Northern Ireland is strong in offering top quality links courses.
Northern Ireland is strong in offering top quality links courses. By Stuart McLean
MY FIRST VISIT TO PLAY GOLF IN NORTHERN IRELAND
was in the early 1980s, a period known as the Troubles. British security forces were highly visible, patrolling on foot or in armour-plated Land Rovers.There were checkpoints, barbed wire around police stations, roads where you were forbidden to park a vehicle, and IRA bombings and assassinations were the norm of a divided society.The conflict made it a very different world from the sleepy southern part of Ireland.
There has been peace in the north for almost 20 years now, and there are no longer any guarded border crossings, yet when it comes to golf there still remains significantly contrasting differences between the two “countries,” even though they both fall under the one body, the Golfing Union of Ireland.
Minor distinctions involve paying your green fee in either pounds or euros, and measuring courses in yards or metres. The real differences can be seen, or not seen, in the golf courses themselves. Golf in the south clearly seems to be simpler and more rural than that in the north. Often, the frills are missing, and that’s part of Ireland’s charm and appeal. Several of the most fabulous of the Irish courses outside Dublin are in isolated areas of significant scenic beauty, reached by narrow, winding lanes, whereas those in Northern Ireland often tend to be in plainer urban environments.
Visit the twin shining lights of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in the north, considered two of the 10 greatest links on the planet, and there’s a spit and polish about them that is at odds with the majority of clubs in the south. The clubhouses are grand, smart and well-fitted, and have that traditional British look about them.
With coachloads of visitors regularly rolling in the front gate, the daily members’ times are as fiercely reserved as they are in England and Scotland, whereas the Irish elsewhere are more accommodating to visitors, much as we are here in South Africa.That’s because many of their clubs have small local memberships, and visitors are looked upon as the manna from heaven that keeps their subscriptions low and the club in profit.
Being a visitor myself, and unaccompanied by a member at either of these two courses, my tee times at Portrush and County Down had their restrictions. Royal Portrush was more accommodating, with visitors allowed every day at certain times, while Wednesdays and Saturdays are off limits for visitors at Royal County Down.
While Ireland offers numerous options and choice for golfers, the main attraction for visiting Northern Ireland is simply these two remarkable links courses.They are ranked No 1 (County Down) and No 2 (Portrush) in the whole of Ireland, which is saying something.That’s why they can charge high rates for green fees, and still have a waiting list on most days during the summer months. Playing 18 holes on each of them will currently set you back between R7 000 and R8 000 in season.And you’ll be carrying your own bag.
If you look through rankings of the top 100 courses in the whole of Ireland, about 85 percent of them are in the south. So the north is disadvantaged in terms of numbers. But not in quality.
PORTSTEWART’S WOW FACTOR
The two premier courses now have a strong rival as an added attraction for visitors in Portstewart, a golf club founded in 1894 which has transformed itself in modern times into one of the world’s best.When it hosted the Irish Open on its Strand course in July,TV viewers around the world were wowed by its spectacular landscape and dramatic golf holes, and golfers will certainly add it to future itineraries, especially as it’s so close to Portrush on the same Causeway Coast.These holes amidst giant dunes were only built some 25-30 years ago, when the Strand course was rebuilt.And to obtain the club’s rst Irish Open, Portstewart had to demolish their historic old clubhouse and build a palatial new one.
Across the River Bann from Portstewart lies another links, Castlerock, hitherto a hidden gem, but a go-ahead golf club now investing money on a major upgrade of their Mussenden course to keep up with their neighbours.Top links architect Martin Hawtree, who built Donald Trump’s links near Aberdeen in Scotland, is renovating eight holes at Castlerock which will be ready for play next April.
Castlerock already has some exceptional holes on an attractive site, plus some of a quirky nature, which are alone worth the green fee, and eliminating the more mundane holes will surely transform this into a Top 20 experience in Ireland.
