Golf is divisive. For some there is no better way to see any country than from the vantage point of the fairway, for others a golfing tour is, to paraphrase, ‘a good vacation spoiled’.
This itinerary aims for the middle ground. It brings golfers to some of the best links golf courses in Ireland and non-golfers to places where they can ignore the golf and have their own good time. So good that it may even tempt the golfers away from the course for a day or two!
We’ve headed north for this tour with good reason. Golfers will enjoy some of the greatest links courses not just in Ireland but in the World, less visited than their more southern counterparts and for the most part extremely good value.
Happily, they are all in beautiful coastal locations which makes life good for the non-golfers too. It’s also a great tour for anyone who’s been to Ireland before and has seen the main sights, which tend to be in the south of the country, as it will take you to fantastic places that are less crowded and less well known but undeservedly so.
I’ve added the position of each club in the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World listing not because I think these rankings are written in stone, but because it may help you to make some hard (really hard!) choices. In a country with over 350 golf courses, making the top 50 as all these courses do is no mean feat.
About the Itinerary
We are assuming you have a party big enough to justify hiring two cars, so that golfers and non-golfers can go their separate ways for at least part of every day. For a mixed interest group this really is a much better option than renting one large vehicle.
This is a very loose itinerary with 12 suggested courses which you can customise to your own liking. Pick just a couple of locations if time is short, linger at any of them for as long as you like if you’ve more time. You’ll travel through 5 counties, in a sweep around the top of Ireland and it is possible to play your way around in 5 days but that will involve some tough decisions about what to leave out!
Sligo for Golfers:
A choice of three courses for the golfers.
Co Sligo (Rosses Point) Golf Club Website
Ranking: 7th in Ireland
A fantastic course with so many great holes that there are those who say it’s the best overall 18 holes of links golf in Ireland. It’s challenging but still accessible to golfers of all levels, not too expensive and the club is less stuffy than some others top courses. The gorgeous views help too. Less than 15 minutes from Sligo.
Enniscrone Golf Club Website
Ranking: 12th in Ireland
Fabulous greens, a tough and challenging course (especially when windy) and a superb setting nestled in sand dunes by a long beach with views over the bay to Nephin Beg mountain. Did we mentions the sand? The clubhouse is very friendly and particularly noted for its warm welcome to visiting golfers. About 45 minutes from Sligo.
Carne Golf Links Website
Ranking: 13th in Ireland
This true links course, in a remote and very beautiful part of Ireland that few tourists reach, will delight seasoned links players especially. Lots of touring golfers change their plans when they discover Carne and just stay to play a 2nd or even 3rd time. Very friendly and welcoming to visitors. About an hour and 45 minutes – and a lovely drive – from Sligo.
Sligo for non-Golfers:
Sligo is Yeats County and our Yeats County Tour is a leisurely and enjoyable look around various places in the area associated with the great poet. You can include a trip to the Isle of Inisfree, in beautiful Lough Gill, and visit 17th century Parke’s Castle by the shores of the lake. Even if you don’t do the whole tour, a visit to Lissadell House is a must.
A little further away Ceide Fields reveals the story of ancient settlement in Ireland, with field systems dating back more than 5000 years. The megalithic remains at Carrowmore go back even further: the tombs, stone circles, passage graves and standing stones here were built about 1000 years earlier.
Kids especially will enjoy a visit to Woodville Farm, where they will get to see and pet animals but also get a great glimpse into what farming in Ireland is all about.
If you are the active type you’re spoiled for choice. This is great walking country, with waymarked routes of all types from urban to rural, by lakes or the coast or through forests. Head to Strandhill for great surfing – the local surf school will kit you out with all you need. Horseriding is a great way to see the countryside or the coastline and Island View Stables have a variety of options to choose from.
Sligo is home to several festivals during the year, check here to see if there are any on during your visit.
We suggest basing yourself in Letterkenny, which although not immediately beside any of the courses is less than hour from them all.
Donegal for Golfers:
This is the place of really hard choices – there are so many terrific courses you could stay put for a week or more, play golf twice a day and still go home feeling you hadn’t enough time! We’re not going to even try making the choice for you, just show you the amazing options.
Rosapenna Golf Resort Website
Ranking: 11th (Sandy Hills) and 39th (Old Tom Morris) in Ireland
There are two great links courses (and a hotel) here. The Old Tom Morris course, there since 1881, is the more famous one but the new and demanding Sandy Hills course is even better. Both courses weave around each other through huge dunes and the views, especially from elevated greens, are spectacular. Around 30 minutes from Letterkenny.
Portsalon Golf Links Website
Ranking: 26th in Ireland
A strong course with stunning views on the Fanad peninsula. It’s tough, if your long shots are not accurate you’ll be quickly found out and the rocky outcrops around the course provide an additional challenge. The clubhouse has good food and this is a very friendly course. A bit less than 45 minutes from Letterkenny.
