Ireland’s Ballyliffin is Far More Than “Just” A Hidden Gem

You literally cannot play golf any further north in Ireland or Northern Ireland then at Ballyliffin, where the fifth hole touches the sea with views of famous Glashedy Rock.

Remember those old Remington electric razor commercials where entrepreneur Victor Kiam used to boast that, “I liked the shaver so much I bought the company”?

That is how I feel about Ballyliffin Golf Club. I like the place so much, I became a member.

Just so the importance of that statement sinks in, let me make a couple of things clear. I am not rich. I am not one of those people who collect golf memberships. In fact, I let my local membership lapse because it was too expensive, and right now, I only belong to Ballyliffin, where I have lifetime overseas membership – I even have a green jacket, but unlike Augusta, if I had the nerve, I could wear mine anywhere. I may lack memberships, but I have played the majority of the top courses in the world, and know what makes a golf course – and golf club- special. Thanks goodness Ballyliffin is awesome!

The only thing "new" about Ballyliffin is the clubhouse, built almost ten years ago, which welcomes guests with a fine pub, lots of beer and whiskies, the "Full Irish" breakfast and a mean toasted cheese sandwich.

For years, golf writers and golf tour companies have been touting Northwestern Ireland as the last frontier of great, undiscovered links golf, and there is a lot of truth to this, except it is only undiscovered by Americans. Everyone in Ireland knows Ballyliffin and its wonderful neighbors, and the region is famed for both excellent golf and value – few local can afford to tee it up at the places we thing of when we think great Irish golf, like Ballybunion, Lahinch, Royal County Down and the like.

But while the region may be golf’s worst kept secret, and I love finding hidden gems, I hate to call Ballyliffin one. Hidden gem sort of implies a course worth playing if you are in the area, but that does not apply to Ballyliffin. Ballyliffin is destination worthy, and worth going across the pond to play, especially since within an easy drive are several other great courses, from true hidden gems like Carne, Enniscrone, County Sligo, Donegal, and Rosapenna, each and every one a wonderful links, to better known stars like Royal Portrush and Portstewart just over the brooder in Northern Ireland. By one reliable measure there are only about 150 true links golf courses on earth, and a whopping ten percent of them lie immediately around Ballyliffin. All of these courses cooperatively own the non-profit North & West Coast Links, a group offering discounts on multi-course and stay and play packages. This hotbed of golf simply cannot be missed!

But let’s get back to my club. First off, Ballyliffin is the northernmost course in all of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, even though it lies in the Republic. It sits at the end of the Inishowen peninsula, jutting up into the North Sea. You want wind? They’ve got wind! But then again I have played in winter in shirtsleeves, because the weather here is so unpredictable. It is raw, true linksland that will boggle the mind, especially for those uninitiated in links golf. There are many different looks to a true links, and that makes it hard to describe, but like the famous Supreme Court definition of pornography, you know it when you see it, and you see it when you pull up to the wonderful clubhouse at Ballyliffin. Hey, I love the Old Course at St. Andrews, but stand on the first tee there, and you will not “get” links golf. Stand at the first tee on either the Old or Glashedy courses at Ballyliffin and it is immediately apparent: a rugged, raw and apparently bombed to hell seaside landscape full of menacing pot bunkers and epic views of the sea and the offshore Glashedy Rock, Ireland’s version of the famous Ailsa Craig off Scotland’s Turnberry. There is good reason why I have long held the Ailsa course at Turnberry as my favorite on earth: it reminds me of Ballyliffin.

This is the real deal - rugged links golf at the water's edge - the way the game has been played for centuries.

Basically there are not a lot of golf clubs or resorts in the British Isles (Irish Americans please don’t bother emailing me, like it or not, Ireland is geographically part of the British Isles) with more than one good course. In most cases, if there is a second layout at all, like at Royal Troon and Lahinch, it is an afterthought, inland and often for the ladies and juniors. A couple, like Ballybunion, Portstewart and of course St. Andrews, have two or more great courses, as does Ballyliffin. Throw in a great clubhouse, the most welcoming staff and locals around, and a nice town with a wide range of lodging from quaint bed and breakfast located on the grounds of the club to a luxurious new resort and spa in downtown Ballyliffin, and it makes a great place to play golf, and great place for exploring the wonderful links courses of Ireland’s northwest coast.

The par-3 "Tank" on the Old Course is the most famous hole at Ballyliffin, played to a blind green atop a dune and protected by sandy ridges. Looking back down the fairway from the new green shaped by Nick Faldo, the Tank is less ominous.

The two courses are the Old, built in 1947 and the Glashedy, which locals call the new course even though it is now two decades old and was designed by Irish legend Pat Ruddy of European Club fame. Both look like they have been there since the dinosaurs – this is not one of those nouveau, American-style places like the K Club or Celtic Manor. It is as real as anything in Ireland, and for that reason, Ballyliffin’s nickname’s are “the Ballybunion of the North” and “the Dornoch of Ireland,” both putting it in pretty damn good company. Top 100 named them the 11th and 23rd best in Ireland, and Golf World put Glashedy on its coevted top 100 in the British Isles list. Both courses have been extensively revamped in recent years by Nick Faldo, who loves the place so much that the first time he saw Ballyliffin he immediately tried to buy it (the members refused) so he settled for hanging around a lot and tweaking the layouts, which he thought were the most natural linksland he had ever seen. This from Sir Faldo, the winningest European player in the history of the game, who has seen some linksland. Anyway, both courses are great, both have held important competitions (Irish Senior Open on the Old, Irish Ladies Open and a European Tour event on Glashedy).

My good friend Jim Martel braves the elements to play Ballyliffin in the off-season, but the weather is better than you might expect at this latitude.

It’s also cheap: without any kind of package or deal, walking in off the street, the highest season greens fees – on holidays – never top more than $80-$90. That means it’s a third the price of British Open venue Royal Troon, more than twice as good a course (either one!) and the members and staffers at Ballyliffin will actually smile and be glad you came.





What are you waiting for?

PS, there is connecting service from Shannon or Dublin (and from Bulgaria!) into nearby City of Derry airport, and a daily non-stop form Newark to Belfast on Continental, the most convenient way to get from the States to the Irish Northwest. Don’t  forget the Irish Tourism Board’s excellent website.

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