LISFANNON, IRELAND | On the road to and from Ballyliffin four years ago, our foursome caught a glimpse of a golf course on a narrow wedge of Donegal tucked between the Mouldy Mountains and Lough Swilly. As American golf travelers beholden to an established itinerary tend always to be hurrying from one tee time to the next, we didn’t have time for an investigative detour. On the second pass through Buncrana, however, we thought enough to catch a glimpse of the sign as we sped past along the Wild Atlantic Way.
North West Golf Club.
The name didn’t ring bells on the familiar bucket list of courses that golfers try to check off. But the gorgeous setting held such promise that we made note of it.
Returning to Ireland in July, the North West Golf Club was the first links stop on the itinerary. The only disappointment was having skipped it four years earlier. That’s not a mistake anyone should make on a golf trek to Donegal. About six holes into our round on the proper links, our group had reached consensus that we could play North West every day and be perfectly content.
Established as an 18-hole links course in 1891 and designed by Portrush professional Charles Thompson, North West is one of the nine founding members of the Golfing Union of Ireland – a select group that includes notable Royal courses County Down, Portrush and Belfast. It has been favorably described as the “St. Andrews of Ireland,” a comparison that holds up considering its ground and style are more similar to Scottish links than some of its dunesland peers in Ireland’s rugged northwest – with fast-running undulating fairways, wispy rough and deftly placed riveted bunkers.
Views across Lough Swilly toward the North Atlantic are spectacular. The opening five holes play hard along the windswept water, including a rebuilt par-4 fourth that replaced the original lost to the constant battle of erosion against the sea.
While every hole has its charms, North West’s collection of par-3s stand out – none of them long but each of them more challenging than the last, with concave greens that fall off sharply into swales or bunkers or burns. No. 8 (Piffler) is just 139 yards from the tips but nearly impossible to decipher how to keep a tee shot on the narrow green with a confounding cross bunker in front forcing absolute precision. Then there’s the 16th, called Fairy, which plays from just 82 to 93 yards yet invites more bogeys or doubles than birdies or pars.
From beginning to end, North West asks an endless array of questions that require more than one playing to figure out all of the answers. Visitors are welcome to try, and anyone walking in will receive a far warmer welcome than if you knocked on the door at the R&A clubhouse behind the Old Course.
It was more than the bargain that attracted him. It was the whole vibe of the club, from its cozy restaurant and lounge overlooking the verdant course and sea to the membership.
Charles Brooks can certainly attest to that. Brooks. a 75-year-old Michigander who in 2016 decided to take up Irish citizenship thanks to having three Irish grandparents, stumbled up the hobbit-like path from his rental house across the street to the North West clubhouse in May and immediately took up an overseas membership.
“It was serendipitous, I suppose,” said Brooks, who on his frequent trips to Ireland had never visited Donegal before this summer. “I wanted to get someplace quiet so I could think and write, and I found this very economical Airbnb across from North West and it fit my needs financially, too.”
For €300 (roughly $300), Brooks had membership privileges at North West for the duration of his stay from May 25 until his departure Aug. 18 – which he estimates came out to about €5 per round that he played over the course of nearly three months.
“That was really surprising to me that I could get that membership and not worry about paying every time I played – a real bargain,” Brooks said.
It was more than the bargain that attracted him. It was the whole vibe of the club, from its cozy restaurant and lounge overlooking the verdant course and sea to the membership. Before he’d even checked into his Airbnb, Brooks had fallen in love with the place.
“They were so welcoming. They just embraced you right away,” Brooks said. “That’s County Donegal: fewer people; nicer people.”
Brooks, a retired friend-of-the-court divorce mediator in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who owns a retirement patio home with his wife in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had never played links golf before North West. A high-handicapper with two new knees, a new hip and repaired shoulders more accustomed to playing parkland courses like the ones in Myrtle Beach, he’s had to learn how to play the ground game across North West’s rumpled fescue fairways and greens.
“Links golf is not even the same as golf golf,” Brooks said. “So it’s been a real learning experience for me. I don’t hit the ball too long, so instead of aiming to be in the low 80s I’m happy to stay in the 90s these days. It’s about staying in the middle, and then you gotta be able to chip and putt. The first month I kept hitting the ball like back home and landing in the green and would never stay on the green. So this pitch-and-run stuff that they do, that was hard to learn.”
Brooks has posted a couple of 92s – “which I thought were really good” – and will slip into the 100s if he finds too many of the “weeds” left and right. Regardless of the score, Brooks realizes how lucky he’s got it.
“Every day I wake up and I walk out the front door – to the right of me is this beautiful mountain, to the left of me is the water – and I thank God for Ireland,” he said. “I’d never leave if it was solely up to me. I have citizenship. I could come here and stay if I wanted to. It’s a beautiful town. I hope to come back as often as I can. People there have been so nice, and they treat you like you’re one of their own.”
Would that we all could get the chance to spend a summer in Donegal calling a place like North West home. If you’re in the neighborhood, don’t just drive by it without stopping.
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