Over the next few years, Northern Ireland is set to undergo remarkable change. Mark Alexander reports on the developments already affecting golf tourism in the province...
Northern Ireland may have hit the headlines lately, but another compelling story is bubbling beneath the power brokering and backroom deals. Along the province’s north coast, the talk may be of kingmakers and uneasy alliances, but other significant changes are afoot here in this green isle.Here you will find packed tour buses transporting visitors along a magical stretch of jaw-dropping scenery with the faint but recognizable whiff of whiskey in the air. This, after all, is the land where Game of Thrones is filmed, and the impact of this hit TV series has been profound.
Since the programme was first aired in 2011, the province has seen a massive boost in tourism, with visitors to the stunning Giant's Causeway reaching almost one million in 2016. In fact, Northern Ireland’s annual tourism figures show that last year the number of overnight trips reached 2.6 million – the highest ever recorded.
For those living along the North Antrim coast, the change has been marked. After all, not so long ago, booking a trip to Ulster would have been regarded as daring at best. Now, with its troubled past fading from view, the area’s winding country roads groan with holiday traffic rather than militarised Land Rovers.
I should know – 20 years ago I lived on a farm positioned between the seaside towns of Portstewart and Portrush. I had secured my first writing job with the National Trust and had been commissioned to research, write and design a tourist pamphlet for the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which spans a heart-stopping crevasse suspended almost 100ft above the Atlantic Ocean.
Back then, the roads were quiet, most ‘visitors’ came from Ireland and there certainly weren’t any multi-million-pound tourist information centres. Today, there are as many nationalities on site as there are tour guides beating a track along this rustic coastline. And it is genuinely heartening to see it.
A MEMORABLE ROUND. But for all the buzz surrounding the undoubted success of Game of Thrones, there is another delight drawing the crowds to Northern Ireland. The first time I played the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club, I experienced one of the most memorable rounds of my life. And it all started on the sixth tee.
Gripping on to a three iron, eyeing up a 185-yard par-three into the wind, I realised this was the apex; this was what golf was all about. My four-ball had just finished one of the most exhilarating holes we had ever played and the camaraderie had reached such a peak that all we could do was smile. That’s what Royal Portrush can do to you.
For as daunting as that shot was, it was a mere trifle compared to what had come before. White Rocks, a 411-yard, downhill par-four, begins with a formidable tee shot to a bunkerless fairway, shaped only by the dunes that sweep towards the cliff-edge green. Hitting it in two is something that will live with you forever, so I was told.
While my golfing skills were no match for the devilishness of the Dunluce Links, the twists and turns of this fabulous layout became a splendid setting for the 2012 Irish Open. But even then, moves were afoot to bring an even grander prize to the North Antrim coast.
The course had last hosted the Irish Open in 1947, going one better four years later when it welcomed the jewel of all Majors – the Open Championship. That spectacle will be repeated in 2019, when the Claret Jug will leave mainland Britain once again destined for the Emerald Isle.
Reacting to the R&A’s official statement that the 148th Open will be played at Royal Portrush, Open Champion Darren Clarke said: “This is going to be absolutely huge for Northern Ireland and, indeed, Ireland as a whole. To have the world’s biggest and best golf championship played at such a fantastic venue as Royal Portrush, with all the passion that the Irish fans will bring to the event, is going to be amazing.”
Rory McIlroy, who lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014, agreed: “Royal Portrush is one of my favourite golf courses in the world. I think it will be a fantastic Open venue. They are going to add a couple of new holes to the golf course and I think that will be a great addition and make the course even stronger. I’m really looking forward to it.”
ALTERATIONS. The new holes to which McIlroy refers have been sculpted by the prolific architectural pairing of Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert, who in the official proposals drafted in 2015, clarified the need for the alterations. “If there has been a criticism of the Dunluce Course over the years, it has been that the 17th and 18th holes are slightly weak after such an amazing tour of the dunes over the first 16 holes.”
It continues: “This will be addressed by creating two new holes that will continue to improve [Harry] Colt’s finest links. The dunescape which they will occupy is second to none, giving rise to two holes which will be more in-keeping with the other 16 holes on the course.”
