There’s an old adage when it comes to golf course design: It’s not so much a rule as it is a general philosophy, which suggests that a golf course’s opening hole should be viewed as a “gentle handshake.” In other words, it should be a welcoming start to a golfer’s round; one that allows players the chance to ease into their day on the course without needing to hit intimidating shots or manage high levels of stress. Plenty of course architects have followed this general premise for more than a century.
In that moment, I realized that this was going to be a round of golf unlike any I had ever played.
A golfing getaway to Northern Ireland, as I discovered — particularly one scheduled late into the season — doesn’t always subscribe to such an ideology. When I arrived at Ardglass Golf Club in mid-October, for example, Mother Nature chose to not greet me with a gentle handshake. Instead, she welcomed me to the country’s northeastern coast with a brisk slap across the face.
The day was going to be windy. That much I knew in advance. Yet, weather forecasts had predicted the most blustery conditions would sweep across the northeastern corner of Ireland in the morning. The fact that I was teeing off just before 2 o’clock in the afternoon gave me hope that the worst of it would blow past prior to me standing on the first tee. Even the two-hour drive from Dublin Airport that morning — unnerving as it was at first, given the necessary adjustments for driving on the left-hand side of the road — made me optimistic, as a rainbow appeared while I made my way north up the M1.
When I arrived at the club, I first checked in at the pro shop, then attempted to glean a bit of insider knowledge about the course. The response I received from Adam Cathers, the club’s assistant golf professional, however, was not what I expected.
“You won’t see any flags on the greens,” he began.
The puzzled look on my face prompted him to explain.
“We’ve taken the flagsticks out of the holes and laid them down on the green near where the holes are cut,” he continued. “With the wind being so strong, if we left the flagsticks in the holes, they’d snap in half.”
In that moment, I realized that this was going to be a round of golf unlike any I had ever played.
“One thing that we’re always guaranteed of here is the wind,” Andrew Ferguson, the head professional at Royal Belfast Golf Club, told me later on during my trip. “The breeze will always be blowing, even on a beautiful summer day. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ve always got the wind to deal with, but the wind is what makes it more interesting, because the golf course plays different every single day.”
To be fair, a typical windy day in Ireland is not the windy day that greeted me in October. Paul Vaughan, Ardglass’ director of golf, estimated that there might be a dozen days a year when the conditions are that extreme. Nevertheless, in Ireland — even when the weather approaches tropical stormlike conditions — the band plays on. Only in this case, the band is a small collective of fanatical golfers who will tee it up no matter the circumstances.
Coincidentally, the first hole at Ardglass is anything but a gentle handshake — even in benign conditions — which partially reflects the fact that for more than a century, it was the club’s members who conceived and expanded the golf course, taking it from a 7-hole layout in 1896 to a full 18 holes sometime during the 1970s and routinely modifying it over several decades thereafter. “It’s a daunting tee shot and a daunting second shot,” Vaughan says of the club’s opening par 4, “and that’s your first hole of the day.”
Playing 335 yards from the back tees — which traverse a modest 6,268 yards in total — the opening hole is one where I might normally hit a hybrid or, at most, a fairway wood off the tee. But with a gale-force headwind to deal with, I pulled my driver from my bag, and it’s a good thing that I did. After hitting a strong opening drive over a rocky cove that bisects the teeing ground and the fairway, I discovered that my ball had safely landed on the short grass, though just barely. A drive that would normally travel 275 yards barely covered 200. Checking the weather app on my phone, it all made sense. The wind was blowing a steady 30 to 35 mph at that moment, with gusts surpassing 50 mph.
After five holes, my bag was already three golf balls lighter, but I ventured on undeterred. Not because I had just flown almost 3,000 miles to be there — although I had — but because the course and its setting make it impossible to turn away. Ardglass, I quickly discovered, delivers all of the thrills that avid golfers are searching for when they envision a classic links course. There’s gorse and heather, bulbous mounds, precarious bunkers, blind shots, windswept dunes and — most important — firm and fast fairways.
Ardglass, I quickly discovered, delivers all of the thrills that avid golfers are searching for when they envision a classic links course.
