With the Open Championship heading back to Northern Ireland next year, there’s never been a better time to explore what the beautiful and incredibly hospitable country has to offer. With two of the world’s best golf courses in Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, and a selection of other fantastic links and parkland to play, there’s no doubt that is one of the most enticing golf destinations on the planet. We count down the best of the best.
Royal County Down (Championship Links)
A round at Royal County Down is an experience like no other. One of the most incredible golf courses you will ever encounter, the championship links layout is arguably Ireland’s greatest golf course. Located in the small holiday town of Newcastle, the course is bestowed one of the most enticing locations in golf. Set alongside Dundrum Bay, at the foot of the mighty Mourne Mountains, the setting is truly jaw-dropping. The course itself is equally inspiring. Still following the same route laid out by Old Tom Morris over a century ago, the holes carve their way through the colossal, heather clad dunes, with blind shots and bearded bunkers abounding throughout.
The highlight of the round is the signature par three 4th. The scenic hole directly faces the Mourne Mountains. Dotted with gorse and bunkers it is one of the toughest and most photographed holes in all of golf.
Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
Royal Portrush will welcome the cream of the golfing world next year when the Open Champion returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. The Harry Colt design rivals Royal County Down as Ireland’s best course, and its appeal will undoubtedly grow further following the staging of the championship.
The Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush is a timeless golf course. The fairways effortlessly roll between the dunes as if they have always been there and the small greens are perfectly blended into the natural landscape. The opening holes work their way towards the coastline and the course reaches its crescendo at the par four 5th, a spectacular golf hole, with unparalleled views across the shoreline.
Royal Portrush is one hell of a test, with penal rough and wily bunkers. It will be interesting to see how the pros’ match-up against this world-class layout.
Royal Portrush (Valley)
Second courses don’t get much better than the Valley at Portrush. In fact, while it’s all too easy to overlook the layout in your rush to play the Dunluce, the Valley isn’t so much of the second course as a championship layout in its own right. It’s no doubt that was the course located elsewhere along this beautiful coastline it would be among the most talked about courses in Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, the Harry Colt designed course is a very different challenge to its sibling. Set in a valley between the towering sandhill and the dunes, it is a quaint and tricky test. The course meanders its way through humps and hollows and twisting fairways and offers a taste of Irish links golf at its most authentic.
Portstewart Golf Club
Portstewart sits just behind Royal County Down and Royal Portrush as Ireland’s best links.
Nonetheless, no visit to Northern Ireland would be complete with a visit to this mighty course. Leave this beguiling layout off your bucket-list at your peril.
In the 1980’s the course underwent a significant refurb, with seven new holes created in virgin sand dunes. These now form one of the most spectacular run of opening holes in golf. Despite carving through mountainous views golfers are afforded spectacular views atop raised tees. Nowhere more so than on the opening tee shot, a stunning 420-yard downhill par-4.
Lough Erne Resort
Golf doesn’t get much better than at Lough Erne.
The Nick Faldo designed championship course is the crown jewel at the luxury resort. A spectacular course, the course plays its way along the banks of the Castle Hume Lough. The 7,000-yard layout has been tipped as a future European Tour host and has all the hallmarks of a top-class championship course. The highlight of your round is the 16th hole, aptly named ‘Faldo’s Turn’, which offers sweeping views of the estate.
Castlerock Golf Club
Castlerock is often overlooked in the rush to get to Royal Portrush and Portstewart. It shouldn’t be for the course is every bit as classy. The course sits on the Causeway Coast and as a result, the wind often plays a crucial factor. In fact, even on the rare occasion the wind isn’t gusting, Castlerock will test every element of your game, particularly around the greens.
As with the other courses that make up the exceptional trio along the Northern coastline, the gigantic dunes characterise the course, particularly over the back nine.
On a clear day, you can see across to the Scottish island of Islay. A gem of truly epic proportions.
Ardglass Golf Club
If you’re looking for something a little bit different then be sure to head over to the hidden gem at Ardglass. In stark contrast to the vast monumental dunes at nearby Royal County Down, Ardglass is a clifftop course which winds its way out and back along the cliffs to a craggy heathland. The location is still staggering however with views out onto the Irish Sea from almost every hole. As with Northern Ireland’s other links courses the wind plays a crucial role in the difficulty of the test. Nonetheless, Ardglass is a gentler challenge with a mixture of clifftop, links and seaside holes thrown in for good measure.
The clubhouse is stunning too, built on the ruins of a medieval castle.
Belvoir Park Golf Club
Harry Colt left in his wake timeless golf courses wherever he seemed to travel. This is no different at Belvoir Park, a rolling parkland course in the suburbs of Belfast. Despite being designed in the late 1920s the course remains relevant to the modern day golfer and will ask plenty of questions of your game. While golfers are afforded fantastic views across the city from the clubhouse, the course itself is markedly peaceful, meandering its way through funnels of mature oak and fir trees.
The key to scoring well at Belvoir Park is to be smart around the greens. The putting surfaces are exceptional slick and almost always surrounded by heavy bunkering.
Malone Golf Club
It can be tempting to head straight to the coast when you arrive in Belfast. Golfers are well advised however to spend a few days enjoying the city’s fantastic parkland courses. One of the finest is Malone Golf Club, a venue that has moved no fewer than four times throughout its history. It’s current home, five miles south of Belfast, is located on the edge of a 27-acre lake. It’s is a stunning setting made all the better by the impressive Tudor revival clubhouse.
Malone features a selection of fantastic holes, nowhere more so than the signature par-3 15th. As much a test of your nerves as of your game, golfers must play over a glorious lake.
Royal County Down (Annesley)
Fans of the championship course at Royal County Down will be pleased to hear that there are not one but two great courses at the historic venue.
Mackenzie and Ebert who have been charged with redesigning some of Britain and Ireland’s top courses over the past few years recently did a significant overhaul of the course, adding three stunning new holes which are routed through the towering dunes.
The Annesley Links may only be a par-66 but given Royal County Down’s remarkable setting it is no surprise that this is also something a little bit special.
Royal Belfast Golf Club
Founded in 1881, Royal Belfast is Ireland’s oldest club and has played host to a number of prestigious championships over the years. The course is located on the shore of Belfast Lough and serves up delightful views of the Antrim Hills.
As with Harry Colt’s other designs, this course cleverly routed course, which makes maximum use of the picturesque parkland setting.
History buffs will enjoy a tour of the manor house clubhouse which is stuffed full of golfing memorabilia.