There are two courses laid out over this wondrous piece of land and they intertwine seamlessly. Because we mostly play through the large dune valleys you rarely see golfers on a different hole on the same course let alone players on the other course. However, there are a few lovely moments when paths may cross.
It is actually quite surprising, pleasingly so, that we have two different and distinct golf courses routed across what appears to be similar ground. The reason for this is clear; the Glashedy was largely sculpted by machine whilst the hand of man is mostly responsible for the Old. Each layout is structured in two loops of nine, therefore we have four starting points from the plush clubhouse.
The Glashedy course, host to the Irish Open in 2018, was opened for play in 1995 after designers Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock made a second course at Ballyliffin a reality.
Thanks to a lot of earth moving the course is able to take a dramatic routing across the dunes and although the fairways are generally levelled they have created a wonderful balance between old school and modern links golf where the plunge, rise and then often fall again. At its longest the par 72 course can stretch to a whopping 7,486 yards but not even some of these tees were used when the pro’s visited last year!
To say it is a modern championship links course – which it effectively is – is to do it a little bit of a disservice though because the mix is just about perfect and it doesn’t feel this way to the naked eye. The creators have achieved a wonderful coherency between the movement in the land, undulations and dare I say ‘fairness’.
The fairways and just wide enough and the fairway bunkering is spot on to challenge golfers of all abilities and often sucker in the better player.
The opening three holes, all played downwind on my visit, ease you into the round but also alert you to the fact that where the ball lands is very likely to be nowhere near where it ends up! The beauty of the Glashedy is that the bump and run is often required into the large, sloping greens but most importantly this type of shot is allowed to be played and therefore the course is playable in a strong wind.
The par fives, the first of which arrives at the excellent 4th and gives us our first glimpse of Glashedy Island, are all particularly strong with lots of visual and strategic interest. The 4th also has one of the most magnificent ‘back tees’ you will see. The long 13th is also a wonderful hole where unsuccessfully going for the green in two could lead to more problems than taking a more conservative approach.
The round continues to conjure up engaging, exciting and at times maddening holes before we return to the clubhouse and then start out on the back-nine in a similar fashion to the front with a trio of downwind two-shotters.
As for the short holes the collection is outstanding. The dropping 7th is perhaps the best known and certainly the most photographed, however, I personally thought this to be the weakest hole on the course and out of character with the other 17 holes. The 14th on the other-hand has everything I love in a good links par three; the green is taxing to find being wider than it is deep, there is a gathering bunker to the right and a brilliant little knob that could send your ball sand-bound or alternatively kick it towards the hole. The contours of the green are superb and the backdrop to the hole mesmerising.
It is undeniable that the Glashedy offers links golf of the finest kind.
Meanwhile The Old course is more natural and provides a quieter, more traditional style of links golf over its marvelously rumpled fairways. Awkward lies and stances are assured and unpredictable bounces are the norm on a course where the ground game must also be played if at all possible due to the windy nature of the site.
Golf has been played here since 1947 but the current “Old” course dates to the early 1970s although more recent changes were made to accommodate the Glashedy and Nick Faldo – a huge admirer of Ballyliffin – helped make some further changes in 2006. The maximum yardage of the course is a shade under 7,000 yards and par is 71.
It is a golf course which builds and builds throughout the round with the back-nine offering some magical golf. Holes 13 through 17 are truly excellent where quality and challenge merge perfectly together.
There are a couple of par-threes that stand out too and are worthy of special mention. The 5th “The Tank” is played to a plateau green wedged between two large dunes whilst the 17th “The Hump” has a bamboozling putting surface due to the… well, er… the hump in the middle of it!
In terms of quality between the two courses there is not a lot in it. My own preference is for the Glashedy but I could easily be swayed the other way after subsequent visits. The main point to make is that if you go to Ballyliffin, and its spectacular setting, then it is essential that you play both courses.
Copt Heath is a very fine parkland golf course that requires precision, plotting and a deft touch around the slick greens.
The Blue is a mix of American-style design and traditional English parkland. It's an unusual combination which makes the most of the terrain available. It was designed by Simon Gidman and opened in 1994.