Trip Dispatch: The joys of links golf in Northern Ireland

NEWCASTLE, Northern Ireland -- As the cold horizontal rain pelted me into a state of numbness, making it difficult to walk, much less make a golf swing, I reminded myself that links golf is my favorite kind of golf. After all, I was playing one of the world's greatest links courses, the Championship Links at Royal County Down in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. This was exactly where I wanted to be, right?

With conditions deteriorating as the round went on, especially on the last few holes, it was a struggle, but a struggle on a golf course with great pedigree. Much of Royal County Down's Championship layout dates back to 1896. It was designed by none other than Old Tom Morris. The Championship Links has been the stage for numerous prestigious events such as the Walker Cup and the Senior Open. Even on a sunny day, it's anything but easy.

But on this day, I was experiencing one of the traits of links golf that most golfers don't exactly relish – wet, windy weather with temperatures in the low 40s. This is why most golfers in Great Britain and Ireland don't worry much about stroke play. They usually opt for some sort of match, because on a day like this, making a bogey to win a hole is an unapologetic victory. You've tamed the elements better than your opponent did, and that's worth celebrating.

On my recent weeklong trip through Northern Ireland and the north coast of Northwest Ireland, this was as bad as the conditions would get. I remember thinking to myself it was a shame we had this kind of day at Royal County Down’s great Championship Links, when just the day before we played the facility's other course, Annesley Links, in sunny and mild conditions. Thankfully, as the week continued, the weather improved, and I was able to truly enjoy what makes links golf such a joy and thrill– the majestic dunes, the ocean scenery, firm, fast conditions, and playing golf with your imagination.

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Mike Bailey visits Northern Ireland

It started in Dublin

This was my fifth trip to Ireland, but my first to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain and still trades in British pounds sterling, rather than the euro. Naturally, I had great expectations for the stellar links lineup on my dance card. In addition to Royal County Down, I also played Ardglass, Portstewart, and Royal Portrush, the host site of The Open in 2019. On the last part of the journey, I would also get to venture back into Ireland on the north coast for a couple of dandies as well. This was the part of the trip where I got to drive myself, which is always an adventure for an American not accustomed to navigating a vehicle on the left side of narrow roads. But I'll get back to that later. First things, first: off to the historic town of Newcastle and the Sieve Donald Hotel.

Contrary to what many visitors might think, a Northern Ireland golf trip doesn't have to start by flying to Belfast, the country's capital. While Belfast is certainly an option, there are far more flights from the United States to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. My flight into Dublin also made sense because we started our itinerary in the southern part of Northern Ireland, which isn't much farther from Dublin (about two hours) than it is from Belfast.

We arrived at the historic Sieve Donald, which is right next to Royal County Down, on a sunny afternoon. The weather afforded us a chance to get in a quick round at the club’s recently renovated Annesley Links. Like its big brother, Annesley was designed by Old Tom Morris and opened in 1896. It’s been revised extensively since then. A couple of years ago Martin Ebert executed the latest renovations. The result is one of the longest 5,000-yard courses you'll ever play. The par 67 is also certifiably gorgeous, as plenty of elevated tees and greens overlook the Irish Sea, and the routing intertwines with some of the holes of the Championship Links. Since you certainly won't hit driver off every tee here, there's lots of strategy to this little course as well.

The Annesly Course at Royal County Down is short, but it's just as scenic as its more famous big brother.

Playing an afternoon round on the day of arrival from across the pond is also a great way to adjust for time and jet lag. While it's tempting to take a nap on your first day after a redeye, playing golf – even if it's a bit wobbly – is a great way to adjust your clock. After a wonderful lamb dinner that night at the hotel restaurant – I think they have more sheep than people in Northern Ireland -- it took all of 30 seconds to get to sleep once my head hit the pillow. Morning would come at breakneck speed, and now it was time to play one of the best courses in the world.

Royal County Down leads championship lineup

Annesley was a great warm-up round, of course, for the Championship course at RCD, but nothing can prepare you for the tough conditions we would get the next day. From the get-go, we had our waterproofs on – that's what they call raingear in Great Britain and Ireland – so we knew it was going to be a tough day. The rain was steady, but fairly light in the beginning, nothing we couldn't handle. I actually parred the first hole, a relatively benign par 5, but knew as the day wore on that pars would be somewhat scarce.

