Heavenly Golf on Earth in Northern Ireland

Heavenly Golf on Earth in Northern Ireland
In 2010, Graeme McDowell got the ball rolling -- becoming the first European to win the US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 with a solid performance at legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links. In 2011 fellow countryman Rory McIlroy took things even further -- not only adding his name to the US Open trophy but breaking the 72-hole record and winning the event by eight strokes -- the greatest margin since Tiger Woods 15-stroke win in 2000. Just one month later Ulsterman Darren Clarke added his name to the major championship honor roll - winning The Open Championship at Royal St. George's.

Golf's cognoscenti have long been aware of Northern Ireland's dynamic duo of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down Golf Clubs. But it was the top tier play of these three men that elevated not only their own stature -- with McIlroy now firmly in place as the game's number one ranked player -- but also in reintroducing Northern Ireland as a must visit golf location -- home to two of the world's great golf clubs.

Years ago many might have winced at the prospect of a visit
to Northern Ireland. The general news then was of strife -- "the troubles" -- as locals called the ongoing skirmishes. That's changed dramatically. To fully appreciate the world class skills of Messrs. McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke one must walk the hallowed grounds of Portrush and County Down -- where the magical mixture of land and sea all come together in a glorious intersection. Irish golf eyes have been rightly smiling for quite some time -- justifiably so.

PortrushAlthough not yet confirmed it appears likely the 2019 Open Championship will return to Royal Portrush -- only the 2nd time the event has ventured outside Scotland and England.

ROYAL PORTRUSH GOLF CLUB

Upon arriving in Belfast I decided my first round would be at Royal Portrush Golf Club -- a 36-hole facility located in County Antrim and situated adjacent to the wild and unpredictable North Atlantic. Royal Portrush is the only club to have hosted The Open Championship outside of Scotland and England -- getting the honors in 1951 with the event played on its renown Dunluce Course -- aptly named for the castle that bears the same name and which you pass when driving on the A2 coastal road.

Belfast is the largest city in Northern Ireland but the urban qualities soon faded from view as I made my way through rural lands broken up every now and then by quaint small villages.

A2 is not as famous as 17-mile-drive -- the enchanting serpentine road that provides mesmerizing views of Pebble Beach and all the associated elements of the stellar California coastline. However, 17-mile-drive charges a toll for the privilege -- A2 is free and provides a fantastic lead in for the golf to come. Expect a drive time of no more than 90 minutes to get from Belfast to Portrush.

My first glimpse of Royal Portrush came from a few miles away. A2 slides up and down through the countryside weaving its way along the coast. In the nearby distance I could see closely mown cuts of grass -- verdant emerald fingers etched into the terrain with bordering dunes serving as ideal frame for a golf canvass. My pulse picked up knowing full well the land ahead was my ultimate destination.

In my experiences in assessing golf courses I have come to the belief quality land makes up no less than 60% of the total equation. Nothing man has done can ever surpass Mother Nature and when top tier designs are blessed with a superior site the net outcomes can be striking so long as the chosen architect knows how to blend the attributes of the land and do so in a natural way that compliments what was there previously. After having quality land -- course routing and requisite dexterity with all the clubs are the final two determinants. Certainly great golf can be found on average terrain -- but that's more exception than rule.

Portrush was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1888. The original course started as nine holes on property slightly south and west of where the present course is located today. In 1929, the renowned architect Harry S. Colt -- laid out the two courses one sees today -- Dunluce and Valley. Colt was presented with a rugged property -- and he smartly created holes that constantly move in one direction or the other -- starting at the 2nd through the 16th on Dunluce. Sameness is not on the menu here. Adjustments by the player are an absolute must -- calculating terrain changes and the ever changing weather conditions where major winds gusts are far from uncommon. For the player to score well you best avoid steering the long shot. An apt quote from Clint Eastwood in one of his Dirty Harry movies clearly applies -- "A man's got to know his limitations."

