Even by Northern Irish standards, the country has seen more than a few unusual things happening in recent years. Take for instance, the time a dragon scorched the earth to rescue its ‘Mother’. Then there was the time a witch gave birth to a ‘shadow creature’ — a bodiless entity that went on to assassinate a rival royal. And who can forget that jousting tournament when Gregor Clegane beheaded a horse? As for all those happenings at Winterfell…
It’s with good reason that blockbusting fantasy series Game of Thrones has made Northern Ireland its home, with the producers making the most of its ruined castles, isolated but breathtaking beaches and deeply wooded forests.
With 25 accessible film locations in the country, the series has sparked a huge resurgence in the Northern Ireland tourism industry. A record 2.1 million overseas visitors arrived in 2016, making what’s estimated as upwards of £150m contribution to the local economy since the series began — and that’s considered a modest guess.
But while Game of Thrones with its 18 million viewers across 199 territories might be making headlines for Northern Ireland, in 2019 (when the series returns to the screens), it’s going to be sharing top billing with golf, specifically The Open — which returns to the country for the first time in just shy of 70 years.
That rugged, jagged coastline that makes it a perfect film location also makes it ideal for links golf. Peppering the shorelines of County Antrim and County Down are no fewer than 52 courses, and next year all eyes will be on Royal Portrush (royalportrushgolfclub.com, green fees from £70) on the North Antrim Causeway Coast.
The course dates back to 1888, when it began life as a nine-hole, extended to 18 a year later, and it didn’t take long to start breaking records. The first of its eight British Ladies Championships was back in 1895, the Irish Professional Championship began here (in 1907), it’s held four Irish Opens and, of course that 1951 Open — when Englishman Max Faulker took his only Major by two strokes.
Even without these accolades it takes only one look at Royal Portrush to realise why it’s such a special location for a tournament, and one that’s going to attract a sell-out crowd. Designed by legendary golf architect Harry Colt — who includes Pine Valley in the US on his list of some 300 course he worked on — Royal Portrush has two courses with Dunluce the centrepiece. The ever-changing, wild undulating landscape might offer incredible views of the North Atlantic that will almost literally take your breath away — thanks to that often fierce sea air — but it’s going to challenge even the very best golfers (only two golfers famously broke 70 in 1951).
Nonetheless, Northern Ireland’s local heroes are captivated, with Rory McIlroy describing it as one of his ‘favourite courses in the world’, and Portrush-born US Open winner Graeme McDowell, saying recently: “It’s been a long time since The Open has been held anywhere other than England and Scotland and to bring it back here to Portrush is going to really capture the imagination of people. I think they’ll come out in their masses and it’ll be a sell-out crowd.
“I’m very proud, having grown up hearing the myths and legends of the ’51 open at Portrush — I’ve stood on putting greens picturing two putts to win the British Open here. Playing The Open Championship at Portrush was a boyhood dream and it’s going to be a dream come true next year.”
Even if you can’t fit a round at Dunluce in, there’s always sister course, Valley Links, also designed by Colt, and a 6,304-yard, par 70. Like its neighbour, it gives no golfer an easy ride and is just as easy on the eye.
Of course, the additional benefit of Northern Ireland is that it’s very easy to navigate and nothing is ever that far away. From north to south, its only 82 miles and east to west is 86 miles. Driving the country roads can take up time but the scenery is so beautiful that it’s far from unpleasant. As such it’s easy to work in courses outside of Royal Portrush into an itinerary.
Head west along the coast from Portrush and soon you’ll find Portstewart Golf Club (portstewartgc.co.uk, green fees from £60) with three 18-hole courses, including the signature The Strand, part of which was built in the 1980s on virgin sand dunes known as Thistly Hollow, which perhaps should be the first warning sign for any golfer looking to maintain or improve a handicap. For any to have played them, the first nine holes of this links course live long in the memory, with some even going so far as to describe them as ‘the best first nine holes in golf’. There are colossal dunes dwarfing the fairways and the green, which offers an interesting obstacle.
Nature also often proves to be the trickiest opponent on the opposite
coast at the stunning Royal County Down (royalcountydown.org, green fees from £70), set in the Murlough Nature Reserve with the Mountains of Mourne
as a backdrop. The par 71, 7,186-yard course features regularly on top 100 lists and, much as it’s immaculately kept, the heather, gorse and thick grasses that surround fairways and protect bunkers, make for a classic beauty and the beast landscape.
Although if you’re making this a road trip then before you head to Royal County Down, you’ll want stop for an 18 at Holywood Golf Course (holywoodgolfclub.co.uk, green fees from £30), Rory McIlroy’s home course.
The four-time Major champion was born in Holywood, County Down, and it was here that he learnt his trade — Rory, his dad and uncle remain members today. The 6,118-yard, par 69, parkland course still offers plenty of challenges, and has good views, but you’re here as much for the pilgrimage as anything else. Time it right and you might find replicas of The Claret Jug, US Open and USPGA trophies on display and if you ask staff at the club you’ll even be able to have your picture with them.
And that’s a memento you will want to keep, because while he may not have slain any dragons, conquered a kingdom or fought off a marauding army, Rory McIlroy is a genuine living legend in these parts. Should he win The Open at Royal Portrush, then a throne would be the only thing befitting his golfing royalty status.