18 Holes in Heaven – The Best 1-18 in Donegal
Located in Ireland’s most North Westerly corner, Donegal is a county that has long remained a well kept secret as a tourism destination. A change is on the horizon however with visitor numbers on a steep upward curve and the Irish Open set for the county in 2018.
With some of the finest courses in Ireland to be found in Donegal, we have compiled our best 1-18 in the county. If you ever get a chance to play each of the courses included in this list, you will have had the pleasure of enjoying some of the most spectacular experiences in golf. For those based in Donegal, this list may draw some debate but we’re fairly confident the holes that made our final cut are worthy entrants!
1st at Letterkenny Golf Club
Although Donegal is not famous for its parkland courses, the opening tee shot al Letterkenny Golf Club is one that will stick in the memory. A drop of around 50 feet awaits as you tee off on this dogleg par 4 with a precise yardage needed to avoid running out of fairway and ending up in the fir trees.
In the distance you see the Inishowen peninsula with Lough Swilly just below and on a summer afternoon the manicured lines of the fairway will have you filled with anticipation for the round ahead.
Having had considerable investment over the past 10 years, Letterkenny GC is now one of the finest parkland courses in the North West and surely has the most spectacular opening hole.
If you have managed to place your tee shot in the fairway, a mid iron to a green guarded by sand on the left and water on the right awaits. A par on this memorable Par 4 is always very welcome.
2nd at Portsalon Golf Club
Those that have stepped up onto the second tee at Portsalon Golf Club may argue that this is among the best holes in Ireland. This golf course is one which almost catches you by surprise when you realise the utter brilliance behind some of the holes as you make your way along the world famous Ballymastocker Beach.
From a raised tee, you’re faced with a shot across the rocky beach with the dogleg Par 4 stretched out in front of you. Measuring almost 450 yards, the temptation is to cut off as much of the dog leg by hugging the left. This is all very well in theory but a slight error can lead to a sandy grave with out of bounds all the way up the left side on the beach. If you opt out and aim safely right, you’re left with a monster shot into the green.
Even if you do manage a perfect tee shot, more danger lies in wait. The approach to the green is guarded by water for anything short with large imposing dunes on the right and a run off area on the left. This hole is not for the faint hearted but is a classic example of risk and reward. Without doubt one of the best holes in Donegal – if not in Ireland.
And that means it’s one of the best in the world, right?! That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!
3rd at Buncrana Golf Club
Founded back in 1890, Buncrana Golf Club is the oldest 9 hole golf course in the country. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a short knock about, however!
The monster par 3 3rd hole is a beast for even the biggest hitters. At 240 yards off the back sticks, ‘The Valley’ will test the best golfers on any given day and with stunning views of the Fanad Peninsula across Lough Swilly, this is a hole and indeed a course that will live long in the memory.
4th at Sandy Hills Rosapenna
Risk and reward are two words that can be associated with some of the best holes in world golf. The 4th at Sandy Hills is no different. The hole measures 438 yards off the back sticks but if you decide to cut off the corner, this is greatly reduced.
Any 300+ yard hitters will be tempted on days when the wind is favourable and a very manageable birdie chance can be set up with a good drive at the green.
By contrast, leave it right or short and you encounter penal bunkers, deep dunes and a world of misery.
If you do lay up safe off the tee, the sloping green provides a challenging approach and a double bogey can still materialise if you’re not accurate. A fantastic hole that can seem easy if you hit good shots but miscue slightly and your scorecard may well be finding the bin well before its time!
5th at the Old Course Ballyliffin
The 5th hole at the Old Course Ballyliffin is a truly classic Par 3. From the tee you are greeted with a raised tee surrounded by daunting dunes. There are no bunkers on ‘The Tank’ but don’t let this fool you. Unless you are perfect with your yardage you will either find your ball trundling back towards you if you are short or in a horrendous lie in the dunes above the hole if you are long. Left of right will not be much better!
If the green staff are feeling particularly grumpy, you may find the flag tucked in behind a dune on the left hand side of the green. When this is the case, aiming for the pin could be a fatal error and a safe iron to the middle of the green is the percentage shot.
At less than 180 yards off the back sticks this hole will seem like a great par change and with a solid iron off the tee this will be the case. Get greedy or pick the wrong club however and you will soon see the error of your ways!
