For the first time since 1951, the Open Championship returns to Ireland in 2019, to the same distinguished Northern Ireland club — Royal Portrush — that last hosted this major championship beyond the well-known Scotland-England rota. Considering Ireland’s rich golf history and the many remarkable courses the island country contains, that sportive abstinence is surprising to many. Don’t get me wrong, England and Scotland are great, but … what the heck? 68 years? Whatever the reason for the extensive absence of championship glory on these shores, the locals couldn’t be more excited to welcome (home) Rory McIlroy and the rest of world’s best golfers (all 200,000-plus tickets sold out before January) and they want you to know what I already know …
“The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush is an incredible major venue for golf and … there are so many other great golf venues in Ireland for you to explore.”
Not yet having had the opportunity to visit New Zealand or Australia, and with apologies to the home of The Old Course (and sticky toffee pudding), Ireland is my favorite island country in the world. I have an American flag over my desk painted Irish green and a six-year-old leprechaun at home who is always chasing rainbows. I eat Lucky Charms, saw Ed Sheeran in concert before Taylor Swift made him famous, and my eyes turn green when I’m really happy (seriously). I’m as Irish-American as someone can be without a twig of Irish in their family tree.
When I spoke with 2011 Open Champion Darren Clarke in the Bahamas earlier this year, I was enthusiastically blunt in my assessment of his homeland. “I love Ireland,” I said. He laughed. “Why?” he asked. “You like cold, wind and rain? Or is it Game of Thrones?” I actually hate the cold, wind and rain (unless I’m under a tin roof) and haven’t watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. “I’m a romantic,” I replied. “I love the ocean, and Ireland is all coastline. I love the castles and cliffs, of Moher and of the Giant’s Causeway. I love the wild, open spaces; the sheep everywhere; and the one-lane roads lined with rock walls where cars go three-wide. I love the people and how every night in a bar feels like a Friday night. And the golf is …” I trailed off there, and Darren picked up with a nod. “The golf is pretty great.”
• Hidden Ireland: Golfers know what they are getting, but do they know what they are missing? Read it here.
I’m a history fanatic, so I understand that Ireland is still very divided in some ways (not unlike America). I wish that weren’t the case (in both instances) because as a people they (and we) have so much mutual greatness to celebrate. But, politics aside, I see Ireland as a North and a South not because geographically it IS two countries, but because it’s almost impossible to cover the entire island in one golf trip (unless you’re a lunatic like my friend Tom Coyne, who wrote A Course Called Ireland).
So that we’re on the same page, when I refer to “Northern Ireland” I’m talking about everything North of Padraig Harrington’s hometown of Dublin (and everything from Galway north). That does include the country of Northern Ireland, of course, but it also includes Belmullet, Sligo, Donegal, Ballyliffin and more. Looping full-circle counter-clockwise out of Dublin, here are “20 Reasons to Visit Northern Ireland” — specific stops worth considering for your own Northern Ireland Golf Experience. Or collection of experiences.
Why start in Dublin instead of Belfast? Simply put, I’ve yet to fly into Belfast. Not because you can’t, or for any ulterior motive, but because out of the Midwest it’s always been easier, more direct and cheaper to fly into Dublin. I don’t know much about Belfast accordingly, except that the Titanic was built there, but I love Dublin and always make it a point to spend at least one full day exploring the city (Trinity College is a must-visit). Coincidence or not, after several letters to my congressman, Aer Lingus added direct flights to/from Minneapolis. (Who said politicians don’t listen?) While that easier access might have cut into the bar sales of Twin Cities Guinness carriers, I personally don’t mind. Now Ireland feels even closer to home.
County Louth Golf Club: It’s a 30-mile drive north from Dublin International Airport (DUB) to the somewhat “hidden gem” of a golf club commonly known as Baltray. Many, if not most, international flights arrive in Ireland in the morning. If you don’t sleep on planes, you’re going to be tired. But you came here to golf so don’t let jetlag make you weak. Put it in its place. Schedule a round at Baltray on arrival day, about two to three hours after touchdown. The pansies in your group can nap in the clubhouse. Claiming some of Ireland’s greatest greens, the first-timer deserves a medal if he or she can avoid a three-putt. The course literally plays in every direction and yet (it’s proven) you could still have the wind in your face on every hole.
