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For a small coun­try, North­ern Ire­land punches far above its weight on the global golf stage, hav­ing pro­duced three cham­pi­ons with six Ma­jor ti­tles be­tween them in the last decade – Rory McIl­roy, Graeme Mc­Dow­ell and Dar­ren Clarke. Its suc­cess is no co­in­ci­dence, how­ever. Un­der­pin­ning that are some of the finest golf cour­ses to be found any­where in the world and many of the game’s great­est play­ers have trod­den their hal­lowed fair­ways down the years. While the land of the Gi­ant’s Cause­way has been some­thing of a slum­ber­ing gi­ant as a golf des­ti­na­tion in com­par­i­son with its neigh­bours up un­til now, it has been roused un­der the in­creas­ing glare of the golf­ing world’s spot­light thanks to its su­per­star venues. Royal Portrush and Royal County Down are rated among the best in the world for their cham­pi­onship links with the lat­ter, just an hour south of Belfast, top­ping the world’s 100 great­est cour­ses rank­ings by Golf Di­gest in 2016. Royal Portrush (pic­tured), on the Cause­way Coast, will fo­cus the global spot­light on North­ern Ire­land even more when it hosts the Open Cham­pi­onship in 2019 for the sec­ond time. Nearby Port­stew­art, an­other cel­e­brated links course, also helped raise the bar when it staged the Dubai Duty Free Ir­ish Open in July 2017, at­tract­ing a host of golf stars with its purse of £5.5 mil­lion and pro­vid­ing Spain’s Jon Rahm, re­cently voted Euro­pean Tour Rookie of the Year, with his first Euro­pean Tour vic­tory. It North­ern Ire­land’s third time host­ing the event since 2012, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush hav­ing both been pre­vi­ous venues. Golfers from all over the world make a spir­i­tual pil­grim­age to play North­ern Ire­land’s cel­e­brated Royal links cham­pi­onship cour­ses and both have a dis­tin­guished pedi­gree. Golf leg­ends Old Tom Mor­ris, Harry Colt and Harry Var­don all put their stamp on Royal County Down’s Cham­pi­onship Links. Old Tom Mor­ris was brought in to ex­tend the orig­i­nal nine holes to 18 through dunes be­low the Mourne Moun­tains in 1889, for the princely sum of £4, while Harry Var­don and Harry Colt sub­se­quently made changes, some holes later mod­i­fied by Don­ald Steel. Be­sides the Ir­ish Open, it has hosted many top tour­na­ments, among them eight Ladies’ Bri­tish Open Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onships, the Cur­tis Cup in 1968 and the Walker Cup in 2007. In that, Rory McIl­roy rep­re­sented Great Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land while the vic­to­ri­ous US team in­cluded fu­ture stars Rickie Fowler, Dustin John­son, Billy Horschel and Webb Simp­son. Its par-66 An­nes­ley course is also highly rated. Founded in 1898 with two 18-hole cour­ses, Royal Portrush Golf Club’s cel­e­brated Dun­luce Links was re­designed by Harry Colt in 1932 and has hosted the Open once be­fore, in 1951, when Max Faulkner won. Its 17th and 18th holes have been re­placed by spec­tac­u­lar new 7th and 8th holes, bor­rowed from an area of duneland spanned by two holes of its sis­ter Val­ley course, to al­low for the spec­ta­tor vil­lage area at the 2019 Open. The new holes opened for play to crit­i­cal ac­claim in June 2017. Other tour­na­ments it has hosted in­clude the Ir­ish Open four times and the Se­nior Bri­tish Open six times. Royal Portrush also of­fers the par-70 Val­ley course. It may not have the royal mon­icker, but Port­stew­art Golf Club, just

15 min­utes from Royal Portrush, has 54 holes of links golf and boasts one of Ire­land’s most mod­ern club­houses, com­pleted in 2009. Its Strand Course, venue for the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Ir­ish Open, is set amidst tow­er­ing dunes be­tween the At­lantic and the River Bann and its open­ing hole is re­garded by many as the best in Ire­land. Two-time Open cham­pion Wil­lie Park Jr was re­spon­si­ble for one of its makeovers. Play North­ern Ire­land’s cour­ses and you are likely to come across its three lo­cal he­roes, all of whom are still mem­bers of cour­ses where they learnt to play as young­sters. Graeme Mc­Dow­ell (US Open cham­pion, 2010) was born and grew up in Portrush and was awarded life mem­ber­ship of Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2002 after his maiden win on the Euro­pean Tour. His brother is on the club’s green­keep­ing staff. Dar­ren Clarke cut his teeth as a golfer at Dun­gan­non Golf Club. A life-size pho­to­graph of him hold­ing the Open Cham­pi­onship’s fa­mous Claret Jug greets vis­i­tors in the club­house en­trance while the mem­bers’ area show­cases mem­o­ra­bilia in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs high­light­ing his suc­cess as well as a paint­ing of the sig­na­ture par-3 9th, named the Dar­ren Clarke hole and one of six new holes he de­signed at the ven­er­a­ble club. Dar­ren is also a mem­ber of Royal Portrush and has lived in the town. A replica of the Claret Jug is dis­played in its club­house, com­mem­o­rat­ing his Open win. Nearby is a card show­ing the course record 61, shot by a 16-year-old Rory McIl­roy, for the old lay­out be­fore re­cent changes. Rory (he won the US Open and Open Cham­pi­onship in 2011, and the US PGA Cham­pi­onship in 2012 and 2014) honed his skills on the hilly fair­ways and greens of Belfast’s Holy­wood Golf Club, just out­side Belfast. A spe­cial area of the club­house is a shrine to him, with mem­o­ra­bilia in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs of his early years play­ing there and repli­cas of the US Open and US PGA tro­phies. Its cour­ses also at­tract plau­dits from many of the game’s top pro­fes­sion­als. They in­clude:

Ernie Els (Royal County Down): “The scenery is un­be­liev­able, you have so many great golf cour­ses in this coun­try and the peo­ple are won­der­ful, I re­ally en­joy com­ing.”

Rickie Fowler (Royal County Down): “They def­i­nitely en­joy their golf here and it’s fun to be over here and see their en­thu­si­asm about it.”

Soren Kjeld­sen (after his Ir­ish Open 2015 win at Royal County Down): “It’s a won­der­ful place to visit, it has been very spe­cial.”

Rory McIl­roy “That front­line on Port­stew­art is prob­a­bly one of the best nine holes in the world…that run of holes in in­cred­i­ble.”

Padraig Har­ring­ton (Port­stew­art): “The venue is fan­tas­tic.” Fol­low in their spike marks and golfers can play some of the most mem­o­rable cour­ses they will ever ex­pe­ri­ence. For more in­for­ma­tion on North­ern Ire­land and its golf, visit: www. dis­cov­er­north­ernire­

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