WBGD’s first course in the Republic of Ireland on this trip was to be Portsalon Golf Club. Portsalon is located in County Donegal and is a gem of a course for golfers of all skill levels. It was designed by legendary Irish Course Designer, Eddie Hackett in 1972. It sits on the scenic Fanad Peninsula and offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, a cracking beach and nearby mountains.
From our base at the Roe Park Resort in Limavady, which is in Northern Ireland, it was an 80-minute scenic drive to Portsalon. The only way you know that you have left Northern Ireland and entered the Republic is that the speed limit signs change from miles per hour to kilometres per hour. There are no border crossings. Remember that in the Republic, the currency is Euros, not UK pounds!
Portsalon Golf Club was founded in 1891 and was one of the first members of the Golfing Union of Ireland. The course was designed by Charles Thompson, who was the pro at Royal Portrush at the time. In 2000, the course was redesigned by legendary Irish architect, Pat Ruddy. Nine new holes were added and the course lengthened. The Club have recently engaged Paul McGinley, the former Ryder Cup Captain, to advise on the course going forward.
The Course at Portsalon
After our drive west, then north, we arrived at Portsalon which definitely had that beach holiday vibe about it. It was a stunning day and there were plenty of locals and tourists heading to the beach. We were greeted in the pro shop by a namesake of mine, Donal Callaghan, who offered to get us out early before a group of visitors. This was gratefully accepted and within 15 minutes of arriving, we were on the first tee.
We chose to play from the white tees at 6823 yards. There were other tees available ranging from 5396 yards to our tees. It’s a par 72 from all the tees with a front nine par of 37 and a back nine of 35. The front nine is 550 yards longer than the back. Note. The distances on the card are in metres, add 10% to convert to yards.
Where is the green?
Standing on the first tee, you can’t see the green, only a flag. The opening par 4 is a relatively short hole of only 357 yards. We took a 3 wood off the tee, which left us a wedge to the green. The only problem was, we now couldn’t see the flag either! It was a bit of a hit and hope with the second shot but we needn’t have worried as we safely found the putting surface and two putts later, walked off with our first par.
Cracking Par 5
Valley, the 4th hole, is a cracking par 5. At 517 yards, it was reachable in two if you hit the fairway. We did and then hit 3 wood from 250 out. We expected to maybe reach the front edge. We got up there and found it was on the green, but nearer to the pin on the 8th hole than the 4th, one of two double greens at Portsalon. The second shot had gone 295 yards, further than our drive. The 35-yard putt didn’t get within 25 feet of the hole so it was a three-putt par.
The first, and only par 3 on the front nine, Kerrs, was playing 200 yards. After much deliberation, we went with a 3 hybrid into a right-to-left breeze. It finished left and short of the green in a swale but we managed to get up and down to save par.
Kilavee, the 6th hole, is the hardest hole on the course, stroke index 1. We decided to hit 3 wood off the tee as the wind was blowing left to right on this hole. We aimed left, then pulled it so the wind didn’t affect it and ended up on top of the dunes on the left, not the place to be. Three shots and two putts later, we walked off with a six. We now know why it’s the hardest hole on the course!
The par 4 9th hole, Runaway, was another tough hole. Playing 454 yards. the second shot was tricky due to the slope at the front of the green and the wind. We hit driver, 3 wood and finished short. A bit of a comedown after the distance we had hit it on the 4th. Just shows the difference the wind makes, and it was only 15mph!
Knockalla, the 11th, is the longest hole on the course at just shy of 550 yards. A decent drive and a 3 hybrid took us just short of the green. A good chip and a 3-foot putt gave us our second and last birdie of the day. We also got through the fourball in front at this hole and they were impressed with our birdie, at least that’s what we think they said…
The 13th hole, Altar, is worthy of a mention as it’s one of only two holes on the course that to us, don’t feel like links holes. At 350 yards, it plays slightly uphill and has trees all the way up the left-hand side. The photo above gives you a view of the second shot. It just feels a bit different from almost all the other holes. We hit a driver off the tee and then a wedge to the green and two-putted for a par.
Matterhorn, the 14th, is a lovely hole. If you avoid the bunker in the centre of the fairway and get down the slope to the right of it, you only have a medium to short iron to the green on this 440-yard hole. You can cut the corner by aiming to the right of the two guys at the top of the hill in the centre of the photo. That’s the tiger line but we only found that out after playing left towards the bunker. Our tee shot finished in the bunker. A sand wedge out onto the fairway, an 8 iron to the hidden green and a ten-foot putt gave us an unexpected par. Happy Days!
The 16th, Alders, is a dogleg par 4 of 390 yards. The second shot plays downhill and there is a burn just in front of the green for anyone coming up short. It is a big wide green so pick your club wisely. Hit the green and your work isn’t over. It’s not a straightforward two-putt.
The penultimate hole is another excellent par 5 of 520 yards. It plays right to left and was our disaster hole. There is always at least one these days! We lost two balls trying to cut the corner of the dogleg. One went out of bounds and the other caught the ditch on the corner. Our advice, play to the right, the corner is further away than it looks. Play it as a three-shot hole and take a par.
Now, you may be wondering what the world’s first, that’s mentioned in the headline, is all about. Well, it’s on the 18th hole.
Well, what is it?
As we stood on the 18th tee, we could see something raised that ran right across the fairway. As we didn’t know what it was, we hit 3 wood to lay up. It turns out that the green netting covers a walkway to the beach! The walkway is about 12 feet below the fairway. We can honestly that we didn’t notice it on the first hole as it wasn’t in play off the tee. We have never seen this on any other course. Maybe you have, let us know!
The 18th is, in our opinion, the only other hole that feels a bit parkland. At 400 yards it’s not easy. There is a burn that runs across the front of the green which rules out any low running shot. It plays slightly uphill too. We hit a 3 hybrid for our second and it finished about a foot short of the burn. A good chip and we escaped with a par.
We think that Portsalon is well worth the drive north. It’s a popular course with Americans and there was a busload visiting on the day we were there. The holes playing towards the Knockalla mountain range are spectacular and beautifully framed. We really enjoyed the course and found it tricky but fair. Good shots were rewarded and bad shots ended up in trouble, just as they should be.
The drive up to the Fanad Peninsula is stunning as are the views of Ballymastocker Beach from the course. Even though the course is in the north of Ireland, it’s not in Northern Ireland.
Thank you to Portsalon’s General Manager, Daragh Lyons for hosting us and to Donal Callaghan in the Pro Shop for the lovely welcome and for getting us out early. Donal, maybe we are related, who knows?
At a Glance:
- Just over 2 hours from Belfast City Centre
- 80 minutes from Limavady
- Fun, tricky 18-hole course, mostly links but with a couple of exceptions
- Fantastic views of the Knockalla mountains
- Small, functional Clubhouse
- Welcoming staff in the Pro Shop