With the exception of the final two holes -- the player remains in the dunes setting. Being able to successfully find fairways is the ultimate test. The fairways are flanked by deep grass defying any serious attempt at escape. Unfortunately, the course would likely be better served with a bit less hay-like grass just off many of the fairways. No question -- for the player struggling with crooked driving and facing a procession of lost balls the round can be a long and trying one. A bit more width and less hay-like grass so closely near the fairways would not in any way take away from the qualities of the course. The reputation of Dunluce is secure enough and need not have the added emphasis of eternal damnation since recovery is part of the game. Dunluce provides precious little in this regard.

DunluceThe famed Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush is perched adjacent to the always unpredictable North Atlantic and set within dunes land second to none.

Colt bolstered the design with a splendid array of putting surfaces -- always protected in one form or another and smartly angled to provide and reject plays unless situated in the proper area of the fairway. A great example is the superb long par-4 4th where a natural mound protects a good portion of the green. Overall, the design is seamless -- akin to the choreography of fine dancers -- one move blends into the next.

Portrush staged the 2012 Irish Open and it was a major success -- overall crowd totals were in excess of 130,000 for the week -- the largest ever turnout for a European Tour event. Coupled with the superlative play of McIroy, McDowell and Clarke -- there's been considerable push for Dunluce to once again host The Open Championship. A final decision by the sponsoring R&A has yet to be made but it appears likely the 2019 calendar spot will mark the event's return to Northern Ireland. Members of Portrush overwhelmingly voted to make this previous long shot situation into a near certain reality.

McIlroy holds the course record -- an amazing 61 scored as a 16-year-old in 2005. However, with the staging of The Open there will be likely changes. Total length of Dunluce will likely increase substantially -- projected to 7,337 yards with a par of 71.The existing 17th and 18th holes on Dunluce will be used as staging areas for various tents and two holes will be taken out of the Valley course with a total of three new holes being created. If all comes to pass as planned The Open Championship will be the largest sporting event ever held in Northern Ireland.

Be sure to play the Valley Course when at Portrush. It is set below the dunes and while not as rigorous as its big brother the Colt influence is certainly present. Best of all, the driving rigors encountered on Dunluce are far less daunting and will ease your golf ball budget.

Before you depart introduce yourself to the Club Secretary. If ever the phrase, "the best man for the job is a woman," applies -- it most certainly does for Wilma Erskine. For 22+ years Wilma has been the day-to-day point person at Portrush. A warm welcome is always assured -- shepherding your day with conviviality and a welcome return at the 19th hole is Irish hospitality at its finest.

ROYAL PORTRUSH GOLF CLUB
Opened: May 1888
Architect of both present courses - Harry S. Colt
18-holes / Dunluce Course
7,143 Yards / Par-72 - 74.6 CR & 137 SL
18-hole / Valley Course
6,304 Yards / Par-70
www.royalportrushgolfclub.com

Royal County DownThe intersection of Dundrum Bay and the Mountain of Mourne in the nearby distance make for a golf adventure at Royal County Down's Championship Links that is beyond all others.

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN GOLF CLUB

Tucked out of view as you enter the coastal town of Newcastle is without serious argument one of the ten finest golf clubs in all the world -- Royal County Down Golf Club. Formed in 1889, County Down was the first 18-hole course on property designed by the legendary Old Tom Morris. That original effort would soon be altered by the autocratic "Convenor of the Greens," -- George Coombe.

Even with those efforts the club wisely opted to hire Harry S. Colt in the 1920's -- the same man responsible for the final product at Royal Portrush. Once again Colt excelled in tying together all of the loose ends -- adding the superb par-3 4th and merging two lack luster holes into what is today the 9th hole.

County Down possesses both internal and external beauty. If one is blessed with a fine day of weather -- never a certainty in Northern Ireland by any means -- the juxtaposition of the course adjacent to Dundrum Bay to the east with the Mountains of Mourne serving as a counterpoint to the west is truly awe inspiring.

