Think you’ve discovered all of Ireland’s charms? Not unless you’ve played “Merrigan’s masterpiece”
For years, golfing visitors to Ireland tended to linger in the capital, then travel in a predictable direction. After sampling the array of fine courses located close to Dublin, they’d head to the magical southwest.
It’s time to change direction, as Ireland’s northwest has acquired a comparable degree of allure. Astute promotion of the “Wild Atlantic Way,” Ireland’s superbly scenic coastal route, has shone a light on the western seaboard counties of Donegal, Sligo, and Mayo. In so doing, it has illuminated the charms of a handful of courses—Ballyliffin, Murvagh, Rosses Point, Enniscrone, and Carne. Moreover, the recent addition of St. Patrick’s Links, an exceptional Tom Doak design, has bestowed bucket-list status on the already wonderful Rosapenna.
But what about inland golf? Is there anywhere in the northwest that possesses the quality of the Dublin area’s best parkland courses or the beauty of Killarney in the southwest? The answer is an emphatic “yes!”
Among many good inland courses, a pair of lakeland gems stand head and shoulders above the rest: Lough Erne, near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh; and Slieve Russell at Ballyconnell in County Cavan. And while factually they are located in different counties as well as countries (the former is in Northern Ireland), the two lie just 25 miles apart.
You may have heard of Lough Erne, as it is one of Nick Faldo’s most lauded designs. But unless you are a real connoisseur of golf in Ireland, it is unlikely you will be familiar with Slieve Russell, a true hidden gem that is part of a marvelous resort of the same name that also includes a luxury 222-bedroom hotel and sumptuous spa.
The golf course blends seamlessly into its surroundings. And it is a very distinctive landscape, heavily wooded and studded with drumlins (curvaceous, oval-shaped hills) and small lakes. In other words, Slieve Russell embraces and complements a quintessentially Irish “40 Shades of Green” setting.
The PGA National course at Slieve Russell is an early 1990s Paddy Merrigan creation. The late Irish architect designed several well-regarded courses in his native country, including Faithlegg near Waterford and Harbour Point near Cork, but Slieve Russell is undoubtedly “Merrigan’s masterpiece.”
It has become something of a golfing cliché to describe a course as having no weak holes, yet this trite phrase accurately describes Slieve Russell, where the two very balanced nines incorporate similar amounts of subtlety, charm, and drama.
If the rollercoasting par-four 2nd, with its downhill drive and uphill approach to an elevated green, is the most characterful hole on the front nine, and the vertigo-inducing short 7th the most visually spectacular, then the most enticing and exhilarating three-hole sequence begins at the 11th and might be described as Slieve Russell’s version of Amen Corner.
Beginning with a very attractive par three played over water to a stage-like green, and followed by a difficult right-to-left swinging par four, it culminates with one of the finest par fives in Ireland. The 13th is Slieve Russell’s signature hole, an over-used phrase but quite literally so with an impressively large floral “SR” guiding a bold drive that seeks to carry the corner of a lake in order to avoid a watery grave. It also features a fairway that curves perilously beside the water’s edge, all the way to the green.
A “devil-may-care” golf hole if ever there was one, and perhaps reason enough to discover this lovely part of wonderful Ireland.