By Todd Staszko
With a smattering of some of the most breathtaking links courses in Europe and a heady mix of coastal and parkland hidden gems, Northern Ireland is fast becoming the go-to destination for a superb golfing getaway in northern Europe.
Last year’s Open Championship placed Northern Ireland firmly in the global spotlight as Royal Portrush in County Antrim put the best players of the modern era through their paces for the oldest and most prestigious trophy in the game.
Fans and competitors alike were gushing in their praise of the course and it’s easy to see why as you plot your way around the famed Dunluce Links.
Across all 18 holes it features the classic hallmarks of a true links – challenging from every tee box, demanding on approach to the greens and a fascinating complex once you’re on the dance foor. Designed by Harry Colt in 1929 and with a few minor tweaks undertaken since, the essence of his layout remains. It’s a joy to play, with never a dull moment, and views out across the sea that will live long in the memory. Among many highlights is the par-3 16th. Known as ‘Calamity Corner’ it features a nerve-jangling tee-shot with a long iron to an elevated green which must fly over a steep 80 foot ravine to the right.
The coastal stretch on which Royal Portrush sits is littered with great golf courses. Just 3km to the west lies Portstewart Golf Club, which hosted the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open won by Jon Rahm, and will again host the event in 2021; and across the River Bann, just a few hundred metres away is the superb Castlerock Golf Club.
Only a handful of areas in the British Isles can boast three genuine championship-class links within a 5km radius, and this one features one of the best you can play – Royal Portrush.
Besides the golf, in the opposite direction along the cliffs, lies the world-famous Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO Heritage Site and a true geological wonder.
Renowned for its polygonal columns of layered basalt which were the result of a volcano eruption some 60 million years ago, the area has attracted visitors for centuries and harbours a wealth of local and natural history.
To the south of Belfast lies Northern Ireland’s second classic links with the ‘Royal’ moniker – the famous Royal County Down, which is nestled perfectly among the dunes in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.
A favourite course among many of the game’s great names – including Tiger Woods who has been known to tune up for The Open here – Royal County Down is not for the faint-hearted and hiring a caddie with a wealth of course knowledge is a must for anyone with a handicap in double figures.
With blind shots permeating this naturally up-and-down layout, Royal County Down is a mix of tough mental challenge yet also easy on the eye (if not the scorecard).
If you keep it straight off the tee then the course can appear relatively simple, but wander off- line and angles into the greens leave testing shots. When you mix the elements it is always tough to score well. Indeed, when the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was played here in 2015, Rory McIlroy, then ranked No. 1 in the world, opened with an 80 and missed the cut.
While Royal County Down rightly receives many of the plaudits for its setting, Ardglass Golf Club is a spectacular links which plays across a cliff edge on a rugged coastline about 25 miles down the road.
The clubhouse is a stunning 15th Century castle and cannons sit outside, pointing the way down the first hole as you tee off over the Irish Sea – hopefully to the opening fairway.
After looping around the the coastline the 18th hole drops down, back towards the clubhouse and there are echoes of the 18th at the Old Course at St. Andrews in the way the opening and closing holes are laid out.
Hit The City
While the natural coastline of Northern Ireland lends itself to incredible links courses with breathtaking scenery, the city of Belfast boasts stunning parkland layouts which deserve just as much attention. The Royal Belfast Golf Club sits on the shores of the Belfast Lough to the north of the city and features panoramic views out over the bay. Designed by Harry Colt, it’s the oldest golf club on the island of Ireland and the course remains the same today as it was when Colt finished his work in 1926.
The layout gently slopes towards the Lough with holes playing across or straight-up-and -down the natural topography and as you plot your way around you realise that there could be no finer routing, given the landscape.
Just a short drive down the road back towards the city lies Holywood Golf Club – the home of Rory McIlroy – where the four-times Major champion has invested in a new section of the clubhouse which includes a gym to help youngsters get fit for golf.
The course overlooks the city and Belfast Lough with views unrivalled in the area. The course is short enough to enjoy a round in less than four hours and accuracy off the tee is more at a premium than distance.
Belvoir Park Golf Club sits just 4km from the city centre but players are shielded from the noise by huge, mature trees which line every fairway, many of which were well established in 1927 when the course was built using teams of horses and hand ploughs.
A new, imposing clubhouse gives elevated views out across the course as the fairways stretch out into the distance, while over to the right the twin cranes of Samson and Goliath of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the famous RMS Titanic passenger ship, can be seen.
Slightly further out from the city confines lies Malone Golf Club, which gently rolls through 330 acres of immaculate parkland along the River Lagan.
Designed by CK Cotton & Assocs, the club features 27 holes and a magnificent central lake which comes into play down the closing stretch of holes. After play the clubhouse offers a place for food and drink and a spot to relax and enjoy the view over the lake as players finish their rounds on the 18th green.
With a superb selection of golf courses around the city and to the north and south coasts, the central hub of Belfast has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades and now takes its place as one of Europe’s most popular destinations for a city break.
At the heart of its renaissance is the striking Titanic Belfast, a monumental interactive tribute to the famous Titanic and the city that built it, which was voted Europe’s leading visitor attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2016 (beating the Acropolis, Colosseum and Eiffel Tower). Constructed at the cost of £97million and opened in 2012, Titanic Belfast relates the story of the famous ocean liner.
The iconic building (right) is shaped like the bows of a ship and comprises nine galleries over four floors. The site evokes both the vast scale of the ship (white lines on the ground outside mark the outline of the vessel) and the huge construction job, which took over 3 years and over 3,000 workers.
With bars and restaurants and hotels dotted throughout the compact city centre it’s impossible not to find somewhere to hunker down for the evening before heading out on your next adventure.