Ocean State Golf recently had the chance to visit Ireland for a week. The trip was organized by the Northern Ireland Tourism Board and included a half-dozen golf writers from the U.S. and two from England.
The draw for bringing us over the pond was the Walker Cup (see related story on page 19), but it was also a chance to showcase the great golf available in Northern Ireland. It was only the second time that Ireland had hosted a Walker Cup event, and they went all out in providing wonderful hospitality, great food, a few Guinness and even better golf.
We flew into Dublin (direct from Boston on Aer Lingus—6 hours) and were met by a tour bus driver (one of two we had for the week) and driven two hours to Belfast. If you can take one recommendation from this story, it would be to hire a driver. Ireland may
have developed better roads lately, but there are some roads much better left for locals to
drive, especially when you get into the countryside.
We all remembered the problems in Northern Island, especially Belfast, but our host for
the first part of the journey, Karen Hope, Activity Tourism Officer for the Northern
Ireland Tourism Board, said, “Things have been fine for years now, we have such a
lovely country and are excited to show it off.” She went on to say that one-sixth of all the
true links courses in the world are in Northern Ireland.
We had a tour of Belfast from our guide, Hugh Rice of Blue Badge Tours, and he showed us the painted murals, listening posts, Belfast Wall, ship building area where the Titanic was built and many other interesting spots. The city is bustling with pubs and fancy restaurants and hotels and is very cosmopolitan. We stayed at the Hotel Europa. It is in the center of the city and provides easy access to everything in Belfast. Breakfast is
provided every day and they have an excellent dining room where we ate one evening.
By the next day we were over our jetlag and anxious to try out the links courses. We went north to the Atlantic Ocean and played Portstewart G.C. What a gem. The first hole is played downhill and is a dogleg right. The right side is all gorse and heavy bushes and left is tall fescue. The walk to the second hole is uphill and the Atlantic is behind you as you tee off with a large dune on your left and an uphill green 400 yards away. Very intimidating beginning, but the routing and beautiful downhill par 3’s will make you want to play it again. The clubhouse has a beautiful deck with views of the mountains and ocean and you will want to while away the time with a few pints. There are two other less challenging courses on the property that looked like they would be fun to play. We traveled to Royal County Down for the Walker Cup (page 19) the next two days.
Being spectators was exciting, but getting a chance to play it would have been thrilling.
The course is rated in the top 10 in the world by most publications, and this reporter
didn’t see anything to alter that opinion.
The group was anxious to get back to golf after serving as reporters for a couple of days.
Justin Farrell of North & West Coast Links, a marketing arm of the Tourism Department,
had taken over as our host after the Walker Cup, and he did not disappoint as we headed
back north to Royal Portrush G.C. In order to be called “Royal” in the name a member of
the nobility must be, or had been, a patron. No course has earned the title in the last 30
years, but hopefully the Princes will take up the game. Most people rate Royal Portrush
and Royal County Down as the top two courses in Ireland. After playing Royal Portrush,
it is hard to imagine anything being better. The first hole is 400 yards uphill with a
bunker that is 15 feet deep lying 20 yards short of the green and a bunker 20 feet deep to
the left of the green. The really scary part was that it was only the 11-handicap hole.
Could there be 10 harder? There wasn’t, but many of the holes would take your breath
away, especially number 14 called Calamity Corner. It is a 210-yard par 3 over a ravine.
You need to carry the ball 180 yards over the ravine, and with the wind howling off the
ocean to your right it was truly intimidating. When we were standing on the tee at 14 we
looked down to our right and saw another 18-hole course as part of the property. It
looked easier and went right to the ocean.
You need to keep the ball on the fairway at Royal Portrush and actually all the links
courses because the spongy high grass eats golf balls. The course was founded in 1888
and I’m sure there are a lot of gutta-percha balls as well as thousands of newer balls lost
in those grasses. Ryder Cup star Darren Clarke learned his golf at Royal Portrush and has
a home on a hill above the town. We stayed at a Ramada Inn in Portrush, and most of the
guests were golfers from the United States.
The next day we traveled to Ballyliffin G.C., taking a car ferry across the Lough Foyle.