Still, even in the tough conditions, it wasn't difficult to appreciate this course. With Dundrum Bay on one side below and the Mountains of Mourne on the other, Royal County Down, located in the Murlough Nature Reserve, is a visual treat. There are some blind shots, elevated tees, gorse, of course, and plenty of difficult undulating greens.

The crosswind holes required my very best concentration. On the ninth, for example, a 483-yard par 4 that requires a 220-yard carry to the fairway down below even from a tee box up, the howling was not only coming into us, but from the left as well. I would hit the best tee shot of the day there, but in order to hit it straight I had to feel like I was hooking the ball to not only hold off the slice wind, but keep it from ballooning as well.

This was the story all day on the Championship Links: figuring out the wind and trying to compensate, hoping the rain gloves provided enough control of the clubface. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. By the last couple of holes, there would be very little feel left, as it was now impossible to stay dry. But at the end, I had played Royal County Down, albeit several strokes higher than my handicap. And that was all right.

Ardglass fun setup for Royal Portrush

Not far from Newcastle is a course that's quite different than Royal County Down. Ardglass Golf Club was established in 1896. At just under 6,300 yards, it is certainly shorter and not as difficult, but it is every bit as scenic and a little quirkier. The first thing that makes a bold impression is the clubhouse. It’s a converted castle that was built in the 1400s. Lunch and a Guinness before or after your round in the clubhouse tavern is a must.

The weather was mostly nice -- a few sprinkles and a little wind mixed in with a few periods of sunshine – so we were able to delight fully in the golf. Perhaps the hardest shot of the entire day is the opening tee shot. It plays uphill around a deep gorge filled with the Irish Sea on the left. You have to keep the tee shot right of that, obviously, and it helps to get it as far up the hill as possible to set up a short approach to a small green perched on a plateau that overlooks much of the course and the sea below. As you make your way around Ardglass, such views are commonplace. You continually play back into the sea or away from it or around a cove on the back nine (which does not start at the clubhouse).

Ardglass is continuing to evolve. Currently, all 58 bunkers are being rebuilt with sod-wall stacks to give the course even more of a links feel. Some seven more bunkers are also being added. While the bunker renovations continue -- a few at a time – there’s no interruption of play. The work is expected to be completed by next year.

Ardglass set the stage for the next day's travel to the north coast of Northern Ireland. Our destination was The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club, which is less than two miles from the famous Giant's Causeway.

One of the new holes for the 2019 Open at Royal Portush's Dunluce Course is the par-5 eighth.

As you might expect, tee sheets are full leading into next year's Open Championship and beyond. Inside the golf shop, logoed merchandise abounds for the 148th Open, which will played July 18-21, 2019.

Dunluce Links has been around since 1909. Harry S. Colt performed its first significant renovation in 1932. The course was renovated again just before it played host to the 1951 Open Championship, and in the last couple of years it was revised again in anticipation of the 2019 return of the Open This time, the old 17th and 18th hole have been converted into space for a spectator village, so two new holes were added. Martin Ebert of Mackenzie & Ebert shifted the playing corridor of the sixth hole and built two new holes near the fifth and sixth holes of the Valley Links, Royal Portrush’s second eighteen, used to be.

The two new Dunluce holes are the downhill par-five seventh and the long, difficult par-four eighth. The seventh, called “Curran Point,” stretches to 590 yards with eight bunkers all down the left side en route to a difficult, undulating green. The eighth plays back down and up the hill the other way. Both are difficult, but if the wind is behind the players at The Open, you can expect them to try for the par 5 in two.

In addition, the course gained 150 more yards to bring it up to 7,137 yards from the tips. Three greens were also rebuilt and some bunker work was added. Ebert also reworked the Valley Course, a shorter, but fun course as well.

As for playing the course, the new holes are nice additions. They fit the land so well and flow so naturally with the other holes that they both seem like they've been in the routing for decades. The course didn't seem as difficult as Royal County Down, but as the Royal & Ancient prepares it for The Open, this could change. I'm looking forward to seeing the best players in the world play it. I did manage to birdie the seventh, by the way, nearly holing out for eagle from just off the green (one of the highlights of my week).