Two days later, I stood on the first tee at Royal Belfast Golf Club — the oldest golf club in all of Ireland (circa 1881) — decked out in rain gear but otherwise comfortable despite the steady precipitation. The day reminded me why the appropriate outerwear is so important for a golfing getaway across the pond. But as Ferguson shared, many travelers come prepared (and not just with the necessary gear). “We had visitors near the end of the season,” he recalled, “who showed up to play in the rain and said, ‘Well, we didn’t come to Ireland to play golf in the sun.’ ”
On the day I was there, the historic course played soft and slow given the conditions, which is a stark contrast to how the Harry Colt-designed layout usually plays. In particular, Royal Belfast’s contoured greens ordinarily produce quick and challenging putts. “In the summer, the course becomes really fast and firm,” says Ferguson, “so off the tee the ball just runs.”
The only running that occurred during my round in October took the form of me scampering back to my rental car in the parking lot to throw my head covers in the trunk, lest they remain waterlogged for the rest of my trip.
“Even though it plays shorter because of the run,” Ferguson continues, “the course becomes even more difficult [in the summer] because you’ve got the really firm and fast greens. I’ve seen some very good players get really frustrated just because they can’t get the hang of the greens.”
While Mother Nature dished out some challenging conditions for those two rounds, the week wasn’t without its bright spots. Sandwiched between my visits to Ardglass and Royal Belfast was a stop at Royal County Down Golf Club, with a midmorning round played in moderate temperatures under blue skies. The famous (and historic) golf course lived up to its reputation as one of the world’s top-ranked layouts. There, on the shores of Dundrum Bay and practically in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne, golfers will contend with rugged terrain, treacherous bunkers rimmed with dense marram grasses and thick swaths of heather, and they’ll face at least a half dozen blind shots as they make their way around the 7,200-yard layout.
While many course raters opine that Royal County Down’s front nine is one of the best — perhaps the best — in the world, an equal number of well-traveled experts would bestow that honor on the front nine of Portstewart Golf Club. Located 74 miles away on the north coast of Ireland, the host course of the 2017 Irish Open delivers a memorable series of holes played through, around and over rugged, windswept dunes. The opening nine sets a high bar for what golfers will expect from the back, and while that inward series of holes comes up a bit short by comparison — two of the nine, holes 16 and 18, are underwhelming both for their design and the views that they offer — the overall experience is as authentic a round of links golf as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Of course, you need only travel four miles to the east (as the crow flies) to Royal Portrush Golf Club, site of the 2019 Open Championship and the forthcoming 2025 Open Championship, for more of the same, albeit with a bit more gravitas given the club’s major championship pedigree. However, just two miles to the west of Portstewart and across the River Bann rests Castlerock Golf Club, a wonderful course that might be described as a hidden gem if only because the two neighboring courses, particularly Royal Portrush, share some of the same coastline and steal most of the headlines for championship golf in the area. Yet, in the estimation of Bert McKay, Castlerock’s general manager, that shared DNA injects Castlerock with added credibility. “Yes, you’re coming to play Royal Portrush,” he says. “But it’s built on the same terrain as Portstewart and as Castlerock, and you can have just as much fun on those other two golf courses.”
A Northern Ireland getaway is about more than just world-class golf. Luxurious accommodations not only abound, they take various forms. The award for the country’s most lavish — and certainly the grandest — hotel goes to the Slieve Donard. Set along the shore of the Irish Sea in Newcastle, the 181-room property (outfitted with six additional suites) is only 30 minutes away from Ardglass Golf Club. However, the real allure of its location is its proximity to Royal County Down. Stepping out the back door of the hotel, guests can walk to the front door of the celebrated golf course’s clubhouse in less than five minutes.
Originally built by the Belfast and County Down Railway, the Slieve Donard was born to be a holiday destination for the affluent rail passenger. Today, its future is even brighter, as the property was recently acquired by AJ Capital Partners and, following a comprehensive renovation, it will soon be reborn as a destination golf hotel under the Marine & Lawn brand.
