The Northwest of Ireland is becoming notorious for its golf; most golfers used to ignore County Donegal in their quest to play the more famous courses around Belfast in the north and Kerry in the south. Those in the know now realise that there is quality golf at a sensible price here in Donegal.
The Portsalon golf course runs along the beautiful sandy shores of Ballymastoker Bay, stretching for two miles towards where the mouth of the deep blue Lough Swilly meets the Atlantic Ocean. The beach boasts the EC Blue Flag award for its cleanliness.The Lough is trapped, to the east by the hills of the Inishowen peninsula, and to the west by the Knockalla Mountains.We are on the Fanad peninsula, territory of the ancient MacSwiney clan.
Opened for play in 1891, Portsalon Golf Club is certainly established and was one of the nine founder members of the Golfing Union of Ireland – County Down, County Club Portrush, Royal Belfast, Killymoon, Dungannon, Aughnacloy, Ballycastle, Portsalon and Buncrana. According to William A. Menton's book, The Golfing Union of Ireland 1891-1991, this stunning links golf course was originally designed by the professional at the then titled County Club at Portrush, Charles Thompson. Bernard Darwin considered Portsalon to be “a thoroughly entertaining course”.
However, Portsalon struggled to survive until the members stepped in and bought it mid-1980s. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength and, in 2000, Pat Ruddy remodelled the course, leaving only five original holes unchanged. Nine new holes were introduced and four others were altered significantly, culminating in Portsalon’s yardage stretching from just under 6,000 yards to a challenging 7,000-plus yards.
This is an exhilarating golf course situated in a stunning location with most of the holes weaving their way between sand dunes. The seawater Lough Swilly is often in full view.It’s unpretentious, golf au natural here at Portsalon. The 2nd hole is fantastic, one of the best in Ireland. Winding its way along the Lough, the views are simply breathtaking.
If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the rare European Rock Dove that has made the coastline of the Fanad peninsular its home.
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I’d visited Portsalon several times before but I’d never, for various reasons, completed a full round (a year ago in April when last here it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t even get started). This time I got to play the full eighteen, which merely endorsed my opinion of how good a course it is. The opening stretch from hole 1 to 7, running out along the beach, is as good a sequence of links holes as you’ll find anywhere with spectacularly rumpled fairways, elevated tees set in the dunes and hidden swales in front of wonderfully contoured greens. In particular, the left doglegged 2nd, aptly named “Strand,” is a really terrific hole, diving downhill to the left towards a green that’s protected at the front by a small river. On the back nine, which moves inland to higher ground, both the 14th and 16th begin with thrilling tee shots played from vantage points set behind the preceding green and these were probably the most memorable for me. There’s also a very tough end to the round as well – an uphill par five at the 17th sandwiched between a couple of par fours which sees these three holes rated 6, 8 and 4 on the stroke index – so the golfing challenge is sustained all the way back to the clubhouse. Portsalon’s not always included in the itinerary of people visiting Donegal but it really should be. Jim McCann
If you are not inspired by the setting here then there is something seriously amiss. After a semi blind approach to the first you see the second hole st out below you and realise that this is going to get serious! From a high tee you drive down to a fairway angled sharply left - if you don't cut the corner you won't be able to make the carry over the river in front of the green, and if you bite off too much you play your second from the beach. Fortunately things calm down a bit after that, but there is still some serious hitting to do as well as the challenge of a couple of good shorter par 4s. My only real gripe is that the last two holes, whilst strong golf holes, seemed to be on much heavier soil and lost the links feel of the rest of the course. Not as penal as Rosapenna Sandy Hills which we played on the same trip, but good quality links golf in stunning surroundings. Definitely on the list for our next visit. CF
Portsalon was viewed by our party as the travelling day course, something to break us in having flown to Belfast followed by a 2 ½ hour drive North West. It turned out to be the surprise package of the Tour. We had wonderful welcome from everyone we came in contact with. The course itself gets going pretty quickly with hole 2, a dog leg right to left running along Ballymastoker Bay probably being the best on the course, kind of a shame it doesn't arrive later in the round. I loved the old fashioned shared greens, a touch of St Andrews. The par 3’s are attractive which required good shots to achieve a Par. This is somewhere I will visit again not only to enjoy the friendship and camaraderie in the clubhouse but to take in the course which I believe will only get better with the odd tweak here and there. Marty Brown.
Played Portsalon last week and we were bowled over by it. The wind was blowing hard and we lost a lot of balls ending up way over handicap but we didn't care! The scenery is stunning, the 2nd hole is one of the most picturesque I've ever played. The course is in lovely condition and has some terrific holes. Exhilarating experience and well worth the effort to go and play it. Link it in with the other fine courses in the area such as Rosapenna and you'll be in golf heaven!