Ballyliffin has two courses, the Old Course and Glashedy Links. This is the only property
in Ireland that has both courses listed in the top 25 in Ireland, and we were playing the
newer course, Glashedy Links. It’s only 10 years old, but it looked like it had been there
for a century. The main difference between the two courses was that the fairways on
Glashedy were a little flatter, but the rough was very rough and the bunkering was very
deep and challenging. You’ll remember the severe downhill par 3 eighth hole with a pond
to the right. The wind was gale-force the day we played, and one member of our group
hooked one that rode the wind about a quarter mile. He teed up another, started it over the
pond and it rolled right into the hole. Nice three!!
The other course at Ballyliffin is called the Old Course. We wanted to play that until we
found that ‘old’ meant that it had been built in 1972. We walked some of the holes on the
Old Course and it was similar to what we played. The Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa where we
spent that night was our favorite hotel on the trip. Spacious rooms with views of the
Atlantic Ocean and overlooking Ballyliffin G.C. and a great restaurant made this a must
stay if you are anywhere in the northwest of Ireland.
Our last course was Portsalon G.C. in Fanad, County Donegal. What a hidden gem. The
course was founded in 1891 and just won a members competition among the original
fourteen courses in Ireland. Club Captain, and our playing host, Garrett, a retired police
officer, was the quintessential Irishman. He was happy, fun, moved quickly on the course and was very helpful. “We love our course,” he said smiling. He has reason to love it.
Four holes run right along the ocean and you can see the water from most every hole. The
path to the ocean from the beach town used to run across the first and eighteenth hole, but
the members dug a wide trench for a pathway and put fencing across the opening that you
play over. Unique, but quite creative. “We used to have to wait sometimes 30 minutes to
tee off with all the folks walking to the beach,” recalled Garrett.
On the last evening we traveled to Drogheda in County Louth to stay at the d hotel. It is
one of the more upscale hotels in Ireland and overlooks the port and is twenty minutes
from Dublin Airport. Our tour guide for the last four days was Greg Creagh of Creagh
executive travel. A tour driver for many years, this big, burly former semi-pro basketball
player was wonderfully helpful. His son, Lloyd, had purchased a couple of tour vehicles
after getting out of the service and was getting started in the executive travel business.
“It’s nice to work for my son,” said Greg as he traversed through roads that this reporter
wouldn’t drive through with a VW.
The eight days flew by and it was a most memorable trip. Ireland is a beautiful country.
The rolling countryside is so green, and instead of using fences, most properties are
divided by hedgerows. There are hundreds of streams meandering through the country
and the rocky cliffs on the northern coast look like the coastline of Maine or Nova Scotia.
Speaking of Maine, Ireland is roughly the same size as Maine and has a little over seven
million residents. If you consider yourself a golfer, then Ireland is a place you must play.
Who says it rains in Ireland? We had two holes of rain in eight days, although we were
told that it had rained quite often this past summer….Guinness tastes much better in
Ireland than it does in the States. They say it doesn’t travel well and must be consumed
soon after it is brewed. We did!!…We flew into Dublin and had to drive north to golf.
There are beautiful courses near Dublin as well. If you are going to the north, it might be
wise to look at flights into Belfast. Currently there is a flight from Newark to Belfast, but
they are considering starting a flight from Boston that would help…Aer Lingus is a nice
airline serving very good meals…everyone was so helpful and friendly in Ireland…the
food was much better than we thought it would be….Yes, there are a lot of pubs, every
little hamlet has one as well as on most streets in the larger cities. Remember the name
Rory McIlroy. He is only 18, but the Irish consider him the next Tiger Woods. He has
won every amateur title in Ireland and just turned professional last week. Don’t be
surprised if he doesn’t challenge Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke as the top player
in Ireland soon.
Useful numbers and websites:
Northern Island Tourism 028 9044 1582 www.discovernorthernireland.com
Tourism Ireland (New York office) 212-418- 0818 www.tourismireland.com
North @ West Coast Links 353 091 868642 www.northandwestcoastlinks.com
Creagh Executive Travel 353 021 4932755 www.creaghexecutivetravel.com
Blue Badge Tour Guide email@example.com