PRE­MIER PAIR­ING

Northern Ire­land is strong in of­fer­ing top quality links cour­ses.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - BY STU­ART McLEAN

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.

koffie­fontein gc

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.

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