Portsalon Golf Club … Why Was The Wait So Long To Discover This Irish Golfing Jewel.

In writing this article, I admit for all the right reasons I cannot recall how many times I have visited Ireland.

I know how many Irish Open’s I have attended since my first visit to Mt. Juliet in 1993 and I can probably name a great majority of the fabulous golf courses I have been most fortunate to play including my first Irish round of golf at Kilkenny Golf Club and the last being the famed Loch Erne Resort.

One thing I do know and that is I had never before travelled to Portsalon and in looking on the map in establishing the closest I have been to this part of Ireland was in visiting Ballyliffin on a number of occasions including a first in attending the 2002 North West of Ireland Open, and having played the pro-am in the company of Andrew Coltart who finished joint runner-up in the tournament proper.


I have to extend my extreme gratitude to John McLaughlin and his team at North and North West Coast Golf Links because after playing Portsalon Golf Club for a first time myself and my three journalist colleagues, and who I have journeyed with to Ireland on so many wonderful golfing trips, looking at each other with a unaminous verdict.

“Why had it taken us so long to play Portsalon?”

Yes, I could use phrases such as it is a golfing gem, a shining golfing jewel, like discovering a golf treasure or akin to uncovering a links masterpiece.

Portsalon is any one of those phrases and, if anything, the golf course is simply links golf at its purest best.

Short History of Portsalon …

In drawing the club’s website, Portsalon Golf Club was founded in 1891 and was a founder member of the Golf Union of Ireland (GUI), the oldest golfing union in the world, and with the nine GUI founding member clubs including : Portsalon, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Royal Belfast, Killymoon, Dungannon, Aughnacloy, Ballycastle and Buncrana.

Portsalon Golf club was founded by Colonel B.J Barton in 1891. Colonel Baptist Johnston Barton, and referring to his full name, was born in 1848.  His most distinguished career included holding the office of High Sheriff in 1877.  He gained the rank of Lieutenant in the 33rd Regiment and attained the rank of Colonel in the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Colonel Barton also held the office of of Justice of the Peace (J.P.)  He also held the office of Deputy Lieutenant (D.L.)1 He held the office of Aide-de-Camp to HM King Edward VII between 1905 and 1910, and he held the office of Aide-de-Camp to HM King George V between 1910 and 1914.

Thank you to North and West Golf Links for the photograph.

Colonel Baron and his wife, Isabel lived in Portsalon, and it’s fair to say Colonel Barton loved his golf.

Very sadly, and just 23 years after establishing Portsalon hotel and golf links, he passed away in November, 1914 aged 66.

Charles Thompson was given approval to design the course and Thompson was also the club’s first club professional.

Portsalon continued to be a prize golf destination for many, many decades until times began getting tough in the early 1980s and the club began to struggle financially to survive, and with it’s future guaranteed when there arose an opportunity to purchase the hotel and golf course.

According to the club’s website a Mr. P.C. Duffy purchased the property from the Costello Hotel Group, and a very kind gesture by Mr. Duffy in offering the club first refusal on the lands when he was considering the sale. After much negotiation, a deal was finally struck and the sale was agreed on 12th February 1986.

What followed was a ‘monumental fund raising campaign’ to fund the purchase and with the sale completed in November, 1986 and for a first time in its near 100-year history Portsalon Golf Club assumed complete ownership of the links.

The club celebrated its centenary with the opening of a new clubhouse on Saturday 1st of June 1991 and with Neil T. Blaney, a former president of the club performing the ceremony.

A year ago in 2019, there was another fundraiser and the club’s first since the ‘events’ of 1986 when the club sought funds to further develop the facilities at Portsalon, which is one of Donegal’s oldest links courses. The funds raised will go towards new machinery, while also upgrading existing buildings on the course including the clubhouse.

The Portsalon Golf Course … 

Charles Thompson’s 1891  ‘canvas’ was a truly magnificent stretch of land running along the golden sandy shores of Ballymastocker Beach of Ballymastocker Bay, stretching for two miles towards where the mouth of the stunning Lough Swilly meets the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

The lough is trapped, to the east by the magnificent hills of the Inishhowen peninsula, and to the west by the imposing Knockalla Mountains.

