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One of the great things about Irish golf is that the greatest pleasures aren’t just restricted to its marquis names and there is plenty of challenging joy and scenic thrills to be had beyond the Ballybunions, Portmarnocks and Royal Portrushes and the host of other courses that regularly find their way onto the lists of the world’s best courses - writes Fionn Davenport.
Consider the links at Dunfanaghy in County Donegal. A shortish course spread along the curve of Sheephaven Bay, rubbing shoulders with the broad expanse of Killyhoey Beach.
The course was laid out in 1905 by the six-time Open champion Harry Vardon, whose legacy also includes the overlapping grip that bears its name. At just over 5300 yards it’s a shortish course, but here it’s not length that provides the challenge but the undulating fairways, where a ball can find a hanging lie in the middle of the short stuff; the cleverly positioned pot bunkers, which will gobble up anything but the best-hit approach; and the marram grass rough, which in summer hides everything below knee-height. And then there’s the wind, the guardian protector of all links courses, which can transform an unassuming 300-yard par-four into a ferocious challenge where par is an unlikely, welcome reward. The course opens gently: the first six holes take you out towards Port-na-Blagh; the last of these, The Blagh, is a 392-yard beast that doesn’t sound like much in numbers but the second into a narrow neck of a green protected on all sides by marram-covered dunes is one of the best shots you’ll hit all day. Then the scenery begins. The seventh tee box is at the top of a small hill, from where you’ll have 200-odd yards to a tidy green, but it’s really the scenery that provide the ultimate distraction, with the stunning views for which northwestern Donegal is famous. The 9th is one of the most beautiful holes in all of Ireland, a 120-yard bump across a rocky beach to a challenging, two-tiered green: it’s not unusual to play it with a wedge one day and find yourself punching a hard five-iron the next to try stay under the wind. Before you hit though, take a moment to soak in the scenery. Two steps to your right and you’re virtually in the North Atlantic – beyond the crashing waves and dark waters of Sheephaven Bay is the bulbous peninsula of Horn Head: on a fine day there’s no more beautiful place anywhere in Europe. The 10th is another beaut, a 284-yard par-four that invites the long hitter to have a go, but they’ll have to hit it straight over the beach and negotiate to perfectly positioned pot bunkers; the alternative is to hug the left side of the beach with a nice power fade – just hit it long enough to get over the mound and you’ll most likely be putting for eagle, even if you’re off the green. The road home has yet more drama, beginning on the course’s only par five, the 500-yard 16th – you’ll need a friendly wind and a decent smack if you fancy getting home in two; otherwise, you’ll have to find the top of the dogleg and then test your short-game skills from there. But there’s more to come, as Ryder Cup-winning captain Paul McGinley found out more than two decades ago. McGinley grew up playing golf on the course, so he knows it well. But on this particular day he stood on the 17th tee chasing a course-record 62 – six under par. Carraig Rua is a tough par 3 – 160 yards over a valley of rough pressed hard against the out-of-bounds and the beach, which McGinley found and walked off with a double bogey five. The 18th has a blind tee shot, with OB on the right, but go too far left and your ball is lost in the long grass. Perhaps a little shaken from what happened on 17, McGinley stood up and blocked his tee shot right – and marked another double on his card for a disappointing, if still eminently respectable, 66. A short course? Perhaps. But not even a golfer as accomplished and experienced as Paul McGinley would ever take it for granted. Nor should you.
For more on Dunfanaghy see http://www.dunfanaghygolfclub.com/
* Fionn Davenport is a leading travel writer, currently the Travel Editor with The Irish Times. He is a regular contributor on RTE & Newstalk radio, The Lonely Planet travel guide and is a keen single-figure golfer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.