By Kevin Markham of Golfbreaks.com
Northern Ireland is host to some of the best golf courses in the British Isles, if not the world. Towering dunes, cliff top views and lush parkland all feature heavily in this country, along with a list of course designers that can only be described as “Royalty” in the world of golf course architecture! It’s easily accessible and wonderfully hospitable and therefore Northern Ireland should be indelibly inked on all golfers’ bucket list of golf destinations to visit.
1. Royal County Down
Royal County Down is one of the greatest golf experiences on the planet. It has the design pedigree (Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt, chief among them), it has the stunning location set alongside Dundrum Bay and at the foot of the mighty Mourne Mountains, and it has an aura that no other course can match. A course this good, with so many blind shots and bearded bunkers, will always bewilder, enthrall and inspire golfers.
Jack Nicklaus is not a fan, disliking the many blindshots, but this is how golf courses were laid out in the early days. Dunes were left alone and holes were routed around and over them. Royal County Down embraces that willingly and the blind drives on the 2nd, 9th and 11th are truly terrifying.
The signature par three 4th faces the Mourne Mountains. It is one of the most inspiring holes in the world, but the same is true of the entire course.
2. Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
As preparations for the 2019 Open Championship continue at Royal Portrush, the allure of this Harry Colt classic grows by the day. The rhythm of the holes works beautifully, as the opening holes take you steadily out towards the ocean and the par four 5th. Named White Rocks, this is a dogleg masterpiece where everything, including the views, is on show from the raised tee and you are challenged to bite off as much as you can chew.
Royal Portrush presents a steady learning curve of how holes break and slide through natural channels, how the smallish greens sit neatly – often deceptively – into the dunes, and how fairway position means everything if you are to optimise your chances of getting close to the pin.
‘God’s Own Country’… three words sure to inspire the imagination of any golfer when they discover that’s what awaits them at Portstewart. When the club identified the need for nine new holes in the 1980s, this run of dunes was used to create the most dramatic opening nine holes in golf… and what many consider to be the best opening hole in Ireland. From the tee the views stretch over the sea to Inishowen, while Mussenden Temple sits on the cliff tops in the distance.
These opening nine holes tumble through violent dunes but, despite their size, you can see what lies ahead, thanks to the many high tees. The back nine start off on the back side of these big dunes but then calm down for the final stretch.
4. Lough Erne
The lakelands of Co. Fermanagh stretch for miles across the region with islands and forests painting an idyllic beauty. Lower Lough Erne is one such lake and it is here that Sir Nick Faldo routed what is widely regarded as Northern Ireland’s premier parkland. This is a full scale five star resort.
The course begins alongside Castle Hume Lough, before slipping into forest for a few holes. It is an important introduction to the size and shapes of green complexes. Generous, rolling fairways have more elevation changes than you’d expect while woods and the many natural wetland areas separate holes and give the course space. The resort is extremely close to the links of Donegal and County Sligo, in Ireland’s North West.
5. Castle Rock
Alongside Royal Portrush and Portstewart, Castlerock makes up the perfect triumvirate on this northern stretch of coastline. What stands out in Castlerock’s favour is the variety of its links holes, thanks to the ever-changing size and shape of the dunes. Actor Michael Douglas said of Castlerock: “this course is pure heaven”.
Holes switch from low and bumpy to deep and curvaceous. A burn runs across some holes but Castlerock’s serious drama starts on the 7th, where the bigger dunes come in to play. Bump-and-run is always a wise approach (but for the burn) and you’ll need a very sharp short game to take on the many challenges around greens.
The drive through an avenue of trees to reach the 1840s Tudor Revival clubhouse sets the tone for this classy parkland on the outskirts of Belfast. There are 27 holes here, which is only fitting as the 27-acre lake is the star attraction of this championship course. You’ll see it on the drive in and from the beautiful clubhouse.
This is a muscular course thanks to its space and length, the density and size of the trees, and that sweet lake. Malone requires smart golf as subtle doglegs bring the trees into play constantly. It all creates a wonderfully embracing atmosphere where driving is a joy and approach shots are always attractive.
7. Belvoir Park
Harry Colt created this Northern Ireland parkland masterpiece in the late 1920s. Today it nudges up against the Belfast suburbs, not far from Malone Golf Club. Belvoir Park had the foresight over the decades to embrace Colt’s work and his timeless design remains. It gives visiting golfers a lesson in old school charm as well driving accuracy.
Visitors should head to the clubhouse balcony for views over the back nine, Belfast city and the Belfast Hills. It’s the perfect introduction. This is a sedate, rhythmic course thanks to the smart layout and the magnificent and dense trees that enshroud the course. The back nine are enhanced by a dip that slides across several holes. Expect – and enjoy – lightning fast and heavily bunkered greens.
Ardglass, just 20 miles east of Royal County Down, offers a startling contrast to its world famous neighbour. There is still sea and stunning scenery, but Ardglass throws in cliff-top holes, links holes and more gentle seaside holes. It’s a heady mix and Ardglass is famous for its starting salvo of five holes, rippling across the cliff-tops and over chasms. The 1st is magnificent, its tee set right on the water’s edge, its green up high in a rocky turret.
When you reach the links holes by Coney Island, all your wits will be stretched. Two par threes on either side of an elegant par five set temperatures soaring and it rarely lets up. To finish, the 18th leads you back down to a clubhouse built on the ruins of a 13th century castle.
9. Royal Portrush (Valley)
The Valley is Royal Portrush’s second course and is often treated as such by visiting golfers… but it is a quality course in its own right, routed over very different terrain to its sibling. It sits in a valley between the towering sand hill that holds back the sea and the high dunes that host the Dunluce.
This is a terrific, tumbling links designed by Harry Colt. The fairways twist and turn, flowing over humps and hollows which have been cleverly used to protect and hide putting surfaces. And even when everything is on show, you just never know what might be waiting. Wild rose bushes embrace many greens, ensuring a thorny, unwelcome adventure for the over ambitious.
10. Royal County Down (Annesley)
Royal County Down’s Annesley links may be a modest par 66, with six par threes and no par fives, but it is a lesson in strategic golf. The quality is just as good as its big sibling and you will learn a thing or two about tight, twisting fairways and slick greens. A driver is a liability unless you enjoy masochistic adventures into the gorse and it will sharpen your short game no end… something sorely needed next door.
Many visitors like to ‘warm-up’ on this course and they will get an inkling for what makes Royal County Down’s hallowed fairways and greens so special.
Three superb new holes have been set in the highest dunes.
These are Northern Ireland’s top ten courses but others could also make that list, such as the country’s oldest course at Royal Belfast, Ballycastle and its stunning views, the tree-drenched Moyola Park, and the 36-hole Clandeboye.
If you not tempted to jump on a plane and head to Belfast after reading this, then you truly need your pulse checked!
Request a quote if you are interested in playing any of these courses as part of your vacation with the golf travel experts at Golfbreaks.com.
Republished with permission from Golfbreaks.com