One of the most popular golf and cultural destinations in the world i Ireland, and it has a few hidden gems among the “many shades of green” especially in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, known for a rich history of textile producing mills, linen seed agriculture for both rope building and linen, and maritime heritage, (namely the building of the ill-fated ship, the Titanic) has some of the lushest and green land on the "Emerald" isle. Despite the ruins of mills with much of the textile industry gone, livestock, dairy and agriculture of potatoes, barley and wheat remain strong, and accounts for the majority of agriculture output for the United Kingdom. The countryside and northern coastal communities are home to many century-old golf courses built among castles and historic ruins. To gain a full appreciation of Northern Irish beauty and experience culture along the way, begin your journey arriving in Dublin. Take a train to Belfast and embrace the picturesque lush country side of charming patch-quilt grasses dotted with cows and sheep. Journey a wee bit further to Antrium County, where three noteworthy golf courses are recommended, Galgorm Castle Golf Club, Portrush Golf Club and Portstewart Golf Club.
Stay at the Galgorm Castle Resort & Spa with golf at the Galgorm Castle Golf Club in Ballymena, a mere 40 minutes north of Belfast, and home to famous actor Liam Neeson. Ballymena (means “town in the middle”) is in the County of Antrium, and is the 8th largest in Northern Ireland. One of the major industries in Ballymena is the double decker bus company, Wright’s Coach Company, which exports their buses to England and employs 2,000. The Galgorm property is quite dated with royalty and upheaval. In 1607, estate land at Galgorm, was presented to mighty warrior, Rory Og MacQuillan by King James I. However it was short lived, as Sir Faithful Fortescue (also known as Sir Faithless) tricked MacQuillan out of his estate, and built the Galgorm Castle in 1618, in Jacobean architecture. Over the centuries the castle estate turned hands over 4 times and waned in upkeep; as it survived a 1798 rebellion which burned the chapel that was adjacent to the castle; saw the crash of the linen industry in the early 20th century along with political and religious unrest; and, it was not until Christopher Brooke and his family inherited Galgorm Castle in the 1980’s that the castle estate came alive again. The Brooke family set about the huge task to repair and renovate the castle and grounds, and continue to update the grounds to this day. The Galgorm Castle is situated on 245 acres is perched on a hill above the 7,000 plus yards Simon Gidman design golf course. The castle overlooks the tenth green and its majestic presence is seen at the fifth and eighth greens, which adds to the golfing experience.
Galgorm Castle Golf Club, host to the 2016 Northern Ireland Open, is a 7,000 plus yards championship parkland golf course built in 1997, boasting a membership of 600, with a course of heavy rough, lush trees and the River Maine as added trouble. Prior to golf play, take the time to view the interactive course guide on the Galgorm website, as it provides an aerial view of each hole. Mr. Phil Collins, Head Professional will be happy to set you up with a caddy to help you navigate the course. Don’t let the first hole set your golf game, as this 469 yard Par 4 “L” shaped hole is heavily guarded on both sides of the fairway with rough and trees, bunkers to the right on the approach to the green, with great risk to the long hitter. Advice is to stay left, even on the green, as it slopes left to right. Water hazards make its presence on hole 3 and then throughout until 16. Signature hole 13th hole Par 4 at 446 yards has been transformed and is a very daunting hole, as described by Mr. Collins, “This hole has had fantastic changes with a new tee box 40 yards further back and towards the River Maine. The bank on the right side has been lowered so players have a full view up the river.” His advice is to hit your tee shot toward the left to stay in the fairway near the rough and trees with a straight forward approach with mid iron to the green. He states, “The green is protected with two bunkers at the front left and the green slopes from back to front with water lurking just over the back of the green. Look left of the green and you will see Slemish Mountain in the distance.” Despite the parkland design, I donated 8 balls to this lovely course. For much needed rest, relax at the Thermal Village in the Spa located at the Galgorm Castle 170 room luxury resort. The resort was originally built in 1845 by the Fenaghy’s. In 1857, the original structure was demolished and rebuilt by William Young. There have been more additions to the resort over the years, including the Thermal Village which houses the Celtic Sauna, Riverside Tubs, the River House, and the Snow Cabin, with views of the River Maine and is an experience of the four elements of nature – the earth, water, fire and air.
