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Author: Leonard van Nunen

Golf in Northern Ireland: The 3 Royals

19 December 2019
8 min. read
Leonard van Nunen
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.
Royal Country down along the shore (Photo credits, member Leonard)

Northern Ireland has more than 90 golf courses in total. The relatively small size combined with good infrastructure makes the country an excellent destination for a golf trip. Our Evangelist and brand ambassador Leonard van Nunen decided to explore 3 Harry Colt designs.

Arriving into Belfast & Royal County Down

We arrived at 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 and the mountains of Mourne (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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.

The Irish Sea from the club (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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.

Use a Caddie

Caddies waiting in front of the clubhouse to tee-off (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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 is 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.

The sloped fairways at Royal Belfast (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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.

The clubhouse is beautiful with a glass dome and ancient lockers on display. After 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.

The City of Belfast

Side view of Titanic Belfast (Photo credits, Prioryman)

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

The scenic route from Belfast to the Giant Causeway (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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.

The distinct hexagon rocks at The Giant Causeway (Photo credits, member Leonard)

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. For more detailed information, surf to my personal review of Royal Portrush

Calamity Corner, the 16th 203 yards par 3 often against the wind (Photo credits, member Leonard)

Royal 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, make this a superb golf 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. And after covid-19 - in 2022 - getting a tee time is almost impossible. So, you will have to plan far ahead to play these monumental golf courses (especially if you are a group of 4 or more players). For singles or two-balls it’s easier and these courses are of very good quality all year round. 

I played at the end of September and had a lovely day. The golf 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 directly. Good Luck!

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