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.

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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