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The Links of Northern Ireland

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, July/August 2013

When Darren Clarke was 11 years old, his father drove him from their home in Dungannon to the Royal Portrush Golf Club on the North Antrim Coast to introduce him to links golf. It was on a Friday afternoon in 1979, after 4 o’clock when the green fees dropped. By the middle of the front nine, Clarke was hooked on links golf and fell in love with Royal Portrush.

“He saw I had a bug for the game and Dungannon being an inland golf course he wanted me to see the other side of the game, the links, since obviously there is a huge difference between a parkland golf course and links,” says Clarke. “Links is the purest form of the game, the oldest and purest form, and I took to it right away.”

Clarke’s love has never diminished, not for the links, not for Portrush, not for Northern Ireland, the country of his birth and of his heart.

Sitting in the Dunluce Room of the clubhouse this past April, the 2010 British Open champion and Royal Portrush member pointed out the window to a copse of trees on a hill a mile away. “That’s where I live, right there,” he said. “This club is literally at my doorstep. When I’m home, I’m here every day.”

There’s a touch of melancholy in his voice, a wistfulness that’s all so appropriate to the setting. Royal Portrush evokes a certain sense of awe as one of the world’s great links courses. And Northern Ireland is one of the world’s great links golf destinations, brought more sharply into focus with the major championship success of Ulstermen Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

Northern Ireland has two of the top 10 links courses in the world, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, and they have been attracting avid golfing visitors (particularly Americans) going back at least 20 years. But Northern Ireland offers a complete package of links and links-like golf that can keep the touring linksman around for more than a week.

Royal Portrush has its championship course, the Dunluce, and a second course, the Valley, that should not be missed. Nearby is the Portstewart Golf Club with its scenic Strand Course, and two other short courses, the Riverside and the Old Course. The Castlerock Golf Club isn’t far away, and has not only an enchanting links but a nine-hole short course that is very much worth playing. And there is a new golf project in the making, Bushmills Dunes, which could be open for play in 2015 if construction starts this year.

All these courses are on the North Antrim Coast, sometimes referred to in tourism-speak as the Causeway Coast because of the fascinating geological formation, the Giant’s Causeway, that draws tourists from around the world.

Royal County Down, on the southeast coast in the town of Newcastle, has a second course, the short Annesley, which could be a good place to warm up straight off the plane in preparation for taking on its very muscular big brother. About 40 minutes north is the Ardglass Golf Club, a windswept and mostly cliff-top course that plays between two bays and along the Irish Sea.
There are inland courses like Royal Belfast, Malone Golf Club and a resort course at Lough Erne, but Americans come for the links and their presence in significant numbers helps drive the quality and the worldwide visibility of Northern Ireland’s links offerings. And the golfers come despite “The Troubles,” the sadly ongoing dispute between the largely Catholic Republicans and the largely Protestant Loyalists that has continued for decades and has erupted repeatedly into horrific violence, but was mitigated to an extent by the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

“American golfers have always been brave,” says David Wilson, secretary of Royal County Down. “They would have been coming here in numbers despite the political climate. They are drawn to the quality of our links and we very much appreciate that they hold our course is such high regard.”

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