CRUIT ISLAND, Ireland – While recently making my way west across Ireland’s northern coastline, I stopped at Ballyliffin Golf Club. I was catching up with the club manager, John Farren, who asked me about my itinerary. I told him my next stop would be Rosapenna, adding that I wasn’t sure where I would be going after that.
“I was thinking about going to. . .” I began.
“Cruit Island?” Farren said.
“Yeah,” I replied, surprised that, of all the great links from which I could choose, Farren had hit upon an obscure nine-holer in the far northwest corner of County Donegal.
“Oh, you have to do it,” Farren said. “It’s spectacular.”
When I arrived at Rosapenna the next day, Frank Casey Jr., the director of golf, asked where I was going after leaving his resort.
“I was thinking about going to . . .” I began.
“Oh, it’s one of my favorites,” Casey said. “You have to do it.”
If there was any doubt where I was headed the next afternoon, that ended it. I wasn’t looking for a trophy links; I wanted an experience, and Cruit Island (pronounced “Crutch”) seemed to offer it.
Following a morning round on Rosapenna’s Sandy Hill Links, lunch and some interviews (yes, real work is done on these trips), I gunned my Ford Fiesta rental down the R245 past Doe Castle, across some connecting roads that reminded me of the narrow farm roads where I was raised, then westbound across the R251, and past the slate-gray prominence of Mount Errigal, the highest peak in County Donegal.
The final 3.2 miles to Cruit Island Golf Club, after crossing the bridge onto the island at Belcruit, are navigated along a one-lane road that winds past thatched-roof vacation homes. It’s made slower by locals who stop to chat, oblivious to trailing cars, or teenagers walking their dog with no leash.
A sign at the club’s entryway encourages drivers to honk their horns, a breach of etiquette encouraged because the road cuts through Cruit Island’s first hole. (Local knowledge: If you can clear the road on your tee shot, you’ll have a reasonable birdie chance; otherwise, you’ll have to scramble for your four.)
The bartender took my £15 and reminded me that the first hole doglegs right – not left, which would be toward the eighth green. A member, nursing a Guinness, assured me only the longest hitters can clear the road. Guess I’ll be scrambling for that opening par.
In much of Ireland, particularly the north, it’s accepted wisdom that Portstewart’s first hole is the best opening hole on the island. I wouldn’t argue the point, but the first hole at Cruit Island will give you pause. To the east is the fairway; to the west, somewhere beyond Owey and Arranmore islands, is Nova Scotia.
A brochure I picked up in the tiny clubhouse includes an excerpt from a website describing Cruit Island as “the greatest 9-hole course on earth.” It’s not, though the author might be correct in describing Cruit as “the most hidden links” in the British Isles. It takes an effort to reach Cruit.
The course feels as if it was laid out on a whim one morning a century ago by Harry Colt or Tom Simpson, with no effort to shape the land. In fact, Cruit Island opened in June 1986.
It feels homemade. The tee shots on Nos. 5 and 9 play across the previous greens, and a first-timer will have to negotiate several blind shots, most notably on the fifth, which plays across a ridge. Even a sign of modern maintenance – recently aerated greens – burnished the rugged presentation.
The club occupies the north end of the island, on rolling, rocky seaside bluffs that ensure some memorable moments. Two stand out: the par-4 third plays straight downhill to a green pinned against the North Atlantic; and the par-3 sixth spans three ocean inlets roiling some 100 feet below the tee and green.
If any architects were offered the chance to redesign the land, I suspect they wouldn’t touch those holes because they sit so naturally on the severe terrain.
Seventy-five minutes after throwing my clubs in the trunk, I arrived back at Rosapenna, where I found Casey in the lobby, curious for details on my trip. We talked about the layout and some of the blind shots, and I thanked him for encouraging me to make the trip. I had wanted a memorable experience, and Cruit Island had delivered.