Between the Waters: Kevin Markham pays a visit to the otherworldly resort of Lough Erne

Kevin Markham

Lough Erne 16th tee (Image: Kevin Markham)

I was running out of balls but I wasn’t about to take a penalty drop up near the green. That’s not the way it works. There’s a stubborn determination to inflict self-harm after 16 good holes and a belief that a good score is… or was… within reach.

I was playing the short par-4 17th at Lough Erne and I was in full Roy McAvoy mode. Two balls had finished short of the green which juts out into Castle Hume Lough, and that meant two balls had been lost to the water. I was angry. I was not about to relent. It was 100 yards to the green: how hard could it be?

Of the many differences between Roy McAvoy’s moment of madness and mine, the most obvious – other than our abilities – is the location and charm of the golf course. Roy was playing a nondescript hole on a nondescript course. I was playing one of the best holes on one of the island’s top parklands. It didn’t lessen the pain but at least it distracted me from it. You see, Castle Hume Lough hugs the right side of the hole, stretching from tee to green and beyond, with the resort looming all along the left. And, if you choose the most exciting tee (whites), you get to drive over the lough as you seek out the fairway. Between you and the green there is nothing but cool, ball-hungry water.


There is much to be said about this brilliant hole but on this particular day, not all of it is printable.

A World Apart

It is interesting to note that Lough Erne is the third ‘big’ parkland in a row to be featured on these pages. First came Dromoland Castle, then Druids Glen. Today it is Lough Erne’s turn.

Consider this: the 39th summit of the G8 was held here in 2013… back in the days before Putin was a pariah and the G8 became the G7. Lough Erne was selected, in part, for the privacy and protection it provided. This five-star resort resides on a 600-acre peninsula, nestled between Castle Hume Lough and Lower Lough Erne, surrounded by forest. It is a world apart, an achingly beautiful and tranquil spot… although probably less so for those world leaders debating important stuff a decade ago.

Today, that tranquillity remains at the heart of the resort and one of its big selling points. Its health and wellbeing offering has proven very desirable post-Covid and you can now enjoy outdoor yoga, paddle-boarding and, most importantly, a Golfer’s Recovery massage in the Thai Spa. There are 36 holes here so that massage may prove most useful during your visit.

While all three of the parklands covered recently on these pages are distinctly individual, they do share some things in common. Top of that list is owners who want to improve what the resort has to offer.

At Lough Erne, the owners have invested in a full resort renovation. That is little surprise when you consider a product of this calibre. The hotel’s 49 rooms have all been upgraded to the highest of standards and they’re ideal for golfers. A few years ago I was lucky to be one such golfer and my room provided a tantalising view down the 17th, from green to tee. I don’t recall a lone golfer knocking ball after ball into the lough but maybe he wasn’t out on the course at that point.

Further refurbishments to public spaces are planned and the main bridge to enter the resort is currently being upgraded. If you have to drive slowly to get across, check out the par-3 5th green on your left. Check out the green slopes, check out the carry across the lough and note that the reeds that had grown up in front of the green have been removed… ensuring the full terror of the green is on show.

Lough Erne 5th Tee (Image: Kevin Markham)

The Golf

On the golf course there have been no major changes… other than the relentless pursuit of perfection. There is a rolling three-year investment plan in machinery: this year six new ‘approach’ and fairway mowers were purchased. The next stage will see new greens and rough mowers added to the fleet.

Speaking of ‘fleets’, 20 new EZ-GO golf buggies have been added, bringing the number to 50. That makes it one of the largest fleets in the country. There are a few short climbs – the one to the 6th tee is the steepest – but taking a buggy adds to the sense of luxury of playing this course. Not that I’m suggesting you take one, you understand. Your legs are there to be used.

The only other significant changes to the ‘golf’ product are the post-Covid renovation to the famous turreted halfway house and the progress of the Golf Academy run by the well-known Damian Mooney, who joined the resort as its new golf Professional in 2020. The three-time Ulster PGA winner has been an important Lough Erne Brand Ambassador and he has increased the scope of what the Academy offers, with corporate golf clinics and junior lessons on the menu to bring golf to new audiences.

Back on the 17th, I appreciated that I could have done with a few lessons myself as my third ball zeroed in on the lough’s waters. The sad thing about it is that the 17th is a cracking par-4. How disappointing to make such a hames of a 304-yard hole that ticks every possible box. Beautiful to look at, beautiful to play, requires careful thought off the tee… and on the approach. Bunkers flank the left with flourish, beneath the turreted lodges where golfers can stay, and the hole screams ‘water’. What’s not to like.

