Northern Ireland’s secret

Golf is on a high in Northern Ireland. What’s so special about the place? Matt Cooper went to Belfast to find out.

Golf is on a high in Northern Ireland, but what’s so special about the place? We sent Matt Cooper to Belfast on a mission to find out…
Arrival – A bit like Los Angeles, when you fly into Belfast’s George Best airport you see the name of a famous location written in huge letters. Well, kind of. In LA the word ‘Hollywood’ is on the side of a mountain, in Belfast you see the word ‘Holywood’ painted on the side of a supermarket. Hollywood is home to superstars; Holywood home to one (Rory McIlroy).
The city – I’ve arrived late on a Sunday afternoon with just enough time to walk up and down the Shankill and Falls Roads to see for myself the scene of the Troubles. I’m astonished to discover the two roads (ones I have seen on the news most of my life) are overlooked by beautiful mountains. How come I never knew that? I’m also primed to be intimidated by the paramilitary murals and yet I feel quite safe on these streets. For the first (but not last) time the experience of Northern Ireland is at odds with my pre-conceptions.
Ready for the golf – With a Monday morning tee time at Royal County Down (often ranked the top golf course in Great Britain and Ireland and top five in the world) preparation is everything. But Belfast’s nightlife intervenes. Next thing I know it’s three o’clock, I’m in a nightclub, being handed a Jagerbomb by locals who are shouting, “This is what Rory McIlroy drinks.” Yeah, after the golf maybe, but not a few hours before.
Royal County Down – First thought: “This is a bit good.” Second thought: “How am I going to stand up straight?” It’s not just the hangover, but a gale that is tossing golf bags around the putting green like empty crisp packets. The first hole is a downwind par-five. There are dunes to the left of me, dunes to the right of me, and a wind that is trying to tear the clothes off my back. “Pop this in the air,” I think ahead of my first two shots, “and the wind will do the rest.” Astonishingly the strategy works and I find myself faced with an unprecedented 12-foot eagle putt. One tentative poke later I’m walking to the second tee with just a birdie but I’m in red figures. I repeat that to myself: “Red figures.” On GB&I’s finest course. Even if I’m not over the limit, I’m feeling like it.
Location – The back of the third tee at RCD is a special place. To the right, the waves of Dundrum Bay crash into the beach whilst behind the mountains of Mourne create a dark, imposing but beautiful backdrop above the Victorian and Edwardian rooftops of the town of Newcastle. In front of us is a fairway protected by high dunes, gnarly bunkers and wild fescue grass. There are not many better places to play golf.
Windy – Yeah, it’s a bit blowy. My playing partner hits one tee shot on a par-five so far he uses putter for his second shot (conservative estimate puts his tee shot at about 460 yards). The same man had hit 3-iron 115 yards into the wind a few minutes before.
The course – Old Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, James Braid, JH Taylor, Ben Sayers and Harry Colt have designed, re-designed or tweaked RCD. None of them did what a modern architect might have: they didn’t have JCBs so the course doesn’t go through the dunes. Instead it plays around, through, over and on top of them. There are a few blind shots, which some might take exception to, but they’d have to be picky – the challenge is big, the threat of a lost ball huge, but the rewards are greater. I score a few shots above my handicap but don’t lose one ball. That alone feels like a success.
Royal Portrush – Next day we head north to the small town which greets visitors with the words: “Welcome to the major golf capital of the world.” It reflects the fact that Fred Daly (1947 Open champion), Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open champion) and Darren Clarke (2011 Open champion) all hail from, or live in, there. It is also the only venue outside the United Kingdom to have hosted an Open Championship (in 1951) and will hold the Irish Open later this year. It’s more relaxed than RCD and so are the first two holes – a short par four followed by a short par five. Then you get hit by the enormity of the layout – stunning fairways that sneak through the dunes to deceptive greens that are protected by deep bunkers and brutal rough.
Sea view – The fifth and sixth holes are the standout holes on the front nine. The tee shot on the fifth tempts you to cut the dogleg but only the big hitters should attempt it, not least because an accurate hit to the fairway can catch a slope and find more or less the same spot of land. Whichever route you take, any error is punished. Nor is the approach to the rolling green easy and putting on it, when you get there, demands concentration because daydreamers (i.e. me) are tempted to just gawp at the sea. After eating our sandwiches in a hut buried in the dunes (hiding from the rain) we peer into the wind and wonder how we will hit the raised par-three sixth green over 200 yards away (none of us do).
Calamity Corner – The par-three 14th is Royal Portrush’s most famous hole but first we have to negotiate the 13th. Ordinarily it would be a tricky par-four, but played in a fierce crosswind that flings icy shards of hail into our faces it is a monster. The hail ceases when we hit the 14th tee, better known as Calamity Corner. Played from the back tee it is a 210-yard carry to the green. There is a narrow strip of land to the left of the green, but anything short and right of the centre of the green disappears down a huge chasm that falls towards the Club’s second course. It’s an awe-inspiring and intimidating tee, and one of the most memorable shots you can ever hit.
The Giant’s Causeway – Having spent two days following in the footsteps of golfing giants there is just time to visit Northern Ireland’s most iconic natural sights – the extraordinary Giant’s Causeway. It’s a bizarre formation of rocks that tempts you to walk into the ocean. Freakish in appearance, it looks like the site of a prehistoric game show.
Bushmills Inn – That night we stay at the Bushmills Inn, a restored coaching house near to the famous Bushmills Distillery. We eat locally produced food before sitting in front of a roaring log fire deep into the night, tasting the local brew and getting a well-connected American drunk.
Castlerock GC – Our final round is at the lesser-known Castlerock GC. One of the gems of this coastline it is not in the same league as the two previous courses but few are. It is more forgiving and welcome for that – whereas we were awed by the first two days, at Castlerock we play with wide smiles, able to relax and play freer golf. That’s not to say the course is lacking much – it has some stunning views and many stupendous holes. It’s a brilliant course, with a welcoming and friendly clubhouse – the perfect end to our trip.
The big questions – Which is best? Royal County Down or Royal