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Journeys with Matt Ginella: North and Northwest Ireland

October 20, 2021

For the second part of my travels through the island of Ireland, discovery was the theme as we traveled north. At Carne, we were introduced to the Wild Atlantic Dunes—towering and dramatic, they were unlike any dunes I’ve ever seen. No wonder so many of the people who make the pilgrimage to Carne rave about it, and a few even write books about it. The original nine holes were built (or found) by the late, great Eddie Hackett, and Jim Engh added nine more in 2013. The scale of your surroundings, the rawness of the land, the adventure of the walk itself, bold shots, blind shots, uniqueness and value, the likability of the leadership … Carne is poised to get back to the traffic they were doing just prior to the pandemic and then some, as it should be.

Other wonders abound in the north and northwest. Cruit Island (pronounced “Critch”) is one of the most astonishing discoveries I’ve made in all of my travels. After you cross a little bridge—which looks more like a bike path—buckle up and prepare to be blown away. Yes, there was bag-toppling wind, but we had a blast feeling like a band of brothers as we played nine of the most charming holes in the world. Take the par-3 6th hole, which looks and plays like a crazy combination of the 16th at Cypress Point and Pebble’s renowned No. 7. Cruit Island whips you around the routing like a bus with no brakes. Not bad for a course built by shovel in the mid-1980s, by architects whose names you’ve never heard.

Castlerock’s Mussenden is another hidden gem that has always benefited from the energy around the neighboring trifecta of greatness: Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Royal County Down. These courses have always headlined golf getaways to the North and Northwest, and rightfully so. Royal County Down, at the base of the Mountains of Mourne, has roots going back to Old Tom Morris and is ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. Portrush, No. 8 on that list, played so well for the Open in 2019 (won by Ireland’s own Shane Lowry) it’s getting it again in 2025. And Portstewart, No. 96, has what’s widely considered one of best front nines on the island of Ireland. At Castlerock, we played the Bann Course, a 2,446-yard nine-hole par-3 course that is perfect for any buddies trip looking for short, fast and fun.

Adding intrigue to all of the above is what’s new at Narin & Portnoo and Rosapenna. The former has been enhanced by new owners and a reimagining from Gil Hanse and his partner, Jim Wagner. St. Patrick’s at Rosapenna is the latest, and I believe greatest, Tom Doak design. Built for the Casey family on what was going to be 36 holes by Jack Nicklaus, Doak delivered a spectacular routing overlooking the rolling waves of Sheephaven Bay.

Both Doak and Hanse come with a loyal following and fanbase from North America that will make these two courses a priority in future trips to the island of Ireland. In doing so, these adventurers will discover that the heart of Irish golf has moved north and northwest. There’s more availability on the tee sheets; the prices are significantly lower; and now the quality of golf, across the board, is comparable. Especially when you add in Ballyliffin, Sligo, Enniscrone and Ardglass.

As we ended our adventure with whiskey and a sweet sunset on the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, we couldn’t help but feel grateful that Irish golf and craic is back, and better than ever before. And that, as the Irish like to say, is a true story.