A TASTE OF TRIPLE-A GOLF IN THE EMERALD ISLE
A look at some of the courses in Northern Island as The Open Championship returns there next year.
Accessible, Authentic and Affordable are the adjectives that drive golf and golf holidays in what is a spectacular setting off the north west coast of the UK, which, as is claimed, Northern Ireland is, ‘Made for Golf.’
When it comes to reviewing golf in Northern Ireland, it is important to draw a distinction to 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 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, and, when it comes to Northern Ireland, the most obvious – but far from only – place to start must be Royal Portrush.
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 – both 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, ninemonths 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.
Both Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, the latter less than an hour’s drive south from the Northern Ireland capital city of Belfast both go out of their way to welcome visitors, as does the northerly classic, Portstewart, another splendid links course which hosted the Irish Open in 2017, may be the jewels in a crown consisting almost 100 clubs and courses in Northern Ireland, across six
counties, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
Visiting golfers to Northern Ireland are very much spoiled for choice, and, such is the variety of playing opportunities that it is advisable to select a region and it’s courses, ensuring travel is kept to a minimum and the quality of visitor experience, on and off the golf course is always to the fore.
Arguably, the most exciting and challenging is Northern Ireland’s North and West Coast Links, featuring an array of glorious 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 founder 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 Jon 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 the crown jewels, the spectacular, five-star Lough Erne Resort, which 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-and-fourbedroom houses, overlooking the 18-hole championship standard, Faldo Course, designed by the sixtime ‘Major’ champion himself.
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, and, 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.’
Ardglass Golf Course is another fine links layout – over 35% of all championship-standard links courses in the world are located in Ireland – this fine 18-hole links course sits in a natural setting, hugging the north-east coast of Ireland, with stunning views, unique golf holes and, memorably, truly memorable people.
Less than 2 hours from the Republic of Ireland’s capital city, Dublin, under an hour from Belfast city centre and only 30 minutes from the world-renowned Royal County Down golf links at Newcastle, Ardglass is a true test of golf; with a capricious and ubiquitous wind together with firm, narrow fairways and tight, fast and well-protected greens, this is a golf course where touch and feel will outwit the yardage chart each and every step of the way, links golf as it was always meant to be.
Finally, also the Belfast area, there can be few capital cities in the world as well endowed with top-class golf courses; the Knock Golf Club, close to the Stormont seat of power of the Northern Ireland Assembly and designed by leading golf course architects, Colt, Mackenzie and Allison, at 6,500-yards, it may not be the longest on the island, but one would be hard pressed to find a golf course in better condition all the year round.
Royal Belfast, another Harry Colt creation is, at 137-years-old, the oldest golf course in Ireland – North and South – is also a delight to play, part parkland but with Belfast Lough invariably in view – if not always in play – it is close to Hollywood, home town of one Rory McIlroy who is an honorary member of and said to be a frequent visitor to Royal Belfast.
Playing golf in Northern Ireland is amongst the most evocative, emotive experiences available in the royal and ancient game; it may not lay claim to be the founder of golf, or to boast the oldest course, but authenticity is very much the name of the game, front and centre, no frills.
Weather is invariably a factor, warm and frequently wet in summer, but more than bearable throughout the year, five key factors define golf in this offshore corner of the United Kingdom.
First, there is, for such a small territory, both quantity and quality prevail, courses invariably well- tended, but in a natural, unfussy fashion; whether links or parkland, greens are fast and true, courses invariable fair where one gets rewarded for good shots but rightly punished for anything misjudged or mis-hit.
Second, Northern Ireland’s 80-plus golf courses represent exceptional value for money, even the finest courses such as Royal Portrush, Royal County Down or Lough Erne will not set you back a King’s ransom, leading to return visits to try other courses or to relive past pleasures.
But third, and most importantly, the people, from club secretaries to greenkeeping staff, caddies, members whose home course and facilities one might be sharing to those involved in Northern Ireland’s renowned food and drink service, authentic, friendly welcomes invariably await, something not always par-for-the-course in today’s hectic, busy world, and with leisure time at a premium, that’s something than money simply cannot buy but, thankfully, appears to feature prominently in the Northern Irish DNA.
Importantly, as part of an island, Northern Ireland is remarkably easy to get to – and from – and once you are there, travelling distances are ready-made for a relaxing holiday, be it an annual vacation or short break.
From Enniskillen in the south west of the Province to capital Belfast in the middle east is under 100 miles and not much more than a one-hour driving on good roads, many paid-for by the EU, much the same as Belfast to Londonderry in the north west, Belfast to Newry, the Irish border less than an hour by car, another 60 minutes of so further on to Dublin and its 20-ofso courses led by the world famous Portmarnock and Royal Dublin.
By air, Northern Ireland is well served by its two Belfast airports, Belfast International and the city centre George Best International, between them connecting much of Europe and beyond, Derry Airport servicing the North West has a more restricted range, but is well connected to the UK hub airports.
Also there’s an alternative to getting to and from Northern Ireland, by ferry, from the west coast of England and Scotland, the choice of ‘Superfast,’ taking a mere couple of hours, a more leisurely eight-hours between Belfast and Liverpool, either way, all part of the experience with golf clubs remaining firmly in the car.
Affordability, both on and off the golf course is also a key factor in playing anywhere in Ireland, twofigures much more prevalent than three for an exceptional 18-holes, food and drink, in the clubhouse or in one of the many small towns that support the golf tourism sector high on provenance, low on cost.
Aerial view of Portstewart Beach alongside the golf course. Royal Portrush, Clarke, McDowell & McIlroy will all fancy their Open chances on, 'Home' course. All images courtesy of Discover Northern Ireland.
↑ (T-B) Portstewart, a classic links layout near the Giant's Causeway. Royal Portrush, hosting the Open Championship after 68 year hiatus. Hidden Gem, Castlerock Golf Club a well-kept secret.