Royal County Down and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa: Spend a couple nights 65 miles north of Baltray (30 miles south of Belfast) at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. The fantastic seaside hotel (with one of my favorite hot tubs in the world) also happens to sit adjacent Royal County Down, the course Golf Digest has ranked No. 1 in the entire world. Royal County Down (established 1889) has two 18-hole courses, the Annesley Links and the Championship Links. The Annesley Course is full of fun 3-pars and short 4-pars with a few special holes that play along the water. The Championship course doesn’t need wind to eat your lunch, but wind you’ll probably get nonetheless (so bring an extra lunch). If you don’t love blind shots, you might not appreciate the genius of Royal County Down, but some of those dune-top views are spectacular and the greens you do hit are super fun. I played Royal County Down in a hurricane with Tom Coyne, and I distinctly remember him saying, “I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun getting my a** kicked.” Let’s just say it’s a course you appreciate more a second time around (and even more with much less wind).
Ardglass Golf Club: While staying at the Slieve Donard, make the 19-mile drive east to Ardglass, a peninsular golf course with a castle-like clubhouse that claims to be the “oldest clubhouse in the world” dating back to 1405 AD. And who am I to argue with a castle? Go up on the roof to take a picture of the par-4 opening hole “Lamb’s Lough” carved into the cliffs, pummeled by the ocean waves. Ardglass might be Northern Ireland’s most picturesque round, which is certainly saying something. A few of the holes are a bit quirky, and there are a few tee shots I didn’t love, but if you measure your rounds by the number of “wow” moments, you’ll be as overwhelmed as I was here. If you won’t take my word for it, how about that of Tom Coyne, who calls Ardglass one of his few “favorite places to play in the entire world.” The par-3 12th hole “Cathlin” is my favorite of a solid nine “signature” holes on the course (at least), with a panoramic clifftop tee box taking you down to the ocean-guarded green.
Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Bridge: Speaking of giants, a trip to Northern Ireland would not be complete without a visit to Giant’s Causeway. Coming from Belfast, it is 60 miles north to Ballycastle and the famous Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. From that bridge, it’s 7.5 miles west to the 40,000 basalt columns at the foot of the Antrim Plateau. Regardless of whether or not you hated science in high school (as I did), you’ll be blown away by these ancient volcanic remains. And if there’s an hour in Ireland off the course that you’ll spend in absolute awe, it will be here. I direct you here because at Giant’s Causeway you’re only three miles from the town of Bushmills, and if you stay anywhere up here other than the Bushmills Inn, you’re doing your trip wrong.
Royal Portrush and The Bushmills Inn: Quaint and quirky with small rooms but big meals, a hidden library and a great bar with live music, The Bushmills Inn is the most “homey” of the places I’ve stayed in Ireland — and I mean that in the very best way. It’s the ideal base for tourists targeting the Causeway and Dunluce Castle, and for golfers looking to play Darren Clarke’s home course and the home of the 2019 Open Championship — The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush (only 5.2 miles away). The first professional golf tournament in Ireland was a match-play event held at Portrush in 1895 with Sandy Herd defeating Harry Vardon in the final. Royal Portrush Golf Club today consists of two courses — the Dunluce and the Valley Course. Harry Colt laid out the plans for the Dunluce in 1929. Max Faulkner won the last Open Championship held there (in 1951) with a score of 285. Rory McIlroy holds the course record of 61 — which he set when he was 16 years old. On my visit I asked dozens of people who they were pulling for to win the Open Championship. All of them said Rory except for one young girl, apparently in love with Fleetwood’s hair (I get it). “This course was built for Tommy,” she said. “And I have a room for him at my place if he needs one.” (I’m guessing he’ll find a different place to stay.)
Portstewart Golf Club: Another golf target you can hit from a stay at Bushmills is the 36-hole club at Portstewart. “We’ve got Northern Ireland’s best front nine and all of Ireland’s best greens,” one club member claimed of Willie Park Jr. and Des Giffin’s Strand Course (dubbed “the sleeping giant”). Bold as that claim might be, the front nine is unbelievably scenic, certainly stellar and chock full of memorable golf holes. The greens are very fun to putt, and the lunch view from the patio is pretty spectacular as well. One thing I remember well about Portstewart is how exhausted I was after the round. This is a course no one would walk in the United States, but everyone walks in Ireland. And as tiring as it is, you truly appreciate genuine links golf here — the massive dunes, North Atlantic Ocean views and fast, fun playing pitch. The other course at Portstewart is the original — the Old Course — a par-64 track playing only 4,822 yards with the opening eight holes built on the rocky shoreline. It goes without saying that the front nine is drop-dead gorgeous.
