Best golf courses in Northern Ireland
A brief insight into golf in Northern Ireland, home to a hotbed of major winners. Join us as we discuss this stunning nation of golf...
Northern Ireland is host to some of the best golf courses in the British Isles, if not the world. Towering dunes, cliff top views and lush parkland all feature heavily in this country, along with a list of course designers that can only be described as 'Royalty' in the world of golf course architecture.
It’s easily accessible and wonderfully hospitable and therefore Northern Ireland should be indelibly inked on all golfers’ bucket list of golf destinations to visit.
Royal County Down is one of the greatest golf experiences on the planet. It has the design pedigree (Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt, chief among them), it has the stunning location set alongside Dundrum Bay and at the foot of the mighty Mourne Mountains, yet it also has an aura that no other course can match. A course this good, with so many blind shots and bearded bunkers, will always bewilder, enthrall and inspire golfers.
Jack Nicklaus is not a fan, disliking the many blind shots, but this is how golf courses were laid out in the early days. Dunes were left alone and holes were routed around and over them. Royal County Down's Championship Links embraces that willingly and the blind drives on the 2nd, 9th, and 11th are truly terrifying. The signature par-three 4th faces the Mourne Mountains. It is one of the most inspiring holes in the world, but the same is true of the entire course.
As the buzz from the 2019 Open Championship continues on at Royal Portrush, the allure of this Harry Colt classic grows by the day. The rhythm of the holes works beautifully, as the opening holes take you steadily out towards the ocean and the par-four 5th of the Dunluce Course. Named White Rocks, this is a dogleg masterpiece where everything, including the views, is on show from the raised tee and you are challenged to bite off as much as you can chew.
Royal Portrush presents a steady learning curve of how holes break and slide through natural channels, how the smallish greens sit neatly, often deceptively, into the dunes, and how fairway position means everything if you are to optimize your chances of getting close to the pin.
‘God’s Own Country', three words sure to inspire the imagination of any golfer when they discover that’s what awaits them at Portstewart. When the club identified the need for nine new holes in the 1980s, this run of dunes was used to create the most dramatic opening nine holes in golf and what many consider to be the best opening hole in Ireland. From the tee, the views stretch over the sea to Inishowen, while Mussenden Temple sits on the cliff tops in the distance.
These opening nine holes of the Strand Course tumble through violent dunes but, despite their size, you can see what lies ahead, thanks to the many high tees. The back nine start off on the backside of these big dunes but then calm down for the final stretch.
The Lakelands of Co. Fermanagh stretch for miles across the region with islands and forests painting an idyllic beauty. Lower Lough Erne is one such lake and it is here that Sir Nick Faldo routed what is widely regarded as Northern Ireland’s premier parkland. Lough Erne is a full-scale five-star resort perfect for any stay and play golf vacation.
The Faldo Course begins alongside Castle Hume Lough, before slipping into the forest for a few holes. It is an important introduction to the size and shapes of green complexes. Generous, rolling fairways have more elevation changes than you’d expect while woods and the many natural wetland areas separate holes and give the course space. The resort is extremely close to the links of Donegal and County Sligo, in Ireland’s North West.
Alongside Royal Portrush and Portstewart, Castlerock makes up the perfect triumvirate on this northern stretch of coastline. What stands out in Castlerock’s favor is the variety of its links holes, thanks to the ever-changing size and shape of the dunes.
Holes switch from low and bumpy to deep and curvaceous. A burn runs across some holes but Castlerock’s serious drama starts on the 7th, where the bigger dunes come in to play. Bump-and-run is always a wise approach (but for the burn) and you’ll need a very sharp short game to take on the many challenges around greens.
Ardglass, just 20 miles east of Royal County Down, offers a startling contrast to its world-famous neighbor. There is still sea and stunning scenery, but Ardglass throws in cliff-top holes, links holes, and more gentle seaside holes. It’s a heady mix and Ardglass is famous for its starting salvo of five holes, rippling across the cliff-tops and over chasms. The 1st is magnificent, its tee set right on the water’s edge, it's green up high in a rocky turret.
When you reach the links holes by Coney Island, all your wits will be stretched. Two par threes on either side of an elegant par five-set temperatures soaring and it rarely lets up. To finish, the 18th leads you back down to a clubhouse built on the ruins of a 13th-century castle.
The Valley is Royal Portrush’s second course and is often treated as such by visiting golfers, but it is a quality course in its own right, routed over very different terrain to its sibling. It sits in a valley between the towering sandhill that holds back the sea and the high dunes that host the Dunluce.
This is a terrific, tumbling links designed by Harry Colt. The fairways twist and turn, flowing over humps and hollows which have been cleverly used to protect and hide putting surfaces. And even when everything is on show, you just never know what might be waiting. Wild rose bushes embrace many greens, ensuring a thorny, unwelcome adventure for the over-ambitious.
Royal County Down's Annesley Links may be a modest par 66, with six par threes and no par fives, but it is a lesson in strategic golf. The quality is just as good as its big sibling and you will learn a thing or two about tight, twisting fairways and slick greens. A driver is a liability unless you enjoy masochistic adventures into the gorse and it will sharpen your short game no end, something sorely needed next door.
Many visitors like to ‘warm-up’ on this course and they will get an inkling for what makes Royal County Down’s hallowed fairways and greens so special. Three superb new holes have been set in the highest dunes.
Golf Vacation Specialist
Golf Vacation Specialist, I advise clients on golf courses and accommodation options for our US and overseas trips