More beauty of the Emerald isle lie ahead with a drive through the countryside of the County of Atrim to the lovely seaside village of Portrush. A coastline drive via Ballycastle , reveals boundless scenery of lush valleys to stunning rocky cliffs down to Ballintoy Harbour and beach which is the backdrop to scenes in the Game of Thrones. A must see and top recommendation from longtime Northern Ireland resident and tour guide, Ken McElroy, is the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge that spans rocky jutting masses from the water with views of Rathlin Island, which you can ferry to across the Rathlin Sound. Continue north past Whitepark Bay to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Giant Causeway, a 60 million-year-old molten lava polygonal column structural erecting out of the sea, and is Northern Ireland’s top visitor attraction. Beyond the landmark, perched on the rocky cliffs above the North Atlantic Ocean, are the ruins of the medieval 17th century Dunluce Castle which is a nice photo opportunity. Another must stop is the 400 year old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, which created the first Irish whiskeys in Ireland and is the oldest working whiskey distillery. Experienced guides will take you through the heart of the distillery then enjoy a Bushmills whiskey to taste. Mr. McElroy says, “For the whole experience stay at the Bushmills Inn, as it is centrally located to tour attractions, golf, and the 1600’s built Inn holds a secret library, gas lit lamps in the bar, with a maze of halls leading to cozy accommodations, sitting rooms and still room cinema. I also highly recommend dining at The Bushmills Inn restaurant, as locally caught fish, farm fresh produce and Ulster prime beef are regular offerings on their menu.”
Golf one of the oldest courses and hidden gem, the Royal Portrush Golf Club, which is rich with quite an historic timeline: 1888 creation of the “Country Club” nine-hole course ; 1892 renamed the Royal Country Club as the Duke of York was its patron; 1895 renamed the Royal Portrush Golf Club, as the Prince of Wales (later crowned King Edward VII) was a patron, was the first to host professional tournaments in Ireland; 1907 Irish Professional Open Championship; 1929 Harry Colts lays plans for the Dunluce Links Course; from 1930 to present day is host to many Irish Opens, Senior British Open; and, future host to the Open CHampionship in 2019. Royal Portrush offers two Harry Colt designed 18-hole golf courses, Dunluce Links Championship – one of the longest at 7,143 yards and Riverwalk – 6,304 yards. Colt design utilized the natural coastal dune terrain sculpting the links land with strategically placed bunkers, tee boxes and greens to challenge all levels of player. The Dunluce course, boasts spectacular views, begins straight away and turns toward the coastline, while the valley course runs below and parallel to holes 15, 16 and present day 17. (Holes 7 and 9 are temporarily switched during the construction of the new tunnel that will lead to the new holes for the 2019 Irish Open.) This links course winds through ups and downs of dune hills, fairways are built with many natural undulations and lined with tall grasses, bumpy fast greens, wild Irish rose bushes grow among course fairways, and wind (and rain) can be an unseen factor. All holes are named with descriptions. Hole 2, named Giants Grave, is 528 yards at the back tee, with bunkers smartly placed at 240 thru 280 yards to the left and right, and as the fairway bends to the left another set of three very deep bunkers (or graves) are to the left below the green with the pin above. Most greens have been built up with bumps, and this one is no exception. One of the main signature holes is #14, called Calamity, which is a mere Par 3 set alongside right to a steep embankment that leads to the river course below. Pause for a moment at the tee box, as you may be able to see Scotland on a clear day. From tee box over a very narrow fairway flanked by long grasses to pin is 210 yards with heavy rough to the right side. Either hit with a lot of club or play it safe with a short accurate drive to the right and short iron up to the green. An errant drive left will surely lead to a ball donation to the cliff/canyon terrain. Present Hole 17 a Par 5 / 581 yards named Glenarm, is most notable for the Big Nellie bunker of 50 feet high located on the ride side of the fairway at 263 yards. It is wise to drive straight as right is tall grass bushes. Ideal landing is at 278 yards to the left. Approach to the green is three deep bunkers and at the base along with two to the right of the green, as if Big Nellie is not enough! The fairway also has deep seated rolling uneven undulations for further challenge. Once on the green keep tight to avoid rolling into brush and/or bunkers. Remember the Irish rose bushes are abundant, therefore errant ball retrieval can be hazardously thorny. To make golf play more enjoyable, hire a caddy to assist in advice and maneuvering through the course.
