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Royal Portrush is Ireland's only British Open venue.
Royal Portrush is Ireland's only British Open venue. (Brandon Tucker/GolfPublisher.com)

Peaceful Northern Ireland is the Emerald Isle's 'new' golf spot

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor

Royal County Down and Royal Portrush are Northern Ireland's links legends; add in golf courses like Castlerock, Ardglass and Portstewart and you've got a golf vacation destination that stacks up with any in the British Isles.

BELFAST, N. Ireland (April 02, 2007) - Northern Ireland is no newcomer as a golf destination. It just seems that way.

There are plenty of century-or-older golf courses here, but foreigners largely avoided them in recent decades as sectarian strife kept golf tourists to the south. Belfast's Europa hotel claims the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe (32 times).

But it's a safe bet the Europa will witness no more explosions. Nine years after the signing of a peace accord, a ceasefire is firmly in place and Catholic and Protestant leaders are close to a new power-sharing agreement. You won't find much evidence of discord these days.

The biggest beneficiary, of course, is the war-weary population. But it's good news for golfers too. The northern Irish terrain is perfect for spectacular links theater, full of towering dunes and rugged coastline. Royal County Down and Royal Portrush regularly rank among the world's top 10 courses.

Northern Ireland "is getting there" as a golf hot spot, says Kevin Whitson, head professional at Royal County Down.

"People are seeing that we have a great golf product with County Down and Portrush, arguably the two best links courses in all of Ireland. That being supported by Portstewart, Ardglass, Castlerock, it's a destination that's only going to grow."

As the peace process took hold, the golf world returned. The Senior British Open was held almost exclusively at Portrush and County Down from 1995 thru 2004, and the latter course will host this summer's Walker Cup. With a host of other great links, Northern Ireland is worth building a whole golf trip around.

Northern Ireland golf courses

Royal County Down: Built in 1888 from an Old Tom Morris blueprint, Royal County Down is regarded as one of the world's sternest tests of links golf.

There are few easy shots on this long, gorse- and heather-lined course. The par-4 ninth is the most spectacular hole, playing blind over a hill before dropping off severely to a fairway below. The recently rebuilt 16th, a short but tricky downhill par 4, has elevated what had been considered a weak finish.Royal Portrush: With fewer blind shots and slower greens, Portrush's Dunluce Links plays a little easier than County Down, but there's no shortage of fantastic holes.

The fifth green sits open to the sea, with old Dunluce Castle perched in the distance to the east. The long par-3 14th, playing to a green perched over a crevasse, is where slices go to die. And No. 17 sports the giant fairway bunker known as "Big Bertha," the Emerald Isle's largest sand trap.

If not for Dunluce, Portrush's second course, the Valley, "would be talked about right up there with the Castlerocks and Portstewarts," head professional Gary McNeil says. Playing lower (at times even below sea level) and shielded by the massive Curran Strand, the Valley costs about a quarter of a round at its sister course.Ardglass Golf Club: Perched above rocky cliffs and bafflingly under-represented in golf-tour packages, Ardglass offers some of the most unique play and scenery in Britain.

"Here you have the sea and the Mournes [mountains] visible at all times. It's a far better vista" than at County Down, course treasurer Kevin Carville boasts. "The Americans that come here, the camera soon becomes more important than their golf clubs."

The clubhouse is in castle dating to the 13th century, and Ardglass town is home to Ireland's oldest shore-side trading street.

Strand course, Portstewart: The Strand is the most stunning of Portstewart's three 18s, with a front nine as ruggedly beautiful as you'll find in the north. Founded in 1894, the club underwent a major renovation in 1990 that attracted the Irish Amateur Close Championship two years later.Castlerock Golf Club: A bit more player-friendly than Portrush and County Down with similarly great coastal scenery, Castlerock is always in pristine condition - especially the greens, which roll fast and true even in the winter. Although it plays inland, No. 4, aka "Leg o' Mutton," is one of the best par 3s in the region.

Ballyliffin Golf Club: Actually located in the Republic of Ireland on a remote peninsula, Ballyliffin is the island's northernmost golf club and well worth a detour from Northern Ireland proper. Both its courses - the Old, renovated last year by Nick Faldo's design firm, and Glashedy, named for the massive rock just offshore - are links as pure as you'll find.

Northern Ireland hotels

Slieve Donard: The four-star Slieve Donard overlooks Royal County Down - the site was carved off the course property a century ago when the railway came through and the town of Newcastle decided it needed a world-class hotel to accommodate the growing stream of visitors. Named after Northern Ireland's highest peak, it's a relaxing retreat with a spa and six acres of private grounds.

Radisson Roe Park Resort: Located in Limavady in western Northern Ireland, the Roe Park sports a new $2 million spa, multiple dining and bar facilities, a good-value parkland golf course and a practice center, making it a good first stop if you want to prep your game before hitting the coastal links. The spacious and modern facilities make it a year-round favorite for groups and corporate retreats.

Ramada Portrush: Overlooking the sea, this modern three-star option in the heart of Portrush is just minutes from the namesake course and convenient to other local attractions such as the Giants Causeway and the Bushmills Distillery.

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

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