Great Courses of Britain & Ireland: Ballyliffin

Side-by-side courses at the very top of Ireland present two contrasting versions of links golf

In his marvelously evocative book, The Magic of Ireland, H.V. Morton ventured: “Donegal is surely the most enchanting place in Ireland. Connemara is tribal and epic; Donegal is softer. If anything lies buried beneath the stony acres of Connemara it would be a battle-axe lost in some old fight; but in Donegal you might expect to unearth a crock of gold.”

Some 30 years ago, the small town of Ballyliffin, with its then 18-hole golf links, could be described as both hidden and undiscovered. “Hidden” as a consequence of its geography: Ballyliffin is situated in the far north of Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county, and being bordered by the sea and concealed by hills enjoys a kind of splendid isolation. It was “undiscovered” because not many people—certainly few golfers outside the country—were aware of Ballyliffin’s existence. This was the game’s loss, for the remote beauty of the location and rugged character of the linksland are so special that those fortunate to be in the know felt themselves privy to Ireland’s best kept golf secret.

In the early 1990s, two things happened, the effects of which totally transformed Ballyliffin’s destiny.

14th hole (Old Links) (photo by Aidan Bradley)

In June 1993, en route to successfully defending his Irish Open title, Nick Faldo made a surprise visit to Ballyliffin. The Englishman was the reigning British Open champion and world No. 1, so when he described the links as “probably the most natural golf course I have ever seen,” the golf world took notice. Legend has it that when Sir Nick peered down the extraordinarily crumpled 1st fairway, he turned to the member assigned to be his caddie and asked, “So do I play bump-and-run here, or do I just run and bump?”

The other event around this time was the club’s decision to build a second 18 holes amid a vast area of adjacent duneland that overlooked the existing course. Irish architect Pat Ruddy, whose European Club had recently opened to great acclaim, was appointed the designer, and by summer 1995 “hidden and undiscovered” Ballyliffin had suddenly become a 36-hole golf club with two gloriously situated and wonderfully contrasting links courses.

The very distinctive character of the two layouts is, in fact, one of Ballyliffin’s most alluring aspects.

13th hole (Glashedy Links) (photo by Aidan Bradley)

The new creation was named Glashedy Links for Glashedy Rock, the local version of Ailsa Craig that sits a mile off shore. Stretching beyond 7,500 yards from the back tees, the course presents golfers with an epic Royal Birkdale-like links challenge, featuring many cavernous bunkers and large subtly contoured greens, and fairways framed by impressive dunes but with landing areas tempered to allow approach shots to be played from typically even lies.

In contrast, the now-named Old Links, whose natural quaintness and occasional quirkiness captivated Faldo, has more in common with Rye or Machrihanish, yet it, too, is considered a modern championship test, and especially so since the club engaged a certain six-time major winner to completely revise the hitherto rudimentary bunkering.

So how far has Ballyliffin metaphorically traveled these past 30 years, and in what way is it fulfilling a transformed destiny? One measure might be to count the increasing number of non-Donegal accents heard in the vicinity of the clubhouse on any given day, or the growing number of high-profile tournaments the club has been asked to host, including the Irish Open in 2018 and, later this year, the British Amateur Championship. A British Amateur staged in Donegal? Could anyone have predicted that in 1993? But then, perhaps anything is possible when you unearth a golfing crock of gold.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Spring 2024 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.