ESCAPE TO NORTHERN IRELAND FOR PURE GOLF, WORLD FAMOUS HOSPITALITY AND AN UNEXPECTED GAME OF THRONES FIX
Prue golf, that world famous ‘craic’ and even a Game of Thrones fix. Golfing in Westeros has it all.
when mother nature and father time
get together in a golf setting and are left thereafter largely to their own devices, the outcome is invariably a gift to the game.
For more than 135 years this faithful romance (with some thoughtful encouragement from mankind) has produced courses the length and breadth of Northern Ireland to rival even the most celebrated creations across the wild Irish Sea in golf’s spiritual homeland, Scotland. But never before has the game north of Ireland’s UK divide had it this good.
When the Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time in 68 years in 2019, a decade that seems to get better with every passing year will ensure Northern Ireland well and truly emerges from any lingering shadows cast by its famed golfing neighbours.
From the moment Graeme McDowell edged Frenchman Grégory Havret by a stroke to capture the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the game in Northern Ireland has savoured one intoxicating high after another. McDowell triggered an avalanche of six major championships for NIL inside four years with Darren Clarke (2011 Open) and Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA and 2014 Open) helping spawn a “Home of Legends” well, legend. It was the stuff of marketing dreams to go with the timeless and not undeserved “Made for Golf” moniker Tourism Northern Ireland proudly trumpets.
With Royal County Down ascending to No.1 in Golf Digest’s most recent “World’s Greatest 100 Golf Courses” list, overtaking Augusta National no less, Northern Ireland clearly has the courses to match its champions. There’s more than 90 of them in fact and it was a thrill to explore five of the best, including Portstewart GC, the host of July’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, recently. With Royal Portrush, Castlerock and the Old and Glashedy Links at Ballyliffin GC included, this “North Coast Medley” provided everything a links lover could wish for.
From the sea spray infused golf, to the quaint accommodation and contemporary cuisine and the UNESCO World Heritage Site standard sight-seeing along the way, Northern Ireland seemingly exists to exceed golf holiday expectations, something McIlroy has long promised.
“I love being from Northern Ireland, and I never get tired of telling people how great it is,” the four-time major champion from Holywood, County Down enthuses. There is even something for golfing
Game of Thrones ( GOT) fans, with County Antrim the backdrop to many scenes from Westeros in the hit HBO series. And yes, we can confirm winter is coming, pretty much straight after spring, summer and autumn, the type of weather you should expect to be packaged into every round although not necessarily in that order. Bring your base layers and your wet weather gear and get on with it because, as they say in these parts, if you don’t like the weather just wait a few minutes. The golf, we promise, will warm the cockles even if the weather is sometimes as dark as the mythical GOT screenplay.
castlerock gc – mussenden course
Not long after guiltily scoffing fresh fruit and cream scones at “Wee Cottage” on the periphery of some highly recommended sight-seeing at the circa 14th century Dunluce Castle, it’s time for lunch in the downstairs café at Castlerock GC. Here, though the giant windows, we drink in the view across the 18th green, the back of which almost touches the glass and makes you wonder at the consequences of a bladed wedge shot later on. The wooden framed scene is quintessentially British golf and sweeping right, the first hole is an alluring promise of things to come.
While it is set on the dramatic north coast of Ireland, towering sand dunes limit the promised “panoramic vistas” to those across the course and Bann River which feeds the wild North Atlantic, not that either option is to be sniffed at. The club’s nifty looking 9-holer takes it’s title from the river but we play the 18-hole Mussenden course, so named after the temple that overlooks the course on nearby Downhill, or Dragonstone as GOT followers will know it.
Founded in 1901 and designed by
renowned club maker Ben Sayers before being “perfected” by Harry Colt, the first six holes at Castlerock are, in a word, bland. It’s no wonder the 2nd and 3rd are due an overhaul as part of a wider upgrade of the course this northern winter.
But persevere as the links loveliness clicks in from the 6th. The 8th and 9th - an uphill par 4 where the green is slotted between giant dunes and a lengthy, downhill par 3 - are the best inward holes. The 17th, where deep pot bunkers on the right hand side of the fairway define the hole from the elevated tee and mask the green, provides the best design aesthetics on the homeward journey. We also enjoyed the strategic challenge on the 18th, a short par 4 which doglegs sharply right. Any pushed tee shot will leave a blind, uphill approach over a massive dune but I was personally thankful that it blocked out the aforementioned clubhouse windows and any twitchy wedge thoughts. It’s a thoroughly quirky finish to a memorable round.
royal portrush – dunluce links
As the only course outside of mainland UK to host The Open, our round at Royal Portrush was eagerly anticipated and even more so as the club is readying itself for an historic repeat in 2019. We’d spent the morning further up the Antrim coast exploring the geological wonder that is Giant’s Causeway with its 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that defy logic, much like the folktales featuring the World Heritage Site’s once resident giant, Finn McCool.
