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The Links of Northern Ireland

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

(continued from page 1)

The 9/11 attacks and the economic downturn may have put a damper on American golf travel, though Clarke sees that easing significantly.

“The American tourists are a huge part of why golf here has gotten as good as it is,” says Clarke. “Post 9/11 things went totally quiet, which is totally understandable. Certainly the amount of tee times Americans would have taken here drastically reduced. And the economy the way it went, coming over here was quite expensive with the weak dollar. It was good to see this past year; I think they had one of their busiest years ever with green fees, especially those coming from America. The numbers are up again this year and that’s great because the influx of those coming from America, the American dollar, makes a huge difference to all of Northern Ireland. Ireland has a huge affinity with America. There are so many Irish Americans. It’s brilliant to see them come back over to play. As I say, it’s the purest form of the game.”

Royal Portrush, designed by Harry Colt, has taken on considerable cachet in the last two decades as a championship host, and is the only course outside of England and Scotland to stage a British Open, in 1951. There is talk of that again. It hosted the British Amateur in 1993, the British Senior Open from 1995 to 2000 and again in 2004, and the Irish Open, on five months notice, in 2012.

“Twenty years ago we didn’t have North Americans really coming to Northern Ireland,” says Wilma Erskine, the secretary of Royal Portrush and one of the most important people in all of Irish golf. “They did the Southwest, the Killarney trail and all that. With our ratings going up in Golf Magazine, it’s very important that we are in there, Royal County Down and ourselves. Americans are very influenced by Golf Magazine, I seem to see that. They come to play links. If it’s in Golf Magazine, then it’s a must-play place. . .Northern Ireland is now very much focused on their visit, especially with the Darrens, the Rorys, the Graemes, the Padraigs, this end of Ireland is becoming very popular and we have many great links courses so close together that it is very easy to get around.”

And Erskine knows that the American golfer is hugely important to the success of her club and the prosperity of the region. “We want the high-end, high-spend men, and those are the Americans,” she says. “Americans will spend 400­–500 pounds [sterling] a day. They want good hotels, the best courses, the caddies, the best food, the merchandise. You find Americans love it. They don’t mind going out in windy weather. In fact, they quite enjoy it. About 6,000 [of them] a year.”

What’s not to enjoy. When you arrive at the fifth tee of Portrush’s Dunluce course, high on a dune mound with the Irish Sea as the shimmering backdrop, there are few better places to be in the game. The green of the par 4 is a balcony for the beach below it, and if you weren’t pressed by the group behind, you could spend a good five minutes here just staring in awe. The 14th hole, known as Calamity Corner, is a hulking par 3 of more than 200 yards that require a substantial carry over a ravine.

As a major ancillary benefit, the 14th gives you a grand vista of the adjoining Valley Course at Portrush, and it’s a course that should not be missed. It’s an easier test but not exactly easy, and the walks along the broad plain between the dune ridges is one of the most peaceful experiences in all of links land. This is the course that Graeme McDowell grew up playing. The par-4 17th, set apart in its own little valley, is an idyllic links hole. (If you want to act like a local and show your golf acumen, ask if you can start play on the third hole, near the Dunluce practice range.)

“The Valley Course, you’ll enjoy it,” says Clarke. “It’s not a championship course, but it’s a good one. When the weather gets bad here, and I mean as in 40-mile-per-hour winds, we will go play the Valley because it’s a little more sheltered. Most of the tourists would come here and just play [the big course], which is a shame because the Valley is lovely. The ideal trip would be to play that first, then play the big course.”

Just down the road to the west of Portrush is Portstewart and the Portstewart Golf Club. The front nine of The Strand Course is an inspiring journey through the dunes, starting at the first hole where the green is tucked into dune giants. The fourth, known as Thistly Hollow, is a par 5 you could play again and again. The final five holes, coming out of the dunes and into farming area, lose some of the links luster, but the overall experience is invigorating.

Headed west from Portrush and around the biggest town of the coast, Coleraine, you arrive at the seaside village of Castlerock and the Castlerock Golf Club. This club would be lesser known among the tourists, yet it is worth the journey. It’s a charming and classic links, and its nine-hole course along the Bann River is one of the best short tracks you will ever play. If you were adventurous, you could access Castlerock via the coastal railroad with a station not far from the club’s car park.

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