Is it just the links that attracts the thousands of golfers each year from every corner of the globe or is it the famous Norn Iron hospitality? I went back to my homeland in early October to see what the craic was ahead of the 148th Open Championship.
We eased into our trip at Castlerock GC which had undergone changes since I last teed it up over the championship Mussenden Course. Fond memories included a fantastic putting green and smart layout with the Golfers Fry being a popular choice on the menu. More of that later but it was Martin Hawtree that led the recent course redesign and the first was barely recognizable to me. Much improved hole with no road in play off the opening tee shot.
The 4th hole , Leg O' Mutton, remains one of my favourite par 3's anywhere! 184yds on the day you must play to a green with train track to the right (next stop Portrush!) and wee burn up the left to a slopping green well-guarded by four bunkers. The approach to the par four 6th hole is another standout shot on the front nine, false front to the green and another wee burn gathering any badly timed shots.
Hawtree's changes to the par 5 fifteen now brings strategy to the hole with well place fairway bunkers and the approach must be dialled in with multiple run offs around the green. The finishing hole now also has a run off to the right side of the green where the was once a mound and the bunker on the left side of the green will make for a good up & down to a green that is much flatter than it once was. I tip my cap to Martin Hawtree's changes.
The Golfers Fry is still good packing with the highlight a triple bread variety of potato, soda & toast all making an appearance but not for long! The Guinness, wasn't bad here either - I had a ‘couple'.
Our basecamp for the few days was the 4-star Bushmills Inn on the Causeway Coast which not only proved a great location but a truly unconventional retreat. Originally a Coaching Inn in the 1600s situated next to the famous whiskey distillery there is a lasting charm whether you are relaxing with a jar next to the peat fire (now that did take me back!) or reading in one of the snugs that can be found over both floors.
The restaurant within the old stable is fine dining at its best with all food sourced locally. Can recommend the Donegal crab mousse starter & Slane Valley Lamb for main. The sticky toffee pudding was a meal in itself but somehow I did manage to find room for my first Irish Coffee of the trip. Like I said fine dining at its very best…
The next morning we made the short trip along the dramatic north Antrim coast to the 2017 Irish Open venue of Portstewart GC.
Home to three magnificent courses we teed it up over the strand course which is the more celebrated of the three and the one which Jon Rahm spread-eagled the field with a winning total of 264 (-24). He won by six.
The opening tee shot is often referred to as one of the best in all Europe with the Donegal mountains in the distance and Atlantic ocean to the right from a raised tee box. The front nine is made up of series of strong holes but my stand out was the par five fourth, ‘Thirsty Hollow' which runs parallel to the beach. Demanding drive in amongst the dunes and an approach over a 50yards dip with three bunkers on the right and a large gathering area on the right.
What was evident having not played here for some years was the attention to detail on the presentation of bunkering and tee boxes, another Championship course which must make the play-list. It had the feel of a real members club and if you take a caddy the likelihood is it will be a club member who knows the course well and should save you a shot or three!
Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort was our next stop and often referred to as one of the finest championship parklands on the whole island.
We skipped the golf but did have time to take in the award winning Gin ‘Library' where there were 450 Gins to choose from.
The setting is spectacular with the backdrop of the river Maine in amongst the mature woodland and there are big plans for expansion. The luxury cottages will be constructed along with ‘Log Farm' which could rival the Soho Farmhouse in the Cotswold's, a holiday retreat for London's A-list.
The Castle Kitchen & Bar at Galgorm wouldn't be out of place in mid-town Manhattan. It had a real grill feel with wrap around horse shoe bar, sumptuous sofas and wood burning stove. Great atmosphere matched by quality wings for starter followed by tender slow cooked Pork back ribs, my salivary grands are going just thinking about them!
The final day was the jewel in the causeway coast golfing crown – Royal Portrush.
Growing up I had played the famed course many times on Fred Daly duty for the dominant City of Derry team of the early 90s and it was always a special place to visit.
It is still special but a lot has changed, Senior British Opens, (1995-99 & 2004) and an Irish Open (2012) have been hosted and the world famous holiday resort has produced major champions in G-Mac & the newly adopted local in Big Darren.
