When it comes to embarking on a golf holiday to explore some of the world’s finest links courses, there are few destinations that can offer the perfect blend of quality AND quantity in the manor of Ireland.
Now…while the term “links” is commonplace in the world of golf, it is often misused, at least according to golfing purists who consider there to be fewer than 250 “true links” courses on the planet; courses laid out on special patches of infertile, sandy soil from which the sea has retreated long ago, often framed by colossal dunes covered in native grasses, with little or no protection from the elements.
True links courses are a far cry from the manicured modern courses seen across the world and offer a completely different test of golf; one that golfing enthusiasts all over the world flock to the UK & Ireland to sample each and every year.
There are plenty of links hotspots across the UK & Ireland and if you’re in the market for a links golf tour, you could do a lot worse than choosing to head to the stretch of coastline in Northern Ireland which is home to not only Royal Portrush and Royal County Down – two of the highest ranked courses in the world – but a handful of other links courses that, while not as famous as their illustrious neighbours, offer breathtaking links golf experiences in their own right.
I was lucky enough to sample these courses on a couple of trips to Northern Ireland during the summer of 2015, and can confirm that there is no hyperbole surrounding them; they really are breathtaking.
Starting at the Western end of a Northern Ireland Golf Tour, the first course you’ll come across is Castlerock Golf Club, home to a stunning championship links course refined by the great Harry S. Colt in 1926.
The charming character of the Course has remained the same ever since and has proved its championship pedigree by hosting the likes of the Irish PGA Championship.
The course lies between a railway line and the sea, meandering its way through the huge dunes that lie along the Northern Irish coastline, as well as some slightly less dramatic terrain slightly further inland. These holes might appear “ordinary” to the untrained eye but they’ll test you to your limits, especially if the wind is howling.
You’ll do well to play to your handicap here so perhaps lower expectations should be applied when it comes to scoring. This can be summed up by the par 3 9th which measures 214 yards from the back tees, and plays to a punchbowl green which is intimidatingly framed by monstrous dunes covered in thick, choppy rough. This hole is a real tough nut to crack, especially when playing into the wind as we did on our trip, and the fact that it’s ranked as Stroke Index 17 will give you an idea of how tough links golf can be…which is all part of the attraction!
After your round at Castlerock, head East and you’ll find the next stop on your tour, Portstewart Golf Club, which is just a stone’s throw away on the far side of the River Bann.
Now…while I’ve been lucky enough to play my fair share of links courses, I am not usually one for hyperbole. But having said that, I’d hazard a guess that there isn’t a more spectacular opening nine holes of links golf in the world than that found at Portstewart.
The opening tee shot is as dramatic as I’ve ever experienced and a sign of things to come over the opening nine holes. With unbelievable views on full display from the elevated 1st tee, concentrating on finding the fairway far below is not the easiest task!
The hits just keep coming on the opening nine holes, with each hole seemingly more spectacular and joyous to play than the last. Once you’ve made your way through the labyrinth of dunes that frame the holes on the front nine, you might well be glad for the respite the back nine offers! These holes are a more calm affair on flatter, less dramatic land, but offer a great test of course management and shot-making nonetheless.
Founded way back in 1894, Portstewart takes full advantage of the dramatic nature of the sand dunes known fondly as “Thirsty Hollow” and as you make your way through the gigantic sand dunes, every now and again you emerge and are greeted by the most amazing panoramic views across the Atlantic mouth of Lough Foyle, to the Inishowen peninsula and beyond, you can’t help but fall in love with this epic links.
Castlerock and Portstewart will have warmed you up nicely for the third leg of the tour, which will see you play the only course outside of England and Scotland to have hosted The Open Championship, Royal Portrush.
Royal Portrush, the home course of 2011 Open Champion and The 2016 Ryder Cup European Captain, Darren Clarke, is just 5 miles further down the coast from Portstewart and is commonly ranked among the Top 10 golf courses on the planet.
Sitting on a rocky promontory that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Dunluce Links at Portrush – there is also another course here called the Valley Links – boasts an outstanding collection of links holes, as well as truly spectacular views at certain parts of the course, with the tall limestone cliffs called White Rocks on the east, and the hills of Inishowen to the west.
The Open Championship is set to return here in 2019, and when it does, the world’s best players will find one of the fairest examinations of golf, as well as some truly memorable holes such as the long par 3 14th, known fondly as Calamity. This was certainly an apt name in terms of the way in which I played the hole!
With The Open set to return, a number of improvements have been proposed so one of the best could be set to become even more magical. Either way, not golf tour of Northern Ireland is complete without a round at Portrush.
Ever heard of saving the best for last?
Well while beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ranking golf courses is purely subjective of course, there is no question that Royal County Down is one of the best, if not THE best links course in the world.
Castlerock, Portstewart and Royal Portrush are all within a stone’s throw of eachother, and while the drive to County Down is a bit longer – around the 2 hour mark – it’s unequivocally, without doubt, 100% worth it.
The Championship Course at Royal County Down boasts an exhilarating location for a classic links course, with the Bay of Dundrum sweeping out into the Irish Sea and the peak of Slieve Donard, the highest in Northern Ireland, looming imposingly in the background.
The course is somewhat eccentric, featuring a number of blind tee shots which aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but when it comes to sheer volume of standout holes, as well as stunning scenery, it’s hard to top a round at Royal County Down.
The course is a brute and if the wind blows it will in all likelihood beat you up from start to finish, but I’d hazard a guess that you’ll have a smile on your face throughout.
The European Tour’s Irish Open was hosted here in the summer of 2015 too, and the event was a standout success with a number of the world’s greatest players flocking to get a taste of one of the great links courses.
Surely it can’t be long before The Open pays a visit but in the mean time…you’ll have to come and see what the fuss is about for yourself.
In one word…unmissable.