Ballyliffen Golf Club Website
Ranking: 9th (Glashedy) and 29th (Old Course) in Ireland
Two very different courses here. The Old Course is a classic links, rolling through the dunes and forcing you to take shots from ridiculous angles. The longer, wider Glashedy Course with its famous undulating greens is an even stiffer test. This is Nick Faldo’s favourite Irish club and he redesigned several of the holes. Just over an hour from Letterkenny.
Donegal (Murvagh) Golf Club Website
Ranking: 19th in Ireland
Murvagh is on a peninsula overlooking Donegal Bay and the Blue Stack Mountains. Unlike many links this is a big and long course – 7200 yards with five par 5s and some very long par 3s – open and fairly flat with not that many dunes, but the challenge is no less. About an hour from Letterkenny.
Narin & Portnoo Golf Club Website
Ranking: 34th in Ireland
A very well kept but unspoiled old style links course, hilly and with plenty of dunes and fast testing greens . The staggeringly lovely views of the coastline from almost every hole (linger to enjoy on the 15th tee specially) also means stiff sea breezes – expect to lose a lot of balls if it’s really windy! About an hour from Letterkenny.
Donegal for non-golfers:
The Inishown Peninsula is one of the most scenic places in Ireland with coastal drives that are easily a rival for the more famous (and crowded) Ring of Kerry. An easy uphill walk to Grianan of Aileach, a huge stone fort, will be rewarded with breathtaking views over Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. The Maritime Museum and Planetarium in Greencastle has some interesting exhibits on the marine life of the area (look out for basking sharks, common around here) as well as shipwrecks, boat building and traditional fishing methods.
Where are the highest cliffs in Europe? The Cliffs of Moher maybe? No, at Slieve League, an unspoiled area near Bunglas, itself a charming village. The fishing industry is very important in Donegal and Killybegs is home port to some of the largest trawlers working in this part of the world, well worth a look, some of them are astonishing.
Two historic buildings are must sees: Donegal Castle, an impressive 14th century castle steeped in history and Glebe House, close to Letterkenny the amazing former home of painter Derek Hill, a lovely regency house decorated with oriental carpets, Morris textiles and Islamic and Japanese art.
If the golfers are lingering for more than one day, you should grab the opportunity to visit Tory Island, it’ll certainly be an experience you’ll never forget.
Donegal’s famous and mainly deserted beaches are a surfer’s paradise and both safe (but watch for signs) and clean for swimmers. There are several surf centres – those near the beaches in Bundoran and Rossnowlagh are good bets. Inish Adventures can organise a host of activities, from archery and hill walking to sailing and every imaginable type of kayaking.
Derry for Golfers:
I don’t often flat out recommend a place to stay, but for your days in Derry and Antrim I suggest staying at Maddybenny Farm near Portrush, a real gem with a warm welcome, wonderful breakfasts, very reasonably priced and no more than 10 minutes drive from all three courses. And no, they haven’t paid me to say that! You could play either of these courses en route from Letterkenny.
Portstewart Golf Club Website
Ranking: 4th (Strand Course) in Northern Ireland
There are 54 holes but the Strand Course is the one you want. It is a seamless mix of old and new holes, massive dunes, and a real challenge. The first 9 holes are often ranked as the best 9 anywhere and although the second half is less spectacular there is still has much to enjoy. About 1 hour 30 mins from Letterkenny.
Castlerock Golf Club Website
Ranking: 5th (Mussenden Course) in Northern Ireland
Undeservedly less well known that other Northern Irish links, the Mussenden is a great classic links course, where the dunes are huge, there are no bad holes and the winds (it’s always windy) really matter! It is a particularly friendly club with very reasonable green fees. About an hour and 20 minutes from Letterkenny.
Derry for non-Golfers:
The house at Downhill Desmesne, close to Castlerock Golf course, is now a ruin but the gardens and the >Mussenden Temple, a domed rotunda, standing ever closer (due to erosion) to the cliff edge makes this place worth a visit.
Springhill, near Magherfelt, is a 17th century Plantation House which was home to 10 generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family. The house is furnished still with their portraits and furniture – the Costume Collection is a particular joy – and there is a great activity trail through the grounds for kids.
A visit to Derry City is not complete without a walk along the famous Walls of Derry, built between 1613 and 1619 and still completely intact forming a mile long walkway around the city centre with wonderful views. You’ll see the spire of St Columb’s Cathedral, which has dominated the city skyline since 1633 and it’s worth a short look inside.
The Guidhall has been the administrative centre of Derry since 1890 and a museum inside tells the fascinating and interwoven story of the building and the city. There are beautiful stained glass windows each representing a trade guild – carpenters, fishmongers, painters, musicians, glaziers and more.
For those interested in the troubled history of Derry during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a walking tour of the Bogside and a visit to the Museum of Free Derry tells the story of the republican community from the civil rights marches of the early 1970s to the present day. Derry City Tours
Getting below the water on the coast opens up a whole new world, and the Aquaholics Dive Centre in Portsrewart can arrange diving outings or if you prefer to stay on the water rather than under it, sea safaris along the coast to the Giant’s Causeway.