One of the best days weather-wise on the trip was the day we took on The Strand Course at Portstewart, which is less than a half hour from Royal Portrush. I had been told that the Strand Course, which hosted the 2017 Irish Open, has one of the most spectacular front nines of any layout in the world. I certainly wasn't disappointed. The tee shot on no. 1, which sits high above the sea and the dunes, might be worth the green fee alone, but there’s no let up after that. Each hole has character as The Strand winds its way around gigantic dunes and showcases stunning views of the bay.

What I learned, though, is that distance control is everything. Several times, I miscalculated my tee shots and my ball wound up in either the high fescue when I hit through a fairway or in an impossible lie when my attempt to cut a corner failed. Having gone through the course once making plenty of mistakes, I decided to join two other writers for a second crack at it in the afternoon. This was my only 36-hole day of the trip. The result was much the same score-wise, which I’ll attribute more to fatigue than improper strategy. Walking 15 miles with my bag on my shoulder just isn't as easy as it used to be.

Onto the Republic of Ireland

The next day, I got a rental car, so to speak. It was actually a 12-passenger van, as the rental car company apparently ran out of cars. I hopped in and drove west over to the north coast of the Republic of Ireland to play a couple of gems before returning to Dublin to fly back home to the U.S.

Before leaving Northern Ireland, however, I decided to make an early stop at Giant's Causeway, which is less than two miles from the lovely boutique hotel we were staying at – the Bushmills Inn.
I really didn't know what to expect at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there’s an extensive museum as well as trails that lead along the cliffs to the causeway. Legend has it that the large rock columns that lead out into the North Sea were built by Finn MacCool, a mythical Irish hunter-warrior who was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so the two giants could meet. There's more to the legend, of course, but Giant’s Causeway is really just a quirky geological wonder that goes back more than 50 million years (it’s all explained in the museum).

After this 90-minute sightseeing interlude, I got behind the wheel of the van and started my journey toward Ballyliffin on the north coast of Ireland. I was scheduled for an early afternoon tee time, but I didn't quite make it without event. An encounter with a pothole led to a blowout that derailed my arrival, though I did manage to join my mates on the back nine of the Glashedy Links Course, and afterward I played the front nine by myself.

Glashedy Links, one of two 18-hole layouts at Ballyliffin Golf Club, is a modern course. Designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, this host course for the 2018 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was also one of the most enjoyable courses I've ever played. Though the sun shone brightly, a three-club wind howled for most of the day to make the course as tough as it was beautiful. There were so many memorable holes, including two terrific par 3s on the front nine. From the tee on the fifth, a par-3 that plays to a well-protected green about 170 yards away, I could look out into Pollan Bay and see Glashedy Rock Island, for which the course is named. It might have been the most beautiful spot on the course. And the par-3 seventh, with an elevated tee some 150 feet above the green, flanked by a pond to the right, also shined. Club selection was merely an educated guess.

After my round at Ballyliffin, I drove 90 minutes south and arrived in the resort town of Downings on Downings Bay just before dark. I had come for my last round of the trip. This round would be played on the newer of two terrific links layouts at the family-owned Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort, Sandy Hills Links.

The par-5 eighth on Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort plays downhill from the tee.

Golf at Rosapenna actually dates back to the 1890s when Old Tom Morris visited the property and told then owner Lord Leitrim that this is where he needed to build his links. A century later Frank Casey (whose son Frank Casey Jr. is the director of golf now) bought the property and made several additions to Rosapenna, among which were a new nine to the Old Tom Morris Course and the new Sandy Hills Links, which debuted in 2003.

Sandy Hills Links is another Pat Ruddy design (Ruddy, by the way, is responsible for the famed European Club near Dublin), and its name fits it to a T. Built through the dunes surrounding Sheephaven Bay, the views never stop. One special hole follows after another, and because Rosapenna is a little off the beaten path, green fees aren't as high as they are at some other high profile courses.

As for the round, I had the pleasure of playing with a London couple (one of them was originally from this part of Ireland) vacationing in the area. These folks understood how to play links golf and get around a course. It took us less than 3 ½ hours. As for the weather, it was the best of the entire week, with a high around 70 and maybe a one-club wind. That will work on any kind of golf course and make me want to come back for more.

Review the courses mentioned this article!
Newcastle, County Down
Newcastle, County Down
Portrush, County Antrim
Ardglass, County Down
Rosapenna, County Donegal
Ballyliffin, County Donegal
Portstewart, County Londonderry

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Trip Dispatch: The joys of links golf in Northern Ireland