And then there is the land the course occupies. The fairways are slotted wonderfully with grass covered dunes and some of the most natural looking bunkers one can ever envision - topped to their sides with thick waving sea grasses meant to punish in no uncertain terms the hapless who invade their domain. County Down, unlike Dunluce at Portrush, does provide sufficient landing areas off the tee but the eye can play cruel tricks on the golfer who lacks faith in one's swing. Hit one poor shot and the ever growing sense of panic can paralyze all but the steadiest of swings. However, there is nothing more glorious than to strike the shot and reap the reward you've earned.

The outward half of holes is without question among the finest in all of golf -- no Irish blarney -- unquestionably the real McCoy. The opening hole par-5 slides ever so gently to the left in the drive zone -- the longest of hitters can possibly go for the green in two blows but risks are all around for the slightest of misplays.

Royal County Down golf clubPhoto ©Aidan Bradley. The Championship Links at Royal County Down has consistently been rated among the 10 finest golf clubs in the world for both its scenery and shotmaking elements.

The qualities of County Down accelerate in a big time way with the blind tee shot at the 2nd. Standing on the tee and feeling the sea breeze off Dundrum Bay is clearly an intoxicating tandem. The rest of the outward half only becomes more challenging -- the terrain magnifying the shotmaking requirements. You savor the utter joy when the perfect shot is played. You equally realize County Down suffers no fools and will just as quickly and with near certainty provide punishment that can be swift and ever final.

County Down provides no less than five tee blind tee shots -- meaning you cannot see the outcome of your shot as it crosses over a rise and settles out of view on the other side. Nothing makes the golfer's pulse beat with greater anxiety then the unknown. Truly a hole can only be "blind" the first time. However, having the confidence to play the shot that's called upon is what makes County Down the test that it is. Throw in the fickle weather and varying wind velocities and the golfer must apply the highest of skills -- both mentally and physically.

The outward half concludes with one of golf's picturesque and demanding holes. The tee shot is blind and the hole turns left. As you ascend the hill your eyes are overwhelmed with the balance of the hole to be played -- the steeple of the Slieve Donnard Hotel in the immediate background and the Mountains of Mourne in the distance nearby.

The inner half of holes cannot maintain the momentum the front nine provides. It's a good test but lacking in the terrain quality and the ending hole is more about overkill with an endless array of bunkers. Nonetheless, the two nines add up to an incredible adventure which is considerably bolstered by the impeccable turf quality the course routinely provides now.

There is also a companion course -- Annesley Links -- which is far shorter and less rigorous but still worth playing to get the golf muscles stretched for the big show next door.

County Down will gain plenty of eyeballs when it hosts the Irish Open in late May -- exposing via television many of the glories it provides. No doubt a whole new generation of professional golfers will come to appreciate what this wonderful layout provides during the competition.

McIlroy has stated County Down is his personal favorite course in the world -- I am sure there are plenty of others who after playing this grand gem will say no less.

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN GOLF CLUB
Newcastle / County Down
Opened 1889 - designed by Old Tom Morris with later modifications from the likes of George Combe, Harry Vardon and the renowned architect Harry S. Colt playing a central role when hired in 1926.
18-holes / Championship Links - 7,186 Yards, Par-71, 75 CR, 142 SL
18-holes / Annesley Links - 4,617 Yards, Par-66
www.royalcountydown.org

PLACES TO STAY ...

Slieve Donard exteriorAfter a day of golf at County Down next door one can truly unwind with all the elements and Irish hospitality found at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa.

SLIEVE DONARD RESORT and SPA, www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa

The ultimate visit to County Down includes both golf on the Championship Links and a stay right next door at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. This perfectly placed Victorian mansion has 181 rooms and is part of the Hastings Hotel chain.

I stayed at Slieve Donard years ago during my first golfing visit to County Down and at that time it was more in tune with the past - more relic than real. That has changed considerably without sacrificing the majesty the building and locale provide.

Slieve Donard diningFine dining is on the agenda when staying at Slieve Donard.

The staff keeps a mindful eye on all the noteworthy details -- attentive, pleasant and utterly professional is the agenda at all times. The spa is spread out on two floors and has all the elements in providing total comfort and recharging batteries in need of pampering. Food quality can vary at times but in my experiences it has been solid -- be sure to order any of the fish related items as they generally are of high quality. Be sure to enjoy afternoon tea -- mingling with other guests and taking in the views of the sea and Mountains of Mourne. Summer periods can be quite busy and it pays to reserve considerably in advance in order to secure your desired dates when visiting.

