Northern Ireland: Our game played in God's Country

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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.

A few years ago, Continental Airlines launched a non-stop air service from Newark to Northern Ireland's capital of Belfast. It was the very first direct trans-Atlantic service into this bustling British province and the immediate success it experienced has shown no signs of letting up since. The flight has been a boon for business, a blessing for tourism and for golfers, a very special gift of green gold from the Golfing Gods.

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Royal Belfast Golf Club the oldest in Ireland offers a testy lakeside challenge.
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Royal County Down - Ranked Ireland's top links for the past dozen years.
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Royal Portrush - Ireland's No 2 Course - is temptingly close to Co Donegal.
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Portstewart is another Northern Ireland links that must not be missed.
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Castlerock maybe an unfamiliar name but it's an outstanding links challenge.
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Dunluce Castle gave it's name to the championship course at Royal Portrush.
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Belvoir Park is a Harry S Colt classic located just outside of Belfast.
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Old Busmills Whiskey Distillery near Portrush has been in business legally since 1608 and welcomes visitors.
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Ardglass - a gem of a seaside track sits close to Royal County Down.
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Despite the fact that it has escaped the attention of too many American golfers for far too long, golf in Northern Ireland is very special and ranks alongside the best in the world. The game is held in an esteem approaching reverence among locals and those visitors fortunate enough to discover this tiny corner of the Emerald Isle, come away with similar strong feelings. No larger than the state of Connectict, Northern Ireland has more high quality courses per capita, than any other place on the globe.

As the crow flies, it's a scant 75 miles from the southernmost parkland course of Warrenpoint to the northwesterly courses surrounding Londonderry and the border with County Donegal. It's a drive of little more than two hours by the most direct route, but take the scenic, coastal road and you'll not only pass within a few miles of the best of the country's almost 100 golf courses but as a bonus, also experience some of Europe's most spectacular sea and landscapes.

For those with any appreciation for golf history, many of Northern Ireland's courses were originally designed in the late 1800's by some of the greatest architects golf has ever known. Royal Belfast Golf Club, founded in 1881, was the very first golf club in all of Ireland and an outstanding design from the great Harry S. Colt. The same man was also responsible for Royal Portrush's, Championship Dunluce Course, the second highest ranked course on the Emerald Isle, as well as Belvoir Park, located just south of Belfast and considered the best parkland course in Ireland.

Royal County Down's fame as number one in all Ireland and one of the world's top dozen layouts is legendary and the handiwork of the equally famous, Old Tom Morris. Portstewart, a neighbor of Royal Portrush and another highly regarded links, was designed by four time British Open champion, Willie Park. For a real treat, experience the links challenge of Castlerock, which despite being a masterpiece from the great Ben Sayers and perhaps his best ever, remains one of the most underrated layouts in the entire country. Another neighbor of Royal Portrush, Castlerock, dating from 1901, is a true links classic that literally demands to be played, so listen to the call and discover not only an impressive links, but one of the most welcoming golf clubs on the island. And this is only the beginning of Northern Ireland's banquet of remarkable courses.

Spend a week or even longer in Northern Ireland and there will be more world-class golf at your doorstep than you'll know what to do with, and no reason to go any further. But for those who feel the necessity to travel and insist on including another region, Northern Ireland lends itself to the idea perfectly, with more choices than you might have thought possible.

Combine Northern Ireland with County Donegal to the west and you will have the opportunity to explore the rugged beauty of Ireland's Wonderful West and experience spectacular links courses only just now being discovered by true aficionados of the game. Ballyliffin, Rosapenna and Portsalon may be unfamiliar names, but each offers a classic links challenge amid spectacular scenery that can only impress even the most jaded golf traveler.

Head south from Northern Ireland and within two hour's drive of Royal County Down you could be checking into a Dublin hotel, with all of the delights this charming city offers, plus a selection of 25 world-class courses, all within a 30-minute drive of the city center. The world renowned links at Portmarnock, The K-Club of Ryder Cup fame, The European Club, Druids Glen and Royal Dublin head the list of golfing wonders that should not be missed.

But come to Northern Ireland intent on playing only the two big guns, then rushing off to find more trophy courses in other parts and you will have sadly missed the very essence of this intriguing country's extraordinary golf. As wonderful as Royal County Down and Royal Portrush are, there are many other golf experiences with names far less familiar that shouldn't be missed.