The course has changed also with Martin Ebert switching up two holes of this original Colt design, having seen Eberts changes at Trump Turnberry first hand I am glad to report the changes to the Dunluce are just as impressive.
The opening at Portrush is solid.
Off the 1st we played into the prevailing SE wind and it made for a daunting opening tee shot with a greedy bunker on the lefty and OOB on the right.
The 4th hole, named Fred Daly's (as it was his favourite hole) not only has a daunting tee shot with internal OOB on the right but the long approach is to a green tucked beyond two guarding dunes, one left one right.
White Rocks is the name of the 5th hole and enjoys the most stunning backdrop with the skerries islands making for a good target line off the tee.
Seven and Eight is where Ebert has sprinkled his design gold dust.
On seven he has re-created ‘Big Nellie' the famous bunker from the old 17th hole – old 17 and 18 were made redundant to make way for the two new holes – which I thought was a lovely touch and certainly a penal bunker that Colt would of approve!
One of the few bunkers I wasn't in on the day but it very much comes into play off the tee and there are also two very well placed bunkers up the left. It was a proper three shot hole for my group and unless the Pro's can carry ‘Big Nellie' at 285yds I believe it will be a three shot-er for them also.
The other new addition 8th hole asks the question of how much you want to bite off the corner of the right to left dog leg. Two well placed bunkers guard the safer right side with a steep dune bank running all the way down the left side of the hole.
Par 3 thirteen will be a great test for the pros next year, 192yds in length the green is ringed by five bunkers and a narrow front third with a sucker front pin on the day. Two bunkers & a double for me!
The view to the approach to the par 4 fifteen ( Skerries ) has to be one of the most photogenic on the whole course – see video of my approach
Calamity is a testing par 3 and will make headlines at next years Open Championship. The pros will play it at 230yds and if the wind is on the kisser it will be a driver for the home favourite Rory! No bunkers needed BUT it is ALL carry across an expansive dune.
The new 18th (old 16th ) will bring stadium golf to The Open Championship like no other IMO. The entire left side is made for one long theatrical grandstand looking down on the internal OOB and more drama could well be evident with the steep run off from the left side of the green.
Post golf there is memorabilia & books on the clubs history that will keep you entertained over a Guinness or three.
Any trip to the Causeway Coast would not be complete without a trip to the eighth wonder of the world, the Giants Causeway. The World Heritage site lies at the foot of the basalt cliffs where neatly packed mostly hexagonal columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear into the sea.
Depending on the mood you can either walk a couple of kilometres to the foot of the rock formations or take in a more challenging walk to take in this magical location from beyond the National Trust site.
There is not much that hasn't been written about the colourful past of Ulster but sport has more than played its part in transcending the political divide across all four provinces. Since Harrington opened the major door in 2007 the McDowell's, McIIroy's and Big Darren's have done a sterling job in keeping it open and with a current tally of nine majors in the last eleven years we are firmly on the golfing map.
For someone who spent all their formative years in Norn Iron it was great to return and see how the emergence of our leading golfers on the world stage has helped raise standards across so many facets. The golf courses that we played are ALL worthy of their lofty rankings in the Top100 but there is so much more to this area than just the golf. The local gastronomy is world class and non-more so than dinner at the Tartine restaurant in the Distillers Arms close to the famous whiskey brewery. The starter of Corndale Farm fennel salami & chirizo with Ollies tapendale & Guinness wheaten bread will long live in the memory! The hospitality has never been in question but we now have multiple small and big screen TV productions being filmed across this amazing stretch of coastline from Benone beach to Portstewart that are pulling in tourists in their thousands. Game of Thrones with thirty-eight Emmy Awards and counting uses multiple locations across the Causeway Coast and Antrim Glens.
Once the golfing world comes to Portrush in July 2019 it will only help but raise the bar further in what a truly special place on earth the north Antrim coast is, I cannot wait to get back, with or without the clubs!
M. J. Smyth is the Golf Account Director at MediaDrive & regular contributor to GolfToday.co.uk and Top100GolfCourses.com
For more information please visit Tourism Ireland's website www.ireland.com/what-is-available/golf/