| Great Golf on the Emer­ald Isle

With the Open Cham­pi­onship re­turn­ing to North­ern Ire­land next year for only the sec­ond time in its 159-year his­tory, the province en­joys a choice of cour­ses en­tirely dis­pro­por­tion­ate to its size. Any­one who be­lieves that Royal Portrush is the to­tal of the

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Mike Wil­son

With the Open Cham­pi­onship re­turn­ing to North­ern Ire­land next year, the province en­joys a choice of cour­ses en­tirely dis­pro­por­tion­ate to its size.

When it comes to re­view­ing golf in North­ern Ire­land, it is es­sen­tial to dis­tin­guish the ter­ri­tory to the north of the ‘Emer­ald Isle’, the part which, for the time be­ing not­with­stand­ing the va­garies of Brexit, at least – is part of the UK.

How­ever, it would be re­miss in pro­duc­ing such a re­view not to al­lude to the Repub­lic of Ire­land and its vast ar­ray of truly mag­nif­i­cent golf cour­ses. They come in all shapes and sizes, links, park­land, friendly, small-town lay­outs, nine holes and 18. From tow­er­ing, lux­u­ri­ous re­sort-style cour­ses such as the K Club, host to the 2006 Ryder Cup, to spec­tac­u­lar links lay­outs such as Port­marnock, Royal Dublin, Druid’s Glen and Mount Juliet, all past hosts of the pres­ti­gious Ir­ish Open.

It would also do some­thing of a dis­ser­vice to North­ern Ire­land were any in-depth re­view at­tempt to em­brace golf in the Repub­lic. Both sides of the border fully jus­tify scru­tiny in their own right. When it comes to North­ern Ire­land, the most ob­vi­ous – but far from only – the place to start must be Royal Portrush. In July 1951, English­man Max Faulkner lifted the Claret Jug on the only oc­ca­sion to date golf’s old­est

and most pres­ti­gious Ma­jor cham­pi­onship, The Open, was played away from the United King­dom’s main­land at Royal Portrush, County Antrim, North­ern Ire­land.

North­ern Ire­land Tourism Board and the peo­ple of the province made an unar­guable case for the Open to re­turn fol­low­ing a hia­tus of 68 years. The 2012 and 2015 Ir­ish Open cham­pi­onships, at Royal County Down and Royal Portrush - fourth and 15th re­spec­tively in the Top-100 golf cour­ses in the world - sold out within weeks of tick­ets go­ing on sale.

The big­gest chal­lenge of the 2019 Open Cham­pi­onship, the 148th stag­ing of world golf’s most ven­er­a­ble and pres­ti­gious event will be getting tick­ets. Al­ready, nine-months from the first stroke be­ing struck on the morn­ing of Thurs­day 18th July 2019, al­most all 200,000 avail­able tick­ets have been sold out, leav­ing sec­ondary tick­et­ing sites, cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­ity passes or vol­un­teer­ing as the sole means of catch­ing the ac­tion. Although some tick­ets, cost­ing as lit­tle as £15.00 (ap­prox. HK$155.00) and up to £40.00 (ap­prox. HK$410.00) are avail­able for the prac­tice days.

Re­mark­ably for a small coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of un­der two-mil­lion, North­ern Ire­land boasts a glit­ter­ing ar­ray of world-class pro­fes­sional tal­ent. Ma­jor win­ners Rory McIl­roy,

who hails from Holy­wood, County Down, Graeme McDow­ell and Dar­ren Clarke, who both hail from Portrush, And, such is the ac­ces­si­bil­ity for visi­tors, there is not a golf course or club where those seek­ing to fol­low in the foot­steps of these, Ma­jor cham­pi­ons will be any­thing less than wel­com­ing, and with open arms.

De­spite the ques­tion of the Ir­ish border be­ing reg­u­larly men­tioned in Brexit dis­patches, in­deed, one can criss­cross the fron­tier sev­eral times in the one day with­out even know­ing it. With the pass­ing of time and gen­er­a­tions, the so-called ‘Trou­bles,’ which af­flicted Ire­land over many years are very much a thing of the past. Lo­cals on both sides of the border as friendly and wel­com­ing as it is pos­si­ble to get.

Ar­guably the most ex­cit­ing and chal­leng­ing is North­ern Ire­land’s North and West Coast Links, fea­tur­ing an ar­ray of great golf cour­ses suitable for visi­tors from scratch and low-hand­i­cap play­ers to those play­ing purely for fun. A range of golf cour­ses ide­ally suited for all mem­bers of fam­ily and friends.

