Ballyliffin, Carne, County Sligo, Port Salon and Rosappena Await!
Ireland has long been a must visit destination for golf connoisseurs — those desiring a vintage links experience that will test all elements of your golf game. For many who go to Ireland the Northwest corner of the country is often overlooked – visitors generally head to the southwest near Shannon International Airport or the immediate Dublin region.
Both of those areas provide quality golf but no Irish experience can be deemed complete without a visit to the Northwest — home to some of the most challenging and beautiful links courses in the world.
The Northwest section of Ireland is quite rural — but there are several communities of significant size that can provide central locations and offer a range of accommodations in tandem with food and drink options.
Among the more noted northwest courses are Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, County Sligo, Carne and Port Salon.
To better understand their respective qualities and to gain a better appreciation of the Irish golf scene — I reached out to key leaders at each of the clubs. Providing their own words mixed with some sage advice on what a visit to their club and the broader region can mean. If you have been to Ireland and have not been to the Northwest you most certainly need to head there on your next visit. And, for those who have never been, the initial visit could not have a finer location to truly appreciate the mesmerizing views where land and water intersect with such overpowering beauty and wondrous golf links.
EAMON MANGAN – FOUNDING DIRECTOR / ERRIS TOURISM, LTD. CARNE
“In the 1980s, I was one of a few locals who set up Erris Tourism, a not-for-profit community organization with a view to developing a links course at Carne.
I was asked to supervise the construction of the Carne 18 holes under the direction of the late Eddie
Hackett, undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest golf course designer.
Walking the wild dunes at Carne with Eddie — putting down a stake here and there and routing the fairways through the most part of the links land — no laptops, handheld devices or paper used — just mental notes by Eddie. Clearly a revelation to me. I had offered him the use of my landrover but Eddie said he wanted to feel the ground beneath his feet.
Erris Tourism availed itself of government funded work schemes for the duration of the construction. For more than six years, approximately 12 employees worked with spades, shovels and wheelbarrows, one 3 ton dumper and
a tractor – not a bulldozer in sight. When we rarely brought a bulldozer in, Eddie would beg me to stay close to it – he was frightened it would destroy Carne’s features, which were sculpted over the centuries by nature.
In recent years I have also been privileged to work under the direction of Jim Engh and Ally McIntosh in the construction of the new Kilmore 9 holes. I regularly, even though most of my second shots are played from the rough! But that doesn’t bother me too much — because it’s in the rough that I can smell the wild roses — wild thyme, harebells, lady’s bedstraw and sea holly while the larks sing overhead and the endangered corncake croaks in the nearby long grass with the wild Atlantic waves crashing ahead.
When I get to the Pearly Gates, I will have serious reservations about St. Peter having something on
offer to better Carne.”
BILLY MCCALL – MANAGER / PORT SALON
“My employment background prior to golf management was the clothing industry, generally as industrial engineer or production manager.
But sport was always important, and I joined Greencastle Golf Club in 1992. In 2000, I was approached to join the club management council, as they were looking for new blood, and I agreed
I found I had a flair for this, and enjoyed doing something for the club and not just taking, and within a year, I was elected as Honorary Secretary. After four years this was made into a paid position, and, I got so much satisfaction from my employment.
Then it was time to consider getting into a higher level and I was elected, after many failed attempts, to the Ulster Branch of the Golfing Union of Ireland match and handicapping committee. We control all the representative competitions in the branch, and with them I have completed every rules level, and recently completed the level three course, passing with merit.
I have the privilege of managing Portsalon Golf Club, and still after fourteen years in management get satisfaction in helping members. I have a job I love, which not everyone can say.”
DAVID O’ DONOVAN – GENERAL MANAGER / COUNTY SLIGO
“I became General Manager at The County Sligo Golf Club on January 1, 2010. Previous to this I was the Golf Manager at Castle Dargan Resort. Since a very young age I’ve been involved in golf — introduced to the game by my father when I was 7 years old and as I became more involved with the game I represented my father’s club and province on numerous occasions. Since 2011 I have served on the Executive Board of The Irish Club Managers Association which gives me a wider appreciation of how the golf industry is faring here in Ireland.”
JOHN CASEY – DIRECTOR / ROSAPENNA RESORT
“I was very fortunate to be born into the golf industry, my father bought the Rosapenna Hotel in 1981, a hotel that he had worked in as a boy and dreamed of one day owning.
My brother and I grew up in the hotel and were in our teenage years when we opened the 2nd course at Rosapenna in 2003 and our golf clubhouse in 2005, both these additions saw our business expand dramatically over a few years and therefore we both had an important role within the business.
Frank looks after golf operations while I travel marketing and spreading the word of the great golf that awaits visitors to the North West of Ireland
Our father still starts work each day at 6am so Frank and I always have him near at hand for advice on our respective roles within the business.
