A reimagined masterpiece in fescue and sand that is Narin and Portnoo Links

By Brian Keogh  

By Narin & Portnoo

Travellers are forever dreaming of that next magical journey to some new horizon that inspires us and gives us that new lease of life.

 “To travel is to live,“ Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, and while you might believe this means packing up for the Perhentian Islands or the lost city of Petra, there are magical places all over Ireland, especially for golfers.

Little Narin and Portnoo Links on the wild northwest coast of Donegal is one such place, near enough to “civilisation“ to be accessible but possessing that raw, intangible west of Ireland beauty and remoteness that makes it one of the most exciting “new“ golfing experiences on the planet.

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 Narin and Portnoo Links

Two years ago, National Geographic Traveller voted Donegal “the coolest place on the planet“.

Golfers are forever searching for the next frontier, and they will find it in Narin and Portnoo Links, where the renowned golf architect Gil Hanse and his design partner Jim Wagner have transformed one of Ireland’s forgotten links gems into something truly special.

“We have fallen head over heels in love with Ireland and in particular this wonderful corner of it,“ Hanse said that the project became a full-blown love affair.  “The rugged nature of the coastline and the mountains form the perfect backdrop for the Narin and Portnoo Links.  

“The reliance on the sea for commerce and life, the way that the sun casts shadows that dance across the landscape, the dense and verdant valleys and streams, and the barren heathlands provide such a wide variety of beauty in a small setting.  

“The people have been so welcoming, and their warmth and humour go well with the natural beauty in which they live. There is also nothing quite like spending a day in the elements and retiring to a warm shower, a great meal, and a beverage or two. I sleep really well after a day like that in Donegal!”

Work on the links began last October. But in truth the move to make Narin and Portnoo Links a genuinely open and welcoming members’ club began before that with Donegal native Liam McDevitt and his US business partner Larry Foley, making considerable strides in their grand plan to create something extraordinary. 

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Narin and Portnoo Links

Hanse, who created the Olympic Course in Rio, is one of the most respected and admired golf architects in the world with a client list that includes such storied venues such as Winged Foot, Merion and The Country Club at Brookline. 

Imagine then, just how those connected with this wild northwest coast of Donegal felt when Hanse agreed to take on the renovation of one Ireland’s most beautiful but little-known links gems, situated just a stone's throw from Ardara, Glenties and Dungloe. 

“I feel like we’ve won the lottery,”  McDevitt said with a smile. 

With local Donegal architects Michael and Tony Carr also working on the project, it's clear that these were people with a deep love of Donegal. 

Their plan was not to create a new exclusive resort for the well-heeled but to give the club’s members one of Ireland’s best courses while at the same time opening up one of Ireland’s most historic and beautiful places to the world. 

Hanse, who is arguably the game's most fashionable architect, could not be more excited about what is a rare opportunity to work with links terrain, bringing back some traditional qualities that have faded with time or been overawed by recent changes. 

“Jim Wagner and I fell in love with the scale of the site, the variety of the features, the views, and the rugged character of the landscape,” Hanse explained. “It has a scale that ranges from large-scale dunes down to the smallest, nuanced rolls in the ground and that variety will provide countless opportunities for our imagination and the play of the course.   


Narin and Portnoo Links

“Many links courses do not have stunning views, but Narin and Portnoo Links has views in every direction.  Being located on that peninsula opens up varied and exciting views no matter which direction you turn! 

“We hope that we have created a course that will be very playable for the average golfer and where the more accomplished golfer will be faced with compelling questions if they are trying to post a score.   

“We have an emphasise fun, and were very mindful of the effects of the wind on the course so that it will be playable in all conditions.”

A Ballyshannon native, McDevitt has loved Narin and Portnoo since he was a child of four or five, spending his holidays in one of the mobile homes at the entrance to a course that’s situated on a spectacular coastline near Ardara, around 40 minutes drive from Donegal town and just a few minutes from Glenties.  

While there was initially some opposition to his purchase of the club, which had significant bank debts after the economic downturn, the alternative was no golf, so in that sense, this was a win-win for golfers there. 

