If you've ever scanned a global top 100 golf courses list, you've no doubt seen two Royals near the top: Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. Both located in Northern Ireland, they represent the game's greatest one-two punch the public can play.
Just how phenomenal are these two links? Well, the one that is usually rated higher and considered more difficult, County Down, isn't even the host of The Open (instead, it's a past Walker Cup host among other elite events).
What makes RCD and Portrush especially appealing for golf travelers is they are similarly excellent and spectacular pure links courses with storied histories, but the layouts are quite different. The two occupy difference coastlines: Portrush is on the north coast in County Antrim while County Down is east of Belfast. They are rivals in the sense that the two clubs are separate entities, but their existence makes the other better. In previous decades, when the country's political climate was less desirable to tourism, only diehards would skip out on the rest of GB&I's finest links to play here. Now that the country is peaceful, confidently endorsed by the R&A with the return of The Open, the path to the first tee of these royals is well-trodden.
Located on different sides of the capital city of Belfast less than two hours by car apart, these aren't the only two links worth playing in Northern Ireland. Portstewart, Castlerock and Ardglass are all exciting layouts that fly relatively under the radar. But there's no denying this is a destination famous for its one-two punch. When golf groups plan an itinerary with two stars above the rest, it makes for great banter amongst the group about which is better. And the only thing better than one vacation climax is two.
The Golf Advisor Staff and I kicked around this concept of dynamic duos and our list grew long. You can find great old-and-new combos in Scotland (like Dornoch-Castle Stuart or Kingsbarns-St. Andrews or Machrihanish-Machrihanish Dunes), or in meccas (Pinehurst No. 2-Pine Needles) or at standalone resorts (Bandon Dunes-Pacific Dunes). Here are a few of my other favorite one-two punches I've enjoyed through the years that might be a little under the radar. The underlying theme is that with each duo, the courses are extraordinarily memorable but in vastly different ways.
The first unique duo that comes to mind is in Wales. On the southern coast, Royal Portchawl is the undisputed medal links in the country. It might lack the infrastructure and a few Tiger Tees to host an Open Championship, but for 99.9% of us its every bit the medal links test of any championship links in the GB&I. Clusters of sod-wall bunkers and difficult greens that with swales that funnel balls thought to be safe into deep pots make for a stern test.
Pair the fair and royal links of Porthcawl with its untamed neighbor, Pennard Golf Club, which is quite simply the wildest links I've ever experienced (twice). Livestock roam free and the bounding turf is unpredictable. Nicknamed the "Links in the Sky," the views are so remarkable, in particular from the 16th hole, you won't be stewing about a horrible kick or lost ball for long. Don't play stroke play and mind your step.
In Canada, long, remarkably scenic drives separate the country's best combos. Alberta's Jasper Park and Banff Springs courses, always considered among the country's best and are certainly among the most historically significant, are connected by the Icefields Parkway, where along the mountain highway you can gaze out at glaciers and mountains and grizzly bears and moose.
But the Canada combo I like even more is to the east on Cape Breton Island. Cabot may have two new gulf-side links, but the ultimate one-two punch is Cabot Cliffs and Highlands Links. Don't let the two-and-a-half hour drive deter you; the Cabot Trail is one of the most scenic drives in the world that connects two golf fine courses. Doing so reveals the remote splendor of Stanley Thompson's historic and ambitious national parks course followed by Coore-Crenshaw's modern links marvel featuring some of the boldest holes in golf. I hear of too many golfers who make the journey to Inverness without making the additional stop in Ingonish and to me it's one of golf travel's ultimate shanks.
An epic duo can be found in the Caribbean: Dominican Republic's Teeth of the Dog and Punta Espada. Teeth of the Dog is my favorite Pete Dye course by a mile. It's one of his earlier works and is restrained compared to what you'll get at later-era stuff like French Lick or Kohler. It's routing is delightfully walkable and while Dye is credited for kickstarting an era of modern golf architecture, the course feels mostly classic.
But just up the road in Punta Cana, I may like Punta Espada even more. It's brawny and wide and full of drama. Like the Teeth it features seaside holes on each nine. I'm seldom confident enough with my game to play aggressively on Dye courses, but at Jack Nicklaus' Punta Espada you can't help but swing for the fences on most tees and go for broke on its par 5s and short par 4s. I have a kick-in eagle on that course as well as a ball or two lost to the sea.
If you have a favorite Nicklaus course, but haven't played Punta Espada, I'm not convinced you've played your favorite Nicklaus course yet.
There are countless amazing duos in Scotland, and quite a few great pairings with the Old Course in St. Andrews (whether it's the next door New Course or modern Kingsbarns seven miles away). But the ultimate complement to the Old is North Berwick (the distance between the two is about the same as RCD-Portrush). Both have out-and-back routings that begin and end in the heart of town. The genius of the Old Course design doesn't always reveal itself immediately to golfers who play it (the more you play it in different conditions the more you'll appreciate it). But at North Berwick, the land has more variety and that's noticeable immediately on the first hole with a green perched on coastal rocks more exposed than any Old Course green, followed by an elevated, cape-style tee shot over beach. Rock walls and blind shots and bizarre greens accentuate the round until you finish, like the Old Course, on a short par 4 with buildings and a road to the right.
Will your group prefer the nuances and prestige of the Old, or the more immediate thrills of North Berwick? I go back and forth between which I like more. Both are essential on your first Scotland trip.
Best duo stateside? Tough to narrow down. Last week on Twitter, Matt Ginella asked what your favorite combos in golf were. Here are some of your picks. Let us know others in the comments below!
100% correct on Brora as the 3rd One of the most enjoyable golf days of my life was that double at Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch. Took this pic as we walked Dornoch late that afternoon, having played it for the first time ever the day prior always better the second time around pic.twitter.com/i3APOMNm87— Clark (@ClarkCamden) July 8, 2019