Three Northern Ireland Charmers, you must not miss

June 01, 2011
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.

If Northern Ireland is in your future golf travel plans, as it should be, it's a sure bet that Royal County Down and Royal Portrush are the main attraction. Not only are these two the top ranked courses in all of Ireland, they also sit high atop the elite listing of the world's very best links courses anywhere. The opportunity to play a pair of the most highly regarded layouts on the planet is one that should be grasped by every golfer. But Northern Ireland golf is very special and its golfing attractions extend far beyond the two Royals, prestigious as they are.

Ardglass's opening hole immediately gets down to business.jpg
Ardglass's opening hole immediately gets down to business.
Ardglass -  a gem of a seaside track, sits close to Royal County Down.jpg
Ardglass -- a gem of a seaside track, sits close to Royal County Down.
Castlerock - a genuine Irish links, not to be missed.jpg
Castlerock -- a genuine Irish links, not to be missed.
Castlerock's links challenge is only complicated more by the small river that runs through it.jpg
Castlerock's links challenge is only complicated more by the small river that runs through it.
Portstewart is a links for the purist.jpg
Portstewart is a links for the purist.
Good looks, a testy challenge and every other quality demanded by a world-class links, makes Portstewart one of Ireland's ve.jpg
Good looks, a testy challenge and every other quality demanded by a world-class links, makes Portstewart one of Ireland's very best.
The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's most famous attraction, but there are many more.jpg
The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's most famous attraction, but there are many more.
Bushmills Distillery is the oldest in Ireland and visitors are welcome.jpg
Bushmills Distillery is the oldest in Ireland and visitors are welcome.
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To visit this delightful corner of Ireland and ignore some of the other gems that sit here, surrounded by far less celebrity, would be unforgivable. They may not have the name recognition but don't let that dissuade you. Living in the shadows of a celebrity is never easy, even for a golf course, but this is Northern Ireland where everything is special and anything connected with golf, exceptionally so.

Northern Ireland is filled with surprises and there's no bigger surprise for any visiting golfer than the number of world-class courses that, were they not located so close to the star attractions, would have earned a trophy status of their own. In many ways these are the real gems of the country's endless golfing banquet -- those unheralded layouts, often preferred by the locals, where the real Northern Irish golf experience and a genuine, heart-felt welcome awaits all.

Very few golf clubs can boast a 700-year old clubhouse and Ardglass Golf Club, located a short 10 miles, as the bird flies, across Dundrum Bay from Royal County Down, is one of the few. The 14th century Castle is largely a ruin, but the club has renovated a corner of it, creating a cozy clubhouse and a unique backdrop for its dazzling cliff-top layout -- one of Northern Ireland's most charming hidden gems.

Ardglass sets off with a no nonsense approach, immediately demanding a dangerous drive across some 40 feet of ominous black rocky inlet, bordered by the Irish Sea and the accompanying brisk winds this coast is known for, to an elevated fairway. This is no place for first tee nerves, audaciously the gauntlet has been thrown down and now it's up to you to accept and carry through. If nothing else, this is a hole that grabs your attention, driving any dreams of a pleasant stroll in the park, far from your mind -- you're off on a rollicking romp, where all you can expect is the unexpected.

The second is no simpler, a 173 yard par-3 playing from a cliff-top tee, over another cavernous inlet of the crashing sea -- and all into the prevailing wind. So it goes for the six opening holes, which may classify as the most exhilarating in Ireland. Generously, Ardglass allows a few brief breathers, but they crop up infrequently and only it seems as a set-up, immediately followed by even testier challenges. Be especially wary of the 9th through 11th holes and pay no less attention to the 17th and 18th, a closing pair of short holes that are as crafty as they are charming.

By the time you reach the 19th, a little battleworn and weary, it's impossible to have anything but the greatest respect for Ardglass. It's a gutsy layout, filled with subtleties that almost demand a second round, just to see how much better you might be able to do. The dramatic good-looks and sweeping seascapes come along as a bonus for playing a standout course that you'll be talking about for years to come.

Just as Royal County Down has Ardglass as a not to be missed neighbor, so Royal Portrush has several nearby layouts that ought to be an automatic accompaniment to the main dish.