Con­nemara Cham­pi­onship Golf Links, En­nis­crone Golf Club and Co. Sligo Golf Club are found­ing mem­bers of the des­ti­na­tion mar­ket­ing group. Fol­lowed by Ros­apenna Golf Links, Bal­lylif­fin Golf Club, where Scots­man Rus­sell Knox won the 2018 Ir­ish Open. Port­stew­art Golf Club, where Spa­niard John Rahm won the Ir­ish Open in 2017 and, ul­ti­mately, Royal Portrush Golf Club, the jewel in the area’s crown.

In the south-west of North­ern Ire­land lies what, for this com­men­ta­tor at least, the crown jew­els, the spec­tac­u­lar, five-star Lough Erne Re­sort. It hosted the G8 Sum­mit in 2013. Close to the town of En­niskillen, on the south­ern shores of Lough Erne, with 120 lux­u­ri­ous rooms in North­ern Ire­land’s first and to date only AA ho­tel. Con­fig­ured as tra­di­tional rooms, suites and lough­side lodges, there is also a self-con­tained, be­spoke Golf Vil­lage, a se­lec­tion of three-and­four-bed­room houses, over­look­ing the 18-hole cham­pi­onship Faldo Course, de­signed by the six­time Ma­jor cham­pion him­self.

The 7,000-yard-plus, Par-72 lay­out park­land course is dom­i­nated by Lough Erne and sits cheek-by-jowl with a sec­ond, less de­mand­ing but en­joy­able Cas­tle Hume Course. There is a golf acad­emy and driv­ing range to warm-up, learn to play un­der the watch­ful eye of the most at­ten­tive team of teach­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

Dur­ing the au­tumn time, when the colour of the ex­ten­sive fo­liage is ev­ery bit as in­spir­ing as New Eng­land in the fall. Mid­week rooms are on of­fer at £110.00 (ap­prox. HK$1,132.00), in­clud­ing a £70.00 (ap­prox. HK$720.00)

voucher for break­fast and ac­cess to the ex­ten­sive Thai Spa fa­cil­i­ties, with ex­cep­tional food and bev­er­age op­tions from the fine din­ing in the Catalina Res­tau­rant to the au­then­tic­ity of the Blaney Bar and the Lough­side Bar & Grill.

If there is a bet­ter au­tum­nal golf re­sort pack­age on of­fer, any­where in the world, I’d like to ex­pe­ri­ence it as Lough Erne is, with­out ex­cep­tion, sec­ond-to-none.

Other ex­cep­tional golf ex­pe­ri­ences in North­ern Ire­land in­clude the Belvoir Park Golf Club, in County Antrim. Es­tab­lished in 1927 and set in some 163 acres of de­light­ful park­land and was de­signed by one of the great­est ar­chi­tects of all time, Harry S Colt, voted ‘Best Park­land Course in Ul­ster’ in 2016. Given the qual­ity of many of the coun­try’s in­land lay­outs, that’s quite an ac­co­lade.

Castle­rock Golf Club is an ex­cep­tion­ally fam­ily-friendly club com­pris­ing the 18-hole Mussenden Course – at 7,000-plus-yards a gen­uine chal­lenge and the nine-hole Bann Course, Castle­rock earn­ing the ti­tle of ‘North­ern Ire­land’s Hid­den Gem.’

With the clock count­ing down to the 148th Open Cham­pi­onship re­turn­ing to North­ern Ire­land, the fo­cus of at­ten­tion will in­evitably be on the Province. How­ever, let there be no doubt, there is more than enough class and a warm enough wel­come to en­sure that, all things be­ing equal, it won’t be an­other 68 years be­fore the world’s great­est cham­pi­onship crosses the Ir­ish Sea once more.

SIX TO MIX

Golf breaks may be good for the soul, es­pe­cially in such a re­laxed and wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment as of­fered-up by North­ern Ire­land. How­ever, with fine food and drink on of­fer at the end of a day’s play, with fam­ily or friends, it’s well worth spend­ing some time in what a cor­nu­copia of of­f­course ex­pe­ri­ences is, es­pe­cially given that travel dis­tances in the Province are not off the scale.

1. Giant’s Cause­way. One of the great ge­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena in the world; lo­cated al­most at the most northerly point of the is­land of Ire­land, this UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site is truly breath­tak­ing.

Jut­ting out into the fre­quently-stormy North At­lantic, the Giant’s Cause­way is an area of about 40,000 in­ter­lock­ing basalt col­umns, the re­sult of an an­cient vol­canic fis­sure erup­tion.

Lo­cated in County Antrim on the north coast of North­ern Ire­land, about three miles north­east of the town of Bush­mill, leg­end has it that Ir­ish giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) cre­ated the cause­way to travel to Scot­land and fight his ri­val Be­nan­don­ner but came back some­what smar­tish when he saw how big he was.

