The Green Journey
Golf Rally along Northern Ireland
Three great days of golfing in the northwest of England were over and it was time to fly to Belfast and start a great trip leading a group of twenty-four golfers around the north of Ireland. The schedule was to play six consecutive days, tackling the two classics - Royal Portrush (Dunluce) and Royal County Down (Championship) - along with the Glashedy and Old courses at Ballyliffin, Portstewart (Strand) and the beautiful Ardglass.
I arrived on the Friday and checked in at the Ramada Portrush, a very nice hotel in the middle of the town. Driving from Belfast, I had stopped at Portrush around twilight and was able to take some great photos around the clubhouse and 18th hole. The Ramada enjoys an excellent location, offers excellent service and a good restaurant, all of which was a good combination in advance of The Green Journey starting.
On Saturday, before my clients arrived, I had a game on the Strand course at Portstewart, playing in really heavy rain. I also got onto the Mussenden course at Castlerock, another 18-hole layout that golfers need to play if they’re in the area. Unfortunately, the rain was so heavy that we only managed nine holes, with even my Irish playing partners saying the weather conditions were too bad to play golf. All the same, I was happy to get in a great front nine that was far better than I had imagined beforehand.
It was then back to the hotel to receive clients for a Welcome Dinner and an explanation of trip details, including the tournament we were going to play. At last, we were ready to experience some great golf under really green conditions!
Sunday - ROYAL PORTRUSH (DUNLUCE)
The day started with breakfast after a 12km run along the strand at Portrush, as I was training for the 2014 Buenos Aires Marathon. It was one of the nicest outdoor runs I’ve ever had, with great temperatures as the sun was shining. The morning was then taken up by “Tourist Trail” visits to The Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle and Bushmills Distillery. It was really worth spending the time to catch these iconic regional places before driving back to Royal Portrush for a special golfing afternoon.
I had the chance to have a look inside the clubhouse and see all the pictorial images of the course, especially those relating to the 1950s, when it became the first club outside England or Scotland to host golf’s oldest Major, The Open. It’s now known that the course will host the Open Championship again as early as 2019 and changes will be made before then. I was blessed to see the plans for the new holes, although I could not take pictures. Nonetheless, what I saw will make the course even better!
I’ve read many reviews, most of them good and some of them not, but everybody seems to agree that the 17th and 18th are just standard holes for such a great venue and I agree with that. Those two holes will disappear for The Open so no worries there; just a sad note to say goodbye to the huge crossbunker on the 17th called “Big Nellie”. But, as it will be reconstructed on the new 7th hole, one of the Dunluce’s trademarks will remain alive.
The first three holes are maybe not that great, although the par five 2nd is a nice birdie chance. The par three 3rd is a short one but if you miss the green, making par is a huge challenge. Then we have a stretch of five great holes: the 4th is a tough par four where the uphill second shot is not easy, the 5th plays to the ocean with Dunluce Castle close by, the 6th is a terrific par three, the 7th a very tough par four before the short, right doglegged 8th, my favourite hole on the front nine. The 9th is not a bad hole, just maybe not as spectacular as the stretch of holes before it. The halfway house is nice, with anything you wish to drink, which was a good idea in the cold conditions we were playing in.
The back nine starts with an easy par five at the 10th and this is maybe the last real birdie chance on the card. The short 11th hole precedes a tough stretch that includes the dramatic par three 14th (probably the toughest and nicest hole on the course), the downhill 15th and the brutal par four 16th, which will be the closing hole for The Open, playing almost 500 yards from the championship tees.
As mentioned earlier, the last two holes will disappear as they don’t match the quality of the other sixteen, but they are not bad holes at all. The par five 17th is long and that big bunker gives a nice target from the tee. The closing hole is a long and rather flat par four, nothing unremarkable and a tough driving hole. In summary, the Dunluce course is a must, even worth playing twice, and I believe it justifies its status as one of the best and toughest links courses in the world.
We finished playing around 8.00pm and headed for a late evening meal in the harbor area of Portrush. The word amongst the golfers over dinner was that the trip might possibly match our experience of playing in Scotland as the Dunluce could easily outperform Carnoustie or Turnberry - I’m not sure if I shared this view, but I do know that I really loved the course!
This was a totally different day from Saturday in terms of weather as we had sun and a light wind, perfect conditions for links golf. We arrived at the club and the car park was really busy with trucks and machinery involved in nearby filming of “Game of Thrones,” the American fantasy drama television series. That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of my twenty-four golfers though, who all rushed into the pro shop to purchase plenty of goods carrying one of the nicest logos I’ve seen in the UK. Soon after, we all set off on our round and I was last out with the Club Captain and a couple of members in what turned out to be a very fun grouping.
