Playing with golf royalty in Northern Ireland

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September 10, 2010
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

David Brice, CEO of Golf International, reviews destinations on PGATOUR.COM that can be experienced by purchasing a package with Golf international, a leading provider of high-end international golf travel. For more information about this trip or any other of Golf International's destination trips, click here.

Of the more than 3,000 golf clubs that exist in the UK today, only 37 are permitted by the British Royal Family to carry the highly esteemed "Royal" title. In Britain, The Royal title is taken very seriously, given sparingly and only after much careful consideration. Play any British Royal and you are assured of an enjoyable, truly memorable and more often than not, thoroughly testing golf experience and Northern Ireland is home to three of the best.

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Royal Belfast Golf Club founded in 1881 was Ireland's very first.
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The great Harry S Colt was responsible for the design of today's Royal Belfast.
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Offering spectacular views across Lough Belfast Royal Belfast is a sparkler to behold and even better to play.
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Royal Portrush hosted The British Open in 1951.
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Sometimes frustrating and always challenging Royal Portrush will give you a round to remember.
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Royal Portrush - Ireland's No 2 Course - is temptingly close to Co Donegal.
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Royal County Down - Ranked among the world's Top Ten is a stunningly attractive layout.
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Perilous rough and ribbon-like fairways are only the beginning of Royal County Down's defense arsenal.
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Royal County Down - Perhaps the ultimate links test.
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Royal Belfast Golf Club, founded in 1881, is deserving of far more attention than is the case. This was the very first club to be established in Ireland and has played an important role in Ireland's golf development. During those early days, the fast rising interest in golf among the residents of Belfast caused the club to relocate on several occasions. A rapidly expanding membership and the encroaching growth of the city itself, eventually brought Royal Belfast to the suburb of Holywood in the early 1920's.

A beautiful 140-acre estate of wooded parkland, overlooking the shimmering waters of Lough Belfast was purchased from the widow of a former Lord Mayor of Belfast. The property came complete with the mansion house, previously the Lord Mayor's residence that would be converted into the most elegant clubhouse in Ireland. The new 18-hole course opened in 1925, an impressive design from the great Harry S. Colt, the same man who transformed Royal Portrush and Royal Dublin into the masterpieces they are today.

Royal Belfast enjoys a truly spectacular location that is among the most beautiful in the entire island. But more importantly, this is a good looker with substance where Colt has used the constant tilt of the land toward the lake to expert effect.

The routing of the course includes no less than 13 distinct changes of direction, presenting the need for the player to put more thought into play than might be customary. A good mixture of up and downhill holes just adds to the test, as does the mix of doglegs, right and left.

The higher parts of the layout are played along avenues of mature trees, where occasional glimpses of the lake can easily distract. Down along the waterfront, the course takes on a distinctly links-like character and the openness of the holes brings the breeze, sometimes quite stiff, blowing in from the lake comes into the constantly changing equation.

Step onto the first tee at Royal Belfast and its best to cast from your mind the fact that this is one of the best opening holes in the Emerald Isle! The test starts in earnest from the very beginning and never lets up.

Despite its exclusivity, Royal Belfast has a warm welcome for visitors and nowhere is this more apparent than in the understated elegance of the clubhouse that once was home to the Lord Mayor of the city. There's no better place to sit back with an after round glass of Bushmills and reflect on the true majesty of this course.

Royal Portrush Golf Club has the proud distinction of being the only club outside of Scotland and England to ever host The British Open, arguably golf's most prestigious event. Since 1860 when The Open was first held, only an elite group of 14 clubs have been awarded the honor and Royal Portrush joined their ranks in 1951, when Max Faulkner took the famous claret jug. Never before and never since has The Open strayed from the shores of Britain's mainland.

This fact places Royal Portrush in a class entirely of its own - but this club and its two courses, have never been accused of being ordinary. From its very inception in 1888, the distinguished Royal Portrush Golf Club has always been a little different from the rest.

Portrush received its Royal Moniker in 1892, only a brief 4 years after opening. Others have typically waited for a quarter century or longer, proving their pedigree before being accepted into the elite circle of only 37 clubs in the British Isles, permitted to carry the proud, Royal title. Today, Royal Portrush is rated up there alongside the very best, ranked number 8 in the entire British Isles and number 2 on the Emerald Isle.

Royal Portrush boasts two layouts, but when people speak of the championship links, they are referring to The Dunluce Course, stage for the 1951 Open. If it were in any other location, The Valley Course would take more of the glory it certainly deserves, but this is Portrush, an area of golfing superlatives and it is The Dunluce that takes the winners circle.

Today's Dunluce layout bears little resemblance to the original, thanks to the creative genius of the great English architect, Harry S. Colt, who redesigned the course between 1929 and 1932 and considered Royal Portrush, to be his crowning glory. There are few who would disagree - Portrush is simply one of a kind and very special.

