiting golfers to this, one of Scotland’s least known links. When it was laid out by Ben Sayers in the early years of the 20th Century, Spey Bay was a desirable seaside resort, with a plush hotel and a railway station. It eventually lost the rail connection and the hotel burnt down, leaving this lonely, disembodied, but charming course. What differentiates it from other links is that it is laid out along raised longitudinal ridges of storm-tossed pebbled and boulders, rather than sand. The fairways often follow the half-pipe vales between the ridges and the entire course is an object lesson in micro-contouring. It is brutally exposed to the fearsome storms of the Moray Firth and has lost several holes to the surf, with one or two more set to disappear soon. The skeleton green staff battle to keep the gorse at bay and the course in good condition and it has always felt on the verge of closure. It’s well worth a game, so get there before, like so many Speyside salmon, it becomes the one that got away. RH

Cullen GC, Cullen.

From 1870.

Golf in Cullen is all about fun. Here is a veritable fairground of unique holes and shots the likes of which you have never experienced before, all set within a landscape that is as much a geology lesson as it is a golf course. This tiny, 4600-yard, 18-hole course, with ten par 3’s plays along clifftops and a raised beach curving around a gorgeous cove. Dominating the landscape are a cluster of colossal Old Red Sandstone sea stacks. For countless years these were battered by ocean waves, but since the last ice age have been uplifted above the shore line. You get to play over and around them on consecutive blind par 3’s for which words cannot do justice.

Cullen is chock full of unique and interesting landforms. Photo courtesy of Clyde Johnson.

Cullen is a course that will make you glad to be alive and which is perfectly suited to playing with a half set slung over your shoulder and a carefree attitude. If you’re lucky enough to play it late on a sunny summer’s day, you’ll witness the vivid red rocks ablaze with color. Make time to try out the local delicacy of Cullen Skink, a delicious haddock and potato broth that the charming fishing village is rightly famous for. RH

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