All this explains why Tourism Northern Ireland is vigorously promoting golf more than ever leading up the Open Championship being hosted by Royal Portrush in 2019. Its return to the rota for the rst time since 1951 is already being looked upon as a special occasion in the annals of the Open, and should attract an enormous in ux of visitors. There is a train service to the town, and new access roads.
Royal Portrush might currently be No 2 to the No 1 ranking of Royal County Down, which is closer to Belfast and Dublin, but golfers who have played them both will have di ering
opinions about which is their favourite. County Down is a unique enough links to have been ranked No 1 in the world by Golf Digest (August 2016 issue) ahead of Augusta National, and it has many loyal adherents who love aiming their drives blindly at posts and rocks amidst its rolling dunes rather than at fairways you can actually see, and get giddy with excitement at the challenging firmness of the greens. On the day I played the course, many of the pins were in the back quadrant of the greens, to speed up play among the visiting fourballs.The ball flatteringly rolled up to these pins even after pitching short of the putting surface.
County Down possesses holes of a quality and novelty that will excite the senses of the adventurous golfer who is prepared to figure out its varied challenges.The first-timer will find it difficult and daunting most of the time. It requires a certain courage to play the course, plus a grudging acceptance that your ball, at the mercy of the links’ uneven terrain, will seek out some horrific lies.
PORTRUSH’S NEW HOLES
Because of the Troubles, the modern Irish Open – it became part of the European Tour in 1975 – was never played in Northern Ireland until it was taken to Royal Portrush in 2012.That was the tournament that convinced The R&A to consider returning the club to the Open Championship rota.
One of the conditions imposed on Portrush being awarded the Open was that the club strengthen its Dunluce links – the club has two courses, the other being theValley – both in terms of its looks and championship stature. Proposed changes to the layout ultimately clinched the deal with The R&A.Two new holes with enormous visual appeal were opened in June this year to replace the two weakest holes, which happened to be the old flat and dull 17th and 18th.
It was their key positioning in the routing which had previously undermined Portrush’s standing as a great course.The Dunluce now has 18 wonderful holes, because the replacements were built in one of the most attractive reaches of the links, the dunescape at the far end of the property, where the spectacular fifth has a green set close to the edge of a high cliff.The new holes were designed by Martin Ebert, who works closely with The R&A as their preferred architect at Open venues, and was also recently involved in the changes at Trump Turnberry in Scotland.The new seventh hole, a
strong uphill par 5 with a cavernous fairway bunker to be avoided with the tee shot, was built on land previously occupied by holes on the neighbouring Valley course.The new No 8, an intimidating dogleg par 4 which overlooks the seventh, occupies ground that had never been touched before.
The introduction of these two new holes means that the finish is very different from when the club hosted the Irish Open in 2012.The famous par 3, Calamity Corner, one of the greatest and most intimidating short holes in world golf, is now the 16th, having previously been No 14. It will be a significant closing hole at the Open.The Dunluce finishes with a strong par 4 rather than a par 5, although the only downside of having the old 16th as the new 18th is that it is not visible from the clubhouse.
Ebert built two new holes on the Valley course to compensate for their losses, including the par-4 18th, which begins with a stupendous ocean view. This is where Graeme McDowell grew up playing the game as a member of the Rathmore club, which has more of a workingclass membership compared to Royal Portrush.
While Royal County Down – which hosted the Irish Open for the first time in 2015, and proved a decidedly challenging venue, with a winning score of two-under-par – may be the No 1 ranked course, Royal Portrush has an advantage over it in geographical positioning.The town of Portrush, with its picturesque harbour (packed with terrific restaurants) and many nearby tourist attractions, is the place to stay in Northern Ireland. Here you are close not only to Portstewart and Castlerock, but also the majestic Causeway Coast. From the raised cliffs of the coastline you can look north at the islands of Scotland.
GAME OF THRONES
Bushmills, the oldest distillery in Ireland, is not far away, as are several beauty spots which feature in the hit TV series The Game of Thrones.The tourism industry for this might be bigger than that for golf. Many of today’s younger visitors to Northern Ireland are besotted fans of the series, visiting the harbour at Ballintoy, the spell-binding road of the Dark Hedges, or the Cushendun Caves.