Antrim for Golfers:
There’s only one club to play here and it’s special.
Royal Portrush Golf Club Website
Ranking: 2nd (Dunluce) and 6th (Valley) in Northern Ireland. 15th in World (Dunluce)
Overlooked by Dunluce Castle on the dramatic North Antrim coast the famous Dunluce course with its rolling hills and multitude of natural hazards is as tough a test of links golf as you’ll find anywhere. Each hole is different, each with its own challenge, and all of them just beautiful. Your biggest question at the end of your round will be how the hell did Rory McIlroy get around here in 61 – at 15 years old.
If the Valley Course was anywhere else it’d be a destination in itself, winding through the dunes without a single bad hole and if less testing than its big brother no walk-over either. It’s also less crowded and a fraction of the price to play. For all it’s status, Portrush is a friendly club to play and makes visitors very welcome.
Antrim for non-Golfers:
The north Antrim coast is famously beautiful and the drive along it is one of the great driving routes of the world. If you start from Portstewart, the first stop will be Dunluce Castle, as romantic a ruin as you’ll ever see, perched on a cliff edge overlooking the famous Royal Portrush golf course.
A little further along a visit to the Busmills Distillary is highly recommended, it’s a working factory, one of the main employers in the region and the interesting tour leaves you in no doubt of the pride people have in their local whiskey.
The Giant’s Causeway is a must see, extraordinary rock formations stretcheing along the coast and out to sea and a World Heritage site. If you are feeling brave you can follow that up with a walk across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a narrow bridge swinging in the breeze, high over the ocean.
There are some beautiful little towns along the way, Ballycasttle, Cushendall and Cushendun are particularly worth a stop and you’ll find good places for coffee or lunch in any of them.
The last section of the drive, from Cushendall to Larne, you are hugging the coastline all the way and watching one amazing view after another unfold before you.
If you are staying in this area for more than one day, take a ferry from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island, a volcanic island that is home to tens of thousands of seabirds. It’s a beautiful place with an interesting history which you can explore in the small visitor center, and is still home to about 100 people.
If you are staying at Maddybenny Farm (or even if you are not), their riding school has treks available for all abilities of rider which take you through beautiful countryside with great views to the coast.
Down for Golfers:
Once again I’m going to suggest accommodation. The Dufferin Inn in beautiful Killyleagh by the edge of Strangford Lough is particularly friendly and welcoming and a very comfortable place to stay. It’s near the golf and also well placed for touring.
This is what we’ve be building up to, a course generally ranked as the best links course in the world.
Royal County Down Website
Ranking: 1st in Northern Ireland, 1st in UK & Ireland, 3rd in the World
Soon, finally, there will be a British Open played at this wonderful, beautiful course and what a treat that will be. If even the pros find it tough, for everyone else it’s honestly a bit terrifying. Many blind shots, a multitude of hazards and punishing roughs means if you even get close to par around here you have truly excelled yourself. But it’s so stunningly gorgeous, so fascinating a challenge and so has so many wonderful and memorable holes that you will be happy just to have played it.
It’s rarely even possible for the ordinary golfer to play as highly rated a course as this, so while it is expensive (though reasonable out of season), it’s well worth the price.
Down for non-Golfers
Strangford Lough and the Ards peninsula is an area of quiet understated beauty, with low hills and and green forested shores along either side of a beautiful fjord. Car ferries leave from Portaferry for the peninsula regularly but a sea safari, which takes you out on the Lough to see seals, a shipwreak and possibly dolphins, basking sharks and whales, is a great way to see the coastline from the water. The lough is particularly lovely in the evening light and if you are a keen photographer try to be there to capture the magic.
Mount Stewart House & Gardens near Greyabbey is a lovely neo-classical mansion with fabulous gardens where there are often special events during the summer months especially. A tour of the house is highly recommended.
If there are any petrolheads in your party they might enjoy an afternoon at Eddie Irvines Race School in Kircubbin on the Ards Peninsula. They’ll provide you with some tuition first and then off you go for a few laps of the track behind the wheel of a real race car!
The Downpatrick & Co Down Railway is staffed by volunteers who run a steam train along preserved railway tracks from Downpatrick to Inch Abbey, a ruined 12th century Cistercian Abbey. This is a wonderful trip, especially for anyone who’s never experienced a ride in an old steam train before.
You could easily spend a full day at the Ulster Folk & Transportation Museum, which takes you back 100 years or more to wander though cottages, farms, schools and shops where guides demonstrate traditional crafts. There are always special events and exhibitions running here and it’s a place that children absolutely love.
In the south of the county are the famous Mountains of Mourne, a area with many waymarked walks and some of the most gorgeous scenery in Ireland – the mountains really do sweep majestically down to the sea! The Mourne Wall, a 2m high, 1m thick and 35km dry stone wall long, climbs up and down 15 mountains, and walking it’s full length is a popular challenge – but you can just walk short sections of it too.
Most places are marked here, but you’ll not find it hard to get around at any of these destinations, they are all places that reward those willing to just wander!