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Golf in Northern Ireland

Portstewart Golf Club

Legions of everyday golfers believe they could design a great course if only given the opportunity. Armchair architects seldom get the chance, of course, and when they do it usually ends in disaster. A notable exception is Des Giffin, a retired teacher and longtime member of Portstewart Golf Club who in 1986 led a small team into a rugged corner of the property known as Thistly Hollow. Their creation of seven new holes among these towering dunes (numbers two through eight in the current routing) proved a smashing success, raising the course’s profile from simply being well respected in the region to joining Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in a triumvirate of must-play courses in Northern Ireland. But Portstewart’s best hole, the lengthy par-four first, is the same as ever. Playing downhill from a high tee overlooking both the beach and the town, this dogleg-right turns smoothly toward a green that sits in the sheltering embrace of the dunes. It remains one of the most rousing openers in golf.

117 Strand Road, Portstewart. Architects: Willie Park, 1893; Des Giffin, 1986. Yardage: 6,895. Par: 72. Green Fees: $160–$190. Contact: 011-44/2870-832-015, portstewartgc.co.uk.

Ardglass Golf Club

With its pro shop, lockers and grillroom housed within the gray stones of a semi-restored fifteenth-century castle, Ardglass Golf Club makes a case for possessing the oldest clubhouse in the world. Its course does not have quite the same pedigree but has a lot going for it nonetheless, starting with a magnificent setting on a clifftop peninsula high above the Irish Sea. Ardglass explodes out of the gate with a dramatic tee shot from the shadow of the castle ramparts across a rocky gap, and its first half-dozen holes, trekking outward, offer constant excitement and king-of-the-world views. The inland holes returning to the clubhouse are less inspiring, though in 2003 the club wisely decided to delay the journey across this ground, adding three new holes, including the scenic par-five ninth and the card-wrecking three-shot eleventh directly beneath it at the water’s edge. Ardglass is fairly straightforward in its demands, and the turf serves up fluffier lies than those generally found on the links detailed above. So the course can be had by a good player in calm conditions, but wind is a nearly constant companion on this exposed coastal ground. Add the quality of the layout to the club’s relaxed atmosphere, and Ardglass becomes the ideal companion to Royal County Down, forty minutes down the road. It’s a perfect place to play into the sunset on a long summer day.

Castle Place, Ardglass. Architects: The membership, 1896. Yardage: 6,268. Par: 70. Green Fees: $74–$105. Contact: 011-44/2844-841-022, ardglassgolfclub.com.

Ballyliffin Golf Club, Old

A Northern Ireland golf trip wouldn’t be complete without a sortie to the most northerly club on the island, even if it means crossing the border into the Republic. Although County Donegal is truly the back of beyond, Ballyliffin’s reputation as a difficult-to-reach destination has dropped considerably in recent years thanks to the addition of the Greencastle–Magilligan ferry route, which cuts the two-hour drive from Portrush (through Derry and then up the Inishowen Peninsula) into a fifteen-minute hop across the mouth of the River Foyle. This development has made the two layouts at Ballyliffin worth considering for a north-coast itinerary. Both occupy coastal country with splendid views of the Atlantic and Donegal’s mountains. The Old Course, preferred by many locals, is defined by the reluctance of its fairways to yield a level lie, its numerous small rolls and ripples compensating for a relative lack of length. The testing second layout, the Glashedy, was designed in 1995 by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock. The routing forges onto higher ground and features more than its share of solid holes, though it strikes a false note with the American-style drop-shot par-three seventh and generally seems, with its more modern sensibility, to lack the charming quirkiness of its sister course.

Ballyliffin, County Donegal, Ireland. Architects: Eddie Hackett, 1973; Nick Faldo, 2006. Yardage: 6,900. Par: 71. Green Fees: $115–$125. Contact: 011-353/749-378-100, ballyliffingolfclub.com.

Castlerock Golf Club, Mussenden

Many visitors skip over Castlerock’s century-old Mussenden links on their whirlwind tours of Northern Ireland’s Big Three. It’s their loss. Once Castlerock gets going—at the sixth hole, to be precise, when the course enters some major league duneland—it presents the full array of epic links challenges: scything winds, crisp turf and honest, lay-of-the-land holes. With its commanding drive and nearly insuperable uphill approach, the 418-yard seventh, Armchair, is the layout’s finest challenge. And although the early holes play over less dramatic terrain, this portion of the course hosts Castlerock’s most famous hole, the fourth, a dangerous par three dubbed Leg of Mutton that is guarded on the left by a wandering burn and on the right by railway tracks and OB stakes. Mussenden lacks the fascinating green complexes and the vibrant color and texture of Portrush and County Down, but it is a worthy addition to the agenda. As a bonus, the club has a terrific nine-hole track, the Bann. Infrequently used by the members, it is made to order for introducing a young son or daughter to the joys of links golf.

Circular Road, Castlerock. Architects: Ben Sayers, 1908; H. S. Colt, 1925. Yardage: 6,747. Par: 73. Green Fees: $130–$160. Contact: 011-44/2870-849-424, castlerockgc.co.uk.

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