Castlerock Golf Club: Another great links course that you can hit on a Bushmills stay or catch on your way over to Ballyliffin, is Castlerock. Castlerock was founded in 1901 and has 27 holes, with the Mussenden 18 and the Bann 9 that plays second fiddle in fun to no nine on the northern Atlantic shore. You’ll constantly hear about massive dunes when you read about links golf in Ireland, and Castlerock has walls of them with a moat to boot (aka the River Bann). Castlerock is the brainchild of Ben Sayers, the head professional who came over from North Berwick in Scotland in 1908 (if that tells you where his architectural genius came from), and he had plenty of help from Harry Colt in the construction of this incredible sand-based stadium.
Ballyliffin Golf Club: Hard as it might be to do (once you’ve spent a few incredible nights there), you’ll have to leave The Bushmills Inn (and the country of Northern Ireland) to continue your loop over to Ballyliffin Golf Club (host of the 2018 Irish Open). Ballyliffin is 62.5 miles west of Bushmills, really close to the northernmost tip of the island at Malin Head. Ballyliffin has two 18-hole golf courses, the Glashedy Links and the Old Course. While I got some great photography on the Old Course, I experienced way more golf thrills on the Glashedy Links and can see why Rory McIlroy and the boys loved it so much. The Glashedy was designed and built by Pat Ruddy (owner of The European Club) and Tom Craddock. The 3-pars here are fantastic although there are only three of them, from No. 5 towards the Atlantic to the “signature” hole No. 7, which plummets from tee box to pond-guarded green. While visiting Ballyliffin, I recommend staying at the Ballyliffin TownHouse Boutique Hotel (excellent management — with their kitchen closed for a wedding, they literally went out and got me fresh fish and chips when I arrived late) and eating at Nancy’s Barn, a restaurant-bistro with desserts and baked goods to consume without restraint.
Portsalon Golf Club: Leave Ballyliffin early in the morning for Portsalon Golf Club on the Fanad Peninsula, one of Ireland’s most underrated and overlooked golf links. As the sheep grazes, it’s only about 20 miles west along the coast, but as your car drives it’s a full 56 miles around Lough Swilly to a club founded in 1891 by Colonel B.J. Barton with a course designed by Charles Thompson (the Portrush professional at the time) and later enhanced by Pat Ruddy. The course is absolutely worth playing, but stay another 13.5 miles west at Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort.
Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort: The 36 holes on Sheephaven Bay include The Old Tom Morris Links designed by David McLay Kidd in 1893 (just kidding — designed by Old Tom Morris and later modified by Harry Vardon, James Braid and Harry Colt) and the Sandy Hills Links built by Pat Ruddy (yep, same guy from Ballyliffin and Portsalon) in 2003. The Old Tom Morris Links play along Sheephaven Bay with crazy views of Tramore Beach on the back nine. A local golfer insisted that I share his opinion that Rosapenna is “The Bandon Dunes of Ireland.” I asked him if he’d been to Bandon Dunes. “No,” he replied, then staggered away. Not sure what that says about his credibility. From my point of view, Rosapenna is well worth the visit if you’re already up here for Ballyliffin and Portsalon. The hotel is a great stay, the walk on Tra Mor Beach does in fact remind me of Bandon, and if you like lighthouses the Fanad Head Lighthouse is a pretty spectacular place to watch sunset. You can catch more great sunset views and fresh seafood at Rosapenna’s Vardon Restaurant.
Cruit Island Golf Club: If you’re fortunate enough to take your Northern Ireland golf trip during the long beautiful days of summer, then you should absolutely make the 39.6-mile drive out to play the nine-hole stunner at Cruit Island (pronounced “Critch” and “Eye-land”) — whether after 18 or 36 holes at Rosapenna — in particular if you can be out there for sunset. (If it’s nasty weather skip it for your own safety.) There is no way to adequately describe the last 10 miles or so from Kincaslough (not to be confused with Kincasslagh) to “The Northern Gateway to Western Ireland Golf.” The words that pop into my head are “hair-raising” and “insane” and “breathtaking” and “insane.” The drive is not for the faint of heart, but then neither is the golf. The holes were literally built on cliffs, and so many of your shots are blind, and awkward, and unnerving and … well … I mean, a bit insane. Cruit Island is a “see it to believe it” golf destination. I wish they had a hotel out here, but they don’t. So after playing, I’d suggest heading to the Waterfront Hotel in Dunglow (8.3 miles south) followed by dinner at 106 Atlantic Restaurant or The Butter Rock, drinks down the street at the Bayview Bar or Patrick Johnny Sally’s (awesome name), and comfortable beds with Atlantic views. Those of you unfortunate enough to get stuck with an electric car from the rental company are in luck here — there’s a charging station just down the block. (Don’t worry, that’ll never happen. Unless you’re a rude American. Then it might. Don’t be rude.)