Europa Hotel facadeThe Europa Hotel is ideally situated in the heart of Belfast City

EUROPA HOTEL / BELFAST, www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast/

Pre-conceived notions can often form the outline for any visit and my initial thoughts on staying in Belfast were erroneously formed by images of "the troubles" from years ago. My ignorance was completely misplaced as Northern Ireland's capital and largest city is teeming with vigor.

The Europa Hotel is located in the heart of the core downtown area and for many the tagline of "most bombed hotel" can be an issue. Fret not. The 27 incidents happened during a different time under far different circumstances. The hotel has hosted a number of key dignitaries including President Bill Clinton when he visited Belfast in 1995 and 1998.

Europa Hotel guestroomOld world charm intersects with 21st century style at The Europa.

The Europa became part of the Hastings Hotel chain in August 1993 and major renovations and a concerted marketing effort was brought to bear. The results have proved quite successful.

For those coming to Northern Ireland the Europa can play a central spot for its utter convenience and top shelf attention to customer details. My visit to Portrush didn't provide me the time to check out various lodging locations close to the course so I opted to use The Europa as my prime base during my most recent stay.

The facility is well appointed and stylish -- 272 bedrooms -- providing for a wide swath of guests and their varying needs -- including all the central amenities. The Europa is sleek and stylish but still connected, at its core, to its Irish roots. The Europa is an ideal launching pad to enjoy what Belfast provides -- showing clear strides in fast forwarding into the future with great promise and excitement.

Slieve Donard locationTake in the sunset just outside of the Slieve Donard -- Dundrum Bay to one side and the Mountain of Mourne to the other. A fantastic end to any day.

IF YOU GO ...

*Be mindful of the local roads when driving – it is not uncommon for livestock to cross them at any point of the day. Northern Ireland does have higher speed motorways but the ride from Belfast to Portrush is about taking in the moment and scenery – not how fast one can get there.

• Irish weather is notoriously fickle -- be sure to bring a top shelf rain suit along with extra gloves and no less than two pairs of golf shoes. You may not need them but having them will add a great deal of comfort when Mother Nature is in a foul mood.

• Royal Portrush and Royal County Down are private clubs but unlike golf in America where the very elite clubs may ask for proof of one's blue blood -- golf in Northern Ireland and Ireland in general is much more welcoming. The key for playing is to contact the clubs directly -- often a note to the Secretary of the Clubs in concert with your handicap information gets the ball rolling. At County Down -- Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings and afternoons is available -- as is Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons. At Portrush the process begins with a two-month advance reservation and a non-refundable deposit of roughly $55 per player.

Tee times go quickly especially during the high time of summer. A variety of tour operators can also be quite helpful in securing access but dealing directly with the clubs can generally speed matters along.

• Given the inherent demands both Championship Courses present -- it pays to play the appropriate tees so as not to delay play behind you -- a big time no-no in Northern Ireland. Relish the challenge but pay heed to your time on the links as your day is balanced with the needs of others who are also playing. Gauge reality -- not fantasy when making the call on the tee boxes you and your group play.

• Since golf balls can be rather extensive in Ireland versus America -- it pays to bring a sufficient amount of ammo for the golf. Given the demands of the rough at both courses -- spraying the ball into never seen again areas can be an expensive undertaking.

• Take advantage of local knowledge and hire a seasoned caddie. Both clubs can easily provide a looper who is more than just a bag toter. It pays to have someone who can guide you around and eliminate the invariable guesswork that comes with playing such storied links courses.

• At the end of the round be sure to enjoy a libation at the 19th hole. There's nothing more invigorating that rehashing the round with a pint of Guinesss with some good local folks. Be sure to wear a sport jacket so you look like a gentleman and not a barbarian.

For additional information, please visit www.ireland.com

Top photo: Dunluce Links / Royal Portrush Golf Club