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The Northwest might be Ireland's best

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,
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Sandy Hill LinksROSSNOWLAGH, IRELAND- "Most visiting U.S. golfers tend to head to the southwest of Ireland when they come over for the first time," explains Brian Gowdy, co-owner of The Golf Travel Company in Atlanta, a worldwide golf travel service. "They've heard of the 'ranked' courses like Ballybunion and Lahinch. That's where many of their friends have played, so it's a logical decision."

"We like to expose golfers to the joys of the west and northwest area of Ireland as an alternative," explains the Belfast native. "The value is a key element, as you can play four or even five rounds on different links courses in this underrated region for the price of a single round at Old Head. There's greater value in the hotel properties as well, and this area is unspoiled. It's peopled with Irish golfers, and not so many tourists."

With the redoubtable tour operator firmly in command of our four-passenger van, a trio of American golf writers decided to take him at his word. Our first stop was Rosses Point, also known as County Sligo, some three hours north of the Shannon airport. This is one of the older tracks in this part of the country, a Harry Colt design more than 75 years old. It features an ungainly beginning, a pair of par-4 holes that are both uphill and undefined. Located in the shadow of towering Benbulben, one of the most beautiful mountains in Ireland, the course truly earns its distinction on the inward nine.

When golfers reach lands end, ostensibly at Rosses Point itself, things get interesting. The tee shot on the par-3 13th must clear a corner of the beach itself, and the succeeding par-4 holes are striking. The penultimate hole is one of the greatest and most memorable this vagabond golfer has ever laid eyes on. It's a sweeping, uphill dogleg par 4 of some 440 yards, featuring a false front that will repel most every long iron or fairway wood approach shot. It's a stirring conclusion to a fine test of the game.

Rosses PointSligo shows its mettle on the inward journey, but a bit farther up the coast at Donegal, the thrills come earlier in the round. It's simply make or break at the aptly named "Valley of Tears," a harrowing and heroic 170-yard, par-3 hole with a plateau green and abject misery everywhere else. Pulse pounding while you take a practice swing, the anticipation of hitting this green, nestled amidst waving fields of heather, is why we play the game. Of course missing the green and having to ball hawk in the fescue, a distinct possibility on this exposed terrain damned with an ever present sea breeze, is why we give it up.

American architects like Fazio, Dye and Jones pay their bulldozer men overtime to create the type of "containment mounding" that occurs naturally on this remarkable links land. The dunes that separate the fairways from the beach help to push wayward golf balls back toward the short grass. A welcome respite, considering the funky bounces, constant breezes and massive greens here conspire to make this Eddie Hackett-Pat Ruddy collaboration a daunting, albeit dramatic test for the average player.

We bedded down midway between Sligo and Donegal for a couple of nights in the sleepy summertime burgh of Rossnowlagh, which is known as the surfing capital of Ireland. Domiciled at the lovely Sand House Hotel, our rooms looked out at the angry breakers of the Atlantic. After tee time but before bedtime we quaffed pints in The Surfer's Bar at the hotel. We enjoyed "craic" with local surfer dudes whose most essential accoutrement isn't sunglasses or zinc oxide, but a neoprene wetsuit, presumably worn even in high summer.

DonegalEven further north is an eminently worthwhile resort known as Rosapenna, with 36 holes of championship golf. The original links date back more than a century, designed by Old Tom Morris. The first 10 holes close by the sea, before a curious finishing stretch of inland holes that is quite literally a pastureland. It's the brand new course that will gain Rosapenna international attention though. The innocuously names Sandy Hill Links, a diabolical creation by the genial sportswriter-turned-architect Pat Ruddy, is among the most arduous tests of the game I've ever seen. Picture a snaking bowling alley fortified by monstrous, shaggy dunes. Picture yourself on the first tee, 450 yards from the green, with a gusty crosswind making the thigh-high heather, encroaching claustrophobically close to the fairway, shimmer and shake. Picture a scorecard well into the triple digits.

Terror and lost ball factor aside, the remote grandeur of Sandy Hill Links is astonishing in scope. As the course matures, as the rough is thinned and tamed, it will quickly gain prominence as one of the great courses of Ireland. Right now it's a gnarly infant, only opened since summer, and scaling the dunes in search of yet another stray Strata reminds this native New Englander of only one thing: The fescue is so deep and matted it's like pulling your knees up while walking though two feet of fresh snow. There's respite in the modern, airy hotel though. Presided over by the ultra-accommodating Frank Casey, a man who makes more daily costume changes (business suit, sporting clothes, evening tuxedo) than Cher in concert, traumatized golf guests will always be relaxed and well taken care of. Once they hole out on the 18th, anyway.

EnniscroneWe headed south at journey's end once again, and our final golf stop was the most arresting of the trip. Enniscrone is undoubtedly one of the most memorable courses I've ever had the privilege to butcher, a twisting mountain road of a golf course, with hairpin turns and pulse pounding views of Killala Bay amidst the towering dunes. Turn the corner on the dogleg at the first and marvel at a putting surface tucked seamlessly between the dunes. At that moment Enniscrone affords a distinct and highly deserved impression as a very special test of the game.

This 1974 Eddie Hackett design from an existing 9 hole track was partially rerouted by Donald Steele, and the collaboration was genius. The terrain winds dramatically up, over and through the dunes close by the bay. It moves inland for a mid round respite near Scurmore Beach. The closing holes are a marvelous crescendo back into the dunes, adjacent to the bay, with swirling winds, tilting greens, waving heather and postcard views of the town in the distance. Links golf at its very essence.

We drove south to lively Galway for a final evening, then further on to Shannon for our transatlantic flights the next day. Gowdy's description of the Northwest was confounding me as we took off for home. It's hard to reconcile the fact that visiting American golfers delegate this delightful region of the country to a second or third choice. How could they? It's absolutely first rate.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

 
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