Irish golf is blessed with many sacred places but while some are world famous — the Portmarnocks, Royal County Downs, Lahinchs, Royal Dublins and Ballybunions of the world — others remain delightfully "unknown" to all but their secret admirers.
Portsalon Golf Club, nestled in the dunes alongside Ballymastocker Bay on Donegal's famed Fanad Peninsula (the world's second most beautiful beach according to readers of The Observer), is one of those special places.
It's been that way since the club was founded in 1891 when Colonel BJ Barton, High Sheriff of Donegal at the time, established the Portsalon Hotel and Golf Links, which in turn became one of the nine founding members of the Golfing Union of Ireland.
The course quickly earned such a fine reputation that if you picked up a copy of the Belfast News-Letter on 21 May 1894, the chat that day centred on the new golfing mecca of Donegal and the delights of 18-hole resorts at Rosapenna and Portsalon.
They were the Hilton Heads and Pinehursts of their day — the playgrounds of the idle rich. But it didn't stay that way forever.
Indeed, if Portsalon is now a noble links, ranked among the top 25 in Ireland in a recent poll, it's all thanks to the efforts of community to save it in the late 1980s.
Richard Phinney and Scott Whitely summed up the Portsalon story well it in their 2007 tome on Irish golf journeys, Links of Heaven:
“From a golfing perspective, things changed for the better when the Portsalon Hotel went up in smoke; in 1984 the adjacent land, including the golf course, was put up for sale.
"A clutch of local' golf enthusiasts discussed buying the course, but their semi-formal ‘club’ had exactly £67 in the bank. The asking price was sixty-eight thousand pounds — a pittance, in retrospect, but a fortune for a handful of rural families in a small village in one of the most depressed areas of a relatively poor country.
"No bank would loan them the money, so the club members organised a lottery of a thousand tickets at £100 apiece. Much to their own astonishment, the scheme worked."
The rest, as they say, is history.
The club spent a decade reviving their course but it was hopelessly out of date and after acquiring more land for £295,000, Pat Ruddy (who had done such fine work at Ballyliffin and Rosapenna), was asked to create new holes and redesign what was still a 19th century gem.
“It’s lovely crumbly links and it simply oozes the tone of the 1890s while facing eye-to-eye the modern player armed with all the weaponry of a new age,” Ruddy said of the course he already knew well, having broken 70 twice in one day on sub-5,000 yard Portsalon back in 1968.
"It is so nice that it is plain that it was meant to be.
"When the club acquired an extra 35-acres in the late 1990s they kindly invited me to make proposals for improvements to their charming links...
"What a magical place it was with old-fashioned rumpled fairways, a first green to die for (I left it there untouched as it would have been criminal to change it), six holes crisscrossing over each other, nary a sinner in sight and a handy yardage of 4,632-yards! It offered quite a few of the now fashionable driveable par-4s!
"By the time I was engaged as their links designer of choice in 1999 the membership had grown from 64 to 360 and the place teemed with visitors all summer, so those lovely cross-over holes had become lethal and although the links had been stretched to 5,900-yards, it was falling behind as a test for the modern player."
Ruddy created nine totally new holes, made major changes to three others and stretched the old lady to 6,800 yards.
Working quietly alongside Ballymastocker Bay under the watchful gaze of Knockalla Mountain, he left a legacy that includes several double greens and a sunken corridor in front of the first tee and 18th green so the golfer and the beach-goers can live in harmony, oblivious to each other’s presence.
The "new" Portsalon was an instant hit, hosting the Irish Ladies Close Championship in 2005, exactly 100 years after the great May Hezlet beat her sister Florence to win the third of her five Close titles.
But times move on and the club is now in its latest phase of redevelopment under the watchful eye of former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
He earned his golf at Grange at the foot of Kilmashogue but his spirt is a Donegal one, a remnant of boyhood summers — the benefits of being the son of a Rathmullan mother and Dunfanaghy father.
He also has family connections with the club — a sister is married to the brother of a former captain. And so after an invitation to play a friendly game there more than six years ago, his suggested improvements resulted in a new plan for the course.
They are being carried by greenkeeper Johnny Shields under the supervision of Paul McGinley Golf Design and the Dubliner is clearly enamoured of what he describes as "a very special place."
“Paul felt the odd thing was too hard and maybe a bunker needed to be filled in here or a new tee built there,” said Cathal Toland, nearly 50 years a member and secretary manager for 26 years until his retirement two years ago.
"We did the little things he suggested and we have moved on in that way."
While the new practice putting green and first tee complex have added greatly to one of Ireland's great golfing places, the locals describe it as a less punitive challenge these days thanks to McGinley's educated eye.
“It's 18 holes of championship golf at a very friendly club," said club captain Martin Blaney, a nephew of the late politician Neil Blaney, a former club captain and president.
"Paul McGinley has made some fantastic small changes which have made a massive difference. He has an eye for detail and with Johnny Shields, they have done a great job."
Holes like the iconic second, a 440 yard classic that requires a brave drive to a fairway threatened all along the left by the Portsalon River estuary followed by an equally scary second over the river to a humped green, stands comparison with Ireland’s best.
"It's just a lovely place to be on any day," Martin added. "Never mind a nice sunny day."
Now it its 126th year, the future looks secure at Portsalon. It may never host an Irish Open but they like it just fine that way, surrounded by friends and some of the greatest scenery on earth, right next to the second best beach in the world.
Portsalon Golf Club
- Address: Portsalon, Fanad, Co. Donegal
- Tel: +353 (0)74 915 9459
- Web: http://www.portsalongolfclub.ie
- Email: email@example.com
Ranging from only €25 midweek early bird to €75 peak times, see www.portsalongolfclub.ie for details.
Starting at €25 per person, meal options available.
Signature Hole: 2nd (Strand), 396 Metres, Par 4
Offering a fantastic vista, this blockbuster par-4 is played from a high tee to a fairway running diagonally along a sea inlet and then across a river to a well-bunkered green.
If you find the fairway, you have a choice — be a hero and go for the green or lay-up short of the river. The choice is yours but it will require two very good shots to find the green in regulation on what is widely regarded as one of Ireland's finest holes.
- Ballyliffin Golf Club
- Buncrana Golf Club
- Dunfanaghy Golf Club
- Gweedore Golf Club
- Letterkenny Golf Club
- Otway Golf Club
- Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort