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Golf in Northern Ireland

One of the most remarkable news photographs of 2007 caused only a ripple in the United States, though it circulated widely in the British and Irish media. It showed the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and Martin McGuinness, his Sinn Féin counterpart, sharing unguarded laughter as they entered into a power-sharing agreement for their homeland. After decades of the bloody sectarian conflict known as the Troubles, this was an image many thought they would never behold. Tony Blair, in attendance during one of his final days as prime minister, declared, “We can see the chance to shake these heavy chains of history,” and, as a recent trip to the U.S. by McGuinness and the now-retired Paisley would indicate, Northern Ireland is seizing that chance. The optimism in Belfast and Derry today is similar to what one would have encountered in Berlin and Prague in the early 1990s. The construction cranes have arrived and there is money to be made, but the real proof that peace is its own reward is written on the faces of the people.

Only politics could have kept travelers away from what has long been one of the world’s finest golf destinations. Northern Ireland is home to two impossibly great links, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, not to mention a supporting cast of superb layouts both coastal and inland, while lodging can be found to suit any taste and many budgets. In short, everything you’d want in a golf trip has been here all along—well, maybe not as long as the bizarre rock formation known as the Giant’s Causeway—but there has never been a better time to explore this special place.

Where to Play

Royal County Down Golf Club

Bernard Darwin once wrote that to tee it up at Royal County Down is to experience “the kind of golf that people play in their most ecstatic dreams.” Indeed, it can be transcendent to let your eyes sweep across the course’s awesome dunes, past its monstrous marram-fringed bunkers and on to its gracefully contoured and perfectly scaled green sites, having paused along the way to take in the forbidding granite of Slieve Donard shrouded in sun and fog and the waves of the Irish Sea lapping at the Newcastle beaches. On the other hand, if Darwin had to navigate County Down’s quicksilver greens in the weeks following the 2007 Walker Cup (as I did), he might have likened it to a different kind of dream, the kind where you’re giving a presentation to the board of directors only to discover that you’re naked. Royal County Down is expert at exposing weaknesses, not just with the speed and contour of its putting surfaces but also by demanding blind drives to pinched fairways and approaches to heavily fortified greens.

As exhilarating as it is, though, to belt tee shots over its towering sand hills on the two- and three-shot holes, the course’s par threes are just as strong. It’s a diverse group, ranging in tone from the majestic fourth to the low-key tenth, which continues to reward the low runner through the valley, just as it did in architect Old Tom Morris’s day. Even County Down’s shortest hole, the 145-yard seventh, is amazing. With its crowned green and closely mown fallaway slopes, you miss the center of the green at your peril. From the greenside kidney bunker on the left, an open-faced wedge will need to fly just far enough or you’ll watch in horror as the ball trickles all the way back to your feet.

36 Golf Links Road, Newcastle. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1889; H. S. Colt, 1925. Yardage: 7,181. Par: 71. Green Fees: $306–$345. Contact: 011-44/2843-722-419, royalcountydown.org.

Royal Portrush Golf Club, Dunluce

For every golfer who holds up Royal County Down as the best course in Northern Ireland, there’s another who defends Royal Portrush. It’s one of those classic nineteenth-hole debates, and for good reason. Both camps can claim unforgettable seaside settings: At Portrush, the views of thirteenth-century Dunluce Castle in one direction and across the water to the mountains of Donegal in the other are positively inspiring. Both courses are stern examinations of driving accuracy—County Down with its blind shots, Portrush with its tight fairways bordered by snarling, ball-eating rough (it’s too much in places; bring an extra sleeve or three). And both go on streaks of truly great holes. Strategic acumen can take the player a long way on the third through fifth holes at Portrush: Kick the ball off the right-hand mound on the short third to keep it on the green; play the uphill, 457-yard fourth as a three-shotter; and, unless the wind is at your back, don’t get greedy on the tee of the gorgeous par-four fifth. But sometimes clever play isn’t enough, and at Calamity, the chasm-crossing 210-yard fourteenth, nothing less than a heroic shot will do.

Royal Portrush may also be one of the most welcoming of the world’s great golf clubs, its unpretentious atmosphere all the more remarkable given that it’s the only Irish course to have hosted the Open Championship. That was back in 1951. May the Open return soon, and may the wind rise to meet it.

Dunluce Road, Portrush. Architect: H. S. Colt, 1929. Yardage: 6,845. Par: 72. Green Fees: $245–$275. Contact: 011-44/2870-822-311, royalportrushgolfclub.com.

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