Continental Airlines direct flight arrives in Belfast at 9:00 in the morning, where you will find this very manageable airport, efficiently handles its relatively small number of international arrivals expeditiously and with the minimum of fuss. Within an hour you will have cleared customs and immigration, picked up your luggage and already be sitting behind the wheel of your car rental, en route to Portrush. Most will be a little bleary eyed after the overnight flight, so save the sightseeing route until you can better appreciate it, instead taking the direct highway to Portrush and you will be checking into your hotel well before noon.

A word to the wise, avoid the mistake of succumbing to any perceived jet lag, immediately make the adjustment to Northern Ireland time and the best way is to do something meaningful with the afternoon ahead. For some this will be getting acquainted with the small resort town of Portrush with a walk around. For others the ideal way will be to play an introductory round of golf on a more forgiving course, but with summer sunsets not occurring until 10:00 p.m. or so, there's no reason not to do both and after an early dinner, to bed and next morning you'll be almost ready to be tested by some of the toughest golf Northern Ireland can offer.

Suggestions for that very first afternoon warm-up round in the Portrush area must include Royal Portrush's second layout, TheValley Course. This is a very good links, void of too many bunkers, not overly long, yet with a solid links test, far more forgiving than its older brother, which remains the star attraction and a special treat, best saved until your last day in town. To be properly prepared for Royal Portrush's Dunluce Course there are two other links layouts located within a few minutes drive that simply must not be missed by any golf aficionado.

Castlerock ranks as Northern Ireland's # 4 course and is a handsome, but very serious links test that has been frustrating golfers for more than a century. Thoroughly natural, with testy small greens, all in a beautifully wild setting, this is one you will remember for a long time to come. Portstewart 's Strand Course is ranked between Castlerock and Portrush as Northern Ireland's # 3 layout and the proud owner of the best opening hole in Irish golf. Pure links golf from start to finish, with massive sand dunes, fast greens, dangerous bunkering - and it's always in tip-top condition. You'll need the ability to use every club in the bag to finish this feisty gem with a presentable score, but now you're properly prepared to tackle the mighty, Royal Portrush.

Play a morning round on Royal Portrush, enjoy lunch at the clubhouse, then set off on a leisurely sightseeing transfer, south along the coast to Newcastle, home of Royal County Down. This scenic route (and that should be spelled with a capital S) is a picture postcard delight, comfortably accomplished in 3 hours, plus any stopover time taken for diversions. Just in case the diversions happen to be a pub or two, be wary of the very strict, drinking and driving laws.

Arrival in Newcastle should be in the late afternoon or early evening, with time enough to settle into your hotel, get acquainted with this busy little seaside town, have dinner and call it a night. If you are staying in the Slieve Donard Hotel, you are staying in Newcastle's best and Royal County Down Golf Club is literally at the garden gate.

Before taking on the Emerald Isle's top ranked course, which is undoubtedly going to be the highlight of the trip, a round on nearby Ardglass, is highly recommended. This seaside layout, running along a cliff-top, has a spectacular setting worth playing, if only for the opportunity to savor the stunning views, but there's a lot more here than just a pretty face. Filled with subtleties, this centenarian from an unknown architect is wide open to the vagaries of the fickle winds blustering in from the Irish Sea and presents a unique challenge where the Irish Sea comes into play on almost half the holes. It's just one more memorable Northern Ireland jewel to add to a fast growing list.

The grand finale to a very special trip, can only be Royal County Down, not only the best in Ireland, but sitting alongside Pebble Beach and Augusta National as one of the world's top dozen courses. If time permits and you are booking early enough, try to play it twice - after all, when will you have the opportunity to play this caliber of golf again?

If you can still squeeze in an extra night or two, there will be no better place to spend them than Belfast, a town that is fast becoming one of Europe's most chic capitals, where everybody who is anybody wants to be. Wonderful restaurants, shopping, a nightlife that doesn't stop and for the addicted golfer, more than a few championship layouts within a short drive of the city center - you can put Royal Belfast and Belvoir Park at the top of your list. This could be the perfect way to cap off a perfect golf trip.

For more ideas and suggestions on how to get the most out of your golf trip to Northern Ireland, call the Ireland experts at Golf International by calling toll free, 1 (800) 833-1389 or, click here.

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

Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.

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