Measuring a more than healthy 6,818 yards and playing to a par of 72, Royal Portrush presents a very serious, though fair challenge, bringing all of the elements associated with great links golf into play.

The course is laid out in and among a landscape of giant dunes, along spectacular cliff-tops and through deep, dark valleys. Constant changes of direction and elevation make the wind blowing in from the Irish Sea, an ever-varying challenge to contend with. This is a course where accuracy is key and wayward shots are penalized to the extreme by rough that can only be described as cruel and punishing -- ability, combined with a sensitivity to the elements will be a huge help.

The Dunluce Course is incredible - a chain of 18 magnificent holes, with no compromises, showing no forgiveness for those who may not be up to the test it so honestly, lays out. If there is a particularly memorable hole however, it has to be the 14th, aptly named, Calamity -- a 210-yard, par 3.

Standing on the tee looking toward the green, you will immediately know why Calamity is so named. It takes a bulls-eye accurate, long iron or wood shot that must not go right. Slice the ball and you'll be guaranteed a double bogey as the ball succumbs to the call of gravity, bouncing and rolling on a seemingly endless journey down a steep slope toward The Valley Course. Par here will be an exception and a bogey, uncommon -- just remind yourself, this is only a game and good sportsmen don't use bad language.

A terrific links course and a joy, though thoroughly exhausting test to play. Inevitably, The Dunluce will tempt you to play it a second, and perhaps a third time. If you can squeeze it in and the club has time available, don't resist -- seldom will you have the chance to partake of links golf as good as this.

Royal County Down maybe the most spectacularly beautiful links courses to be found anywhere; it's ranked among the top ten courses in the world and has been consistently listed as the best course in all of Ireland for as long as most can remember. Royal County Down is inarguably, the King of Irish golf.

Dating from 1889, the original design for the Championship Course was laid out by Old Tom Morris, the grand master of all golf course architects, who was paid the princely sum of 4 guineas (about $6) for his efforts. Old Tom was quite content with the fee as he had little work to do, considering this to be the most natural of all links courses.

Against the magnificent backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne, County Down Championship stretches along the shores of Dundrum Bay and the Irish Sea, zigzagging back and forth to provide a different vista from virtually every hole. But the glorious scenery distracts from what is an extremely challenging layout, more than worthy of its top, world-class ranking.

The narrowest ribbons of fairways thread their way through as impressive a set of sand dunes as could be imagined. The fairways are surrounded by purple heather and golden gorse, so beautiful to look at but so punishing for any who may stray from the prescribed path.

Innumerable bunkers are scattered throughout the course, deep, cavernous and topped with fringes of sea grasses. The greens are fast and many are domed, immediately rejecting any approach shot lacking in conviction. This is a true test of any player's command of the traditional bump and run approach, the preferred way to play any links layout.

It is seldom one finds a course lacking in any poor holes, but County Down Championship is on the very short list of such layouts. Tom Watson ranks the first 15 holes at the top of his favorites list and it is difficult to disagree with his evaluation of a course composed of so many strong holes.

The par 3's are as good as any and far better than most; the par 4's, equally outstanding, but is this one of the toughest courses in the world? The highly respected golf-writer, Herbert Warren Wind thought so when he said, "it was in fact, the sternest examination in golf I had ever taken."

County Down is everything a links course is supposed to be -- unpredictable, challenging to the extreme, rewarding for the accomplished player and penal to those of lesser abilities. The undulating fairways are as tight as can be and the unforgiving rough is to be avoided at all costs.

There are deep pot bunkers, always strategically placed and voraciously hungry. Billowing greens are filled with contours that are sometimes subtle and often not. In traditional links style there are blind shots to manage and always, the inevitable wind blowing in erratically from the sea. Yet despite the difficulties and problems this course presents, it is never unfair, never devious and has no need to resort to trickery. The test is what it is -- tough and serious. Play well and you will be equally rewarded.

This is a course that demands strategy, where it's important to keep your ball in the frighteningly narrow fairways and away from the rough, but measuring a hefty 7,065 yards from the championship tees, length is a also a definite asset and those with the innate desire to spread the shoulders and let it rip will have plenty of opportunities. But big hitters beware, if length is not accompanied by surgical precision, there will be a heavy penalty to pay.

Royal County Down is a treasure that every serious golfer dreams of playing some-day. There is no feeling quite as exhilarating as to eventually reach the 18th green, battle worn and weary, the fearsome fight almost completed, knowing you have put forth your very best effort. Win or lose, you are about to complete a memorable battle with one of the world's best and have lived to tell the tale.

Northern Ireland has been blessed by the Golf Gods and nowhere is this as evident as in her three Royals, all must plays on every visiting golfers wish list. For more ideas and suggestions on how you can include the very best of Northern Ireland's golfing riches, contact the experts at Golf International by calling toll-free, 1 (800) 833-1389 or click here.

©2010 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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