Golf has allowed us to travel the world and meet some terrific people, we’ve both played nearly 30 of the worlds top 100 golf courses and hope to play many more.”
JOHN FARREN – GENERAL MANAGER / BALLYLIFFIN
“I become General Manager of Ballyliffin GC in October / 2004 and have been a member of the club all my life. My original professional background was as an accountant and I quickly moved into general management and worked for a leading logistics firm named Kuehme & Nagel for 10 years prior to taking up the role at Ballyliffin. During my tenure I have overseen two major course upgrades to The Old Links with Nick Faldo in 2005/06 and The Glashedy Links with Pat Ruddy in 2012/13.
The installation of a complete new irrigation system and the hosting of major National Amateur events and the European Seniors Tour Irish Open in 2008. I am especially looking forward to ’16 when we will host the Irish Amateur Close Championship and the R&A Boys Home Internationals in August of that year.”
Q & A’s —
Matt Ward: What’s the biggest challenge facing Irish golf in the years ahead?
John Casey: Similar links products being offered much closer to the North American East Coast market, Bandon Dunes & Cabot are two superb facilities that can certainly give Ireland a run for its money much closer to home. The West Coast market is similarly affected by the emergence of some truly outstanding Australian courses with the likes of Barnbougle and The new Cape Wickham, all terrific links courses offering a similar experience to Ireland.
John Farren: Competition from other destinations for a limited international travel market. We also need to remain competitive against our traditional competition from Scotland. There’s also falling membership numbers and an ageing profile of those now playing. Many players today are now content to be nomadic golfers — playing only casual society golf with no affiliation. No less important is the total amount of time to play the game. To keep our overall rounds in a healthy state we need to make sure people can play in a maximum time of three (3) hours. That’s all the time most people can spare in modern times and golf will have to adapt. Courses may have to become shorter — roughs cut back and pace of play improved dramatically.
David O’ Donovan: Low cost competitors driving the price of membership and green fees down.
Eamon Mangan: Reversing declining membership numbers and ensuring that golf tuition programmes are in place for juniors. Also, affordability is crucial.
Billy McCall: With the current recession, people, in general, are watching their spending. This has resulted in many leaving golf club memberships and opting simply to pay a green fee when they play. The result has been a reducing membership and this is faced by every club. Getting these players back, and new, younger players into the game is the challenge faced by all club managers.
MW: How successful has the promotion of the Wild Atlantic Way in getting golfers to come to the region?
EM: The Wild Atlantic Way has been a huge success in putting the “real” Ireland on the map. So far this year alone, there has been a 15% increase in visitors from the US to our region. In addition to the Wild Atlantic Way initiative, the local region – Erris – has been named the best place in Ireland to go wild! This has attracted much-deserved attention to our area, which is an ideal adventure destination and paradise for nature-lovers.
BM: This project has been an excellent promotion designed to highlight the amazing facilities that exist along the coast. The sales team put together superb advertising and undoubtedly a lot of viewers found out about something new in the area, and were enticed to avail of the same. The number of golfers has increased, but it is too early to do end of year comparisons.
DD: We are just starting to see an increase in awareness of the region and the Wild Atlantic way promotion of the area is definitely helping.
JF: The Wild Atlantic Way has had a very positive impact already. The Northwest region struggled for the 3- years of troubles we had on our island — we still remain behind our colleagues in the Southwest and East Coast in terms of tourist numbers. The advent of peace in Northern Ireland has not had an immediate effect on visitor numbers but with continued investment and promotions we can show the world we have the best golf courses, great value for the money and a truly genuine Irish welcome.
JC: The WAW has certainly helped put the focus on Ireland’s west coast from a tourism perspective, however it’s still the golf publications & rankings that determine where most people want to play.
MW: In regards to your respective club what is the most lasting aspect you hear from those who visit?
EM: Without a doubt, the majority of people say that Carne is the most natural, wild links that they have played. Also, those who stay in Belmullet & Erris during their golf trip are full of praise for the local pubs (with traditional music seisiúns), the restaurants & the warm welcome they receive here.
DD: Playability Fairness and one of the most welcoming club they have visited, we go out of our way to greet our guests and they really appreciate this.
JC: Scenery, we’re quite fortunate to be located on the North West Coast with some stunning headland views in the Atlantic Ocean.
JF: The conditioning and natural beauty of the two championship links here in Ballyliffin are most remarked upon by visitors and the genuine welcome they receive from the people of the area would follow a close second on feedback we get.
BM: Easy, the greens. Everyone who comments agrees that the standard of the greens which they played on was superb, and the best around.
MW: If you could change one aspect of your respective club what would it be?
