A golf powerhouse called Northern Ireland
The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Northern Ireland has found a new, super-star status in the world of golf during the past few years, aided in no small part by a trio of golf champions this tiny country has produced.
First it was Graeme McDowell, winning the US Open Championship in 2010, audaciously followed in 2011 when close friend and fellow countryman, Rory McIlroy won the very same US Open Championship. Two Northern Ireland players taking the US Open crown in consecutive years may have been put down to a lucky coincidence by some, but such thoughts were quickly put to rest a few weeks after McIlroy’s 2011 victory. Yet another Northern Irishman, the affable, Darren Clarke, shocked the golfing world by winning the 2011 British Open Championship. Little Northern Ireland had been sky-rocketed into golf glory.
When Rory McIlroy became the world’s # 1 golfer just a few months later, followed by 3 further Major Championships and numerous other PGA Tour and European Tour wins, it was only affirmation that when it comes to golf, Northern Ireland is a force to be reckoned with.
But world-class golfers aren’t made in heaven, they have to be formed and molded over time. They need an environment that encourages their basic talent, as well as the world-class golf courses where they can test and fine tune their skills as they perfect their craft. Not surprisingly, Northern Ireland is no stranger to golf, not only does this delightful country produce golf champions, it also boasts an enviable collection of some of the world’s very best golf courses and an entire population that loves and appreciates golf, like few others. Rory, Graeme and Darren have become not only ambassadors for the game of golf, but ambassadors for their homeland, where golf is King.
It may be difficult to comprehend how a country smaller than the state of Maine with a population of barely 1.75 million — no more than that of Philadelphia — could possibly become the golf power-house that Northern Ireland is today. Welcome to Northern Ireland, a country filled with wonderful surprises.
Occupying the northeast corner of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland is actually a province of Britain and a part of the UK. The currency of the realm is the British pound as opposed to the Euro which is the Republic of Ireland’s currency and in Northern Ireland, the red, white and blue of the British Union Jack replaces the orange, white and green striped tricolor flag of the Republic.
Despite these incidental differences, it doesn’t take the first time visitor long to realize that this is still very much the Emerald Isle, where most things Irish just seem to be more so. The Northern Irish are the friendliest and most accommodating people you will ever find and the scenery is arguably the most stunning on the entire island. From the magnificently handsome coastline, to breathtaking glens and mountains, to the hushed tranquility of the interior lake-lands, Northern Ireland has been blessed with as generous a helping of picture-postcard good looks as any country — and much more than most.
The coastline running north from Belfast to Portrush is one of Europe’s most spectacular drives, culminating with the Giants Causeway, an amazing quirk of nature that classifies as one of the great wonders of the world. The Old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, dating from 1608 and located close by, is another world wonder that demands visitor attention.
For those who may prefer city pleasures, the capital of Belfast is as vibrant a town as will be found in all of Ireland and during the past ten years, has become one of Europe’s most fashionable. Boasting excellent shopping, fantastic dining, an impressive array of hotel choices and a nightlife that rivals Dublin’s, a stay in Belfast places you within an hour or so drive of practically every attraction and golf course in the country.
The city of Londonderry, one of Ireland’s most historic, is equally as enticing. Within its ancient walls, the best preserved in the British Isles, a carefully maintained 17th century city intertwines with the vibrancy of a fascinating community that is very much a part of today’s world.
And this is still only the beginning of Northern Ireland’s story. This tiny country measuring a scant 85 miles from east to west and only 110 miles from north to south, is literally filled with an astounding collection of top-drawer golf courses. The more than 90 layouts are simply superb, from some of the best links courses you will ever find, to wonderfully challenging inland layouts that will impress even the most jaded golf traveler.
Proof of this can be seen in Golf Digest Magazine’s recent ranking of the “World’s Best 100 Courses Outside of the USA” where Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, the 2012 Irish Open venue, holds the number 6 position. But even this impressive showing is bettered by Royal County Down, which leads the entire pack of 100, coming in at the number 1 position. Towering above all, including the most fabled names in golf, Royal County Down is quite literally, as good as golf gets anywhere!
While the crème de la crème links courses at County Down and Portrush are unquestionably Northern Ireland’s star attractions and not to be missed, there is much more to this golf-rich corner of the Emerald Isle. Excellent courses are everywhere and because the country is so small and manageable, they are all easily accessible, located within a short drive of each other. A serious golfer could spend an entire month, wallowing in the wealth of courses. Even playing a pair of different layouts each day, there would barely be enough time to include every course that calls out to be played and still there would be gems left out.
Spending a more realistic week, focused strictly on Northern Ireland’s top courses such as Ardglass, Royal Belfast, Portstewart, Castlerock and Lough Erne, together with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, is still only skimming the cream from the top of the bottle. And there are other golfing temptations sitting just across the border with the Republic of Ireland, easily combined with a few Northern Ireland courses.
It takes only a little over an hour to drive from Portrush, passing the ancient city of Londonderry, then across the border, into County Donegal and the pair of excellent links courses at Ballyliffin. There are even more top quality links courses just a little further along the Donegal coast, at Portsalon and Rosapenna.
From Royal County Down in the southern part of the country, the drive to Dublin will take less than two hours, passing Irish Open host, Baltray, County Louth, along the way. Once in Dublin, an entire new world of golfing choices will be yours, including a few more of Ireland’s best — Portmarnock, The European Club, The K-Club, Druids Glen and a delectable links gem called, The Island, among them.
Northern Ireland’s small size and perfect location, gives it a unique flexibility to be combined, very comfortably with any number of other golfing havens, including Scotland’s southwest coast. The frequent fast ferry services from Belfast to Southwest Scotland, accomplish the crossing in little more than 90 minutes, making Turnberry, Royal Troon and other Scottish notables, very combinable with any in Northern Ireland.
Take Northern Ireland neat and undiluted, or in a mix with another golf destination, but be sure to find a way to include at least a sampling of the excellent golf contained within its borders in your itinerary. It’s an enchanting little country that has become a giant as far as golf is concerned.
For more ideas and suggestions on getting the most out of your Northern Ireland trip, contact the Northern Ireland experts by calling us at 1 (212) 986-9176 or click here and start planning your escape now.
©2015 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.