North­ern Ire­land

ES­CAPE TO NORTH­ERN IRE­LAND FOR PURE GOLF, WORLD FA­MOUS HOS­PI­TAL­ITY AND AN UN­EX­PECTED GAME OF THRONES FIX

Golf Digest Middle East - - Contents - BY KENT GRAY

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

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

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

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