Ballyliffin Golf Club
The Old Links
Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of The Old links at Ballyliffin. The drive to the clubhouse is straightforward enough but when you stand on the 1st tee of The Old links the sensation is invariably one of total bewilderment. 'Is that the fairway?', you ask incredulously. Somewhere up ahead (a dog-legging par four away) is the green, but your gaze is fixed firmly on the extraordinary terrain in front of you. Like most fairways on The Old links it twists and tumbles in every conceivable direction.
During his 1993 visit Nick Faldo was as fascinated as anyone by the course's myriad humps and hillocks: 'Do you play bump-and-run here or do you just run and bump?'. Of course, there is no one to whom you can readily turn for advice or explanation as the principal architect of The Old links was the greatest of all golf course designers, Mother Nature.
The Old links is something of a museum piece. Transport BaIlyliffin to the east coast of Scotland and you could easily imagine that it had existed since the 16th or 17th century. It is an unashamedly old-fashioned links. It bristles with charm, character and curiosity. There are no real blind shots to confront but awkward stances, like the vagaries of the wind, come with the territory.
And what a 'territory' this is! By the time you have reached the elevated green at the 2nd - and it is a formidable par four - you will have caught several glimpses of Glashedy Rock, Ballyliffin's own Ailsa Craig off to your left. Now as you contemplate a severely sloping putt the ocean comes fully into view, and with it a sweeping 360 degrees vista. For the first time you are able to appreciate the full glory of the links as it unravels majestically between the sea and the encircling hills.
The 3rd hole is played directly towards the ocean along a perilously narrow fairway. It is an exhilarating (if intimidating) hole and one that provides a classic example of how a par four need not be long to be challenging. Next comes the par five 4th, with its bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare drive and splendidly rippling fairway. Play this hole at dusk on a fine summer's evening and you may witness what the locals call 'the fairway of a thousand shadows'. It is an almost mystical experience.
The most legendary hole on The Old links is undoubtedly the par three 5th, or 'The Tank', as it is known. It is one of those holes that people either love or hate. The green enjoys a stage-like setting perched between two large sand - hills and only the perfectly judged tee shot will find the sanctuary of the putting surface.
As the sea disappears from view for the next few holes the hills and mountains demand their share of attention. Crockaughrim, Buluba and Binion jostle for prominence with some of the larger and more distant mountains on the horizon. In spring and early summer these hills can appear almost purple or deep blue in colour, save for the great splashes of gorse. During the winter months (although at Ballyliffin you occasionally experience four seasons in the space of 60 minutes) the same hills can appear grey and menacing.
Some of Ballyliffin' s extensive bird life could also distract you as you complete the holes on the front nine. Shelducks and barnacle geese have been frequently spotted alongside the 7th, while anything from skylarks, lapwings and snipes to ravens, buzzards and great black-backed gulls may appear overhead. How can a golfer concentrate in such an environment!
A sense of deja vu is induced by the l0th. The tee is right beside the lst tee in front of the clubhouse; the hole dog-legs to the right just as sharply and its fairway is equally crumpled in appearance.
Many ancient battles must have been fought on this land. The 11th is longer and swings back the other way, after which comes a second outstanding short hole. From the back tees the 12th measures in excess of 200 yards and if the green at the 5th has stage-like qualities this one is akin to an amphitheatre.
At the 13th the course heads out towards Pollan Bay and eventually overlooks the beach on the 14th tee. It is a good time to pause and take in the ultimate visual feast: from Malin Head to Fanad Head with mesmeric Glashedy in between - nothing but landscape, seascape and golfscape.
The 15th, played into the prevailing wind is a worthy stroke index one hole and the par three 17th has the most extraordinary green - it has been likened to a dishevelled duvet - but arguably the best hole is kept until last.
The par five 18th on The Old links at Ballyliffin is one of the finest closing holes in golf. True to form, the fairway meanders and wriggles its entire length before coming to rest beneath the windows of the clubhouse. Only when you step off the 18th green do you finally return to terra firma.