Golf365 Travel: Northern Ireland’s epic year

Reviews

Matt Cooper visited Northern Ireland ahead of this year’s Open to tackle the host course Royal Portrush and also take a journey up the Causeway Coast from Belfast.

Big stories, heightened drama and stunning scenes – you can’t avoid them in Northern Ireland this year.

It’s not quite Hollywood, but Derry Girls, Line of Duty, The Fall and, most famously, Game of Thrones have all been made on location in the country and at Titanic Studios in Belfast.

And a mere four miles away, more or less the length of a round of golf, is the suburb of Holywood – again, not quite Hollywood – home to the golf club where Rory McIlroy first learned the game and this summer he will venture north, along the spectacular coastline which the film and TV makers so adore, to compete in the 148th Open at Royal Portrush.

Movie stars and sporting heroes. History and modernity. Big battles and bewitching backdrops.

It’s not surprising that there is a buzz about the place.

Our trip begins with arrival at George Best Belfast City Airport, not just a nod to one of the country’s greatest sportsmen, but the sort of airport every city needs: the plane sweeps over the lough for a majestic introduction and then the journey from arrivals to the city centre is less than 15 minutes by taxi.

After a night at the excellent Grand Central Hotel we knock rust from our swings with 18 holes at the parkland Dunmurry GC in the south of the city, a brilliantly presented course that insists on careful course management and has a bar full of friendly members.

In the afternoon we visit the Game of Thrones exhibition (open till 1st September). Fans of the show gawp at the props, costumes and set decorations whilst those of us new to it are wowed by the astonishing scenery displayed on the big screens. “Oh yeah,” says our driver, “lots of those locations are on our route, I’ll show you a few.”

Next up is a short walk across the old shipyards, past the iconic Harland and Wolff crane and the old White Star Offices (now transformed into the Titanic Hotel), to Titanic Belfast, a remarkable piece of architecture which stands stall in this post-industrial landscape. It’s vast size echoes the liner, it’s glittering surface the iceberg which downed it. Inside is a superb exhibition telling the story of the ship, from creation via disaster to worldwide legend.

And then it’s time to make the journey that the Open competitors will take. North from the capital, along the Causeway Coast, to the home of this summer’s search for the Champion Golfer of the Year.

The golfers will likely take the most direct route; tourists can take the scenic alternative, making time to walk the clifftops at The Gobbins, wander the gardens at Glenarm Castle, peer out towards Rathlin Island, take on the challenge of crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, be awed by the Giant’s Causeway and take a tour of the Bushmills Distillery.

Game of Thrones fans can climb into the Cushenden Caves (home of the shadow baby scene), gaze down at Dunluce Castle (Castle Greyjoy) and walk between the Dark Hedges (otherwise known as the King’s Road).

Golf fans? They can gander across the rugged linksland which will host this July’s contest. To play Royal Portrush is to take a journey every bit as thrilling as the location hunt GoT fans undertake along this coast because breathtaking settings abound.

The fifth green perched above the beach, the new seventh hole flanked by a huge dune on the right, the new eighth which crests a dune of its own, the narrow tenth green pinched between high sandhills, the view from the 15th green across the course towards Dunluce Castle, the carry at Calamity Corner (the 16th) and the realisation that the 18th hole is going to be visually unlike any previous closing hole at an Open.

We return to the Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae, handily placed midway between the course and the Bushmills Distillery, and just yards from a popular spot for wild sea swimming. Next day we take on Galgorm Castle GC which this year will again host a Challenge Tour event, but less than a month after the conclusion of the Open it is expanding and with the help of Niall Horan it has become the ISPS Handa World Invitational with both a men’s and a women’s field fighting it out for equal prize money.

The trip ends at sunset, back on the Causeway Coast, high on the first tee at Portstewart. Ahead of us are enormous dunes which makes the course seem as if it has been built on a scale from some other-world. To our right is Portstewart Strand, yet another location for Game of Thrones.

It’s a final reminder of the twin themes of Northern Ireland’s 2019 and a suitably epic one.

For more information

Tourism Ireland – www.ireland.com

Discover Northern Ireland – www.discovernorthernireland.com

Visit Belfast – www.visitbelfast.com/

Visit Causeway Coast & Glens – www.visitcausewaycoastandglens.com/

Discover Northern Ireland Golf – www.discovernorthernireland.com/things-to-do/activities/golf/golf/