Courses: Co Sligo and Enniscrone
Sometimes expectations get in the way when you approach a golf course you haven’t played before. You come at it anticipating greatness, and occasionally find out it doesn’t measure up. Golf courses are like puzzles – they piece together to create something greater.
Then, every so often, there’s a course that you play for the first time when you aren’t expecting something terrific and are surprised and thrilled at what you find.
I found that at Enniscrone, an Eddie Hackett/Donald Steel design located near Ballina, a town of a few thousand on the north-west coast of Ireland.
After a four-hour drive, we arrived in Sligo. It didn’t take long to figure out that I was mispronouncing it.
“It is sly-go,” said the GM at Ballybunion when I told her where we were heading next.
The drive wasn’t difficult – though it didn’t hurt that we had three guys prepared to tackle it. Interestingly, a lot of people find driving in the U.K. and Ireland to be daunting; our group approached it with enthusiasm. Yannick Pilon, our esteemed Quebec architect, even admitted he liked the smaller, wilder roads. I can’t imagine getting in a bus to explore the country – it seems so limiting.
Day four of our trip found us starting bright and early at Co. Sligo Golf Club, playing right ahead of a couple from San Diego. The day was bright and the wind was strengthening as we went out. I had high hopes for the course, an H.S. Colt design, and the first hole, a tremendous par-4 with a wide fairway that played slightly up a rise, didn’t disappoint. However, on some level, much of the rest of the course did. Sure there were some fascinating holes – like the 5th hole, named “Jump,” which dropped off a sea wall down 80 feet to the fairway below, or the 8th hole, a long par-4 that bent to the right with a green perched into a coastal dune.
But on a day when the wind thickened throughout, an out-and-back links proved to be, well, a little dull. The final five holes – playing along a relatively flat area heading back to the clubhouse, were all good, but never achieved greatness.
There were fine holes – the cool par-3 13th along the coast was interesting and challenged with difficult greenside bunkers. But by the time I was done I felt like I’d weathered a battle.
That meant I wasn’t expecting much at Enniscrone. We arrived as the wind was strengthening further. It was hard to imagine playing in it; in North America we would surely have called it a day and left. Instead we had lunch in the modest, but comfortable clubhouse, hit a couple of putts (and yes, balls were wobbling at address) and went out to the first hole, a tremendous par-4 with a green set in a natural amphitheatre. I made birdie there – and a par on the next par 5 – to stand at 1-under through to the third, a tiny par 3 up a hill. A storm blew in at that point with such ferocity that my 3-iron to the 130-yard hole flew right over a dune and landed 40 yards away. I’ve never played in such a breeze.
We stuck with it, with rain pummelling us for a single hole – a typical occurrence throughout the trip – and I’m thrilled we did.
I can honestly say that Enniscrone is one of the best courses I’ve ever played. The dunes are massive, and the green locations are smart. Even holes on flatter land – like the par 4s that make up the 5th and 6th holes – have fascinating elements. By the time we hit the back nine I was sure something goofy must be coming. But the two short holes on the card – the 345-yard 12th and the 338-yard 13th – were brilliant and entirely different, with one playing slightly uphill to perhaps the best green location we saw all week, and the other downhill to a green protected by a large green. I’d love to play these again – the thrill of discovering how to play them, even in a gusty breeze, is one of the fondest memories I have of our trip.
But it doesn’t end there. Instead Steel added a handful of holes along the beach – the 14th through to the 17th – and they are among the best links holes anywhere.
I left wondering what holds Enniscrone back from being better known. I have no explanation, though its awful logo – which looks like it might work for a weekend trailer retreat – might be the cause. Regardless, this is one of the best courses we played all week – and warranted a discussion as to whether it was better than Waterville. Depending on your taste, you might find that it is.
Where to stay:
Ten minutes down the road from Enniscrone is the incredible Ice House Hotel, a boutique hotel created only a few years ago. Located hard on the River Moy Estuary – you could likely have gone fishing from our room – the hotel is a modern masterpiece built around a very old farm house. Worth staying at even if you aren’t golfing, it is one of the coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed in.