According to William A. Menton’s book, ‘The Golfing Union Of Ireland 1891-1991’, this stunning links layout was originally designed by the professional at the then titled Country Club at Porsalon, Charles Thompson and Bernard Darwin considered Portsalon to be ‘a thoroughly entertaining course’

When opened in 1891, the course measured a meager 5,611 yards and featured dangerous cross-over holes at three places … the fourth with the 15th, the 11th with the 12th, and the 16th with the 17th.

In 2000, the club commissioned a redesign by Irish golf-writer-turned-architect Pat Ruddy, famed for his ‘home’  European Club course at Bantry Bay but also legendary in Co. Donegal for designing the Glashedy Links at Ballyliffin and home to the 2018 Irish Open and also Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna.

Pat, and known very well to the four of us who visited Porsalon, chose to leave five Portsalon holes unchanged, and in the process extending the course to now 6,172-metres off he white or back tees and 6,074-metres off the yellow tees.  He introduced nine new holes while four others were reshaped and alerted.  There was two double greens brought into play – the third and ninth holes, and the fourth and eighth holes.

The stunning view off the second tee at Portsalon (Both photos – www.golfbytourmiss.com)

Photograph – www.golfbytourmiss.com

The Golf Course …

Now if there is one hole that defines Portsalon the one hole that captured our imagination and attention it was the second hole – 396-metres off the white and only seven metres shorter of the yellow tees.

The second had been a par-3 but Pat redesigned the second to become a par-4 and not just your aveage par-4 but probably one of the best par-4s you will find on the Emerald Isle.  There’s an elevate tee that presents you with that aure of control but it takes a very brave drive to clear the daunting river and out-of-bounds wall lying all the way down the left side.

And if you cleared the river and avoided OOB, you’ve still got to negoitate as the same river cuts through the course just in front of the green while there’s a menacing-looking rock pile on the left just waiting for you to mess-up. The hole it rates ‘3’ index and for this 15-handicapper a four for three points could not have been a better Portsalon start.

Pat changed what was the old ninth hole into the sixth, and the No. 1 index hole measuring 408-metres off the while and 406-metres from the yellow, and a hole that is laid-out spectacularly along the beach.

Photograph – www.golfbytourmiss.com

In getting to the seventh, a par-4 of 336-metres off the yellow tees, make sure to take a few steps to your left and inspect the view out of Ballymastocker Beach is worth the visit alone to Portsalon.

The old ninth hole became the sixth, an excellent par-4 along the shore extended by more than 160 yards, thanks to a new tee and green tucked into the dunes on either end. Castle ruins were unearthed during construction of the par-5 eighth, but they were covered over to become another challenging dune worth avoiding.

In studying a map of the course, Pat laid out the opening nine all on the lower side of the course while the inward half is on the upper half of the land as the holes navigate their way through dunes.  The closing five holes, the par-4 14th to the par-4 18th, are the original holes.

The 14th, and appropriately named ‘Matterhorn’ has the golfer hitting off from the highest point of the golf course and providing stunning views.

The downhill par-4 16th and 348-metres off the yellow, is a real risk and reward hole. as the green is guarded behind a stream.

A blind drive over a ridge on the par-4 16th hole reveals the green well below the fairway and tucked behind a stream. The par-5 17th climbs dramatically uphill after a hard dogleg to the left. The finishing hole demands another uphill approach over a stream to a green revamped by Pat.

This unique golf course feature allows beachgoes at Portsalon to make their way to Ballymastocker Beach without being hit by a golf ball.   (Photo – www.golfbytourmiss.com)

A quirky but not necessarily a negative as some others have written of Portsalon is a below fairway height wire covered tunnel that dissects the first and final fairways, and in place to protect the access for the public making their way to the beach.  In the ‘old days’ and with no tunnel golfers had to give way to beachgoers crossing both fairways.

The clubhouse and 18th hole green

To have played Portsalon on what was a glorious June mid-morning was an absolute pleasure.  The welcome from the members we met throughout the 18 holes, the views and also the challenges each hole presented was well worth the journey.

I questioned at the start of writing this article why we had not played Portsalon previously given I personally had been visiting Ireland since 1993.

I know now Portsalon willl be on high on the agenda on my next visit to the Co. Donegal region of the Emerald Isle.

THANK YOU ... John McLaughlin at North and West Coast Links Golf Ireland.



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