BALLYLIFFIN, Republic of Ireland – Ballyliffin is ready for its close-up, Mr. McIlroy.
With the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open presented by the Rory Foundation coming to the northernmost golf outpost on the Emerald Isle July 5-9, the little corner of County Donegal is ready to invite the world to its little slice of golf heaven.
“It’s a big deal for this area,” said John Farren, the general manager of Ballyliffin Golf Club. “It’s not just a golf tournament. It’s a real showcase for the whole region. Economically it’s going to have a big impact long-term for us. This is the biggest thing to have happened to Donegal in a long time.”
It’s a big deal that Ballyliffin has a golf course at all, much less two links gems in a town with fewer than 500 residents that will play host to Rory McIlroy, defending champion Jon Rahm and a world-class field competing for the €1 million ($1.16 million) winning share of the €7 million purse in the European Tour’s elite Rolex Series.
Ballyliffin didn’t have any golf course until 1973, when its “Old Links” first opened. Hoping to enhance its lonely profile in 1992, the club invited golf writer-turned-architect Pat Ruddy to advise upgrades to its bunkering with design partner Tom Craddock.
Ruddy, however, fell in love with the vast empty stretches of rumpled dunes land along Pollan Strand and proposed adding another links course before emerging environmental laws restricted options.
So in 1997, the brawnier Glashedy Links opened – named after the Glashedy Rock (Ballyliffin’s version of the Ailsa Craig or Bass Rock) that rises 119 feet out of the North Atlantic Ocean about a mile off the coast. This little “Island of the Green Cloak” is an almost constant landmark from any plateau on the course.
Six-time major winner Nick Faldo hailed the Old Links as the “most natural links” he’d ever played and was so captivated by Ballyliffin that he tried to buy the whole thing in 1995. He had to settle for finally redesigning the Old’s bunkers in 2002.
McIlroy, who frequented the courses growing up, called them “pure links” and attested to Glashedy’s worthiness as an Irish Open test.
“It’s one of the toughest links courses in the world,” he said. “It’s really well designed, it’s a beautiful course and Donegal is just a beautiful area.”
Ballyliffin isn’t in Northern Ireland, but it’s location on the Inishowen peninsula is as north as you can get in Ireland. It’s only an hour-and-a-half up the road from Royal Portrush, which will play host to the 2019 British Open, and Portstewart, which hosted last year’s Irish Open won by Rahm.
That proximity has bolstered the awareness of the northern coast as a destination, with additional links at Portsalon, Rosapenna and Donegal making this northern loop along the Wild Atlantic Way a desired part of any itinerary that starts with the revered Royals – County Down and Portrush. With the political turmoil of the late 20th Century fading into the past and the recent major accomplishments of Ulster greats McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, a greater spotlight has shone on a previously overlooked region.
“The focus of Irish golf has really changed,” Farren said when comparing the northern reach with the more heavily trafficked southwest golf corner of Ireland. “It goes back to the days of the Troubles, which thankfully are long behind us and now we’re getting our moment in the sun.”
The Irish Open has played a great role in drawing that spotlight and rebuilding the reputation. The 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush was the first significant professional event staged in the Ulster region since the 1951 British Open played there and won by England’s Max Faulkner. Drawing a record 112,000 fans across four rounds, it erased any lingering doubts about logistics and paved the way for the R&A to announce its return in 2019 after 68 years.
With Royal County Down in 2015, Portstewart last year and now Ballyliffin, four of the last seven Irish Opens have been staged in the north. Ballyliffin is determined to make a big impression, with the residents sprucing up the town with fresh paint and bunting around the charming town that's been around since long before the elegant Ballyliffin Lodge in the center of town and the modern clubhouse at the courses.
“Finally we’re breaking through some of the glass ceilings that have been there for all too long and we’ll put the northwest on the map and the door will not be shut behind us,” Farren said.