Northern Ireland may well be the most underrated golf destination in Europe. Best known for its Harry Colt masterpiece, Royal County Down, there are several world-class courses just waiting to be discovered, including Royal Portrush, which will welcome the world’s best players next year for The 148th Open. Throw in beautiful parkland courses, several hidden gems and some truly remarkable links and golfers will be guaranteed the experience of a lifetime.
We take a tour of the best golf courses in Northern Ireland:
Locals claim that Portstewart may well feature the best opening hole in golf, and as you stand looking down over the epic duneland that folds away towards the ocean, it's hard to disagree. The tumultuous landscape that forms the opening few holes at this classic links test is quite simply spectacular and rightly earns this golfing heavyweight a place as one of the best golf courses in Ireland. The front nine, which opened for play in the 1980’s, almost a century after the club’s formation, has earned legendary status among golf fans, with high tees ensuring golfers are afforded fabulous views over the sea to Inishowen, and to the Mussenden Temple sat on the clifftop.
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, and it 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 blindshots, 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 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.
Malone Golf Club is a classy affair located just 15 minutes outside Belfast city centre. The club’s 27-holes are situated around a magnificent lake which forms a stunning centrepiece for what is one of Ireland’s best parkland courses. Played against the backdrop of the 1840’s Tudor Revival, the course is located in glorious parkland, with the holes carving their way through funnels of mature trees. The highlight of the round is the short par-3 15th, where the golfer must hold their nerve and play directly over the lake’s edge.
If you’re visiting Northern Ireland this is a course not to be missed.
Travel an hour north of Belfast and you will discover one of the greatest stretches of golfing coastline in the United Kingdom. Headlined by the world-class links at Royal Portrush and Portstewart this hallowed stretch of golfing turf will be the focus of the world’s attention next year when the Open Championship makes its long-awaited return to Northern Ireland. The third course that forms this great triumvirate, Castlerock, sometimes fails to garner the same attention as its illustrious neighbours but should be overlooked at your peril. Winding its way between the mighty dunes that characterise the region and with the opening stretch playing its way along the railway line Castlerock epitomises links golf at its very finest.
As preparations for The 148th Open continue 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. 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 optimise your chances of getting close to the pin.
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. This is a full-scale five-star resort.
The 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.
Ardglass, just 20 miles east of Royal County Down, offers a startling contrast to its world-famous neighbour. 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, its 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 sets 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 sand hill 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. Wild rose bushes embrace many greens, ensuring a thorny, unwelcome adventure for the over-ambitious.