There are few better places on the planet to play golf than Northern Ireland. Home to breathtaking links courses and countryside made famous by ‘Game of Thrones’, the weather may be changeable but the welcome is always first class here
By Robbie Greenfield
’m generally o.k. when it comes to first tee jitters, but on a bright, chilly morning at Royal Portrush Golf Club in early June, mild panic had officially set in. The bigger the golf course, the more desperately you want to get that first shot safely away, and when it comes to links courses, few come bigger than Portrush.
For my impending first drive, the devil was in the details. Portrush’s first hole is not tight by any means, but somewhat uncharitably, it has ominous white out-of-bounds posts lining not one but both of its perimeters, in sweat-inducing symmetry. Reluctantly, I drew a mental line through ‘cowardly bail-out’ as one of my possible opening shot selections.
Furthermore, my playing partner was head professional Gary McNeill, a mighty fine player who used to tussle with the likes of Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley in his youth as one of Ireland’s top amateurs. Gary had given me a typically warm Northern Irish welcome, but I still didn’t fancy embarrassing myself in front of him.
Then there was the crowd of onlookers and fellow golfers shuffling around in my peripheral vision. This happens a lot on famous links courses. Starters, caddies and overly eager players congregate on the first tee well ahead of their designated slot to take in the atmosphere and pick the brains of the locals. On this particular morning, a small army of players had assembled to play a practice round for the famous Causeway Coast golf tournament. Most of them were watching me go about my pre-shot routine like rubberneckers at the scene of an accident.
As I took the club back, I realised I was no longer in control of my own body. I just had to hope the golfing gods took pity on me, because this ball was heading wherever they decided it should go. With an enormous surge of relief, I watched it scamper down the fairway. The shot was thinner than a professional marathon runner, but the dreaded first tee reload had been avoided. “Nice shot,” said Gary, very generously, before ripping his own piercing drive down the left side of the hole. As if sensing that I hadn’t drawn a breath in almost a minute, he added: “Don’t worry, we’ll take plenty of mulligans.”
And so began one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating rounds of golf I’ve ever played.
Welcome to Northern Ireland, where you’ll make more friends on a golf trip (and probably bogeys) than anywhere else. Later that afternoon, I joined a threeball at nearby Castlerock Golf Club who were competing in the Causeway Coast event. Consisting of an Irishman, an Englishman and a Canadian, it was fitting that this sounds like the set-up to an old gag because all they did was laugh and joke the entire way around. The Irishman, Mick, who was approaching 70 but had clearly been a great player in his younger days, told me: “I play twice as much golf as I used to, but with only half the number of hips.” If his swing had begun to desert him, his sense of humour was going nowhere.
This was my second visit to Northern Ireland, having played some links golf here in 2008 and after falling in love with it back then, I returned to find a country that is riding the crest of a wave. Timing is everything of course, and having put The Troubles that plagued the nation for the best part of 40 years up to the turn of the century well behind them, Northern Ireland is booming. And so is its golf.
Welcome to Northern Ireland, where you’ll make more friends on a golf trip (and probably bogeys) than anywhere else in the world.
My first port of call was to head to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down, my favourite golf course on the planet and surely the most spectacular piece of linksland you will ever set eyes on. The Irish Open had been in peril as recently as five years ago, with the downturn in the economy threatening to force it off the European Tour schedule, but it’s now hard to think of a tournament on the global circuit in ruder health. Hosted by World No.1 Rory McIlroy and his Rory Foundation, attracting a superb field that included Players Champion Rickie Fowler and former World No.1s Ernie Els, Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer, and welcoming a new headline sponsor in Dubai Duty Free, the fact that it was staged on one of the best (and most difficult) courses in the world was the icing on the cake.
The greatest defence of any links course is the weather and in this respect, County Down was armed to the teeth. Three weeks short of the summer solstice and this exposed stretch of land beneath the Mourne Mountains was doing a good impression of mid-February. Pro golfers waddled the fairways in several layers of clothing and full-body rain suits, like logoed Michelin men.
The wind tends to whip across County Down, making its numerous blind tee shots and approaches into greens like upturned saucers even more challenging. The best players in the world were having to aim balls over the rough to ensure they landed on fairway or green, often misjudging this horribly. No putt outside two feet looked routine, even for these brilliant putters.
