Narin & Portnoo golf club is the fourth golf course in this beautiful part of Southwest Donegal since 1899. The area has two towns, Ardara and Glenties which are about six miles apart. The twin villages of Narin and Portnoo lie six miles equidistant from both towns along the coast.
The noted golf course designer George L. Baillie, originally of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh had designed the nine-hole course at the Sandfields, twenty minutes walk from Ardara. Opened in 1899, its patrons stayed at the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara itself. Ardara Golf Club limped along until the time of the Great War when civil unrest in Ireland put paid to tourism and so-called ‘foreign’ sports for a time.
Castlegoland Golf Course was an 18-hole golf course laid out by Harry Hamill, the professional golfer at Royal Portrush and occupied much of the terrain of the current club. It opened for play around 1903 and its patrons stayed at the newly constructed Portnoo Hotel, situated about a mile away. The last mention of golf on this particular links comes from a tourist’s diary written in 1917 and the existence of the course was long forgotten by the locals when researching the history of the current club in 2003.
Both Ardara and Castlegoland were operated by hotels and the same applied to the third course, a little nine-hole effort about a mile from Ardara Golf Course. Its designer is unknown. Opened in the early 1900s, it came under the control of the old Dowros Bay Hotel and was sometimes called Loughside Golf Club. It too ceased to exist, possibly in the twenties. An unusual feature of this course was that one had to row across a lake from the hotel just to play it!
Narin and Portnoo Golf Club was founded in 1930 when some local men decided that the warren in Narin had the potential once again to be developed into a testing links. William O’Donnell, Canon Ernest Devlin, Rev. Boyce, William Hemmersbach and Francis J. McLoone were among those who foresaw the fillip to the tourist trade that a golf course would provide and they pooled their resources to rent the land from the five landlords concerned. Further land was later rented to enlarge the scope of the nine-hole layout.
On July 9, 1930 William O’Donnell launched a drive down the first and a golf club was born. A committee was formed in 1931 with Mr. O’Donnell the first captain and by the spring of 1932, nine holes had been laid out.
Jim McCole succeeded Patrick Boyle as greenkeeper in 1934 and would hold the post until 1977. Under his stewardship, Narin developed a reputation for fast links greens and the sight of Jim on his knees plucking rye grass was not an uncommon one.
Throughout the thirties the membership grew and a decision was taken in April 1938 to build a clubhouse. Joseph Cunningham & Sons, Killybegs were awarded the contract and on August 25th, 1939 H.A. McDevitte T.D. officially opened the small, wooden pavilion. It would serve as the clubhouse until 1967.
John O’Donnell of Ardara and John Gillespie of Narin were the leading golfers in the first half century of the club’s existence, with the latter going round the nine holes in 33 shots on two occasions. Fairways were only cut once or twice a year, which made the course play longer than its actual length.
The war years were traumatic for the golf club due to transport difficulties and finances didn’t improve much afterwards. Attracting new members wasn’t proving easy and but for the fundraising efforts of the Portnoo Dramatic Club, the club may have folded in the mid-fifties. The thespians toured throughout the county in the late fifties and early sixties and later presented £600 to the committee. The corner had been turned.
Membership improved sufficiently to justify the building of a bigger clubhouse and this was accomplished by Joe McMenamin & Sons, Stranorlar in 1968 with a grant of £6000 from Bord Fáilte easing the financial burden. A new car park followed in 1970, while new machinery made life a little easier for the greens staff.
A successful Pro-Am was launched in 1979 which heightened the club’s profile even further. The likes of Eamon Darcy, Christy O’Connor and David Feherty were big draws and the standard of golf reflected this, with Bobby Browne shooting a 63 in 1979 to set a new course record matched by amateur Enda McMenamin in 1990.
In 1985 a club team reached its first provincial final but lost narrowly to Mourne in the Ulster Cup Final, a competition for 10-handicappers or above. The O’Hagan sisters Niamh and Grainne went one better, winning the Irish Huzzar Vodka Foursomes that same year, while Wendy Patterson and Eileen McMullin achieved similar success in the Daily Mail Foursomes. A second Donegal League success followed in 1987 and the Minor League title was added to the trophy cabinet in 1992.
An extension to the clubhouse was added in 1990 and in 2001 the club purchased that part of the course owned by Mrs. Mary McNelis. This opened up the prospect of a re-construction of the by now dated course layout. Much thought went into the modification of the famous course in 2004 and it was deemed of the utmost importance that the classic character of the old layout should infuse the new. The jewels in the crown are the new pair of snaking par fives that will beguile the enthusiast on the homeward journey. The course re-development designed by Eddie Connaughton increased the par to 73 and has resulted in the club being awarded a prestigious gold medal by Golf World magazine, the only new Irish club in 2007 to receive such an accolade. Thus it joins a select list of gold medal courses in the country and plans are afoot to improve the club still further. A further fillip came when the Fáilte Ireland Golf Guide was published in 2010 and Narin & Portnoo was included in Philip Reid’s top eight Irish courses, joining the likes of Royal Portrush and Ballybunion in his estimation. Visitors are growing in number, with the green fees very competitive for a club of its length and beauty.
The Pro-Am competition was revived in 2007 to glowing reviews from the professionals and is already a much anticipated fixture on the professional circuit. The club won its first Under-16 County Title in 2007 as a young crop of golfers suddenly burst onto the scene. The first club professional, Connor Mallon was appointed in early 2008 and an extensive refurbishment of the clubhouse was completed in June of that year.
The old girl has survived all the trials and tribulations which have seen the death of three local courses and the future looks rosy indeed!