The front nine on the Strand course has some of the nicest holes I’ve been lucky to play in my whole life. On Saturday, we had to quit due to rain but on this day we had the course in the great condition it’s usually presented in. Before we start with the course, some special words need to be said about the clubhouse, which is modern and elevated, giving clear views of the surroundings, including the beach. Everybody was warm in their welcome and the caddies for the group were all members of the Club who really enjoyed sharing their knowledge of the course with their visitors.
The outward half is situated in maybe the nicest piece of property we would face in the entire trip, going around huge dunes with views of the beach and Atlantic Ocean. Although the course is playable, any mistake will result in a big number on the scorecard as there’s little chance of recovery after a bad shot.
Hole 1 is a downhill right dogleg par four where finding the fairway is 90% of the job done. Hole 2 from an elevated tee plays downhill before an uphill approach is required while hole 3 is a long and tough par three. Hole 4 (a reachable uphill par five) and hole 5 (a downhill long par four) are difficult but great holes before golfers arrive at the extremely nice and short par three 6th, where missing the green is disaster as it’s so hard to get back to this elevated green. Arriving at the reachable par five 7th, you face a big birdie chance but don’t miss the second shot on any side. Holes 8 and 9 are two terrific par fours, where placing the tee shot is the real key to making a possible birdie. After a nice beer at the halfway hut, get ready for some different holes with fewer elevation changes closer to the river on the back nine.
The par five 14th is a great hole, before the last three par fours, where scoring is not easy. The Strand course is a good test, a fun place and a very nice setting, I have to say that it’s not quite at the level of Royal County Down and Royal Portrush but it’s a must play track that co-hosted The Amateur in 2014 and the R&A wouldn’t take that event to a bad course!
I was treated like a member when I was at Portstewart, where everybody made you feel so at home. After golf, we had lunch in the clubhouse lounge then some of the golfers went down to the beach to see some filming on the “Game of Thrones” set. The sun was out and watching scenes being made of the television series was a big thrill. Again, dinner was in the marina area of Portrush, where there’s plenty of nightlife and great eating alternatives available. In truth, the location of the Ramada Portrush hotel is unbeatable.
Tuesday - BALLYLIFFIN (OLD)
During the planning of the trip, I made one big mistake and that was not analyzing the travel distance between the two Ballyliffin courses and the Ramada Portrush hotel. Unfortunately, the order of playing the courses had to be set that way, so two long journeys were needed to play golf. But the night before going to Donegal, we came up with the idea of staying in the area close to the courses and most of the golfers decided to remain near Ballyliffin that night instead of returning to Portrush.
We arrived at Ballyliffin and the first sight of the clubhouse, although modern, gives the image of pure tradition. We played the Old Course, where the layout was not even constructed as they mowed the grass, placed the bunkers, created the greens and there you have one of those true natural links where shot making is the only way to score. Opened in 1949, Nick Faldo completely refurbished the bunkers in the 1990s. The course is pretty much plain, with no big elevation changes but there are nice views of the Atlantic Ocean and Glashedy Rock, which gives its name to the other course on the property. I played with Club Captain Paddy and it was interesting to learn from him the history of the course and club, how the new Glashedy was built, how Faldo helped the club develop and how Rory as a young kid smashed the Glashedy course record with a 66.
The front nine is maybe easier than the back nine with some great holes like the uphill par three 5th, played to a very tough green which, if you miss it off the tee, then God help you! The course gets tough and demanding as you arrive at the long par three 12th, where a long iron is needed to reach a really difficult green. Holes 14 to 18 comprise a good final stretch, especially the long and tough 18th. If you fluff the tee shot then your third one will be a very long one. We finished in the rain and I was pleased to get one of the best pars of the tour on the 18th after a fantastic five iron to fifteen feet, unfortunately missing the birdie putt.
After getting soaked out on the course, a very nice lunch was served in the restaurant upstairs, where the views of the course and coastline are tremendous. In my case, with five other guys, we stayed at a lovely little guesthouse at Malin Head, the most northerly spot in Ireland. John McLaughlin from North & West Coast Links invited me for dinner at Ballyliffin Lodge, where we had a good chat about the fantastic trip we were experiencing. We were at the half way stage of the trip and at that moment, the north of Ireland was showing us it certainly had courses at the level of the best in Scotland.
Wednesday - BALLYLIFFIN (GLASHEDY)
Next day, after an early morning breakfast, it was time to head back to Ballyliffin, where I played with my Irish friends from North and West Coast Links on the Glashedy. We had a really fun match which we lost to the locals, of course, but it was a great golfing experience nonetheless. We had a decent day in terms of weather, even though there were some short, sharp showers during the round. The course is totally different to the Old as this one was completely manufactured. The views are as good as you can imagine, the best of which are from the top of the dunes on the 7th tee. This signature hole is a great downhill par three with water to the front right side of the green, where calculating distance is extremely difficult.