Narin & Portnoo Links: For those who understand the reference, “Napoli” is described as “The Machrie or Shiskine” of Ireland, just nowhere near as remote. That’s a compliment to Narin and of great benefit to the golf traveler. Only 16 miles south of the Waterfront Hotel in Dunglow, “Napoli” has long been a “hidden gem” of Ireland and many of the members would’ve preferred it stay that way. Unfortunately for them (and, again, fortunately for the golf traveler) that “under the radar-ness” is unlikely now that the famous Gil Hanse has been brought in (with Jim Wagner) to redesign the course. The club was built in 1930 as nine holes, then expanded to 18 in 1965. There are many great golf holes out here, but none that pepper you with awesomeness like the par-3 No. 7 over a chasm to a wild green. I can’t say much more about the course at this point, not knowing for sure what Gil Hanse will alter, but if you know anything about golf architecture you know that the course will only get better. And it was already great. It will no doubt become an even more “must play” and a worthy detour on your way to Lough Erne.
Lough Erne Golf Resort: You have to hop back over into Northern Ireland and a bit inland (a 62.2-mile drive) to reach this gorgeous resort, with a five-star hotel, on the water. Set on a 600-acre peninsula, the 120-room hotel has a Thai Spa, the award-winning Catalina Restaurant and two championship golf courses — the Faldo Course and the Castle Hume Golf Course. Sir Nick Faldo designed his highly-acclaimed course, taking advantage of land with stunning views to produce some equally stunning golf shots, with the lough coming into play on 11 holes. The other course is a bit flatter and more parkland but still a solid and entertaining test.
County Sligo Golf Club: We head 47.6 miles back to the west coast for County Sligo Golf Club, more commonly known as Rosses Point. The traditional links layout was designed by Harry Colt and considered one of the countries best “hidden gems” until millions of people played it and talked about it. Now, it’s simply considered one of Ireland’s best golf courses in general. And while it doesn’t have dramatic dunes as much as it has cliffs and plateaus, it is links golf with a broad spectrum of holes sure to enthrall you. Of added benefit to the visitor, you are only 3.1 miles from a fabulous Radison Blu Hotel and Spa overlooking the bay.
Enniscrone Golf Club: I was so turned around on my Ireland tour that I thought Enniscrone was next to Dublin. Turns out it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s nearly as far west of Dublin as you can get, 35 miles west of Sligo, on a promontory cutting into Killala Bay out on the famous Wild Atlantic Way. The massive dunes that County Sligo doesn’t have? They’re at Enniscrone. The dramatic killer fescue missing from other area links courses? It’s all at Enniscrone. Blind shots, tough greens, firm-fast playing conditions, epic views, quirks and challenge — it’s all at Enniscrone. Founded in 1918, Enniscrone has 27 golf holes. The Dunes Course was essentially built by Eddie Hackett and Donald Steel and weaves through some of the “tallest, shaggiest dunes you’ll find on the west coast.” The nine-hole Scurmore Course, also designed by Hackett and Steel, is scenic as well, just far less dramatic.
Carne Golf Links: Play Enniscrone and continue west 45 miles to Belmullet to stay at the Talbot Hotel, a four-star boutique with the Barony Italian Restaurant, an award-winning Seafood Bar on the main level and a Guinness Bar across the street. After a great night with the locals, you’ll be ready for 27 more holes of golf, this time (2.9 miles west) at Carne Golf Links. To say that Carne is Eddie Hackett’s best design is probably accurate. To say that it is his last, is absolutely true. This course has taken on a cult following with more and more Americans proclaiming it to be one of their 10 favorite courses on the entire island, and it deserves every bit of the praise. American architect Jim Engh so loves Carne that he all but jumped at the opportunity to lend his own hand here, adding another nine holes (The Kilmore 9) in 2013 to make it an even more significant draw. “There’s no place like Carne,” Jim told me on a recent visit with him in Idaho, and he’s right. Go play it. Then spend an extra night in Belmullet and go play it again. You’ll thank me.
Connemara Championship Golf Links: 100 miles south of Carne, along the Wild Atlantic Way, you’ll find a 27-hole golf facility tucked way out on a peninsula, surrounded by castles and grazing sheep. This Eddie Hackett course opened in 1973 and is (honestly) a bit hard to describe. There’s a bit of bland redundancy on what they call the A9, but you never really feel like the design is in a rut thanks to the brilliant variety of designs. Some holes feel like you’re playing through a sheep pasture. Others feel like you’re hitting out of the mountains. All of the holes are firm, fast and wildly natural — true links golf along the sea. The scenery is stellar, and PGA Tour pro Tom Watson is in love with the (back) B9, but my favorite nine is the “other nine” — the C9, with the opening holes on the water. If you only have time (or daylight) for 18, I’d try to play the B9 and C9. But you drove all the way out here, so stay a while and play them all, then drive 62 miles east to the Coach House Hotel beyond Galway in Oranmore.
