Let’s Check in With That Guy Who Has Played Every Golf Course in Ireland


Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every eighteen-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the seven-thousand-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married:


I’ve had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:


And here he is at Portstewart:


Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club—which I’ve played, though not with him—has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club’s profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will “move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf.” One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.



Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham’s photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit—the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members —but David O’Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn’t mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I’d be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O’Donovan.
Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O’Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart—an Irish first for me. When you’re in a cart, it’s hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff—on a par 5 called the Jump—and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here’s the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we played the club’s third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for twenty years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). “My game is coming back,” he said—a man at peace.

Golf Logos Explained: Narin & Portnoo Golf Club, Ireland

Narin & Portnoo Golf Club is situated among the dunes on a knock-you-over nub of the Atlantic Ocean called Gweebarra Bay, on the northwest coast of County Donegal. The club’s entrance is not captivating: you reach it by driving into the sort of tawdry-looking trailer park that the Irish and British seem to plant on all their choicest oceanfront real estate. But the course is tremendous. Kevin Markham, who has played every 18-hole course in the country, has described the seventh through eleventh as “maybe the best run of holes in Ireland.” The fifteenth, which measures 530 yards and plays into the prevailing wind between a line of dunes and the sea, is the hole that the ninth and tenth at Pebble Beach are trying to be. And the encampment of caravans—whose occupants, it should be said, sustain both the club and its bar—are invisible after a few holes.

On my first visit to the course, in 2011, I played with Connor Mallon, the club’s pro at the time, and set a new record for conversational tedium by saying “Wow! Great hole!” almost every time I opened my mouth other than to comment on the wind, which was intense. (Usually, when you mention wind on a links course, the natives you’re playing with dismiss whatever’s blowing as a breeze, even if you’re having trouble standing. But Mallon, good man, said he’d never known such a gale.) Later, on my way out the gate, I mentally composed an email to my wife, beginning: “Darling, how would you feel about living in a mobile home 750 miles from the Arctic Circle?”

I returned to N & P last month, with six friends from home. Between rounds, I asked a couple of older members, who were hanging around the golf shop, to explain the meaning of the symbols in the club’s logo, but they couldn’t. Eventually, someone looked it up online, and we discovered that the crest was created in 1982, at the request of the club, by a local art teacher. It is “unusual in not featuring any golfing imagery, focusing instead on the historic roots of the area,” the club’s website says. Here are the elements:

The Stonehenge-y thing at the upper left is the Kilclooney Dolmen, which stands above a 4,000-year-old tomb a few miles south of the course, near the village of Ardara (population 578):

Kilclooney Dolmen, near Ardara, Ireland.

The structure at the upper right is known as the Doon Fort, the Bawan, or O’Boyle’s Fort. It’s a circular defensive stone enclosure, and it stands on a crannóg, or artificial island, in Doon Lough, a lake a couple of miles southwest of the course. It was built in 1500 or so by the O’Boyles, who had troublesome neighbors:

O'Boyle's Fort, Doon Loch, County Donegal, Ireland.

Filling the bottom two panels is the Atlantic Ocean, which is a major presence at Narin & Portnoo. The green peak in the middle is the island of Inishkeel, which in decent weather is visible from parts of the course. The island used to have two churches, one for nuns and one for monks. Both are now ruins:

Ruined church, Inishkeel Island, County Donegal, Ireland.

And the U-shaped object in the center of the logo isn’t a horseshoe, as certain of my friends guessed. It’s the Drumboghill Gold Lunulaa Bronze Age necklace shaped like a crescent moon. It was found in a bog near the course in 1909, and is now in the collection of the National Museum. The club’s website says that its shape “matches the arc of the sixth hole.”

Connor Mallon, my host in 2011, took his life on March 14, 2012, at the age of 35. I’d been looking forward to seeing him again, and to having a rematch. At every stop on our 2012 trip, I met people who had known and loved him. In 2011, I bought a shirt from him exactly like the one he’s wearing in the picture below, because I thought that maybe its color held the secret to his golf swing.

Connor Mallon, Narin & Portnoo, near the ninth tee, May 1, 2011.