By Andrew & Paul Marshall
From some of the world's best links, legendary Irish hospitality, the Giant's Causeway and a Bushmills whiskey by a roaring peat fire, the north of Ireland is a great destination for a golf trip. Golfing brothers Andrew & Paul Marshall take a journey...
Ah...the joys, frustrations and vagaries of links golf, where a well-executed shot can get an unfortunate kick and end up in a bunker, or a mishit shot may get a lucky bounce and finish on the green. Links courses with their unique characteristics retain their allure as the game's original and purest form and they come in no greater dramatic abundance than in the north of Ireland. Created by nature and dotted like gems around the coastline, these courses by the sea have all the quintessential ingredients - stunning ocean views, towering marram grass dunes, rumpled fairways, fast undulating greens, deep pot bunkers and ever-present winds. Not golf for the fainthearted, to-be-sure, to-be -sure, to-be-sure.
Some layouts such as the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush are timeless classics where golf has been played since the late1800s, whilst others such as Rosapenna's Sandy Hills and Ballyliffin's Glashedy Links are comparatively recent creations that still look as though they have been part of the scenery since then. Finding your way to these links is all part of the experience - driving through wild landscapes of brooding mountains and eerie peat moors, past boulder-strewn rivers and ancient castles perched on windswept headlands. The roads, sometimes twisting and narrow, can take longer than expected to navigate. You may make a few wrong turns along the way or get stuck behind a tractor, but it's time well spent in anticipation.
Adding to the golfing experience are the locals you meet at the courses, who have a tremendous gift of making you feel welcome. And let's not forget the wonderful clubhouse bars to enjoy some hearty soup and sandwiches, or sink a Guinness or two while discussing the ups and downs of the day’s round. What follows is our week-long golf journey that begins at Dublin airport where we drive up the northeastern coast into Northern Ireland, head west along the Causeway Coast to the rugged Inishowen Peninsula and County Donegal back in Ireland, to play six top-drawer links...
Day 1: ARDGLASS – County Down
From Dublin airport we drive two hours north to the first course of our trip - Ardglass Golf Club. This spectacular old-style links and clifftop gem hugs a rugged headland on the County Down coastline, offering sea views from every hole. Ardglass really is a course to savour with some outstanding holes. The course begins with a bang where a line of cannons point the way to the green of the par-4 1st followed by the daunting par-3 2nd, both requiring a carry across the coastline or cliff tops of the Irish Sea. Holes 11 and 12 (the Amen corner of Ardglass) are particularly exciting, set across from Coney Island made famous by Van Morrison, and on clear days you can see past the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man.
Protected by water on the right and wind bushes on the left, at the 488 yards par-5 11th it's essential to hit three straight shots to reach the green in regulation. As the course guide says 'Play this hole with the same ball and be happy!' The par-3 12th is arguably the course's signature hole drawing comparisons with the famous 17th hole at Pebble Beach. The view from the elevated tee, with a backdrop of the Irish Sea and the majesty of the brooding Mourne Mountains is worth the green fee alone. Ardglass is home to one of the oldest and most distinct clubhouses in Ireland - a castle that dates back to the 12th century. We hole out on the final green and then enjoy some cold beers on the rooftop turret bar. As the late afternoon sun casts long shadows across this memorable course we raise our glasses to the days ahead.
Overnight: Slieve Donard Resort & Spa (Newcastle)
Day 2: PORTSTEWART – County Antrim
It’s a claim that’s often made – Portstewart's Strand course has arguably the best opening hole in Irish golf. Played from an elevated tee with topography that bucks and plunges like a raging river, I need to focus on my ball and avoid being distracted by the stunning coastal views on this classic 427 yards par-4 called Tubber Patrick. It's a memorable start to a wonderful links dominated by a huge dunescape peppered with plenty of testing holes One of these is the 6th, aptly named Five Penny Piece, and with a green not much larger than a snooker table and only 135 yards from the whites, it can be anything from a rescue club to a gap wedge depending on the wind. It's been a tough nine holes with more snowmen (8's) on the card than in British gardens at Christmas time, so we head straight to the windswept bar near the 10th tee to enjoy a smooth Bushmills whiskey before tackling the back nine.
In the afternoon, as a diversion from golf we visit the famous Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Made up of thousands of hexagonal pillars that climb out of the Atlantic Ocean, this stunning natural formation was created by Finn MacCool, an Irish giant that lived along the Antrim Coast. The logical and less romantic version is that about 60 million years ago there was intense volcanic activity along the coast, after which the lava cooled very quickly. The uneven cooling rate resulted in the basalt contracting into the characteristic hexagonal and octagonal pillar shapes you see today.