A short drive north of Portrush, through seaside Portstewart town, filled with shops and a seaside carnival park will lead you to Portstewart Golf Club. Of high recommendation is to lunch at Harry’s Shack on the beach below the clubhouse. Fresh fish caught by local fisherman is regularly on the menu, and the restaurant can get quite busy, so plan on an early lunch. Like Royal Portrush, Portstewart golf dates back to 1894 as a nine-hole golf course with old course changes and expansion in 1912 and 1934 to a full 18 holes, 1907 marks the date for the Strand course, the Riverside course designed in the late 1980’s, and the building of the newer clubhouse in 1992. Portstewart Golf Club, with a membership of over 1,000, has hosted many tournaments and championships, which include the 1974 IPGA Championship, 2004 British Ladies Senior Championship, and will be the host to the 2017 Irish Open. Presently, two 18-hole golf courses occupy coastline dune land with the Strand Course, which is a championship 7,004 yard course is known for the “classic links ground” with unsuspecting bunkers, blind shots to the green, and rough that “swallow errant balls;” with the Riverside course (once known as Thistly Hollow) a 5,725 yard challenging course amid thistle type bushes. Most tee boxes are perched above fairways, with much walking up and down the dune hills. It is also recommended to hire a caddy to pull the trolley, but more importantly guide in shot placement. The Strand Course is famous for the finest opening hole in Northern Ireland golf, Hole 1 named Tubber Patrick which is a Par 4 at 427 yards, with a tee box at the top of a hill which looks out to the course below and great blue Atlantic out to the right. Nerves may kick in prior to teeing off, but a drive left center to land on the narrow fairway below will line a long iron drive of 225 toward the green, keeping in mind tall rough covered hilly dunes line the fairway. Bump up on the green with consistent momentum will take the ball to the pin. Greens are a bit “grabby” so a firm shot to the pin is advised. “Thistly Hollow”, Hole 4, a Par 5 at 538 yards, named for the thistle bushes that grow among the hole, and should alert for consequential errant balls. A long drive is recommended at 257 yards left center, with fairway wood drive an additional 180 yards for a high iron to the green. This hole is flanked by much rough and bunkers to the lower right of the green. Larkhill, ninth hole is a 378 Par 4, which large grass bunker “holes” shy of 120 yards. Keep tee box drive left center. Many mounds carpet the fairway uphill with a textured, bumpy green to pin. The last 4 holes provide views of the ocean, with a multi- bunkered Hole 15 “Articlave” Par 3 at 168 yards. 5 bunkers surround the green, with bumps on the green coinciding with the bunkers. According to Caddymaster Derek Sweetnam, member since 1970 and Caddymaster for 5 years, “Signature hole is the 17th, a tough Par four, index 2. Even a good drive leaves work to do in that the second is target golf to a platform green with huge run off to the front and left. Missing right is into severely undulating rough. The difficulty of the hole is exemplified by the fact that even on a links course there is no bunker on this hole. It is also interesting to note the 1st, 5th, 7th and 9th also have no bunkers.”
Finish your golf vacation with travel back to Belfast for a day tour of Belfast Castle and over 200 walking trails then take a train back to Dublin for a couple days to tour the center city with the Hop On -Hop Off tour bus. Stay near Trinity College, at the centrally located 4-Star Brooks Hotel, also near Temple Bar, cobblestone streets lined with pubs, eateries, and interesting shops. Top recommendations include walking to Dublin Castle, take the bus to Trinity College to tour the Library (over 200,000 books) and view the Book of Kells, which dates back 1,000 years. Stop off at St. Patrick’s Church to tour the lush grounds. Christ Church Dublin is magnificent and self tours of the majestic cathedral and crypt will not disappoint. The original structure was built in 1030 however it was devastated in 1562 when the roof collapsed placing the cathedral in ruins. Rebuilt in the 1800’s, restoration of stone work of the massive crypt, along with further roof repair, heating and lighting in 1997, saved this 12th century church from complete eradication. Finally, end the day with a much needed pint, and tour at the Guinness Storehouse. It is very enlightening and worth the time and fee, as it includes interactive displays of documentaries; pictorials; restaurant; river dance demonstration; education on how to pour a pint; and, a ticket for a pint of Guinness redeemable at the Gravity Bar, which offers a 360 degree view of Dublin. If time permits, visit the Museum of Modern Art, National Museum, the Dublin Zoo at Phoenix Park, and Old Jameson Distillery (reservations are highly recommended), all of which are on the Green route of the Hop On Hop Off bus tour.
For information go to: www.tourismni.com,www.discovernorthernireland.com, www.galgorm.com, www.galgormcastle.com, www.bushmillsinn.com, www.royalportrushgolfclub.com, www.portstewartgc.co.uk, www.visitdublin.com, www.united.com.
Recommendations: Pack for all weather; review golf dress/etiquette for each club; hire a caddy (tip matches fee); golf club rentals are available; and, make reservations and tee times in advance.