Northern Ireland golf is probably best known for its two 'jewels in the crown' courses of Royal Portrush and Portstewart but wherever you venture won't stray too far wrong in a landscape of lakes and misty mountains. Having seen a resurgence amoungst young player over the recent years, thanks in no small part to the success of local golfing hero Rory McIlroy, while always having a strong following from foreign visitors, Northern Ireland golf is known for its challenging golf played out on a canvas of spectacular vistas.
Golf has been played at Royal Portrush since 1888, but it was in 1947 that Harry Colt's 18-hole masterpiece was unveiled. It has been know ever since as the Dunluce Links. Like all great links courses, the Dunluce takes masterful advantage of an undulating coastal landscape with well-placed bunkers and merciless rough. The greens, among the best in the world, permit no lapses in concentration. Also typical of links courses is the wind and unpredictable weather. But Royal Portrush remains a fair test of the game for mid-level golfers to world-class pros. The recent addition of two new holes (7th and 8th) has taken the Dunluce to the next level and was rewarded in 2019 with the much-anticipated return of The Open. The Dunluce's sister-course, The Valley Course, would rank as a top-flight championship course if it were situated anywhere in the world but immediately next to the Dunluce.
The third part of the trinity of Northern Irish Golf, Castlerock thoroughly deserves its place alongside Royal Portrush and Portstewart. Just three miles away as the crow flies, the latter's clubhouse can actually be seen from the 19th hole at Castlerock, although a 30-minute drive is required to get there via the twisting country roads of this charming coastal region. Castlerock is famed for its narrow fairways, its blind shots, its deep rough and its high sandhills. Combined with the persistently re-emerging presence of a stream throughout the course, these manifold hazards make the 18-hole championship Mussenden Course a real test for any golfer. While you may travel to this region to visit Royal Portrush and Portstewart, you would be a fool to leave without stopping at Castlerock.
One of three fine courses at Portstewart, The Strand course offers one of the most spectacular opening nines in all of world golf. The course was originally built by Willie Park Jr in 1894 and underwent later alterations under the supervision of Des Griffin. But much of what is played today is credited to an impressive 1990 overhaul. This was undertaken not by a celebrity architect or household name, but by three local men who knew the course best - the club secretary, the groundskeeper and a local school teacher. The results are a Mecca for serious golfers looking to test their links game and, for visiting any player, a serious challenge awaits.
With so many top-flight links courses in the region, Ardglass might not commonly be a tourist's first choice destination in Northern Ireland. But anyone venturing to Royal County Down, just a few miles along the coast, would be foolish not to make the detour to a course that is a challenging but fair test to players of all abilities. As with most Irish links courses, a clear day promises incredible views and, to the east, The Isle of Man adorns the vast expanse of the Irish sea. Allow time to enjoy a visit to the clubhouse which is a fourteenth-century castle, once home of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare.
Although the course will be busy in summer, the blooming heather and gorse during the peak season make Royal County Down one of the most beautiful places to play golf anywhere on the Island of Ireland. Old Tom Morris was paid four gold guineas to build the original course in 1889 before Harry Vardon, two decades later, established what golfers enjoy today. With such a vintage, this is unsurprisingly a very traditional links with natural bunkers, blind tee shots and obscured holes on approach. That might not be to everyone's taste. But visitors from across the pond have plenty of modern courses to choose from at home in the USA. Those travelling to Ireland to experience the traditional game of the Old World should certainly make the trip to this fine example of just that.