Golf in Northern Ireland, By Karl Doyle.
After upwards of 200,000 punters turned up to 2019’s sold-out Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland is firmly front and centre in golfers’ minds once again.
While millions around the globe watched avidly as the finest players on the planet battled it out for the prestigious Claret Jug – bagged in impressive fashion by Irishman Shane Lowry – and perhaps dreamed of making travel plans to visit the great links some day, the message was clear: Northern Ireland is Open for golf business.
And there are a slew of stunning courses begging for you to visit – from the world famous to those with more modest claims.
In this case, the modesty may indeed be false – as it’s hard to find a bad layout in this tiny country.
Royal County Down often receives the biggest bragging rights. Everything you’ve heard about it is probably true: the location is unbelievably scenic, with the Mountains of Mourne providing surroundings so stunning that you will find it hard to concentrate on that little white ball, but it can also prove to be a challenging brute. This beautiful crucible provides as true a test of golf as you could hope for.
The Championship links regularly features among the Top 10 in world rankings – often even as No.1 – and it is a gripping thrill-ride, no doubt.
But it can turn your ambitions to dust if the wind blows, or you merely enjoy a couple of bad bounces. It MUST be played – but perhaps with your ego left back in the locker room.
A short distance from the aforementioned Portrush, neighbouring Portstewart is another fine course that will be well known to golfers who love their links, and the seaside town offers plenty of options for somewhere to base yourself for a weekend of sporting adventure.
Not all of the courses have such A-list credentials as Portrush, Portstewart and Royal County Down but some of the lesser-known destinations can provide thrills just as large.
Ardglass golf links, a half-hour away from RCD, is a must-play among must-plays. This is cliff-top golf par excellence, and on some of the holes you’ll have to play your ball over yawning chasms that drop inexorably into the sea below.
The clubhouse – the oldest one in the world, no less – sets the tone beautifully. The ancient building always provides a warming welcome inside, and the multiple canons outside point towards the course as if to say ‘well… what are we waiting for? Let’s go!’
Notice the way they point away from the waves crashing against the rocks on the left of the fairway – and take the hint. In trying to find the tiny green on the first hole, many a half-decent drive has ended up sleeping with the fishes here.
Somewhat overshadowed by its storied neighbour RCD, Ardglass really shouldn’t be. This is golf as a thrill ride, and some of the views out to Coney Island (yes, the same spot Van Morrison wrote about) and beyond are mesmerising. It’s an exhilarating and memorable experience.
We played it on a ‘pet day’ and often struggled, so if the breeze really kicks up I can only imagine how tough it would be – but it’s the type of masochistic punishment every golfer truly relishes. We’re odd that way.
Further up the coast Kirkistown Castle Golf Club also demands to be visited – if for no other reason than it is the most easterly 18-hole golf course on the island of Ireland. It’s also a very welcoming place.
Not as punishing perhaps as some of the old-style links, it nevertheless provides a real challenge. Apparently forgiving fairways narrow with every shot, and the straightforward-looking greens soon let you know you’re in for a roller-coaster ride.
While probably better known for its muscular links courses, there are also a slew of beautiful and picturesque parkland courses in Northern Ireland too. Further west, the sumptuous Lough Erne Golf Resort beckons, while the impeccably manicured Malone Golf Club in Belfast is always worth a visit.
The water-laced fairways of this pair will ensure there’s a good chance one or two of your balls will find the wet stuff but, as a wise man once told me, you don’t buy golf balls – you rent ’em!
The Nick Faldo-designed Lough Erne truly is a stunner. There is such variety from hole to hole it can never get boring – no matter how often you play the course – but its defining feature is unquestionably the lough itself.
The closing stretch of holes here will test those with a fear of water, and you’ll have earned a beer in the beautiful clubhouse adjacent to the 18th green if you’ve managed to keep the same ball for the whole round.
Galgorm Castle in Ballymena is another to shortlist on your trip, but a special mention must go to the superb Belvoir Park just outside Belfast. The views from the stunning clubhouse let you see the challenge ahead, but there’s a very relaxed vibe about the whole place – with mature trees guiding you around what will be blissful afternoon’s golf.
Travel further on to Larne and you’ll come across the Cairndhu Golf Club, rising almost impossibly up the headland and featuring breathtaking views across to the coast of Scotland and the Glens of Antrim. Have the camera at the ready when visiting – you’ll certainly want to use it on this dramatic piece of golf landscape.
But back to those beastly links courses that Northern Ireland is famous for. Back up the Causeway Coast towards Portstewart and Portrush you’ll discover a third course to complete that particular set: Castlerock Golf Club.
Castlerock may be less well known than it’s two illustrious neighbours but that won’t be the case for too much longer. The tall grasses flowing back and forward on the imposing, muscular dunes frame nearly every fairway and bad shots on this superb layout can be punished. Severely.
The 200-yard par three signature hole ‘Leg o’ Mutton’ requires a shot struck over a burn, with a railway track lurking to the right. I’m quite sure my ball hit a passing choo-choo train and bounced back in, but I’m equally sure that’s within the rules!
