Northern Ireland: A still undiscovered golfing wonderland

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 not yet a part of your future travel plans, you should take a closer look at this amazing golf destination -- It's likely to change where you will next be playing golf.

Jam-packed with wonderful surprises, including one of the world's most outstanding collections of top-drawer golf courses, little Northern Ireland has managed to fly under the radar of most North American golf travelers for far too long. Yet this tiny corner of the Emerald Isle, no larger than the state of Maine, with a population of barely 1.7 million, boasts almost 100 golf courses, including the top two ranked layouts on the entire island of Ireland. That's more golf per capita than any other country on the globe. But it's not so much the number of courses, as it is the astounding quality of golf they virtually all provide.

Royal County Down - Perhaps the ultimate links.jpg
Royal County Down - Perhaps the ultimate links.
The best in Ireland and one of the world's top 10, Royal County Down is as good as golf gets.jpg
The best in Ireland and one of the world's top 10, Royal County Down is as good as golf gets.
Royal Portrush caters to golf's connoisseurs.jpg
Royal Portrush caters to golf's connoisseurs.
Royal Portrush hosted The British Open in 1951.jpg
Royal Portrush hosted the British Open in 1951.
Belfast City Hall is one of many sights to be seen in Northern Ireland's lively capital.jpg
Belfast City Hall is one of many sights to be seen in Northern Ireland's lively capital.
St. Patrick's final resting place is allegedly in the small Norhern Ireland town of Downpatrick, just a few miles from Royal.jpg
St. Patrick's final resting place is allegedly in the small Norhern Ireland town of Downpatrick, just a few miles from Royal County Down.
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Northern Ireland is a unique part of the United Kingdom, a small British outpost where the red, white and blue of the Union Jack replaces the orange white and green flag of the Republic of Ireland, sitting to the south and west. The currency is the British pound rather than the Euro used in the Republic, but that is where any similarities with Britain end. Northern Ireland is as Irish as the rest of the island and some might say, even more so.

The Northern Irish are the friendliest and most accommodating people you will ever find and the scenery is arguably the most stunningly beautiful on the entire island. From the handsome coastline, to breathtaking glens and mountains, to the hushed tranquility of the interior lakelands, Northern Ireland is blessed with as generous and diverse a helping of picture-postcard good looks as any country.

In Northern Ireland, golf is the game of the people and a place where it's unusual to find anyone who is not a golfer. This after all is the country that has given us native sons, Darren Clark, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. This is where the Emerald Isle saw its very first golf club with the opening of the prestigious, Royal Belfast Golf Club in 1881. Today Royal Belfast makes its home on a 1925 layout, designed by the great British architect, Harry S. Colt. Spectacularly located on the shores of beautiful, Belfast Lough, this is a testy dazzler that shouldn't be missed by any serious golfer.

Measuring a scant 85 miles from east to west and only 110 miles from top to bottom, Northern Ireland is literally filled with golf courses. The almost 100 layouts are simply superb, from some of the best links courses you will ever find, to wonderfully challenging inland layouts; this is as good as golf gets.

Proof of this can be found in Golf Digest Magazine's recent rankings of the "World's Best 100 Courses Outside of the USA", where Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush holds the lofty number 4 position. But even this impressive showing is bettered by Royal County Down, which leads the entire pack of 100, coming in at the very top. Towering above all, including the most fabled names in golf, Royal County Down rules as golf's undisputed King.

While the crème de la crème links courses at County Down and Portrush are unquestionably Northern Ireland's star attractions and mustn't be missed, there is much more to this golf-rich country. Excellent courses are everywhere and because the country is so small and manageable, they are all easily accessible, located within a short drive of each other. A serious golfer could spend an entire month, wallowing in the wealth of golf courses. Even playing a pair of different layouts each day, there would barely be enough time to include every course that calls out to be played and still there would be some left out.

Spending a more realistic week, focused strictly on a sampling of Northern Ireland's top courses such as Ardglass, Royal Belfast, Portstewart, Castlerock and Malone, together with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, is still only skimming the cream from the very top of the bottle. And there are even more golfing temptations sitting just across the border with the Republic of Ireland, all easily combined with a few Northern Ireland layouts.

It takes only a little over an hour to drive from Portrush, passing the ancient city of Londonderry, then across the border, into County Donegal and the pair of excellent links courses at Ballyliffin. There are even more top quality links just a little further along the Donegal coast, at Portsalon and Rosapenna.

From Royal County Down in the southern part of the country, the drive to Dublin will take less than two hours, passing Irish Open host, Baltray, County Louth, along the way. Once in Dublin, an entire new world of golfing choices will be yours, including a few more of Ireland's most respected -- Portmarnock, The European Club, The K-Club, Druids Glen and a delectable links gem - The Island - among them.

Northern Ireland's small size and perfect location, gives it a wonderful flexibility to be combined very comfortably with any number of other golfing havens, including Scotland's southwest coast. The frequent fast ferry services from Belfast to Stranraer in southwest Scotland, accomplish the crossing in little more than 90 minutes, making Turnberry, Royal Troon and other famous Scottish links layouts, very combinable with any in Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland is far more than only golf and a little time taken to smell the roses along the way, will be well rewarded with even more fond memories for the memory book.

The coastline running north from Belfast to Portrush is one of Europe's most spectacular drives, culminating with the Giants Causeway, an amazing quirk of nature that classifies as one of the great wonders of the world. The Old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, dating from 1608 and located close by, is another world wonder that should be sampled.

For those who may prefer city pleasures, the capital of Belfast is as vibrant a city as will be found in all of Ireland and during the past ten years, has become one of Europe's most fashionable. Boasting excellent shopping, fantastic dining, an impressive array of hotel choices and a nightlife that rivals Dublin's, a stay in Belfast places you within an hour or so drive of practically every attraction and golf course in the country.

The city of Londonderry, one of Ireland's most historic, is no less enticing. Within its ancient walls, the best preserved in the British Isles, a carefully maintained 17th century city intertwines with the vibrancy of a fascinating community that is very much a part of today's world.

Northern Ireland has always offered excellent value for money and that situation is no different today, in fact you might be surprised at just how reasonable a golf trip here is going to cost -- and the experience will be priceless.

Take Northern Ireland neat and undiluted, or in a mix with other parts of the Emerald Isle or even Scotland, but be sure to find a way to include at least a sampling of the excellent golf contained within its borders on your itinerary. It's an enchanting little country that is really a giant when it comes to golf.

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

©2011 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.