Is it the best hole on the course? That depends: Lough Erne has a few holes vying for the title and the variety on offer means it is unlikely that three golfers would produce the same list.

The course starts in woodland and the walk over the long, low wooden bridge to reach the 1st tee is always something to savour. The opening loop of five holes doesn’t get discussed much which is a shame as these holes are a perfect start. The straight par-4 1st has water all along the right while the 2nd is a dogleg right, around the trees. A par-3 follows, lost in woodland, before the short par-5 4th breaks free and races back towards the resort.

No, I’m not going to give a hole-by-hole running commentary but there are two things in particular that these opening holes reveal: one, the hole lengths matter little when it comes to difficulty; and two, the front nine is littered with putting surfaces you can’t always see. Combined, these go some way to explaining why the par-4 2nd is Index 9, despite being the shortest par-4 on the course (294 yards, whites), and the 4th is Index 5, despite being the shortest of the five par-5s (504 yards). Both have greens where you can’t see the full putting surface… and with the slopes on and around them, that can make it exceedingly difficult to get close to the flag. By the by, holes 6 and 8 throw in that same ‘hidden’ challenge, only ramped up even further as both greens sit at the top of a rise. The par-4 8th is cruellest of all and, at 439 yards, it is comfortably the Index 1. Did I mention that the green also slopes from front to back? A front pin position is a complete nightmare.

Thereafter, greens are more willing to display themselves fully… except for the 13th and 15th, where both par-3s have greens perched up high above the tee.

Lough Erne Resort

So much more should be said about the greens at this time. Hidden as some of them are, they are big and come with slopes that sweep your ball in any direction, including off the sides. It’s a wicked day of putting and short game recovery, and your hands need to be soft and your brain dialled in. And you have to avoid being distracted… as my rising count of four balls in the water will attest to.

The par-3 5th ‘joins’ the front loop to the rest of the course. Those opening holes play on the Castle Hume Lough side of the resort, but now you head up to the ridge which divides the course in two. On the 6th tee, Castle Hume Lough lies to your left, over the resort’s rooftops, while the beauty of Lower Lough Erne spreads out to your right, islands dotted across a palette of silver blue.

If you want signature holes, or best hole, this is the one for me. The 7th may have the beauty of the lough beyond and a towering drive to make those shoulder muscles twitch, while the tantalising 10th has its almost-island green below and the 16th and 17th ignite the drama from high over the lough… but the par-5 6th has so much elegance and sway to it. The bunkers look like a painter had a hand in the design and the land drops like a curtsy between tee and green. It is 535 yards of sheer magnificence and it throws in one of the toughest approach shots of the day… as referenced above. Scale the heights, overcome that front ridge and its bunker, and stay on the green… you may even have a putt for birdie.

I won’t go on. I hope the photos tell enough of the story of Lough Erne’s beauty but there are certain things to remember. This is a resort course so there is that playability to holes, typically in the form of generous fairways. And yet the greens and complexes give the course bite while the peninsula’s space and natural habitats give you ample opportunity to go searching for errant balls.
Lough Erne is slightly off the beaten track. It is a two-hour drive from both Dublin and Belfast, and the nearest courses of consequence are Co Sligo and Donegal. It might skip one’s radar when looking at a place to visit… but that location and five-star quality emphasise its ‘a world apart’ credentials.

Please pay attention to your choice of tee. There are significant differences here: the 14th is 623 from the back black tee and 524 from the forward yellow. Don’t be a hero.

There are, however, times when you simply must play from a particular tee box. The 5th, the 7th, the 16th and, most of all, the 17th, all promise exhilarating shots from the whites. If you feel exceptionally brave then head to the back black tee on 16, which is the start of ‘Faldo’s Turn’. It is the drive of the day with the fairway far below, the resort beyond the green and the lough to your right. It’s all knitted together with towering trees and elegance. It’s 565 yards from here, or 521 from the whites further down the hill.

To that end: Black tees are 7,167, Blues are 6,701, Whites are 6,241, Yellows are 5,686, Reds 5,015 yards.

I guess that leaves one final and obvious question. And my answer is this: I did finally find the 17th green, on the sixth attempt, marking an impressive 14 on the score card. I’m now taking up paddle-boarding… I hear there are a lot of balls in the lough that need retrieving.

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