Galway Bay Golf Club: This Atlantic stay and play is an ideally placed one regardless of which way you’re looping out of Dublin. It’s only 3.2 miles from the 16-suite boutique Coach House Hotel to the peninsula that hosts Galway Bay, and G-Bay is both a great introduction to links golf if it’s your first course of the trip and a great wind-down if it’s one of your last. Designed by Ryder Cub legend Christy O’Connor Jr., Galway Bay is a links course with a uniquely parkland feel. The routing runs in every direction and the breeze off the ocean is similarly inconsistent, so the golfer gets a variety of challenges in every round. Confusion is common, but the beauty all around you is so calming you can’t help but love the entire place. Safe to say G-Bay is a bit “under the radar” for most people. Just make sure it’s on yours.
Portmarnock Golf Club and Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links: That sounds redundant doesn’t it? You’re wondering why I listed the same golf course twice? Strangely enough, there are two Portmarnocks in Dublin. One of them (PGC) has 27 holes and is essentially private — quite difficult to get on — and the other welcomes literally everyone with a hotel on site that makes for an idyllic stay-and-play visit. Which is the better golf course? I can tell you that Portmarnock Golf Club is by far the more historic and therefore more “in demand.” Ten miles north of Dublin, 27 holes are snugly tucked onto a narrow strip of dunesland — a sand-based expanse that has hosted famous golfers like Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Phil Mickelson and hundreds of others in golf tournaments such as the Irish Open (17 times) and even the Walker Cup in 1991.
Portmarnock Golf Links on the other hand is a bit underrated and underappreciated. A super fun routing tucked inside a line of dunes off the Velvet Strand — an incredible stretch of Irish coastline — this course was Bernard Langer’s first design (with Stan Eby), and their collection of wide fairways and pot bunkers provide a great mix of fairness and challenge for all golfers. Pair the golf experience with a fabulous hotel (superb spa) and it makes perfect sense why many golf travelers begin or end their Irish golf trips here.
The Island Club: I’m a bit conflicted right now. Do I share how I really feel about The Island Club or do I hold back? You’re bound to think I’m exaggerating, one way or another, so maybe it doesn’t really matter. I should probably just level with you. I’ll proceed with a warning: This is my blunt assessment of The Island Club. The Island Club is not “Northern” Ireland’s best golf course, but it just might be “Northern” Ireland’s best golf experience. Of the 575 courses I’ve played worldwide, The Island Club is in my Top 10 All-Time Golf Experiences. I say that knowing that if the thousands upon thousands of golfers who will see this article decide to go there, the course will have to make some changes. They’ll have to raise their rates. They’ll have to build a new road. They’ll have to limit the freedom golfers currently enjoy out there. It would change a lot and I don't want that. Neither will you. The Island Golf Club experience is so unique and so special that if you’re reading this and do decide to go there, please keep this in mind. Savor every moment. Be courteous and gracious. Thank the managers and golf pros for all they do out there. Accept and appreciate the opportunity with class.
I don’t want to share much more than that because the mystery before my first visit was so much of the allure. I’d heard it was great, but no one could really tell me why. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it definitely does now. Part of it is the drive out to the course. They used to need boats to get out to The Island Club. It is, after all, literally on an island. That transportation method was challenging, so they made a road out to the course — kind of (lol). The beauty all around you is stunning. The variety of the holes is bewildering. There is nothing about any of it that screams “this place is the best” — and that’s part of what you’ll love so much. There is no pretentiousness. There are very few accolades. The people are super friendly. There are blind shots with cool reveals and quirks in the golf holes that yield plenty of fun. It’s a mixture of everything I love in golf all in one place. I wouldn’t start my Ireland golf trips at The Island Club, but I will always end them there. It is one of the few places I’ve found that I could (and would gladly) play every single day of my life. I can’t think of a better compliment. Can you?
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How long would it take you to cover all 20 of these stops in one trip? Realistically, this is a three-week itinerary, but you can do it however you’d like. Jam them all into two weeks or split the list in half and take your time — take it on in two 10-day trips. The point is: Every one of these 20 stops is worth your time and travel, and skipping any of them means you’re missing something special.
Print this story out. Staple it to your wall. Send it to all your golf buddies and put them on notice. It’s time to go play golf in Northern Ireland.