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.”
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.
There is much excitement in the area now that a new golf course development has been given full planning permission after a 13-year mission to get it approved. David McLay Kidd, designer of the original course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, has laid out Bushmills Dunes on land near the Giant’s Causeway. It is a project and a passion of Dr. Ali Hanna, a Northern Irishman who lives in the New York area and who was a partner in the international management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co.
In 1988 Hanna took a group of very high-profile American clients on a golf trip to Northern Ireland. He found two things he thought lacking about the experience: There was no five-star hotel accommodation such as he thought his clients were used to (they didn’t complain) and the lack of weekend tee times at the private clubs.
“I thought that Northern Ireland desperately needed a resort,” says Hanna. “Groups from the U.S. would come over, Goldman Sachs would bring groups, and they would immediately move into a hotel in Dublin and helicopter up, land on the practice area at Portrush, play Portrush, jump back on the helicopter and head back to Dublin. Northern Ireland would not get any benefit of them spending money on hotels, and other things. That told me we needed a resort.”
He’s certain that if he builds it they will come. “It’s a personal passion, and I’m also convinced it will be a very successful economic venture,” says Hanna. “If you look at Bandon Dunes, Mike Keiser built [in southern coastal Oregon], that was nothing. Nobody went there. Then he put in place a phenomenal golf course, a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of thing. The key to success is to have a golf course that is very playable and scenic, and provide tremendous service to those who come to play.”
Darren Clarke is thrilled that such an upscale property is now on the books for the Portrush area. “It’s a great bit of land,” he says. “A new five-star hotel, lodges and all that sort of stuff and that’s going to be fantastic for this area. Any Americans who come over will be able to base themselves in a five-star hotel.”
The best of accommodations in the area is the Bushmills Inn, right in the town of Bushmills and just a quick jump away from the famous distillery. The inn is intimate and comfortable, the restaurant quite good and worth the bed and breakfast option. Portrush has some decent restaurants and down on the harbor is the Ramore group of restaurants, a lively gathering spot for locals and golfers with good food at good prices.
Golfers from all over twin out Royal Portrush with Royal County Down, which was the first links in Northern Ireland to garner significant attention. The original course was laid out by Old Tom Morris, but the course as it stands now is largely the work of Colt with additional work over the last 15 years by Donald Steele. Royal County Down is well-known for hosting major amateur competitions—the British Amateur, the Walker Cup, the Curtis Cup.
But it is better known for being one tough piece of links land. With blind tee shots over high dune ridges, sand bunkers that swallow not only balls but players and deceptively quirky greens, Royal County Down is a handful, and one gladly taken on by thousands of American pilgrims each year.
“We get 6,500 to 7,500 from the U.S. a year,” says RCD’s Wilson. “Without wishing to blow one’s trumpet, they are quite happy with what they find here, that the course and the hospitality exceed their expectations. The majority are serious golfers, tend to be members of private clubs, know what they want. They would expect the highest level of service and we are very mindful of that.”
That includes a deep and talented pool of caddies and perhaps no links course demands so much local knowledge as does Royal County Down. From the seven blind tee shots (and most are quite high shots over ridges) to avoiding or extricating oneself from the penal bunkers, to figuring out the sometimes imperceptible breaks on the greens, RCD’s caddies are a must.
And your caddie can take your group picture on the dune ridge in the ninth fairway, a photograph that is among the most famous in all of golf, with the spire of the Slieve Donard Hotel thrusting upward into the massive backdrop of the Slieve Donard mountain. The tee shot and the snapshot are priceless.
With an admitted bias to Royal Portrush, Darren Clarke compares the two courses.
“Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, they would be by far what most people would come and play,” says Clarke. “I am a little bit biased that Royal Portrush is better. If you play links successfully you need to hit the ball quail high. At Royal County Down you have seven tee shots that you must hit high, blind over a post. I don’t mind blind, but having to hit it up high, blind over a post, up in the air, it is not what I think links golf is about. Here, Harry Colt has got it where you can nearly see everything in front of you, and you can hit it this high [he puts his hand beside his chair seat] off the ground if you want.Royal County Down is a sensational second-shot golf course. Where as here it is the whole package.”
Increasingly the Ardglass Golf Club just up the coast from Newcastle and Royal County Down is becoming a second play for the area. It’s not really a links, more a headland course. There is a great deal of charm about it, including the centuries-old commercial building that is now the clubhouse. The 11th and 12th holes, relatively new, play exhilaratingly along a bay.
Royal County Down benefits from having a good business-class accommodation, the Slieve Donard Hotel, virtually on its doorstep. The clubhouse is really no more than a short par 4 from the hotel’s back door. The Slieve Donard, situated directly on the beach, has two restaurants and a spa, which might come in handy for sore muscles after a tussle with Royal County Down.
The capital of Belfast has two airports, the international and the city, and access to all of Northern Ireland’s courses is relatively quick. Less than two miles from George Best Belfast City Airport is the town of Holywood and the Holywood Golf Club. This is where Rory McIlroy learned to play. The club won’t mind if you stop in and see the shrine to McIlroy in the upstairs foyer where replicas of his U.S. Open and PGA Championship trophies stand, surrounded by his life in pictures, Ryder Cup golf bag and assorted other artifacts of his still-young career.
This could be your last stop before departing Northern Ireland for home. But after experiencing all that this little country the size of Indiana has to offer in the way of links golf, you could save it for your next trip. You’ll be coming back. v
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.