Nevertheless, that bizarre occurrence wasn’t mentioned when I marked down my bogey (or was it a double? Let’s not quibble, eh?).
And the friendly welcome from the members in the clubhouse after our game deserves a special mention. It was almost as if they were just as delighted as we were that we took the time to play their spectacular course. The privilege was, indeed, ours.
Nothing can take away from sheer excitement of taking on a raw, pulsating links such as Castlerock – this, after all, is golf as it was meant to be played when the ancient game was first devised. Put it on the list.
There are also plenty of courses that may not have the pulling power of the above venues, but offer plenty to attract you: Warrenpoint, Dungannon, Roe Park and Holywood, where the maestro Rory McIlroy learnt his trade so well, spring immediately to mind.
But all this golf can make you tired – and perhaps even a little thirsty – so you have to know where to lay your head down too. There are some fantastically quirky hotels you should check out (see fact box at bottom of article), and this is where you’ll get a real taste of the north.
The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn – one of the oldest hotels in Northern Ireland – is situated near the seaside town of Bangor and the village of Helen’s Bay in County Down and famed as a unique wedding venue, and its tranquil setting is perfect for romantic getaways or just a quiet drink in the cosy parlour bar.
Similarly, the Bushmills Inn, just down the road from the Giant’s Causeway and Royal Portrush Golf Club, is what you might call the real deal. Walls seemingly five feet thick and virtually all the original architecture immediately bring you back to ‘ye days of olde’.
It also boasts one of my favourite bars – and I have had occasion to visit a few in my time – on this island. Everywhere you look there’s a cosy snug or an artefact hung on the wall that beckons you to investigate.
But if you’re planning a golf trip here your ‘one stop shop’ for accommodation should be the Hastings Hotels chain.
Their seven remarkable hotels, it would be fair to say, have all the bases covered for your adventure.
Ballygally Castle, situated along the Causeway Coast near Larne, will be a big hit with Game of Thrones fans – drenched as it is in that iconic show’s memorabilia, including the stunning, hand-carved door into the garden restaurant – and is neighbour to the cliff-top experience that is Cairndhu Golf Club.
The Everglades Hotel in the country’s ‘second city’ of Derry, prides itself on offering ‘maximum relaxation with minimum fuss’ and is close to courses such as Foyle, Portstewart and Castlerock – and even has the City of Derry golf course on its doorstep.
Culloden Estate & Spa sits proudly on the Holywood Hills overlooking Belfast Lough and is renowned for its pampering and spa escapes – and was winner of the Luxury Hotel of the Year award at this year’s Irish hotel awards.
If basing yourself in Belfast, you have a variety of options. The Stormont Hotel has always enjoyed a superb reputation for its hospitality and professionalism, and is just outside the city’s main hub.
The world-famous Europa Hotel is right in the thick of things in downtown Belfast – and is just across the road from the feast for the senses that is the legendary Crown Bar. If you want a central location in the city, then this is it.
In Belfast, we opted for the brand new Grand Central Hotel just around the corner – and I can highly recommend it as your base if you’re playing courses in the area.
This stunning 23-floor luxury hotel has everything you may need to dine, relax and unwind, and the bedrooms are among the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. They’re also huge!
The views from the Observatory Cocktail Bar – the highest bar in Ireland – are jaw dropping, and offer a high-definition, unrivalled vista of the city and surrounds below. The perfect spot to discuss your little victories and crushing defeats from the fairways.
By all accounts, the Grand Central is the ‘in place’ to stay in the city. I couldn’t argue with that one bit.
If you’re planning to play the aforementioned Royal County Down, then the Slieve Donard is unquestionably the place to base yourself. A well struck 4-iron from the lobby might reach the first tee of the famous links.
This unique hotel, which has just completed a £1.2m renovation programme, offers spectacular and unrivalled views of the Mourne Mountains and the Co Down coastline – opening your curtains in the morning has never felt so good!
The iconic red-brick building features strongly in most tourist promos, and you feel a certain sense of grandeur – minus any of the pomposity often associated with it – when staying here. It’s perfect.
I’ve already mentioned RCD’s Championship links – and possibly no introduction was needed.
But there’s another option here that is not as widely known – the shorter, par-66 Annesley Links that sits alongside it.
Having played the ‘main course’ previously, we thought we’d investigate what the little brother had to offer. Put simply, it’s magnificent.
Yes, the holes are shorter. Yes, there are more par-3 holes on it. But it is the exact same terrain – with all of its fearsome run-offs and dense, gnarly gorse – as its more famous neighbour.
It also shares the same magnificent views of the sea and duneland – and, of course, those imposing Mourne Mountains.
I have played no other course – anywhere – that will test your short game as thoroughly as the Annesley Links will. If your putter is cold, you are in for a long afternoon on a short layout.
It was one of those unexpected treats that will leave memories forever.
And that’s what golf trips are about.