Hanse and Wagner were asked to create a golf course that matches the spectacular nature of the property, and they believe they have delivered that in spades. 

“Given the beauty of this site, if we can match that with the golf holes and features, I think that they will be very pleased,” Hanse said of the brief from McDevitt and Foley.  

“We feel that the routing of the course does not take full advantage of all the character of the site, so we set out to try and maximise the way the course will lie in that landscape.   


Narin and Portnoo Links

“After that, we focused on what features should be retained and what features might benefit from being rebuilt. In our opinion, most of the modern changes to the course do not have the character of the older portions of the course.   

“As a result, we tried to make the features we create feel more natural and attached to the site as opposed to some of the over shaped features that existed.   

“Our goal was to create features that do not compete for attention with the landscape.  Instead, they should blend seamlessly into this magnificent landscape and look as if they have always been there.  

“Links golf relies so much on the contour of the ground, the natural features, and the vegetation for its strategy and design.  We needed to be conscientious about making sure that we allowed the land to be the star of the show and that our features complement the land and add to the interest and challenge of the course.   

“The palette is varied with some of the inland holes featuring rushes and heather, with the interior relying on fescue rumple, and finally the coastline teeming with marram grass and gorse.  All of these fit perfectly with our aesthetic, and the varied seasonal presentation of this natural vegetation only provides more interest.” 

With the success of this Open at Royal Portrush, it’s time for the northwest to exploit its charms and in Hanse Golf Design they’ve found two artists who were willing to put their soul into the unique Donegal canvas, transforming a par-73 that’s grown wild and woolly into a sleek but aesthetically par-71 with minimal disruption. 

Hanse’s philosophy is to look to nature for inspiration without fear of creating a work of art clearly reflecting human influence. 

“Having the opportunity to apply our thoughts on golf and the fields upon which it is played to a traditional links setting is an amazing set of circumstances for us,“ he said.  “We love the traditions of the walking game, the ground game, and the opportunity to do this in a breathtaking setting is pretty exciting. 

“While we have been fortunate to work on many great golf courses, we have never had the opportunity to work on a pure links golf course.  The opportunity to work on a true links course with a committed owner, an amazing site and tons of potential made this a special project for us.   

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Narin and Portnoo Links

“The other factor is that every time we have visited we have fallen more in love with the charms of Donegal!” 

The golf course is the main project, but there's also much happening elsewhere. 

The first visible sign of change at the club was the clubhouse itself, which has been spectacularly refurbished to reflect the club’s vision of becoming not a men’s or women’s club but an open and welcoming club for all. 

“We have picked an area for a great halfway house, and Jim found a spot that's going to be amazing, depending on planning being granted,” Liam added. 

“It's a significant investment, transforming the place, pulling it apart and putting it back together again. But the demographics of golf are changing significantly, so we are not a men's or women's club any more, we are a members’ club, and the club controls its destiny.” 

With Carr Architects on board, work continues to transform the clubhouse into something more user-friendly that will make Narin and Portnoo Links a welcoming oasis. 

“We ripped out all the lockers and put a steam room in along with a flat-screen TV and couches. "

“And we’ve built a big fireplace that's going to open up into the bar, getting away from that traditional view of a golf club and making it more friendly to everybody.” 

The beauty of the location is that while it is remote and seemingly isolated in its beauty and tranquillity, there are dozens of B&Bs nearby and the towns of Ardragh and Glenties just 10 minutes away. 

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 Narin and Portnoo Links

There’s also the renovated and now four-star Waterfront Hotel in Dungloe, formerly known as the Óstan na Rossan, built by Irish-American Kevin M. Boyle, whose father hailed from nearby. 

“It’s just a beautiful spot,” Liam said of Narin and Portnoo Links's undeniable charms. “Donal McBride, the club’s longest serving trustee and an honourary member, always talks about how Jimmy Kinsella used to say that while every links course is within the dunes, Narin and Portnoo Links is unique in that much of it sits above the dunes. 

“The members are excited, and we are excited to see the little things we are doing all coming together and with the work on the course now, we’re on our way.”

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