Golf Guide to Northern Ireland

 Read up about the nation's top golf courses or listen to Kevin Markham, a golf author who has played every course in Ireland. He discusses The Open Championship coming to Northern Ireland and much more...

 

Northern Ireland is home to two of the world’s greatest golf courses. How could you mention this small country without the names of Royal County Down and Royal Portrush (Dunluce) coming to mind? They are both revered, both links, both thrilling and just 90 miles apart. And yet they are so totally different. Sit down in a bar and you’ll hear links aficionados battling over which course is better. It’s Old Tom Morris vs. Harry Colt, which is unfair on Colt as he played a significant hand in Royal County Down’s evolution, too. It matters little for it is an argument no one can truly win. Both links are astoundingly good.

Toss in the Open Championship, to be held at Royal Portrush in 2019, and you will undoubtedly become one of those links aficionados yourself. You won’t be short of bars in which to have that argument, either, especially if you end up in Portrush’s Harbour Bar, where you might find yourself chatting to Darren Clarke, over a pint of the black stuff.

royal portrush

The quality and drama of the North’s links is not limited to the big two. Castlerock and Portstewart, practically next door to Royal Portrush, also carry impressive reputations, while the second courses at Royal County Down (Annesley) and Royal Portrush (Valley) give each Royal an added attraction.

Northern Ireland is also bursting with parklands, ranging from the grand Belvoir Park and Malone outside Belfast, to the elegant Nick Faldo-designed Lough Erne, where the five star resort hosted the G8 in 2013. And then there are the hidden gems scattered freely around the six counties. Links may prove the biggest draw but as you drive those 90 miles from one Royal to another, there are many intriguing detours to take.

For those interested in non-golf activities, Northern Ireland has spectacular scenery, cities steeped in history, culture at every turn, and a reputation for food and drink that goes far beyond the Bushmills Distillery… not that you should miss a chance to sample some of Ireland’s most renowned whiskey. The list of high profile sights starts with the Giant’s Causeway, its fascinating hexagonal basalt rock formations rising and falling between cliffs and sea, where they were created 50 million years ago. It is one of the island’s biggest attractions but so too is Northern Ireland’s newest creation: the Titanic Centre sits on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where the Titanic was built and launched in 1911. Visitors can learn about the world’s most famous ship and experience what life was like on board. The architecture of the Titanic Centre alone is worth the visit.

titanic centre

Golf in Northern Ireland centres around three locations: Belfast, Royal County Down and the north Co. Antrim/Co. Derry coastline.

Belfast is the island’s second largest city and with its two airports it is the ideal starting point for any golfing expedition. A couple of days here will introduce you to a city that has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. It can also provide a gentle warm up for the links adventure to come. Belvoir Park is only minutes away and this Harry Colt design has old school quality… and charm. Start by heading for the clubhouse balcony to get spectacular views over the course, the city and the Belfast hills. Malone Golf Club is barely a three iron away and is the city’s other ‘big’ course. Spread across the Ballydrain estate, the club is renowned for its large trees and larger lake, which forms the centrepiece for the back nine. The par three 15th, which takes on the lake, is one of the North’s great holes.

From Belfast, the golf trail will undoubtedly take you north to the County Antrim coastline and Royal Portrush, or south, towards Newcastle and Royal County Down. For many golfers, Royal County Down is the promised land – a links created by Old Tom Morris in 1889, and updated and revised by the likes of Harry Colt and Harry Vardon. Old Tom’s original practice green remains and reflects the true speed of this championship course’s greens. With its blind shots, bearded bunkers and gorse and heather-covered dunes, this is a world-class adventure, packed with colour and intrigue. The backdrop of the Mourne Mountains and Dundrum Bay simply adds to the occasion.

Royal county down

There are tee shots here which will leave you speechless: the par three 4th is a world-class hole, hitting some 200 yards towards the Mourne Mountains; and the par four 9th is the blindest drive you may ever face. Of all the North’s courses it needs to be played at least twice… or with a caddie.

The road east takes you away from the Mourne Mountains and towards Ardglass, a course that combines links and seaside holes overlooking Coney Island (of Van Morrison fame). The turbulent and spectacular opening salvo of holes stretches across the cliffs. The clubhouse’s castle foundations date back to the 14th century and canons behind the 1st tee are a none-too-subtle reminder that a fast round should be observed.

The route to the northern coastline takes you back through Belfast, where detours to nearby Royal Belfast, the second oldest club on the island, and Holywood, home to Rory McIlroy, will tempt many. Farther on, an idyllic stopover sits halfway between Belfast and Portrush on that eastern side of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the UK. Galgorm Castle Golf Club, outside Ballymena, is home to the Northern Irish Open… the 17th century castle is also home to at least one ghost, while the nearby Galgorm Resort promises five star luxury.

In much the same way that your arrival at Royal County Down is signalled by the Slieve Donard Hotel’s spire and the mountain backdrop, so the ruins of the 16th century Dunluce Castle announce your arrival at Royal Portrush. And, if you’ve been lucky, you might have enjoyed a detour to the Giant’s Causeway, or the Bushmills Distillery… or both. A larger detour might be needed to accommodate fans of the HBO series, Game of Thrones, for there are several Co. Antrim locations used during filming, including the Dark Hedges.

dunlunce

Golfers can stay in Portrush, or Portstewart, or in Limavady, where the Roe Park Resort has an 18 hole parkland course and extensive practice facilities. With such a tightly knitted group of courses, you could easily base yourself here for several days and enjoy quality links golf and Northern Irish hospitality.

Harry Colt’s Royal Portrush is currently receiving a make-over by Martin Ebert, in preparation for the 2019 Open Championship. Strategy and positioning are (and will remain) key and from the tee most of the hole and the challenges are visible. The views to the Skerries Reef and Donegal Hills will prove distracting on a course that demands every ounce of your attention.

Next door, Portstewart starts with a thundering nine holes diving into, up and over a dune landscape known as God’s Own Country. Many believe it to be the best opening nine on the island and the 1st hole, with its stunning 360 degree views, is an inspiring way to start. If the new clubhouse bar doesn’t tempt you after your round, try the famous Morelli’s ice cream in the village.

And next door again, lies Castlerock, completing this fine triumvirate of old links courses. It is too good to be called a hidden gem, but many treat it as such as Castlerock rarely receives the credit it deserves. From here, it is little more than a hop, skip and jump to Donegal and the courses of Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, North West and Portsalon… and Ireland’s enchanting North West coast.

 Discover more about golf in Northern Ireland or inquire now with Golfbreaks.com to experience it yourself.

Kevin Markham

I am an Irish golf writer, blogger and photographer. In 2008, I traveled around Ireland in an RV playing every 18-hole golf course for a book entitled 'Hooked: An Amateur's Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland'. Now in its 3rd edition the book introduces all 340 golf courses and rates the experience awaiting golfers. A second book, 'Driving the Green', is a light-hearted story of my travels. I loves golf… but just not all the way from the back tees. My blog can be found at TheIrishGolfBlog.com.