Every June, there is a major amateur golf competition held on the Antrim coast which attracts over one thousand golfers from all parts of Ireland, the United Kingdom and beyond. Formerly known as the “Black Bush” tournament – after a whiskey product of Bushmills, the sponsor – it is now called the Causeway Coast Tournament.
Competitors play a stableford format on four out of five days over the Mussenden at Castlerock, the Strand at Portstewart, the Valley at Portrush and here at Ballycastle. The club is justifiably proud of their involvement in such a prestigious Ulster golfing event where golfers return year after year for a week of great golf played over four top-notch neighbouring courses.
Ballycastle Golf Club was one of nine founding members of the Golf Union of Ireland back in 1891 – the year after they themselves were formed – and members originally played on a 9-hole course that was redesigned in 1906 then extended to 18 holes twenty years after that.
Measuring 5,876 yards, it is regarded by some as a quirky little course with many changes in elevation. Quirky it may be – but uninteresting? Never! The first five holes are played on parkland beside the Margy River and ruins of the Bonamargy Abbey, with the remaining holes laid out along the coast – holes 11 to 17 run up one side of a cliff, along the top, then back down the other side.
Views across to Rathlin Island – and the Mull of Kintyre on a good day – are simply sensational and are an important factor in the golfing experience to be had at Ballycastle. The vista from the tee of the 17th (a 180-yard par three known as “The Pitch”) is also fantastic, with the green lying over 100 feet below. It's just one of many memorable holes at Ballycastle.
A friend and I played Ballycastle during a 5 day trip to Northern Ireland for The Open in 2019 and was one of 5 courses we played (the others being Castlerock (Mussenden), Royal Belfast, Clandeboye (Dufferin) and the Riverside course at Portstewart). It is worth disclosing at the start of this review that I chose this round to play utterly terrible golf, shooting a miserable 24 points where at each of the other courses I was 32+. Perhaps it is for this reason that I remember Ballycastle far less fondly than the other courses, but am bearing this in mind in my best effort to write a fair review.
As you will find in other reviews, the course is rather a mixture of styles. The front 5 holes are flattish parkland, with the next 3 holes plus the 18th being on seaside links-like terrain and the rest being what I would call down land. Taken on their own there is not much wrong with most of the holes in these stretches, in fact the parkland holes and especially 1 and 2 were among my favourites. The 1st being a generous yet interesting short par 5 with the river running up the right-hand side, the 2nd a par 4 doglegging across the corner of an old graveyard.
The 7th, a 400 yard par 4 running along the beach into a clever green, and the par 5 18th between the OOB road on the left and some dunes on the right were my highlights from the more links style section.
The downland holes were for me the weakest, which is a shame as they make up half the course! The 400 yard par 4 15th was in my opinion the most enjoyable, a long drive up to the crest of a hill leaving an attractive looking downhill approach.
I'm afraid for me the course as a whole totalled less than the sum of it's parts. I get quirky, and without routing the holes over different terrain types you wouldn't be able to have an 18 hole course here at all, so bravo to the designers for that. The flow was not helped by the severity of the elevation changes between the seaside holes and the clifftop downland holes. Elevation changes which have been taken care of by two par 3s. One (the 10th) goes up, and one (the 17th) comes down again. These 2 holes for me are the undoing of the course, the 10th more so than the 17th as I felt it literally broke the course in two.
It is 115 yards on the card, and I can't help thinking most of those yards are upwards instead of forwards. Maybe the 10th just irked me on the day and maybe I'm being unfair, but I would prefer to leave the 9th green and just walk up the hill to the next tee to resume on a proper golf hole!
The condition of the course was very good, and credit must be given for the consistency of green conditions between the low-lying parkland holes and the rest. This cannot be easy as one got the impression that these holes can get rather soggy! The clubhouse was very nice and food and drink was excellent value - I think it was the least I've paid for a pint since my teens! The views were also spectacular, and if one plays a course for views alone then Ballycastle surely goes near the top of the list. Looking through my phone I took a lot more photos here than the other courses on our trip! (but then I was playing terribly - Cause or effect!?)
I deliberated between rating this course 3.5 balls or 4 balls. It is definitely satisfactory+ and is worth playing if you are in town. The last half a ball is tricky. If you are going to be playing golf in this part of the world for a few days then definitely stop by on the merit of the views alone, but if you only have time for 1 round of golf in Northern Ireland then your Castlerocks, Portstewarts or Portrushes are only 30-40 minutes away!
Ballycastle won’t be top of the list if you’re looking for golf in the area, the big names such as County Down, Portrush and Portstewart will always dominate and rightly so. That being said, if you want a reasonably priced round on a thoroughly interesting course then you can do a lot worse than Ballycastle.
The course is famously split into thirds, the first few holes are good parkland holes winding around the church on the other side of the road, which is followed by some standout links holes running alongside the beach, with the closing holes a challenging set of holes running along the clifftop and back to the clubhouse.
The views on the middle third are superb, including some Game of Thrones scenery for those that are interested, but it’s also a good golfing course with challenging and well thought out holes throughout.
Well worth a visit, would definitely play again for the views and the diversity alone, a real hidden gem.