Belfast, oddly enough, has two airports, and the closest to Portrush is Belfast International, an hour’s drive away.
Hidden away in a distant corner of Northern Ireland, in County Fermanagh close to the west coast, is Ireland’s No 1 parkland course. Lough Erne is 160 kilometres from Portrush, so it’s probably better to include it on a tour of the west coast courses such as Sligo and Enniscrone.There was only one golf course in this county until the Lough Erne resort was opened at Enniskillen in the late 1990s.A second course came along in 2009, designed by Nick Faldo, and it occupies a strikingly picturesque setting among the lakes.This was the course which put Lough Erne into the same bracket as fellow luxury resorts like the K Club, Mount Juliet, Druids Glen, Carton House and Adare Manor, all of which have hosted the Irish Open.
For most South African golfers, especially those in rural areas, their pride and joy is their local golf club. I love to visit the country courses and share in the memories made at some of these smaller courses. I was invited to play in a charity day at Koffiefontein GC in the Free State, and asked to host the evening function. The organiser, a club member, sent me photos on WhatsApp of what he calls “the best greens” in the Free State. And was I pleasantly surprised when I played the course. I would rate their greens at 8 out of 10.
Koffiefontein is a small town about 100km south of Kimberley, and 140km south west of Bloemfontein. In the 19th century, transport riders stopped here at a natural spring where they could rest and water their horses. Their habit of constantly making coffee earned the town its name. In June 1870, the year after the first “diamond rush,” one of these riders found a diamond near the spring, and within 12 years this was transformed from a miners’ camp into a booming town.
De Beers were active in the area for 136 years, but their mine is now owned by Petra Diamonds. Sheep farming is the main economic activity. The 9-hole course offers few golf carts, but enough caddies to ensure you enjoy your round. A substantial clubhouse makes for a great 19th hole. Since you are in the “platteland,” quenching your thirst will not cost you an arm and a leg.
The scenic course has been here for nearly 80 years, and opens with a wide par 5, out of reach in two for the average golfer. There are numerous big trees, and straight hitting will see you around in a decent score. Great course, great people, great experience. Contact golf director Chris on 083 457 5123
WE STAYED AT
Blackrock is Portrush’s rst 5-star B&B, within walking distance of the harbour. This is boutique accommodation, beautifully decorated over three storeys, with just four luxury bedrooms (book one of the three overlooking the harbour), which means owner Nicola can pamper her guests. Her breakfast menu is simply superb, both the healthy and cooked options, while she surprises you in the three guest lounges in the evenings with Tapas snacks, whisky tastings, co ee and tea.The kitchen is not out of bounds to guests, and best of all is the sustenance she happily provides for golfers returning back late at night after a trip to one of the far ung couses.
CAUSEWAY GOLF EVENT
The 51st edition of the Causeway Coast individual Stableford amateur tournament will be played from June 3-9, 2018. Each year it attracts in the region of a thousand golfers from all parts of the world, and is played on four courses, Castlerock, Ballyli n (Old), Royal Portrush (Valley) and Ballycastle. Ballyli n is actually not part of the Causeway Coast, being on the Inishowen Peninsula in the north-west of Ireland. It has two courses, and the Glashedy will be hosting the 2018 Irish Open.Tournament packages and registration can be found on www.thegolfpa.com, and include six nights’ accommodation.
The Faldo Course at Lough Erne resort is considered the best parkland layout in Northern Ireland.
The 18th hole (above, on the right of image) at Castlerock on the Causeway Coast. Game of Throne fans will be familiar with the Dark Hedges (above, right) and the harbour at Ballintoy (below).
The par-4 15th hole on the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush. Below, a colourful Irish pub in Ballycastle.
A train headed for Portrush exits the tunnel below the Mussenden Temple near Castlerock on the Causeway Coast.
View of Portrush harbour from the Blackrock Guest House. Right: Ardglass.