2. Ti­tanic Belfast. One of North­ern Ire­land’s most pop­u­lar vis­i­tor at­trac­tions, Ti­tanic Belfast opened in 2012, a mon­u­ment to the city’s mar­itime her­itage on the site of the former Har­land & Wolff ship­yard in the city’s Ti­tanic Quar­ter where the RMS Ti­tanic was built.

De­signed by Amer­i­can-born Bri­tish ar­chi­tect based Eric Robert Kuhne and built at the cost of £100m (ap­prox. US$130m / HK$1bil­lion) this award-win­ning vis­i­tor at­trac­tion, ex­plor­ing the Ti­tanic story in a fresh and in­sight­ful way.

RMS Ti­tanic was a Bri­tish pas­sen­ger liner that sank in the North At­lantic Ocean in the early hours of 15 April 1912, after col­lid­ing with an ice­berg dur­ing her maiden voy­age from Southamp­ton to New York City.

An es­ti­mated 2,224 pas­sen­gers and crew were aboard, more than 1,500 died, mak­ing it one of the dead­li­est com­mer­cial peace­time mar­itime dis­as­ters in mod­ern his­tory. RMS Ti­tanic was the largest ship afloat at the time it en­tered ser­vice and was the sec­ond of three Olympic-class ocean lin­ers op­er­ated by the White Star Line.

3. Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery. The Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery is a dis­tillery in Bush­mills, County Antrim, North­ern Ire­land, with all of the whiskey bot­tled un­der the Bush­mills whiskey brand pro­duced there.

It uses wa­ter drawn from Saint Columb’s Rill, which is a trib­u­tary of the River Bush. The dis­tillery is a pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion, with around 120,000 visi­tors per year.

The com­pany that ini­tially built the dis­tillery was formed in 1784, although the date 1608 is printed on the la­bel of the brand – re­fer­ring to an ear­lier date when a royal li­cense was granted to a lo­cal landowner to dis­til whiskey in the area.

The dis­tillery has been in con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion since it was re­built after a fire in 1885.

4. Dun­luce Cas­tle. A now-ru­ined me­dieval cas­tle in North­ern Ire­land, it is lo­cated on the edge of a basalt out­crop in County Antrim and is ac­ces­si­ble via a bridge con­nect­ing it to the main­land.

The dra­matic his­tory of Dun­luce is matched by tales of a ban­shee and how the cas­tle kitchens fell into the sea one stormy night in 1639.

The cas­tle is sur­rounded by ex­tremely steep drops on ei­ther side, which may have been an es­sen­tial fac­tor to the early Chris­tians and Vik­ings who were drawn to this place where an old Ir­ish fort once stood.

The Dun­luce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club will next host the Open Cham­pi­onship in 2019 and takes its name from the his­toric cas­tle lo­cated nearby.

5. Slieve Donard is the high­est moun­tain in North­ern Ire­land and the larger province of Ul­ster, with a height of 850 me­tres. One of the Mourne Moun­tains, it is near the town of New­cas­tle on the east­ern coast of County Down, over­look­ing the Ir­ish Sea.

To­day, a five-star golf re­sort, the Slieve Donard Re­sort sits at the foot of the moun­tain, from where one can pretty much step out of your com­fort­able King Koil ‘cloud bed’ and onto the world fa­mous, a firm favourite with cham­pion golfers like Tiger Woods and Rory McIl­roy.

6. Lough Neagh. Lough Neagh is a large fresh­wa­ter lake in North­ern Ire­land and is the largest lake by area in the Bri­tish Isles, with a sur­face area of 151 square miles and at its deep­est is 80 feet (24 m).

It sup­plies 40% of North­ern Ire­land’s wa­ter. Its main in­flows are the Up­per River Bann and River Black­wa­ter, and its cen­tral out­flow is the Lower River Bann.

The lough has shores on five of the six coun­ties of North­ern Ire­land, County Fer­managh be­ing the ex­cep­tion, and is a sig­nif­i­cant at­trac­tion for sailors, bird­watch­ers and an­glers, and is owned by is owned by the Earl of Shaftes­bury.

The pres­ti­gious Ir­ish Open has top qual­ity field to tee it up year after year

2015 Iris Open was hosted at Royal County Down

Giant’s Cause­way, one of the great ge­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena in the world

Ma­jor win­ner Rory McIl­roy is hailed from Holy­wood, County Down

The Lough Erne Re­sort hosted the G8Sum­mit in 2013

Ex­cep­tional food and bev­er­age op­tions from the Lough Erne Re­sort

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