6th at Cruit Island
If Donegal is the hidden gem of Irish golf, the Cruit Island is the hidden gem of Donegal golf! Located on a remote island off west Donegal, it presents views difficult to match anywhere else in the world.
As you stand on the 6th tee, a gaping chasm waits in front of you with the Atlantic Ocean crashing into the rugged rocks below. Everything at the front of the green slopes back into the ocean so you better make sure you have enough club. Around you, marvel at the sea stacks, sea arches and wild coastline.
But the sad truth is all of this can only really be appreciated if you have found the putting surface of this majestic 137 yard par 3.
And that’s no easy task.
7th at Glashedy Ballyliffin
Elevated tees in Donegal are always a guarantee of something spectacular. The 7th at Glashedy is no exception and is sure to provide stunning viewing during the Irish Open in 2018.
Standing on the tee, you are faced with a shot that feels as though it should be straightforward but rarely is. With a rare links course lake on the right, clever bunkering around the green and a severe bank with deep rough on the left, your margin for error is minimal. Add to this a strong wind from any direction and choosing a club becomes nigh on impossible.
A par at this stunning Par 3 is always a welcome addition to the score card!
8th at Murvagh
Okay, we bring golf tourists to play golf in Ireland, many of them to Donegal, so we’re not exactly impartial here.
But still, we firmly believe the Par 5 8th at Murvagh Golf Club is without doubt one of the best Par 5’s in Europe. Bordered on the right by the Atlantic Ocean, this 550 yard hole challenges you in almost every manner imaginable.
With a sloping fairway you need to keep your drive on the right side as it will feed left. For your second shot, a layup is no easy feat as a deep chasm awaits on the right. If you choose to go for the green you will do so blind hoping you find the right yardage as anything short will ensure a treacherous shot out of very thick rough.
This hole has a generous green – once you make it that far!
But you’re almost guaranteed to have a bit of an adventure on the way there.
9th at Otway
A round at the 9 hole Otway Golf Club is not for the faint hearted. As one of the oldest courses in Ireland, the history is palpable and a game here often feels like a step back in time. Views of Lough Swilly provide a spectacular backdrop and there are certainly a couple of holes here that remain in the memory.
The 9th tee on the headland leading to Mackamish Fort is one of the most dramatic in Ireland. Just make sure to remember to tee off as you may annoy your playing partners by getting sidetracked photographing the spectacular scenery!
10th at Narin & Portnoo
Carraig Fada, the name of the 10th at Narin & Portnoo, translates to ‘Long Rock’ and the literal translation of this Par 5 may be down to the fact that it is long and very, very hard!
With the Atlantic Ocean to your right, this hole requires two precise shots before playing to a green that is protected like a military bunker!
With the front protected by 3 pot bunkers and deep rough all around, there is no option to run a fairway wood into the green, so trying for this green in two will be out of bounds for most golfers.
But of course, no matter what we say or anyone else tells you, and despite lots of dunes, bunkers and rough, the large green that awaits will still tempt many to go for broke.
A Par 5 should be about risk and reward and if you strike the ball well on the 10th at Narin & Portnoo you will be rewarded. Lose your way on this beautiful par 5 and you could be in big trouble.
11th at Bundoran
As with so many links gems in Donegal, the 11th hole at Bundoran is memorable for the views of the Wild Atlantic coast as well as the hole itself. With your view across Donegal Bay on one site and upon Ben Bulben on the other, by the time you reach the 11th you are already sold on this forgiving links layout.
‘Tullan’ comes in at less than 400 and as with many holes on this course, its main defence is the wind. For golfers looking for a hole and a course that are playable in the lap of spectacular natural beauty, the 11th at Bundoran will not disappoint.
12th at Greencastle
‘Lighthouse’ as it is known is a fitting name for this wonderful little Par 4 at Greencastle Golf Club.
Your view from the tee across the bay and out onto the North Atlantic Ocean allows a glimpse of the landmark in the distance to the back right of the green.
Before you get there however, you have to ensure to stay out of the rocks and sandy bay that line the hole before reaching the tight green which is just metres from ocean. Your reward once you find the green is a photo opportunity as good as any in Ireland with the beautiful bright white lighthouse in the foreground and the wild atlantic ocean behind.
13th at Glashedy
The Glashedy course at Ballyliffin could easily claim to have any number of entries in the ‘Best 18’ list for Donegal – it’s not for nothing that this gem of a course will become the first Donegal course to stage the Irish Open in 2018.