The opening six holes are great, especially the par five 4th and par three 5th, played in the direction of Glashedy Rock (which is similar to Ailsa Craig at Turnberry). The back nine is tougher than the front nine and you will find many difficult holes. For example, the 15th is a monster par four (into the wind and rain, it was driver and 3 wood to reach the green) and the 17th is a very demanding par five that also plays into the wind normally. The home hole is a very nice right dogleg, where tee shot needs to be extremely accurate.
After playing thirty-six holes here, I can say that Ballyliffin was a very nice golfing experience on a great pair of courses with a fantastic clubhouse, making it well worth the ride up the Inishowen peninsula. And the presence of Glashedy Rock reminded me a little bit of my beloved Scotland!
But the day was not over as a three hour drive to the Slieve Donard hotel awaited us so, with my friend Fernando, we jumped into the car after lunch and set off for Newcastle. Luckily, the sun was shining so it was a very enjoyable journey to the east coast. I quickly left my belongings in my hotel room then rushed next door to the Championship course at Royal County Down to take some pictures in very nice late evening light. We had dinner at the hotel with eight other guys and the consensus of opinion was that the Slieve Donard was really something special, at least at the same level as the Turnberry hotel in Scotland.
Thursday – ARDGLASS
We woke up early as tee times at Ardglass were for early in the morning. The weather forecast was great, so all of us enjoyed a hearty breakfast at Slieve Donard then drove to this breathtaking place some twenty-five minutes away from Newcastle. I was the first to arrive and the clubhouse, designed like a fort, certainly grabs your attention!
Regarding the course, I’d been told some months before by another client that Ardglass was not that good, despite five great opening holes and a couple of others that were good holes. I have to say that I totally disagree with this opinion! I learned a few things about the history of the club inside the clubhouse then received my group of twenty-four golfers, spending time between the putting green - rolling at 10 on the stimpmeter, at least - and the first tee.
Finally, it was time for my round with the Club Captain, which is a very big honor as a visitor. The first hole is one of the most challenging opening tee shots I’ve faced, where you have to carry more than two hundred yards. You also need to be precise to have a better angle to an elevated green in between the rocks. It was very nice to start with a birdie from twenty feet downhill which rolled extremely pure. The 2nd is a dramatic, over the cliff, par three which that day played 165 yards into the wind. Holes 3 and 4 are two terrific par fours, one of them with a semi blind shot which made it tough into the wind. All four holes go along the cliff on the left. The 5th is a fine par three where, if you land in the right side bunker, you need to donate money to charity as it’s called the “Captain’s Bunker”. After that, holes 6, 7 and 8 are just standard holes which, in my opinion, might need some creativity in redesign as they go inland away from the ocean views. We then reach a great stretch from hole 9 to 13, which I loved.
Hole 9 is a great uphill par five, with a very tough second shot. The 10th is a very difficult par three, where the green sits by the shore, before the spectacular par five 11th leads to a well-protected green, the shoreline flanking the right side of the fairway. Playing into the wind, I managed to hit the shot of the week with my three wood to two feet for an eagle. Hole 12 is a dramatic, downhill par three where hybrid is often the club of choice then the 13th is a demanding, long par four with a blind second shot. Holes 14 to 17 are nothing special before a very nice finishing par four, where the elevated tee and a tail wind make it reachable with the tee shot. The views of the Irish Sea and the clubhouse are amazing and maybe the nicest I was able to experience in Northern Ireland. After the round, a big dish of mussels in the clubhouse completed a very pleasurable experience that I really hope to repeat in the future.
If you go to this part of the country, you have to play Ardglass. Some holes may just be “standard” but the views are all fantastic and there’s thrilling golf to be played at more than half the holes on the card. With well-maintained greens that run fast and true, staff that are kind and helpful, everything at Ardglass is just as a golf course should be. And the other special feature of the course is that they have twenty-three greens, so in winter they change the configuration of the course, enabling you to play some different layouts.
On my way back to the Slieve Donard hotel, and taking advantage of a sunny day, I went to Royal County Down for a short walk and the chance to take some more pictures. It looked like the nicest woman on earth! It was then time for another long run, using the golf course, the shore and part of the dunes for a special 12km stint on my own. Dinner took place in a nearby restaurant, tasting some of the best seafood in all of the UK. A special day lay ahead of us and many of our group had already walked the course and spent a good many sterling pounds in the pro shop.
Well… the day finally came and my round at RCD came true. Since I started to play some of the top ranked courses in the world, I really wanted to be in Newcastle and experience for myself how good the course was, as words and text are never enough.
I’ve played Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Shinnecock, Merion, Winged Foot and some more, and all I can say is that RCD comes very close, if not better, than Pine Valley. I believe it is a greater course than Cypress and Shinnecock, not only because of design and variety, but also due to the great scenery surrounding the course with the Irish Sea, the Mourne Mountains, the dunes and coloured gorse making it look totally natural.
