In Northern Ireland, there are two courses that should be on any visitor's
must-play list: Royal County Down and Royal Portrush.
Royal County Down
Royal County Down is regarded by many as THE most beautiful golf course in the world. Tom
Watson calls the front nine the best nine holes he has ever played. The course hugs the sea
and is in the small, Irish Sea-side village of Newcastle, located about 30 miles south of Belfast.
Newcastle, with its tall church steeple and the mammoth Mourne Mountains hanging over it like a
sleeping bear, is picture postcard beautiful. Many of County Down's holes offer this view to
golfers who can easily get distracted by the scenery when not otherwise engaged in looking for
wayward shots. Imagine yourself in a small boat in a storm-tossed sea with its deep crests and
swales. County Down is the terrestrial equivalent.
Royal County Down had its origins in 1889 when, according to the minutes of the club founders'
meeting, "The Secretaries were empowered to employ Old Tom Morris to lay out the course at a cost
not to exceed 4 Pds." In the 1920s, Irish Army Captain George Combe, with advice from the great
Harry Vardon added his own stamp, and it is Combe who is generally credited with bringing the
course to its current magnificence.
Morris and Combe, without benefit of today's machinery, fashioned holes out of a rugged, sandy
geography, never interfering with nature's sculpting powers. County Down is a feast of great
golf holes, starting with the par 5 1st, requiring a drive to a treacherously narrow fairway,
to the dog-leg par 5 18th, a massive 560-yarder, often played into a prevailing wind. In between
is a layout of breathtaking beauty which, like the route of the Holy Grail, is paved with treachery
in the form of heather, gorse, whin bushes and a rough so thick with tall sea grass you will often
be praying to find your ball. All this makes for a fascinating and nervy golfing experience.
Holes of particular note include the 473-yard par 4 3rd with its split-level fairway, the fairly
short par-4 5th requiring an approach to a green partially hidden by two tall sentinel-like mounds;
the tiny, deceivingly difficult 130-yard 7th; the 486-yard par-5 9th (from this tee the view of the
village and mountains beyond is fabulous!), with its steeply rising and falling fairway that, if it
were the sea would be a surfer's delight; and the treacherously long, sharp dogleg par-4 12th which
Nick Faldo described as the best par-4 hole he has ever played.
Perhaps the best hole of all is the 217-yard par 4 4th. From a dramatically elevated tee (bring your
pitons to get up to it), you must carry a sea of gorse to a well-bunkered green backed by trees and
tall grass. Behind you on the tee box some 200 yards to the east is a sand dune that seems to rise
to the sky. Don't forget to take your camera.
You will also want your camera when you play the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush, a private club in
the village of Portrush 50 miles north of Belfast on the North Sea (the club's Valley Course is also
excellent). While its tall dunes give County Down a more tunnel-y feel, Portrush, with its sweeping
terrain, has a more open, expansive feel. It's the type of terrain where at any moment, Mary Poppins
could come skipping over the hill with her children in tow gathering wildflowers. From all points, you
can see for tens of miles up and down a magnificent coastline with a broad beach that is the destination
of many Irish vacationers. Inland are the green hills and valleys that seem to go on forever in all
directions. The course was named after Dunluce Castle, visible from many points on the layout.
Portrush begins with a fairly short, easily negotiable uphill par-4. But that's where her
hospitality ends. From then on, golfers face a mix of short and long holes that cavort over
hill and down dale that require patience, accuracy and at times length. On this course with
its farmland like terrain, each hole has its unique characteristics and flavor and no two
holes are alike. The signature hole is the 215-yard par 3 13th with a green perched directly
on a 100-foot precipice. The 14th is equally dramatic, requiring a drive to a tight fairway
that drops vertiginously to a small, undulating green. If it were snow-covered, this fairway
would be very popular with skiers and sledders.
As with all Irish links, the gorse and heather bounding the fairways are wiry and thick. Often,
the best escape, if you can get your club on the ball at all, is to chip back out on the fairway.
In all, I found Portrush to be one of the most enjoyable and interesting courses I have ever
played. Royal Portrush is private, but, like Ireland's other private clubs, access is usually
not a problem with enough advance notice and verification of your
An Irish Golf Adventure