Hosting ‘The Open’ for the first time in 68 years, has undoubtedly resulted in a huge wave of publicity for golf in Northern Ireland. With over 80 Million viewers around the world, Royal Portrush was the center of the golfing world for 4 days in July 2019. All eyes were on Rory McIlroy. However, in the end it was Shane Lowry from the Republic of Ireland, that came out on top.
Northern Ireland has 94 golf courses in total. The relatively small size combined with a good infrastructure, makes the country an excellent destination for a golf trip. I decided to explore 3 Harry Colt designs.
Arriving into Belfast & Royal County Down
We arrived into George Best Belfast City Airport, which is less than an hour from Royal County Down. With direct flights from lots of European cities, this course is very easily accessible from all over the continent.
Royal County Down is at the top of many lists for the best courses in the world. With this in mind, the expectations when arriving here are obviously very high. Founded in 1889, this links course – that actually has two 18 hole tracks – has played host to a lot of Irish championships. These include: The Walker Cup, several amateur opens and many senior tournaments. Although it has never hosted The Open, the course would definitely be suitable. It is just the infrastructure around the area that makes it complicated.
The course is really amazing! The first nine are probably the most beautiful that I have experienced in my career. For more information on the course, read my review on Royal County Down here.
We stayed in the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, literally only a par-3 away from the course. It’s a very nice hotel with a spa overlooking the Irish Sea, which you can also see from the course itself. The rooms are excellent and the atmosphere very nice.
Grab a Caddie
When playing Royal County Down it is recommended to take a caddie with you. Not only will he improve your score and give you lines you didn’t know were there, but they also have great stories about the course and the famous players that have played there.
Also, reserve some time for the pro-shop where there is a wide selection of great merchandise. The clubhouse has a very traditional atmosphere and we somehow managed to sneak in with our golf shoes on. Although normally you would change those, a jacket and tie is not required. But hey, you can never be overdressed…
Checking in at Royal Belfast
After a great stay in County Down, we drove north back to Belfast. It was around lunch by the time lunch we arrived at Royal Belfast Golf Club. This is the oldest golf club in the whole of Ireland (est. 1881). The current course was designed and built by Harry Colt in 1926. Colt – who is also responsible for the other two courses in this article – is very famous around the golfing world. He has also designed courses such as Sunningdale (new), Muirfield, Utrechtse Golfclub De Pan and Wentworth.
With all the great links in Ireland, we tend to forget about the fantastic parkland courses on the Irish island. The most famous of which is probably the Arnold Palmer designed Ryder Cup Course at The K-Club. The Holywood Golf Club (Rory McIlroy’s home course) is also up there with the best.
But Royal Belfast Golf Club is a great course to play, especially alongside all of the ‘top 100’ links courses in the country. It is an open course with views of the Belfast Lough. It sits elegantly on a beautiful estate that was acquired for only GBP 3,000 in the early twenties. Included in that sum was the beautiful manor that now functions as the clubhouse.
After the playing the tight fairways of Royal County Down, this course was a breather. Not super easy but designed in the tradition of Colts’ ‘easy bogey; tough par’ directive and that’s why a lot of people like Colt courses. The lunch in the clubhouse was great and the staff were very friendly. You can also read my review of Royal Belfast here.
The City of Belfast
In Belfast we got a great tour from our excellent guide Paul O’Kane of Legend Tours N.I. Although the Troubles ended with a truce in 1998, there are still a lot of signs reminding you that Belfast wasn’t such a pleasant place. Big murals, union jack flags and walls with gates that actually still close at night. Now however, the town is very nice. There are lots of pubs and restaurants to visit and of course Belfast is the home of The Titanic Experience.
Not a lot of people know that the Titanic was built at the shipyards in Belfast. And before she sank in April 1912 on her maiden voyage to the US, it started here in Northern Ireland. Today, an interactive exhibition has been created at the exact place where the Titanic was built. This is a great outing after visiting the golf courses and the city. At night, a visit to the Crown Bar – famous for it’s booths or snugs where customers used to call the waiter with their own bell – is highly recommended.
Along the Rugged Coast
From Belfast we left to go north west for the last episode in our trilogy of top courses. You can drive straight to Royal Portrush which will take just over an hour via motorway. However, I recommended the scenic route if you really want to experience the beautiful sights. It goes all along the coastline and has some breathtaking views.
On our way to the course, we witnessed some of Northern Ireland’s spectacular coastline and amazing natural wonders, like the Giant Causeway.
The best place to stay close to the Causeway, is the aptly called Causeway Hotel. It’s a very nice traditional hotel that perfectly fits its surroundings.
Teeing off at Royal Portrush
From the Causeway hotel it was only a 10 minute drive to the last of the Royal Colt courses we were going to play: Royal Portrush. Portrush hosted The Open in 2019 for the first time in almost 70 years. And it has certainly put the spotlight on Northern Ireland as an excellent golf destination. If you want to read my personal review of the course click here.
Portrush is a wonderful course to play. Again a caddie is recommended and with his tips you will enjoy it even more. I think Portrush is a bit more playable for average golfers due to the wider landing zones. Compared to Royal County Down that is. Don’t underestimate the green complexes though. A miss on the wrong side could make a par opportunity turn into a double bogey before you know it…
Golf in Northern Ireland
Driving back from Portrush to the George Best airport, I looked back on an amazing couple of days filled with world class golf, beautiful nature and friendly people. I realised that golf in Northern Ireland is truly amazing, not only because of the excellent courses, but also the scenery and the friendly people. All of this together, make this a super destination.
How to get a tee-time?
So now you have read about these beautiful courses the most important question is: How do you get a tee-time?
For Royal Belfast it’s not that complicated, you can just go to their website and book a tee-time. For the County Down and Portrush it’s a bit more complicated however. Due to the immense demand, both clubs are pretty much sold out from May until October next year (2020). The 2021 tee-times will be bookable in early March 2020. So, you will have to plan ahead to play these monumental courses (especially if you are a group of 4 or more players). For singles or two-balls it’s easier and these courses are in very good quality all year round.
I played at the end of September and had a lovely day. The course wasn’t too crowded either so that’s definitely an option as well. If you want to book at Royal County Down follow this link to their website. For Portrush you can click here but it is better is to call them. Good Luck!