The Giant's Causeway may be the star of the Causeway Coast, but other worthwhile attractions include the stunning Carrick-a-Rede swinging rope bridge that spans a gaping chasm between the coast and a small island used by fishermen, and the haunting ruins of 16th-century Dunluce Castle perched precariously on the edge of a rocky headland. Back at the Bushmills Inn we spend a convivial evening by an open peat fire, sampling Bushmills whiskies and swapping golfing tales with other guests.
Overnight: Bushmills Inn (Bushmills)
Day 3: ROYAL PORTRUSH – County Antrim
As Royal Portrush Golf Club first comes into view round a curve in the County Antrim Coast Road, it provides us with a magical sight with its green fairways hiding among shaggy-topped dunes and the great headland of Inishowen contrasting vividly with the low line of the Skerries and the sea beyond. Established in May 1888 and included in every list of the world’s top 100 courses, Royal Portrush's Dunluce has long been regarded as a great test of a golfer’s skill. It hosted the British Open in 1951, when England’s eccentric Max Faulkner lifted the trophy and there's every chance it will be home to the prestigious championship once again within the next few years.
There are plenty of great holes at Royal Portrush and it's truly difficult to choose just one. On the front nine, the 5th with its cliffside green is a worthy contender, but on the back it's got to be the 210 yards 14th known as Calamity Corner. This testing par-3 calls for a long carry with a long iron or hybrid over an 80-foot ravine to reach the green and to slice or push the ball right will earn you an almost certain double bogey or worse. Don’t be ashamed of taking a four at Calamity Corner- threes are as rare as an unfriendly Irishman. Once we finish our rounds we enjoy soup and sandwiches in the clubhouse dining room, and on the way check out 2011 British Open champion Darren Clarke's winner's medal and Rory McIlroy's scorecard of 61 that he shot (aged 16), when he won the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Championship.
Overnight: Bushmills Inn (Bushmills)
Day 4: CASTLEROCK – County Londonderry
The following morning we enjoy a hearty full Irish breakfast before checking out and taking a pilgrimage to nearby Old Bushmills – the birthplace of Irish whiskey and the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. It celebrated its 400th birthday in 2008 and behind that milestone is a tale of ingenuity and craftsmanship to perfect the art of distilling. We take a tour to learn more about the whiskey-making process, and then enjoy the best bit with a taste test in the distillery bar.
After stocking up on a bottle of Bushmills 16-year single malt (matured for 16 years or more in a combination of American bourbon barrels, Spanish Oloroso sherry casks and Port pipes), our fourth round awaits at Castlerock Golf Club's Mussenden Links situated further west along the Causeway Coast, and only a twenty minute drive from Portstewart and Royal Portrush. Founded in 1901, this historic links set amid tall sand dunes besides the picturesque River Bann estuary is a worthy neighbour of the aforementioned courses and will test every department of your game.
One of the standout holes is the 200 yards par-3 4th called Leg O'Mutton which requires a tee shot struck over a burn, with a railway line lurking to the right and a tricky pot bunker in front of a raised green. Great courses have great closing holes and Castlerock's short dog-leg right 18th is a beauty. A decent drive will leave you with a relatively blind approach with a short iron, to a tricky two-tiered plateau green with the clubhouse just beyond. We enjoy a 19th hole pint before taking a short drive west to Magilligan Point where we board the Lough Foyle car ferry to Greencastle back in Ireland, and then continue north-west across the scenic Inishowen Peninsula to the village of Ballyliffin and our bed for the night.
Overnight: Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa (Ballyliffin)
Day 5: BALLYLIFFIN - County Donegal
Ballyliffin is such a beautiful and intriguing spot, that six-time major champion Nick Faldo used to visit it before playing the British Open and at one time was so smitten with the place he tried to buy it, on the cheap according to locals. A remarkable 36 holes meander through this most beguiling of links land, with rocky outcrops, perfect greens and enchanting views of the coast. Principally designed by Mother Nature (with upgrades by Faldo including new bunkering, tees and enlarged greens) the classic Old Links undulates in the glory of its natural terrain. The rippling fairways give the course a unique character and charm and its the type of place where you can easily imagine the golfing forefathers striding along the sheep-cropped turf with their hickory clubs.
The more recent Glashedy Links (designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock) is fashioned around the incredible dunes on predominately higher ground above and beyond the Old Links offering stunning views as you play. Here, we tee it up with two other golfers we meet, Jo from Belgium and Scott from America and engage in a thoroughly enjoyable matchplay contest. The course kicks off with three long par-4s and the challenges never let up – negotiating cavernous peat-riveted bunkers, large contoured greens, fairways that twist and roll between towering dunes and a collection of exciting par-3s.
It's been a tight contest all day and the Marshall brothers are 1 up on the par-4 18th. Paul is safely on the dance floor in two and I am already anticipating the taste of that winning Guinness and sliding some euros into my wallet. Paul takes two putts to secures a par and then its over to Jo. He's also on the green in two and stalks his putt like a hungry lion. He lines it up and takes one last look at the cup. Amazingly he holes it for birdie to halve the match and the place erupts like the final scenes of the Ryder Cup.
