Review of ISPS Handa World Invitational 2023 host courses Galgorm and Castlerock
Five years after my visit to Northern Ireland to witness preparations for the Open at Royal Portrush, I was invited back to celebrate the decision to award Castlerock Golf Club the honour of being joint host for the 2023 ISPS Handa World Invitational presented by Aviv Clinics.
This unique event which runs from August 17-20 will see top male and female players from their respective tours competing in separate tournaments across two courses, Galgorm Castle and Castlerock. The players will play both courses before the cut after which the final two rounds will be at Galgorm Castle.
This is the last year of the current sponsorship so it will be the last time for the moment at least that the event is held in Northern Ireland. Castlerock, one of a collection of superb links on the north coast, is very proud to have been chosen and have preparations underway to ensure their course provides a proper test for golf’s elite.
Along with colleagues from the media, I spent three days in Northern Ireland to witness first hand the challenges both courses will present and sample some of the hospitality and attractions which make this area such a great place to visit.
Awarded Ireland’s “Hidden Gem” for links golf on the north Coast, Castlerock has two courses, the much shorter Bann course and the Mussenden Links which will host the ISPS Handa World Invitational. This course provides a thorough examination of your golf game.
It requires straight hitting to avoid penal rough, deep bunkers and well-hidden streams. Once you have found your way to the putting surfaces a skilled eye and precise judgement of pace is required to master the pacey greens with their subtle slopes. If your game is slightly off, then the location will compensate for that as this course is set in beautiful surroundings of ocean and dunes.
Some golf courses particularly links are described as pretty; Castlerock does not fall into that category, this course is spectacularly rugged. With the wind up it will show its teeth and test the best. For the senior mid handicapper, it provided a golf examination and stamina-sapping walk so I would suggest that hiring a buggy might be a good option.
Slopes and stunning views at Castlerock Mussenden Links
Wednesday – Harry’s Shack
A few minutes’ drive found us at Harry’s Shack in Portstewart. This literally on-the-beach restaurant provided a fun dining experience with views of the famous Strand Beach and the North Atlantic Ocean. Serving local produce, we sampled two courses washed down with the obligatory Guinness. Definitely a local favourite, the full tables inside and out confirmed this, Harry’s Shack was an unusual but very enjoyable place to eat.
Harry’s Shack – Strand Beach and North Atlantic Ocean
Thursday – Galgorm Resort and Spa
Our accommodation for our two nights in Ireland was provided by Galgorm Resort and Spa. This luxury hotel many would say the best in Northern Ireland is set in 380 acres of parkland and has the River Maine running across the estate. It boasts a range of suites, rooms, log cabins and cottages to satisfy all preferences and budgets.
Whilst Galgorm has all the features you would expect in luxury accommodation it is the award-winning spa which takes it to the next level. Saunas, jacuzzies, steam rooms, plunge pools and much more are located within a network of gardens, making up their “Thermal Village”.
Guests dressed in monk-like brown robes are free to wander round these gardens, punctuating the walk with sessions of heat and or water.
Galgorm Resort and Spa – Thermal Village
Thursday – Galgorm Castle
Rejuvenated by two hours in the “Thermal Village”, it was time to take on the second test those competing in ISPC Handa World Invitational will face. Located a few minutes’ drive from the resort, Galgorm Castle, which has hosted the Irish Open, is a world apart from Castlerock. This is a mature parkland course, with tree-lined wide sweeping fairways, and a series of lakes, ponds, and streams.
The feature Galgorm shares with Castlerock is the rough, which is deep and punishing particularly around the greens. Controlling approach shots to avoid this rough will be key to success over the four days of play in August. The stars of the course for me are the stunning par 3 holes. All featuring greens surrounded by water which has to cleared or avoided via the bale out shot.
Where Castlerock was rugged, Galgorm Castle is scenic and strong. At over 7,000 yards, it’s a proper championship course which will not require the wind to protect it. For the amateur it provided a thorough but very enjoyable challenge, helped by making use of the forward tees.
Par 3 12th Hole at Galgorm Castle
Thursday – Fratelli Ristorante
To complete our stay at Galgorm Resort and Spa we sampled some fine dining in their superb Italian restaurant, “Fratelli Ristorante”. This is one of many dining options at the resort and the menu of traditional Italian dishes provided a fine backdrop to talk of the golf played and golf to come when the ISPS Handa World Invitational gets underway.
Friday – Bushmills Distillery
Our final day in Ireland was spent away from golf as we took in two attractions that should be part of any visit to County Antrim.
We began at the Old Bushmills Distillery, the first licensed distillery dating back to 1608. The public tour provided a thorough and fascinating insight into the process of producing, blending, barrelling, and bottling Irish Whiskey. A sampling room where we tasted a 12-year-old was the perfect conclusion for the 60-minute tour.
Bushmills is very proud and protective of what they do to the extent that they don’t allow any visitor photography of their infrastructure and processes!
Distilling at Bushmills
Friday – Giants Causeway
My final stop on this all too brief visit to Northern Ireland was the remarkable Giant’s Causeway. Some erosion and an upgrade for the visitor centre, but essentially this breathtaking geological feature was the same as when I last walked on the Causeway’s hexagonal pillars in 2018.
National Trust-managed, post-Covid the Giants Causeway now attracts over a million visitors a year from all over the world. Visitors who can take can take the guided tour of free of charge choose a path and admire the stunning landscape. The Causeway has to be a bucket list item for any visitor to the region.
The Giant’s Causeway provided memorable end to this short stay in Northern Ireland. The ISPS Handa World Invitational will be a good watch across two contrasting courses in Castlerock and Galgorm Castle. But as it did in 2018, my three-day visit this year only strengthened my opinion that Northern Ireland is increasingly a great destination for the golfer and that it has much more to offer for those who love the game and those who don’t.
Outstanding scenery, new and historic attractions, great hospitality in quality accommodation and superb cuisine add up to a great package. To learn more and plan your golf experience in Ireland see www.ireland.com/golf.
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