As I watched Soren Kjeldsen, Bernd Wiesberger and Tommy Fleetwood battle their way into a playoff that was eventually won in thrilling style by the determined Dane, I couldn’t help thinking: If these guys are making hard work of this, how on earth are the rest of us going to fare? The very next day I got my answer.
After enjoying a typically hearty cooked Irish breakfast and checking out of the magnificent Slieve Donard hotel early in the morning, I was headed for the north Antrim coast and a date with the links at Portstewart, stopping off at some of Northern Ireland’s world famous attractions along the way. The countryside here is breathtaking, and it has found extra fame as one of the main filming locations in HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones. Ever the entrepreneurs, it hasn’t taken the locals long to cater to the show’s army of diehard fans.
You can now book the full ‘Game of Thrones experience’ through a number of tour operators, which takes visitors to the heart of Winterfell and then up into the Iron Islands. Tourism Northern Ireland’s Lucia King assured me that no one had yet been ambushed by an army of Lannisters, or chased by a dire wolf.
The countryside here is breathtakingly beautiful, and it has found extra fame as one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.
As you circumnavigate the grand city of Belfast, you pass a sign at the start of the Antrim coast road that informs drivers they are entering an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’. This would be an understatement. After winding along a road that skirts right up against the rugged coastline, you pass over a high moor and arrive at the star attractions on this stretch of coast, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the jaw-droppingly stunning Giant’s Causeway. This rock feature was formed when molten lava thrust up through the earth’s crust and was cooled by the (freezing) waters of the sea, or as the result of a disagreement between two mythical giants, Finn McCool and Benandonner (depending on who you listen to).
By the time I left the visitors centre it had started to rain, and when I pulled into the carpark at Portstewart, the film Noah was springing to mind. A 40mph wind was delivering pelting rain horizontally into my face as golfers from all corners of the course were beating a hasty retreat.
They don’t shy away from a bit of weather in this part of the world, but even the lady in the pro shop regarded me with sympathy. “You’re welcome to give it a try,” she offered tentatively. Despite the lure of a Guinness and a steak and kidney pie in the clubhouse, I ventured to the first tee, bent double against the howling wind and attracting double-takes from a large group of Americans who had finished their round.
Portstewart is a spectacular golf course, with sweeping holes that bisect the towering dunes on either side, but sadly this was no day to enjoy the views. My first shot squirted into the thick rough, and eight lost balls later (I was only on the fourth tee) I decided to admit defeat.
They say Northen Ireland gets four seasons in a day, and by the time I drove back to the Bushmills Inn – a gorgeous boutique hotel that is geared towards the needs of golfers – a gentle evening sun was casting long shadows across the crumpled landscape.
A famous topic in these parts demands that golfers elect a preference either for County Down or the Dunluce course at Portrush. I have always been a County Down man, but Portrush – home to Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell and the site of Rory McIlroy’s course record 61, is closing the gap fast. The major news is that The Open is heading back here to Northen Ireland, for the first time since Portrush last hosted the championship in 1951.
The announcement was made by the R&A last year following a long and tireless campaign led by the likes of Clarke to bring The Open back to his home course, with a likely year set either for 2019 or 2020. And what a venue this grand old course will be. It is a stunning links, let down only slightly by a closing pair of holes out of character with the rest of the layout. But that is the first item on the Open Championship agenda, Gary explained.
“We’re incorporating the far corner of the Valley course and adding two brand new holes there, which will be in the seventh and eighth during The Open. So the current sixteenth, which is a cracking dogleg par 4, will become the finishing hole,” he explains. Further tweaks and changes are planned to elevate Portrush to an even greater level of perfection, with the ‘Big Nellie’ bunker currently on 17 scheduled to be recreated on the new seventh. Additional bunkers and new tee placements will make Portrush an exacting test when it hosts the game’s oldest and grandest tournament.
But for now, I was left to admire a true links player in action, as Gary peppered one flagstick after another with a succession of precision iron shots. This is golf at its most challenging, where bogeys can feel like pars and one crooked bounce can be the difference between fairway and knee-high rough. But it is also golf at its most artistic and exhilirating. You will attempt shots you never knew you had in you. You will envisage lines and angles you’ve never thought of before.
On the windswept links of Northern Ireland, your scorecard is secondary to the thrill of battling the elements. This is golf in its purest form and for this thriving little country, it promises to get even better still.