Overnight: Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort (Rosapenna)
Day 6: ROSAPENNA - County Donegal
We are now way up in the north-west corner of Ireland, where the hands of the golfing greats have shaped and moulded the links at Rosapenna, one of the oldest in the country. Old Tom Morris laid out the original course in 1893, and over a century later came the 18 holes of Sandy Hills, which is as inspiring in the 21st century as the Old Links were in the 19th. This is another 36 holes of magnificent links golf at its very best and a stunning location for our final round at Sandy Hills.
Designed by Pat Ruddy, Sandy Hills is a course of gargantuan proportions that bobs and weaves its way through mammoth sand dunes, with spectacular elevated tees, clearly visible landing areas and large greens. A statue of Old Tom Morris who must have seen it all before, watches on as we drive off on the 501 yards par-5 opener. The holes wind and twist their way through a maze of the tallest and shaggiest dunes on the coast, where a sense of isolation and tranquility surrounds you. One hole that will etch itself in the memory is the par-4 6th where you drive over a crest then look down at the emerald green below with a stunning panorama of Muckish Mountain, Sheephaven Bay and the golden beach of Tramore. Sandy Hills at Rosapenna isn’t your average layout – it's a golfing adventure on a brilliant course and a fitting finale to our 'Northern Links' trip...
Overnight: McGrory's (Culdaff)
WHERE TO PLAY (The 6 courses)
Ardglass Golf Club: www.ardglassgolfclub.com
Portstewart Golf Club: www.portstewartgc.co.uk
Royal Portrush Golf Club: www.royalportrushgolfclub.com
Castlerock Golf Club: www.castlerockgc.co.uk
Ballyliffin Golf Club: www.ballyliffingolfclub.com
Distances between the courses:
Dublin Airport to Ardglass: 162 km, 100 miles.
Ardglass to Portstewart: 146 km, 91 miles
Portstewart – Portrush: 6 km, 4 miles
Portrush to Castlerock: 26 km, 27 miles
Castlerock to Ballyliffin: 75 km, 47 miles
Ballyliffin to Rosapenna: 97 km, 60 miles.
WHERE TO STAY
Slieve Donard Resort & Spa: This 100-year-old Victorian property is one of Ireland's most stunning and luxurious golf hotels and is situated immediately adjacent to the world famous Royal County Down golf club, home to the 2015 Irish Open. The property boasts a luxurious Spa (16 treatment rooms, a 20-metre pool and vitality rooms), fine dining or relaxed bistro-style and a sumptuous breakfast featuring a full Irish or perhaps porridge with a dash of Bushmills whiskey.
Bushmills Inn – This multi award-wining luxury four-star accommodation in the heart of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast is an excellent base for golfers, being well situated for Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock. This former coaching inn oozes character from intimate 'snugs' with aged timbers to the secret library and the cosy glow of an open peat fire. The AA Rosette Restaurant blending 'new Irish cuisine' with the finest North Antrim fresh produce overlooks the garden courtyard. www.bushmillsinn.com
Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa Hotel: Set in the heart of Ballyliffin village with spectacular panoramic views of Malin Head and the Inishowen coastline, the four-star Ballyliffin Lodge makes an excellent and comfortable base for playing Ballyliffin's two courses ideally located within 1km of the hotel. After a tough day on the links enjoy the facilities at the award-winning leisure complex including a 17-metre pool, sauna, steam room and jacuzzi, or book a spa treatment or massage. www.ballyliffinlodge.com
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort: The origins of this four-star family run hotel date back to the year 1891 when Lord Leitrim invited the renowned Old Tom Morris to lay out a golf course along the sand dunes of stunning Sheephaven Bay. Only a well-struck drive away from the luxury bedrooms and bayview suites are the two premier 18-hole courses ( Old Tom Morris Links and Sandy Hills) in addition to a practice facility with 12 hole par-3 course, a well-stocked pro shop and a golf pavilion with bar & restaurant. www.rosapenna.ie
McGrory's – 'This powerhouse of a place is Pub, Amazing Music Venue, Restaurant and Comfy Rooms, and it Rocks with energy and the special contentment of a unique destination' – says John Mc Kenna (100 Best Places to Stay in Ireland) of this family run hotel since 1924. In addition, McGrory's is partnered with Ballyliffin Golf Club which is only a 15 minutes drive away and nearby is beautiful Culdaff Beach with swimming, canoeing, surfing and fishing all available. www.mcgrorys.ie
North & West Coast Links
For more information and a variety of golf packages to play courses in Ireland's north and north west coastal regions please visit: www.northandwestcoastlinks.com