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Narin & Portnoo Links: A renewed Irish beauty

Narin & Portnoo Links faced a financial precipice when Liam McDevitt intervened, saved it from demise and then lured Hanse Golf Course Design to renovate the Irish course and elevate its status

Liam McDevitt moved to the United States a quarter-century ago from his native Ireland. He uprooted himself for love, and though the union eventually dissolved, it did produce a son, now 22.

McDevitt would visit Ireland a half-dozen times a year, frequently taking his son along for some golf, which would invariably include two or three rounds every year at the Narin & Portnoo Links.

“It was always my favorite place to go,” he said. The seaside links course was enough of a draw by itself, but the area also had a nostalgic hold on McDevitt. He was born in Ballyshannon, about 45 minutes away from Narin and his family would spend summers and Easter holidays there at the caravan park still adjacent to the course

“I can’t remember not playing golf, so I must have started pretty early, at three or four years old,” McDevitt said. “There wasn’t a lot to do there during holidays but play golf, so we used to leave in morning and come back late at night. My day was spent playing golf, practicing little shots and searching for golf balls. I did some caddying as well; used to get a pound for that.”

Narin & Portnoo Links — Holes No. 10 and 11
An aerial view of Narin & Portnoo Links' 11th green with the 10th in the background.

With all the time spent there, McDevitt also earned a plus-3 handicap. Now 55, living in Connecticut and running a successful real estate and construction business and consulting firm, McDevitt hasn’t actually played much lately. He’s been too busy with his latest project — buying and renovating the Narin & Portnoo Links.

With his frequent trips back to the course McDevitt couldn’t help but become aware of the financial difficulties the club was facing. A not unusual scenario in this day and age, but the well-regarded links was facing bankruptcy and possible closure, which would have been a shame. Golf has been played in the area since 1905, and on the current grounds as a locally-designed nine-holer since 1930. Narin & Portnoo expanded to 18 in 1965. In McDevitt’s youth, the course played to a par 69, but over the years swelled to par 73, along with its debt.

“My partner, Larry Foley, is Irish-American and probably loves Ireland as much as I do,” McDevitt said. “He also lives in Connecticut, has five kids and they all play golf. We decided to pursue the opportunity of buying the property and were fortunate enough to be successful.”

The pair’s luck only improved from there, said McDevitt: “We hit the lotto when we able to talk Hanse [Golf Course] Design in taking us on board.” Indeed, in some classic being in the right place at the right time circumstances, course architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner were doing restoration and renovation projects in New York at Winged Foot and the Rockaway Hunting Club. McDevitt is a member at Rockaway; Foley at Winged Foot. They liked what they were seeing — the Hanse and Wagner hands-on approach.

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Talks, and golf, ensued among the quartet.

“It’s unusual to get the two of them together,” said McDevitt. “But they both came over for 36 hours in late 2017 to walk the course. The weather was horrendous, terrible. But they basically said, ‘We’re in, we’d love to do it.’”

“We had to hunker down like sheep against the side of the dunes to stay dry and warm,” Wagner said. “We had already kind of signed up verbally, as long as they didn’t want to do something crazy. We wanted to have a look at it first and once we visited that kind of sealed the deal. The property, the landscape around it, the beach, the dunes, it’s just an unbelievable place. So it was a no-brainer.”

“Well, it is a unique spot–where else are you going to get 130 acres on the water?” McDevitt said.

One of Hanse’s first designs was Craighead Links at Crail, and the partners both worked on Castle Stuart, also in Scotland, with Mark Parsinen. But neither had done any work in Ireland.

“I had never even been there,” said Wagner, “and I was just blown away by its beauty — the sky, the landscape, the water.”

Narin & Portnoo Links — Hole No. 9
The par-3 ninth hole features the Gweebarra Bay as a backdrop.

The adjoining towns of Narin and Portnoo are in County Donegal, which actually stretches further north than Northern Ireland, which it borders to the east. It’s part of what Tourism Ireland is touting as the Wild Atlantic Way, and the land does have a wild and thrillingly unkempt look, with heaving dunes, wild grasses, both rocky coast and a lovely beach. The course has ample elevation and juts out into a peninsula feeding down to lovely views of Gweebarra Bay.

Wagner and Hanse came up with a three-phase renovation plan stretching over three years, but they basically finished in two. The old bones of the course are still there, but much is completely new, too, particularly new par-3s that Wagner believes are of world-class quality.

“How would I characterize what we did? That’s a good question,” Wagner said. “We took the golf course back to a little bit of its quirky nature. Some might say that’s a bad thing. But we embrace quirk. We look at a lot of courses over there — like North Berwick or Cruden Bay in Scotland — there’s some awesome quirk at all those great old clubs which makes golf in that part of the world so interesting and fun. Try to bring that to a U.S. golf course and they’ll think you’re nuts.

“But Liam grew up playing golf there and he wanted us to put a lot of that quirk he remembered back in. We didn’t work from plans; we worked from what was in Liam’s childhood memory. And he gave us other opportunities within the property of creating even more quirk and interest by bringing the water and dunes back into play.”

The final unveiling should come around Easter. Par is now 70, with five par-3s. McDevitt guesses the Hanse and Wagner changes will save 20 to 30 minutes per round.

Foley and McDevitt’s goal all along, said the latter, “Was to try and take our experience in other businesses and bring it into golf. It’s still a business, but golfing in general and especially in Ireland needs to be taken apart and put back together — in terms of governance, clubs needs to change, membership needs to change, and we need to encourage more younger kids to play. Make it more fun.”

Maybe with the work completed McDevitt will get back to his own game?

“Since we got involved in this, I kind of lost interest,” he admitted. “So I’m not sure exactly where it is. But it’s still in there. It just needs a little nurturing.”

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