Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast is hard to beat
Any trip to play links golf along the rugged Causeway coastline of Northern Ireland is one to be savoured, so when I was approached by Tourism Ireland to take a look at the preparations for two huge upcoming tournaments in the province, I jumped at the opportunity (as did sixteen other members of the golf media).
The courses selected are widely considered to be the two best layouts in both Antrim and Londonderry, where both the Dunluce at Royal Portrush and the Strand at Portstewart are routed through what is widely regarded as some of the most interesting and undulating duneland to be found anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland.
Following announcements that the 2019 Open will return to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 and near neighbour Portstewart will host this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, there is undoubtedly a feeling of great anticipation amongst Irish golf fans. The large numbers attending the European Challenge Tour’s Northern Ireland Open, hosted by Galgorm Castle in recent years, show just how keen the locals are to support live golf in the province, which suggests sell out crowds throughout for the much higher profile events on the north coast.
The local infrastructure needed to improve substantially, and in recent years this has finally happened with much better accommodation, restaurants and travel options on offer. At Portrush the lack of viewing space around the finishing holes has been overcome by allowing the construction of the tented village on the current 17th and 18th holes. To replace these holes, the design company of Mackenzie & Ebert was contracted to build two new ones on land previously occupied by the Valley course. Although they do not open for play until July this year, we were able to take a look at close quarters.
Set amongst wonderful rolling dunes the new holes are most likely to be played immediately after the current 6th, the new 7th being a terrific looking par five playing from an elevated tee and the new 8th is a dramatic doglegging par four played over a valley. Not only do they fit into the round seamlessly, they are instantly memorable and potential standout holes. The club is still considering its options regarding the reinstatement of the original course after the Open, so the famous "Big Nellie" bunker, which surely must have devoured thousands of shots from the 17th tee, has now been recreated on the new 8th, therefore maintaining this iconic feature for future generations.
There are proposals to add five new bunkers throughout, but as the terrain provides so many natural defences, an over reliance on bunkering is deemed unnecessary, which is wholly in keeping with Harry Colt’s original design philosophy. Interestingly Portrush has the least number of bunkers on any Open rota course with a meagre 64, Turnberry is the closest with 81, Muirfield has more than 150 and Royal Lytham has the most with 205.
The morning before playing at Portstewart, we had time to explore the incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Giant's Causeway with its impressive new visitor centre. The Bushmills Distillery is also nearby, dating back more than 400 years, and this oldest working distillery in Ireland is perhaps an option that’s best reserved for post round entertainment!
The Strand Course at Portstewart is recognised by many as having one of the finest front nines of any links course in the world. The crumpled fairways rise and fall beautifully through some incredibly large sand dunes which influence play on just about every hole. The back nine moves out towards the River Bann and although the dunes here are not quite so spectacular there are still some wonderful holes to be played.
I caught up afterwards with Course Manager, Bernard Findlay, to talk about the various course changes that have taken place in recent years – it’s fair to say that Bernard knows pretty much every blade of grass on the hand cut Portstewart greens, having been in his current position for over 30 years.
After the magnificent wild ride of the front nine, Bernard was acutely aware that a few tweaks were necessary to avoid the sense of the course falling away on the back nine. The planned changes for the Irish Open are now complete and the homeward nine has improved noticeably since my last visit. Much of the sea buckthorn has been removed, initially from the 2nd and 3rd holes and more recently in areas around the 10th, 13th and 14th. Most of these mounded areas have been planted with marram grass which is better suited to the links surroundings and gives a much more natural appearance.
Changes to the previously flat 10th green are immediately obvious with mounding added and part of the green lifted to create better contouring. The 14th was a good hole, with its rolling fairway routed up through the dunes, but it’s now even better, as a risk and reward element has been added. This was achieved by moving the teeing areas down towards the river to create options with the driving line and also adding four new bunkers. The bigger hitters may attempt to cut the corner by driving over a large sand dune but anything other than the perfect shot runs the risk of being caught by a large bunker set into the same dune.
A tough finale awaits from the 16th with three long par fours, all well over 400 yards, bringing the round to a conclusion. A new raised back tee on the 18th extends the hole to 471 yards and provides a much better view of the fairway bunkers and the modern, spacious clubhouse.
Northern Ireland is certainly tough to beat as a golf destination, deservedly attracting visitors from all over the world, and with continued forward thinking policies at Portrush and Portstewart, both courses fully deserve the plaudits that will inevitably come their way.