I always play Portsalon when visiting Donegal. It is a course ,when played first, will always draw rave reviews. The setting is tranquill and the front nine along the bay is a great introduction to links golf. Portsalon only loses it's luster when compared to nearby courses such as Rosapenna Sandy Hills, Ballyliffin Glashedy or Portrush. This is great golf course, just off the beaten track
I am sure those of us who have sat through John Ford's ' The Quiet Man' have been transfixed by the scenry, enchanted by the whimsy of the affable Irish charm whilst at the same time dismissing a lot of it as blarney, exargerated for Holywood. I am here to tell you that this may not be the case as I believe that I have trodden in the footsteps of the Quiet Man's spirit whilst walking the fairways of Porsalon. One of Donegal's hidden treasures with a pace less franetic than Rosapenna or Ballyliffin, it is just perfect. The course lies beside Ballymastocker Bay at the mouth of Lough Swilley with a beach which was once voted the 2nd most beautiful beach in the world by no less than The Observer Newspaper. I am begining to feel like Alan Whicker or someone who works for the Irish Tourist Board but if you dont get the wow factor as you stand on the 6th tee and see this visual feast unfolding before you then I suggest you check to see if you have a pulse. You will be glad to know that the course has substance as well as beuaty with the second hole, in the opinion of Kevin Markham who has played evry course in Ireland, and the author of 'Hooked', the finest 2nd hole in the land. Just think of the opening hole at Machrihanish and you will get the idea. You are now immersed in the land of the rolling fairways, wild golden grasses and elevated greens. If you love links golf you will love Portsalon The pick of the front nine is undoubtedly the aforemention 2nd and 6th with the the par 3 5th and the difficult 9th with its bunkers guarding an already pinched fairway a brilliant way to finish the outward half. Now if you have read Jim's review you will know that we only played one hole in the back 9 but we were given an extensive guided buggy tour by 'Captains' Andy Bolland and Hugh McGinley and although not as intoxicating as the front 9 the inward half looked to be a stern a test with 10,13 and the 2 finishing holes, endorsed by now less than Paul McGinley, the pick of the bunch. As I have said previously Portsalon isnt as long nor has the razzamataz of Sandy Hills or Glashedy but it is no pushover you will earn you stableford score here believe me. I would also venture that like the best vintage wine one sample of Portsalon will never be enough to quench your thirst with a return to one of Donegal's best kept secrets almost inevitable. MPPJ
Please don’t do what I’ve done twice now when visiting here - arrive too late in the afternoon to complete a round because I’ve got caught up somewhere else earlier in the day - Portsalon really does deserves your full attention as it’s a marvellous old updated links where the course’s inclusion as a member of the respected North & West Coast Links association is well merited. The second hole on the course is a real cracker - with trouble all the way from tee to green - and it’s a tough one to tackle so early on. The uphill penultimate hole is another tester at a crucial point in the round with its fairway steadily rising from tee to green. In between these holes, you will find a great mix of old and new, with many fairways running adjacent to the wonderful sandy expanse of Ballymastoker Bay. A very homely clubhouse complements the course so there’s no real excuse for keeping Portsalon off a Donegal golfing itinerary. Jim McCann
We played Portsalon Aug. 27 on a fairly decent day --not too much wind and no rain. You just go tee it up. No tee time is needed and it is a serenely beautiful location with the most beautiful beach in Ireland playing along with you the first 9 holes. The fairways were greener and softer than other links courses we played which made the course feel even longer than it's 6800 yds. The greens were the best of any of the 11 courses we played and the fastest. I found it difficult to get the speed right on putts. we liked the par4 2nd and 16th the best but the par 511th was difficult. We could play Potrsalon till the sheep come home and not tire of it.
I agree with the reviewer who suggested the nines should be switched around. But to be fair the course was much better than I expected and the back nine, although weaker than the first nine, was still a good and interesting test. I think there is one weak hole (12, maybe?), which is a short dogleg with the approach needing to be hit over trees. However, there are a number of excellent holes. I would certainly be happy to return one day.
You don't have to hit your approach over trees if you take the tighter line off the tee (down the right).
Portsalon, like most of the coastal courses in Donegal, is not easy to stumble upon. You don’t happen to drive past and think, I’ve got the clubs in the boot, I think I’ll stop off for a round here – no, they are so remote that you have to make an effort to arrive at the end of a long, narrow and winding road where the golf course is virtually the last stop before the highway reaches the Atlantic. Part of the pleasure is the anticipation on just such a golfing journey and the hope that the effort has been worthwhile once you have arrived. Portsalon will not disappoint in that regard. It’s a cracking old course that has been tweaked here and there to keep pace with the modern world – where, for instance, have you last come across a sunken sandy walkway leading to the beach cut across a fairway? They have just such a pathway across the 1st and 18th here. And on the old-fashioned side, they have not one large double green (at the 3rd and 9th) but two - the other one linking the 4th and 8th holes. The tee shot from the first hole is testing but the drive from the second is even tougher as, from an elevated tee, the corner of the beach must be skirted before the approach is played over a river in front of the green – a fantastic hole. The next five holes lie immediately beside the shoreline, running away from the clubhouse before the routing returns to run back and forth over slightly higher ground away from the beach, culminating in several parkland type holes near the end – the 525-yard 17th (“River In”) is a real uphill tester. All in all, Portsalon is a great links with a wonderful, modern clubhouse to ensure your off course experience is as good as the one you’ve had over the 18 holes. Jim McCann