You follow in the footsteps of genuine giants, at least of the golfing kind, when you enter the gates at Royal Portrush. Ensure you factor in plenty of time to soak up the history dotted along the corridors of the clubhouse, including countless trophies, a fine collection of hickories and memorabilia from the 1951 Open when Englishman Max Faulkner, then 34, beat Argentine Antonio Cerda to the Claret Jug by two strokes. There’s even a replica Claret Jug wedged between portraits of 1947 Open champion Fred Daly, Northern Ireland’s major championship pioneer, and Clarke who remains a proud member today.
Founded in 1888, Portrush is home to two championship courses, the renowned Dunluce Links (circa 1909) which crept ever northward before an early 1930s redesign from Harry Colt, and the picturesque Valley Course where McDowell learned his craft.
The Dunluce layout for the 148th Open in July 2019 will include two new holes sculpted by architect Martin Ebert from land borrowed from the Valley course. The new 7th, a monster 630 yard par 5, and 460-yard par 4 8th will replace the existing and relatively vanilla 17th and 18th holes which will be transformed into the Open Championship Village. `
The members were to play the new holes for the first time on Captain’s Day at the end of June but legend already has it that Clarke needed a driver, three wood and five iron to reach the new par 5 on a breathless day. When Faulkner won the Open with a 285 aggregate 68 years ago, only he and Cerda finished under par on Dunluce. Add the new 7th and 8th to an otherwise timeless array of quality holes, mix in a little breeze, and don’t be surprised if Portrush bears similar teeth in two years time.
Even in its current form, the Dunluce, which stretches nearly 7200 yards from the tips, presents a formidable test as we discovered. Lightly bunkered, the challenge comes from the humps and hollows around the greens and especially from the thick fescue and marram grass which hugs the fairways and many green surrounds. Short-side yourself into such jungle, like the author did on the 8th, named the Himalayas after the nasty collective of humps around the green, and your handicap allowance will quickly vanish.
As you’d expect, most every hole oozes design quality, tip-toeing the fine line between natural aesthetic wonder and just the right level of strategic human interference. The 5th hole, White Rocks, is described as one of the “most exhilarating two shots in golf”. From the fairway it looks like the par 4 falls off the edge of mother earth while the vistas out over Atlantic when you do eventually reach the green see plenty of cellphone camera action nowdays. Earlier the 4th, named after Daly, is a brute of a par 4 with out-of-bounds right and wild rough and seemingly insurmountable dunes just about everywhere else.
The 14th, aptly named Calamity Corner, is Royal Portrush’s signature hole. The 210 yard par 3 plays across a steep ravine where balls go to die and players chasing such uncooperative spheres risk a similar fate. After a nervous decent and a lung and card busting climb involving several near air shots given the severity of the slope and the rough, I now know exactly why four-time Open champion Bobby Locke has a hollow to the left of the green named after him. The sage South African played for it off the tee everyday in the 1951 Open and salvaged par every time. If you do survive without scorecard calamity, be forewarned a quirky, downhill hole they call “Purgatory” follows. I suspect there will be some big name suffering at these two holes during the 2019 Open which cannot come soon enough.
“WHITE ROCKS IS DESCRIBED AS ONE OF THE MOST EXHILARATING TWO SHOTS IN GOLF”.
portstewart gc – the strand
The roads leading to Portstewart GC are familiar to motorcycle enthusiasts as those raced each May in the North West 200, a precursor to the infamous Isle of Man TT. Indeed, the Dunlop family, the late and legendary Joey forever commanding pole-position, are as famous in these parts as any of the country’s golfers.
In early July the same roads, sure to be negotiated at far more sedate speeds, will lead Rory McIlroy and a star-studded supporting cast to the home of the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. If our experience is anything to go by, it will be an absolute treat.
Founded in 1894, Portstewart GC is home to three courses - the Strand, the Riverside and the Old – and has benefited from numerous makeovers since, most famously from Willie Park Jnr in the 1920s.
The author humbly rates the outward nine on the flagship Strand among, if
bottom left: giant’s causeway below: royal portrush’s 13th
top left: ‘ white rocks’, the 5th hole on dunluce links, required costly reinforcement work to stop it slipping into the north atlantic
left: the earliest standing remains of dunluce castle date to around 1500 above: castlerock’s back 9 overlooking the river bann
bottom right: the par 3 9th on the mussenden course at castlerock