If you’re looking for a more intimate place to stay, the Blackrock House in Portrush offers comfortable, understated luxury with easy drives of less than 30 minutes to all three of the links courses set along the north shore. In fact, Portstewart and Royal Portrush are accessible in nine and five minutes, respectively. The four-guestroom bed-and-breakfast also offers guests easy, walkable access to the restaurants and pubs located along Portrush Harbour via a scenic beachfront promenade.
Travelers who like the idea of making Belfast their home base will find upscale accommodations in a unique setting at the Titanic Hotel Belfast. Set within the former headquarters of the Harland & Wolff Company, which designed every cruising vessel within the White Star Line fleet, the 119-room hotel features more than 500 pieces of artwork and historical photographs on display. Guided historical tours are also available to the outside public, proving that the boutique hotel wears two hats and often doubles as a museum.
Speaking of experiences, Titanic Belfast, located just across the street from the hotel, provides visitors with a thorough glimpse into the past, back to a time when shipbuilding served as a primary industry for the city of Belfast. However, travelers who are more interested in the city’s robust industries of the present — especially those who are passionate Game of Thrones fans — will want to take the Game of Thrones Studio Tour. Set in Bainbridge, a 24-mile shuttle ride southwest of downtown Belfast, the modern-day museum features iconic sets from the show, as well as props and weapons, costumes and other special effects and interactive exhibits. After all, the series was filmed in Northern Ireland — at Titanic Studios just down the street from the Titanic Hotel, and also at numerous scenic spots scattered around the countryside.
Travelers need not commit to any number of film location tours for Game of Thrones to understand why Northern Ireland served as the ideal filming site for such a fantastical world. Instead, those travelers can simply visit some of Northern Ireland’s natural UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast and Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne (protected ruins of an 18th-century coastal estate and mansion), which are mesmerizing in their own right.
Those who are passionate Game of Thrones fans will want to take the Game of Thrones Studio Tour.
But a visit to Northern Ireland wouldn’t feel complete without paying some attention to the fruits of the country’s brewing and distilling efforts. A guided tour of the Bushmills distillery — the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world — provides visitors with a comprehensive journey through the whiskey-making process. Although the tour itself isn’t unlike guided tours at most other whiskey distilleries, being on the grounds at one with such a storied history is a worthwhile endeavor.
And then there are the pubs. The Cathedral Quarter of Belfast alone is home to almost 20 drinking establishments, many distinctive in their ambiance or their focus. The Spaniard, for example, is dedicated largely to rum, while Harp Bar, with its whiskey and beer advertising décor, is as quintessential an Irish pub as you’ll find. But for a truly unique drinking experience in Belfast, don’t overlook The Sunflower, perhaps the last pub in the city with an exterior cage encompassing the front door, which serves as a reminder of the troubles that plagued the city for the better part of three decades and the defenses that were established to protect against Molotov cocktails. It’s not the cage that makes a pint or dram at The Sunflower unique. Instead, it’s the empty spirit bottles that serve as candleholders and, more specifically, the tall, white wax candles that burn all night long at each table.
A visit to Portrush would be similarly incomplete without a pint or a dram at the Harbour Bar. There, the establishment’s unofficial bar manager, Willie Gregg, has converted the front room of the pub into a shrine of golfing memorabilia — artifacts mostly connected to native Irishmen who have succeeded on tour or the visiting players who have fallen in love with the local courses. The bar is a reminder of the significant role that golf holds for Northern Ireland’s culture and also its current economy.
“Golf in Northern Ireland is really buzzing,” Vaughan declares. “In this northeast corner, there’s an awful lot to experience. But it’s the people and the experiences that those people create which is the big draw. That’s what makes visitors want to come back and also tell their friends about it.”
“A full experience with the local caddies; being in the local bars, tasting the food and the beer; experiencing the culture and getting that Irish hospitality, that’s what makes it a bucket list trip.”
McKay concurs. “Yes, you have an Open Championship venue, a top-three course in the world, and one of the best coastlines for links golf,” he says, referencing Royal Portrush. “But getting a full experience with the local caddies; being in the local bars, tasting the food and the beer; experiencing the culture and getting that Irish hospitality, that’s what makes it a bucket list trip.
“You’re not coming here for the weather,” he continues. “You’re coming here to play a style of golf that you can’t play anywhere else in the world.”
Just don’t forget your rain gear.
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