DD: The location with proximity to Lahinch, Ballybunion Tralee and Portmarnock would help but we can’t move mountains!
JF: The only aspect I would change if I could would be our proximity to an International Airport and centre of population but that can be as much an advantage as a disadvantage in some peoples eyes!
JC: Being a little closer to an international airport would certainly make it easier to get people here.
BM: I would like to stop it being described as a hidden gem and be re-identified as a fantastic test of golf, which everyone should be encouraged to play.
EM: It would be great if we had the financial means to speed up development. It is my wish that Carne Golf Links reaches its full potential in my lifetime.
MW: How has the increased value of the US dollar versus the Euro impacted overall visits by Americans and the amount they spend per person? Are things better overall in ’15 than the year prior?
JF: We have seen an increase in US visitors this year and the trend in recent years has been a gradual increase each year. The pound sterling exchange rate with the dollar and euro has made our partner courses in the region- Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Royal County Down very expensive and this is impacting on visitors coming north- we are but one part of the northern swing and we must all work together to make the our destination region the one of choice for international visitors.
EM: Yes things are better in 2015. The currency exchange rate – along with the WAW and Erris being voted the best place in Ireland to go wild! – has certainly contributed to the increase of US visitors to our area.
JC: Yes, certainly Ireland is an attractive trip in 2015 with the current currency rates, we certainly see an increased per person spend in our pro shop.
BS: Certainly the number of American visitors has improved, and a lot of this can be put down to the exchange rate. We have opted to stock a high quality merchandise and this has paid benefits in the feedback as well as a higher customer spend.
DD: Yes we have had an increase since 2014 and we hope that this will improve again next year.
MW: Golf is facing a future shortage of replacements players – with many citing the time it takes to play the game, the overall cost and the sheer difficulty for beginners to both start and continue onwards. How do you see this playing out for both Irish golf development and for the pipeline of visiting golfers in the years ahead?
DD: The length of time to complete a round of golf has to be addressed and less competitions may be the way forward. There seem to be more new people getting into golf and the value in new membership schemes will help. The cost of equipment continues to rise which is worrying. I think visitors will continue to come as we have some of the top links course in Ireland and they are always a treat to play.
JC: I think visiting golfers generally travel with a main focus on golf and therefore the time to play a round is not really an issue.
The issue with golf taking to long is among young working professionals who generally didn’t play the game in the past due to time pressure.
BS: The age profile of golf club memberships is not getting any younger. Clubs, along with the Confederation of Golf in Ireland, are taking the battle into schools, and encouraging the students to try the game. The clubs set up taster sessions and summer clubs when the course is not busy, to take this to the next level. And with five Irish golfers just being announced in the ten man Walker Cup team, this can only serve as an encouragement for everyone interested in golf to continue their involvement, at whatever level they are comfortable.
JF: Golf clubs must be more proactive in attracting new blood – we have Novice Membership packages to get people started and have a very active Youth Academy.It is critical that membership be seen as achievable and affordable if golf is to grow again. The time it takes to play the game must be reduced by improving pace of play,shortening the courses and making them easier by cutting back the roughs. The proliferation of golf on TV has made us all want to play like the pros and this is not a realistic ambition- we need shorter courses, less rough, slower greens and Play when Ready Golf.
EM: Belmullet Golf Club is the resident club at Carne Golf Links. The club are doing a fantastic job in terms of introducing juniors to the sport, through free weekly tuition and through an annual membership rate for less than €100. Our online green fee rate is just €60 – I believe that this is an attractive rate for a course that is ranked in the top 10 in Ireland by golf publications. Additionally, we also work closely with the local hotels and B&Bs, to provide great ‘Play & Stay’ packages.
WHEN YOU GO …
*Northwest Ireland is home to some of the most fickle weather imaginable. There are times when the weather is glorious — there are other times when the wind and rain can push your tolerance to the maximum. Pack a quality rain suit — one thats 100% waterproof — not just water resistant. Bring a sturdy umbrella and an array of golf gloves too. It doesn’t rain all the time but there are times when rain squalls can emerge and if you’re not prepared you will pay a big time price for the overall discomfort. Final word on that subject — if you insist on 75-80 degree weather with no chance of rain the best bet is to head elsewhere.
*Be sure to give yourself sufficient time when driving between courses. Rural Irish roads do not lend themselves to high speeds — they are often narrow and can be difficult at times to negotiate — especially at night. For example, if a course is 30 miles away — it’s best to plan no less than one hour to get there.
*Book tee times sufficiently in advance in order to get the best times. As a rule — six months or more is strongly recommended.
*Play the appropriate tee markers. Irish links courses in the Northwest often feature severe penalties for wayward driving. Enjoyable golf can be had — just be smart when deciding how much of a challenge you can successfully handle.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?