We arrived early at the course as the pro shop is an attraction not only for shirts and sweaters but for every kind of souvenir you can imagine, such as ball markers, glasses, paintings, club covers and logo balls. Many of my group spent quite a bit and they’ll exhibit their new gear very proudly back in Argentina. The day was not perfect and sunny, but not bad at all as we only had a little bit of wind and it rained on only one hole.
Every golfer in the group was extremely excited and knew how special this course is. You could see the happiness in their faces and, when the first group hit their opening tee shots, the best round of the Tour was on its way. The first four holes are as great as you can imagine. Hole 1 is a gentle par five, where a good drive can give you a birdie chance but the second shot needs to be very accurate. Holes 2 and 3 are marvellous par fours with a very challenging tee shot normally. As we played downwind, a three wood was enough. Arriving at the 4th hole, you find the first monster, playing 215 yards into the wind, with danger all around. All I can say is bogey here is not bad! The tee shot on the 5th is tough to find the fairway but once you’ve done this, most of the job is done. The short par three 7th is relatively easy, but a shanked pitching wedge led me to a very disappointing double bogey and my only lost ball! The final two par fours on the front nine are wonderful holes, with the 9th maybe the nicest hole in Ireland. When you get over the hill, a picture there is mandatory!
The back nine played downwind from the great par three 10th to the par three 14th, where I unfortunately played another shanked shot from the tee, resulting in another double bogey! The last four holes into the wind were tough but I managed pretty well as finding the fairway makes the difference between a par and a really big number. At the 15th, which was the only hole where we had some rain, one of the excellent caddies said the hole should be the rated stroke index 1 as it plays all of 454 yards, normally into the wind. My low cut drive found the fairway, 215 yards from the pin, then I hit another low cut hybrid with such good fortune that the ball went into the hole for eagle - finding the cup from that distance was 100% luck!
After finishing the round, an exploration of the clubhouse is a must as there are lots of pictures to see, including one of Rory and GMac playing on their own, carrying their bags, just days after the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, which shows the great amateur spirit they both still have. It was a great round and an even better experience on a must play course. RCD is a demanding challenge and now shares my personal number 1 rank with Pine Valley. Many may disagree and I can understand that, but neither of them should be number 2 to the other. It would certainly be a very tough job to build a course better than these two.
We held our prize giving in the clubhouse then many of us spent some quality time in the hotel pool, reliving memories of an unforgettable golf trip. Before our evening meal, I went back to the course to take a few more pictures and got some fantastic shots of holes 1, 8 and 9, all the time wishing I had another chance to play the course.
At the last dinner in the hotel, we all agreed that the north of Ireland is a special golfing spot where every golfer should come to play. The Irish Open 2015 will show Royal County Down to the world and in 2019 we should have The Open at a redesigned Royal Portrush, with more people hopefully falling in love with these two golfing masterpieces.
I have not been to many courses in The Emerald Isle that are very well renowned (like Ballybunion, Lahinch, Old Head, Tralee, Rosapenna, Waterville, Portmarnock Old, The K Club and Druids Glen) but I really expect to visit more in the future as these eight days in the north of the island were something really special.
Saturday – THE ISLAND GOLF CLUB
There was a bonus for me with my good friend Áine Mangan from the East Golf Alliance and this was playing a gem of a course at The Island Golf Club. After a very early wakeup call at 4.00am and a two-hour drive to meet my friend, we met up outside a deserted clubhouse, where I hit the opening shot of the day, a very nice stinger with the three wood. On a lovely sunny day, we enjoyed one of the best, though still relatively unknown, layouts in Ireland, where the quality of the course was spectacular.
The opening hole is a tough par four, whilst you go close to the sea for holes 2 and 3. All the front nine holes are good and sort of tricky, compared to some tougher holes on the back nine. A reachable but difficult 8th and a short par three 9th provide a nice finish to the outward half.
The back nine starts with a long and difficult par five but when you arrive at “Valhalla” (the par four 12th) you face the best and most difficult hole on the course. After a missed drive into the rough, I had to lay up then play a 130-yard iron into the wind for my third shot! The par three 13th used to be the 18th when golfers arrived at the course by boat, up until 1973.
The narrow and reachable par four 14th is maybe the last real birdie chance as the final par five at hole 15 is long and the fairway is hard to find. The par three 16th requires a long iron from the back tees to a difficult, sloping green. Hole 17 could offer a birdie if it plays downwind then the home hole is a brutal 460-yard par four which I could not reach in two despite two good shots.
Lunch in the clubhouse concluded my visit to Ireland. The Green Island certainly has a lot more to show and I’ll do my best to experience more of it in the future but, as a start, this was a hell of a trip!
29 May 2015 Respond to this article