Stepping onto the 13th there is no doubt about the inclusion of this beast in this list of the greatest holes in Donegal. Depending on the wind direction, you may be faced with the fear of requiring three of your Sunday best strikes even to get close to the green.
At almost 600 yards off the back sticks and playing straight up the hill, a strong headwind will make a bogey on this monster an acceptable score.
The vast dunes either side of the straight fairway are to be visited only if you want to take advantage of the spectacular view across the course.
When you finally reach the green, make sure your yardage is accurate as all approach shots coming up short will feed into the pot bunker in front of the green while overshooting the green will see the same fate.
For mere mortals this hole is enough to give you sleepless nights so it will be interesting to see how Rory McIlroy & Co handle it in July 2018.
14th at Portsalon
Matterhorn is a par 4 that will live long in the memory. From an elevated tee, the view across the Swilly and over to the Inishowen peninsula is quite spectacular. If you can find the fairway having taken the aggressive line off the tee, you can be rewarded with an inviting approach shot.
Finding the fairway off the tee is no easy feat however! You can try to cut the corner on this dog leg right – but you’ll need an exact yardage if you do or you will find your ball on a vertical downslope in some extremely thick rough. That is if you manage to find the ball! For those taking the safe option and staying short of the dog leg, a daunting approach of up to 200 yards awaits.
15th at Gweedore
Situated in the Gaeltacht region of west Donegal, a trip to Gweedore Golf Club is a must for any golfer looking to experience true rural Ireland. This welcoming golf club has enjoyed extensive improvements over the past decade and as with many courses in Donegal, it is the landscape surrounding the course that helps make it a stand-out.
With the majestic Mount Errigal towering over you to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, you will have to remind yourself to focus on the golf.
When you arrive at the 15th hole, if the day is wild – not uncommon on the coast of the Wild Atlantic Way – you could be forgiven for feeling like you’re on the edge of the earth. The teebox on this short par 3 is jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean and playing to the raised green, surrounded by dunes, you will marvel at the beauty of the hole.
16th at Northwest Golf Club
In a world of 7,600 yard courses and 350 yard drives, it’s easy to forget that the most iconic holes in golf often measure little over 100 yards. Think of the 17th at Sawgrass, the 12th at Augusta or ‘the Postage Stamp’ 8th at Royal Troon and you will instantly remember drama.
The 16th at North West Golf Club – or ‘Fairy’ as it’s known locally – is a rare thing in golf as a hole measuring less than 100 yards. Yet this tricky little hole is arguably one of the most memorable on this wonderful links layout.
Very few golfers enjoy a ¾ wedge shot, and with deep pot bunkers, steep roll off areas and thick rough surrounding this green, a slight error in distance is punished heavily. ‘Fairy’ is a reminder, if needed, that golf is as much about feel as it is about ferocious hitting.
17th at Dunfanaghy
As with so many on this list of the best 18 golf holes in Donegal, the 17th at Dunfanaghy Golf Club is memorable for the use it makes of the natural land at its mercy.
At 171 yards this hole is by no means a cinch. From an elevated tee, jutting into the shoreline you can be forgiven for seeing nothing but beach, especially if you are closing in on a competition win! Anything right on this hole will see your scorecard ruined and you will wonder where it all went wrong. If you choose to take the safe option and play left, a par is a difficult score to come by.
The only option on this visually stunning par 3 is a solid iron into the middle of the green allowing you to enjoy the magnificent view of Sheephaven Bay as you approach your birdie putt.
18th at Old Tom Morris (Rosapenna)
A statue overlooking Sheephaven Bay at Rosapenna comes into vision as you make your way towards the 18th green on the Old Tom Morris course. Having made your way around this traditional links course, you ascend the hill on this lengthy Par 5 and feel the sense of history that resonates around this spectacular golf resort.
This iconic finishing hole with the golf pavilion & statue of Old Tom in the background can provide ammunition for months of gloating – or perhaps a bit of shame, depending on how you play the hole.
If you happen to be the last group in as part of a society, you can rest assured that a large group will be watching your approach shot from the golf pavilion. If the wind is against you, this par 5 becomes a monster and a very lengthy third shot is a certainty.
With the right wind, though, two big hits can allow you to reach the green and an eagle on this fine finishing hole is not an impossibility – and that, dear golfer, could give you bragging rights for years to come.
Planning a trip for summer of 2021….third golf trip to Ireland, and Murvagh is a must this time!