Like a lot of people, in the past my view of Northern Ireland has been more bombs and Molotov cocktails than birdies and eagles, and journalists that travelled to Belfast were more likely to be of the war kind than of the golf variety. But having heard many good things about the North of Ireland it was time to pack my clubs and find out for myself.
It’s strange how TV can give you a false impression of a city, I remember the first time I went to New York, I thought I would be spending a lot of time on my hands and knees dodging bullets, now its one of my favourite cities to visit and I was hoping Northern Ireland would be the next destination to turn my perceptions upside down.
Castlerock Golf Club
Our coach driver met us at Belfast City airport and what a cheery and obliging fella he turned out to be. We arrived at Castlerock Golf Club where we were only meant to be playing nine holes. The problem is that after one look at Castlerock you want to play all 19!!! The coach driver didn’t need much persuading to do a couple of runs so we were able to play all 18 holes and what a great track this turned out to be.
Ben Sayers expanded the original layout to 18 holes and more changes were introduced by Harry Colt. With that pedigree Caslerock was always going to impress. Add a piece of land where the River Bann flows out to the Atlantic and views of Donegal and on a clear day across to Scotland the only “troubles” you were going to encounter were keeping your mind focused on your golf.
I have a slight problem, because normally at this point I would name stand-out holes. I nearly put down every hole, but then had to think ahead to the other courses I played and will be talking to you about, like Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Lough Erne.
I found myself thinking I would be better off naming the weak holes but then there wasn’t really any of them. I must admit I enjoyed playing every hole and I played in some horrible conditions, but I was having such a great time I just didn’t want to stop.
Four seasons in one round – that’s what makes links golf so much fun, you are not only playing the course but the elements. One minute it can be full waterproofs and no umbrella, as you will end up like Mary Poppins flying out to sea. The next hole and you are in shirt sleeves with the sun on your back.
Back to Castlerock: the first hole is a great opening par 4 dogleg right of 367 yards from the back tees, uphill with another steep rise just before the green, so make sure you take plenty of club for your second shot. The run of holes from the 3rd through to the 17th are a joy to play. Standing on the 18th which is a par 4 of only 357 yards dogleg right, you hit your tee shot from an elevated tee, which is about placement not power as your second shot is back uphill to an elevated green. It’s a very tough finish if you are short, and when you do hole that last putt, you’ll know you have played one great track.
Royal Portrush Golf Club
The next day it was off to Royal Portrush, another Harry Colt track I was very much looking forward to playing. From the 1st tee to the 18th green this is a course that will not only test all your concentration levels but all the clubs in your bag. But this track does give you great opportunities to put a good score together, especially at the 9th and 10th – two par 5s of 475 and 478 yards respectively, where you could walk away with two eagles but you could also walk away with two eights.
The view out to sea and along the beach at the 5th green and 6th tee is breath-taking and if you are waiting on the green to clear on the par 3 6th you really can get lost in thought. This could be to the detriment of your scorecard as the 189 yard par 3 has no bunkers, miss the green and you could, like the 210 yard par 3 14th be knocking up a score that a tail-end batsman would be proud of.
The closing four holes start with “Purgatory” via “Big Nellie” to the 469 yard par 4 18th. The green is nearly 50 yards long so make sure you take plenty of club if the flag is at the back.
1st Green dont miss it left!!Eagle chance on the Par 5 4th 5th Keep your mind on the golf
If you manage to get a game with ex captain Sam Moore or he is about when you play, make sure you get a nip from the 2 litre bottle he has hanging in his locker or at the halfway hut. It’s a mix of Bushmills, Drambuie and Crabbie’s ginger wine, and, like the man, its legendary.
Portstewart Golf Club
In my humble opinion the view from the 1st tee at Portstewart is one of the best you will ever see from any tee around the world – its immense. The elevated tee sits way above the fairway below and with the Atlantic Ocean to your right. I am sure they stagger the tee times by an extra five minutes, knowing full well everyone will want to have their photo taken.
1st tee the view is awe-inspiringLooking down on the 8th hole 12th with the River Bann
But this track is not all about the views, it’s a fantastic layout with some tough beautiful holes especially the front nine that runs through the dunes. The back nine runs along the River Bann with more stunning views and the toughest finishing three holes I have ever played. They are all par 4s at 418, 436 and 461 yards respectively and you can retire to the beautifully designed new clubhouse that opened in late 2009 and enjoy more of those stunning views with that well earned drink.
Lough Erne Resort
Lough Erne is the second Nick Faldo-designed course I have played – the other being Roco Ki in the Dominican Republic – and I feel Nick could become one of the best course designers of this era. It is set in a beautiful part of the country between Castle Hume Lough and Lower Lough Erne, and as at Roco Ki Nick has been truly blessed with the land he has been given to work with.
Looking down on the 8th greenThe elevated 16th tee Don't miss the 17th green
The track he has produced is not only beautiful on the eye but is an awesome test of golf. With five different tees to choose from this track can measure from 7,167 yards from the black tees to 5,015 from the reds, and is a tough test from them all.
There is really no weak hole on this track but make sure you grab something to eat at the superb halfway hut. You’ll probably need it after the 637 yard par 5, but the back nine just get tougher.
Back in the Loughside bar next to the crackling open fire after your round you are sure to be planning your next round or trip.
I loved my time in Northern Ireland, not just for the golf but also some culinary delights and great nights out. You will not see Trevor MacDonald talking about the many cocktails thrown along the wonderful bars of Derry, but then again the 10 o’clock news doesn’t report on good news anymore.