Castlerock's Mussenden Course was originally laid out by Scotsman, Ben Sayers and opened for play in 1901. Noted designer, Harry S. Colt (Royal Portrush's creator) made refinements in 1925, resulting in the impressive links layout played today -- and the word, "impressive", barely does justice to this stunningly handsome course. The enviable location on the Derry coastline offers marvelous views of Donegal to the northwest and to the east, vistas of the Causeway Coast and on a clear day, all the way to Scotland -- but there's far more to Castlerock than only a pretty face.

The course's true qualities are revealed as the round commences and the fairways begin to snake their way between and around giant sand dunes, one minute providing breathtaking panoramas of the coastline, then quickly regaining attention with a few blind-shots, deep rough, grassy hillocks and the inevitable wind gusting in from the sea. The narrow fairways are ribbon-like, the well maintained small greens are true, but never to be taken for granted.

But this is a stern links with a kinder side -- the hazards are for the most part clearly visible and the bunkers, appreciably less severe than on many other layouts, bringing a consoling sense of forgiveness for those less accustomed to the often devious nature of links golf.

Unusual for a links, the course is bounded on one side by the River Bann, which comes into play on five holes. This unique twist brings another dimension, adding even more character, variety and no doubt, a tad more frustration to an already personality packed track. Despite Castlerock's forgiving ways, it's still a course to be respected. The better players will not be disappointed, yet it's also more within reach of the mid to high handicappers than some of its better known, but decidedly more ruthless neighbors.

Good looks, a testing but very fair layout, filled with variety and a generous helping of forgiveness, makes this a wonderful course for everyone and it's all topped off with a particularly friendly clubhouse. No doubt the local members will be all too willing to share a glass or two, explaining where you can improve your score on the next round.

Castlerock's Mussenden Course is indisputably, a true gem among golf courses, whether judged against others in the Emerald Isle, or throughout all of Europe. Miss this beauty and you'll be kicking yourself for years to come.

Portstewart Golf Club's Strand Course is the one gem that certainly cannot be missed on any Northern Ireland golf trip. If it weren't for the fact that the highly acclaimed, Royal Portrush Golf Club is only a couple of miles down the road from Portstewart, the latter would be much better known as one of the best courses in all Ireland and would be vying for the accolades that are normally reserved exclusively for Portrush and County Down.

The original design dates from 1894 and was the work of two time British Open winner, Scotsman, Willie Park Jr. Willie did an excellent job. So good that the opening hole here is regarded as the best in all Ireland by most and by many, the best opening hole anywhere.

The following sequence of 7 holes, though still challenging, had been a little bit of a letdown after players had experienced the drama of the first. That is until 1981, when Portstewart acquired 60 acres of magnificent neighboring duneland. This virgin coastline property was totally untouched, completely wild and just calling out to become a part of the Portstewart links.

By 1991, work had been completed and The Strand Course was transformed into a truly world class layout, every bit as good as its next door neighbor and I venture to say, perhaps even a superior challenge.

Immediately following the famous first, you now climb into towering sand dunes where the elevation provides panoramic views of the coast and an ominous sequence of seven magnificent tests of golf.

These are the new holes of pure classic links that have been masterfully intertwined into Willie Park's original. The previous weaker seven have been taken away and made into a separate 9-hole layout called the Riverside.

As youthful as The Strand's new holes are, if you didn't know the true story, you would never think they were anything but a part of the original, 18 hole layout, that's how perfectly the job has been accomplished. So why doesn't Portstewart get a higher ranking than 23rd in all Ireland? (Britain's Golf World Magazine)

Portstewart is not an eager publicity seeker and the members have done little to tout the beautiful beast they have developed. Nor have they lobbied with the powers in golf to better their ranking. But that just might be another sign of what an exceptional course The Strand is - when you know you are the best, it's bad form to shout about it.

Golf in Northern Ireland is very special, not just because of a couple of names that have gained global fame, but throughout this tiny country's entire golf inventory. The Northern Irish have somehow managed to take golf to an entirely new level, a level every golfer will discover is irresistible.

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

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