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Northern Ireland: Made for Golf

14 August, 2015

Northern Ireland: Made for Golf

The Northern Ireland Open showcases what the region has to offer golfers

The third edition of the Northern Ireland Open took place last week at Ballymena in County Antrim, with Galgorm Castle Golf Club once again hosting this prestigious European Challenge Tour event. As part of their strategy to promote the region as a top class golf destination, both Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland invited a number of journalists to see just how good the facilities are in this part of the world.

Arriving through the gates of Galgorm Castle for the Open pro-am on the Wednesday morning, it was easy to see just how big an event the Open tournament has become on the Challenge Tour circuit. In addition to a large exhibition marquee situated close to the clubhouse, a Good Food Festival had also been set up within the grounds of the Jacobean Castle, allowing spectators to sample the best of local produce from around the six counties.

The course itself was in remarkably good condition, considering the heavy rain that had recently fallen. It may have been a little soggy underfoot but the greens were in absolutely fabulous shape, with putting speeds registering in excess of ten on the stimpmeter. And because the course is laid out within an old wooded estate, the tree-lined fairways have the feel of a mature parkland track – with the added bonus that they play to large putting surfaces built to USGA specification.

After returning to the very comfortable Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena, pro-am participants were able to relax at a Gala Dinner, where Christopher Brooke from Galgorm Castle and Alain de Soultrait, Director of the European Challenge Tour, thanked Mayor Billy Ashe and everyone in attendance for their support. When tables had been cleared, a prize raffle was then held on behalf of nominated charity Cash for Kids before guest speaker Gerry Donnelly rounded off proceedings with a very amusing after dinner talk.

Next day, it was back to Galgorm Castle immediately after breakfast to have a proper look around the off course facilities, engage with staff in the pro shop and arrange interviews with one or two of the Open players. Our media group’s Spanish correspondent Miguel was particularly keen to have a few words with Javier Ballesteros, son of Seve, and he managed to catch him on the practice ground before our coach set off for Dungannon Golf Club, where Darren Clarke learned to play the game as a young lad.

Dungannon may never host a top flight championship – at 6,151 yards it’s way too short a test for elite golfers – but as a typical example of a homely little course that’s been lovingly developed by members down the years, it was an ideal choice of venue. One of thirty-one golf clubs in Northern Ireland accredited by the tourist authority with a Golf Quality and Assurance award, Dungannon is also one of the oldest clubs in the country. Indeed, along with Aughnacloy and Killymoon from County Tyrone, it was one of the nine founder members of the Golf Union of Ireland in 1891.

Today’s 18-hole layout has evolved over 125 years into the tidy course that it is now. Starting out as a 9-hole track, it was doubled in size in the 1960s to its current configuration, with fairways set out on lovely rolling countryside. The club has also kept pace with the demands of modern day golfers by replacing its old clubhouse with a very modern structure in the year 2000 so it now has all the attributes necessary to allow it to prosper well into the new millennium.

Last stop on the whistle stop tour of Northern Ireland was to the five star golf resort at Lough Erne in the centre of the Fermanagh Lakelands. Situated five miles outside Enniskillen, the resort gained global recognition when it hosted the thirty ninth G8 summit in 2013, despite the fact it had been placed into administration two years earlier. Happily, an American hotel and management company has just taken over the business so the future now looks a lot brighter for everybody connected with this stunning property.

There are actually two 18-hole layouts at Lough Erne, the Castle Hume course and the Faldo course, with the former opening in the mid-1990s, a decade before its better-known sibling was launched in a blaze of publicity. The Faldo course has recently been chosen to host the Irish Open in 2017 so the European Tour has absolutely no doubts about its quality or, even more importantly, its ability to stage a major national championship.

The fairways are set out on undulating terrain that embraces a number of landforms, from lakeland to woodland and wetland, with large, sensibly contoured greens offering plenty of scope for different pin positions. Visiting golfers are sure to be impressed by the course and the clubhouse facilities but an overnight stay (including dinner in the hotel’s fabulous Catalina restaurant) is also highly recommended in order to properly appreciate the full Lough Erne experience.

Having crammed a lot into three days, it was now time to head for home as the official visit drew to a close. However, the experience was far from finished – after all, how could a look at golf facilities in Ulster’s hinterland be complete without a game at one of the many top class courses that surround Belfast city centre?

And so, following an invitation from Malone General Manager Paddy Dean to play the two principal nines at this 27-hole club, an extra day was tagged onto the trip in order to visit this terrific parkland track. Malone moved to Ballydrain just over fifty years ago but the maturity of its parkland setting is such that you’d imagine it’s been there a lot longer. Holes are routed around a lake on a heavily undulating property which lends itself to plenty of elevation changes throughout the round, with only three holes affected by water on the back nine.

The tourist authorities are missing a trick if they’re not trying to market Malone and other similar courses nearby as part of a Belfast city break package for visitors. There are a dozen accredited clubs located within half an hour’s drive from the city centre so there’s no reason why golfers on a long weekend or midweek break can’t be enticed away for a morning or an afternoon to sample the golfing fare that’s on offer close to the capital.

The golf courses at Royal Portrush and Royal County Down certainly hog the limelight in Northern Ireland and rightly so, as they’re world class layouts that should be on the bucket list of every well-travelled golfer. However, because there are less than a dozen links courses dotted around the coastlines of Londonderry, Antrim and Down, they’re not really representative of the type of golf that’s played by the majority of locals in Northern Ireland.

With that in mind, it’s good to be able to focus attention away from the big names occasionally and to point the spotlight on some of the other courses that fully deserve wider recognition, so bear this in mind when planning a trip to the province because there’s plenty of good golf to be found in the Ulster heartlands.

Jim McCann
Top 100 Golf Courses


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