The new seventh and eighth holes are now in play and will be tackled by the first band of elite players during the Cathedral Eye Clinic North of Ireland Amateur Championship in July. After walking the new holes, I predict Ireland’s amateurs and the world’s best professionals will be hard pushed to argue with the new look which utilizes the dunes so well.
The course now has a great finish in the form of the old 16th, and additional tweaks around the site have only added to what was already a phenomenal design. Following on from their work at Trump Turnberry, Mackenzie and Ebert have addressed the key issues turning former weaknesses into key assets. Roll on 2019.
NEW VISITORS’ CENTRE. The on-course improvements aren’t the only changes to affect the North Antrim coast. Since my time there, a new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway has been unveiled as part of an £18.5m investment. The building takes inspiration from the 40,000 hexagonal basalt stones that emerged from the seabed, following intense volcanic and geological activity 60 million years ago. As visitor centres go, it has clearly been designed to impress and is now befitting of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A new £8m, 103-bedroom hotel has also been planned for Portrush in order to meet growing tourism needs. Until then, the Portrush Atlantic Hotel will continue to provide an ideal location right in the town centre, just around the corner from the waterfront restaurants of Ramores and the Neptune & Prawn (both great venues to relax in after a round).
DOUBLE WINNERS. Elsewhere, the small town of Bushmills has seen its four-star inn go from strength to strength. Bushmills Inn has picked up a number of accolades at the Northern Ireland Tourism Awards after being named double winners of both the Hotel of the Year and Customer Service Excellence Awards.
And then there is the town’s famous distillery, which is world-renowned for its premium whiskey, first made here 400 years ago. This is the oldest working distillery in Ireland and boy do you know it. The edifying guided tour gives you a potted history of the sprawling Bushmills plant but leaves you in no doubt as to the heritage on show. It finishes in a flurry of tasters in the purpose-built whiskey bar, which for those not driving and partial to a nip, is fitting end to a fine jaunt.
PAMPER TIME. Away from the coast, Galgorm Resort & Spa is the ideal place to leave the daily pressures of modern life at the door. Set within 163 acres of peaceful parkland and with the River Maine flowing past the hotel, Galgorm succeeds in doing an awful lot of things very well indeed. The food, service, accommodation and surroundings all bring a pleasing smile to your face, while the spa facilities provide a multitude of options when it comes to the laudable pastime of pampering yourself.
A Celtic sauna, a snow cabin and the various pools and hot tubs, all with riverside locations, offer recuperation for tired bodies in need of TLC. But here too changes are afoot; the 122-bedroom hotel which boasts the three AA rosette River Room restaurant is being expanded significantly through a £2 million investment that includes new two-acre spa garden, a two-tier fitness suite, a spa eatery and an extension to one of its other food outlets. The spa garden and fitness suite is due to open in July 2017 [check before going to press as it may have opened].
For those in need of a golfing fix, the resort is the new title sponsor for the Northern Ireland Open – the annual professional tournament that showcases Northern Ireland’s golf offering. It is played at the nearby Galgorm Castle Golf Club, a scenic parkland layout that features generous fairways and inviting green complexes.
Here too the changes are being rung. As well as allowing wild flowers to propagate around teeing areas, creating colourful themes around the course, the team at Galgorm has been busy building a six-hole pitch-and-putt course and a vast putting green, which is a scaled replica of the famous St Andrews Himalayas attraction.
Easy and fun, this is a great facility to introduce kids, or adults, to golf. In a neat coincidence that conveniently wraps up this whirlwind tour of the changing face of Northern Ireland, Galgorm’s new facility has been fashioned by the same design team responsible for the changes at Royal Portrush. After so much success on the course through the likes of McIlroy, and Clarke, a start now seems to have been made to deliver a concerted effort to establish Northern Ireland as a bone fide golfing destination. I, for one, wish them all the very best!
Good to know
To book your Rortrush Golf trip go to Great Golf Holiday
Where to play
1) Royal Portrush Golf Club
T: 028 7082 2311
2) Galgorm Castle Golf Club
T: 028 2564 6161 or email
Where to stay
1) Portrush Atlantic Hotel
go to www.greatgolfholiday.com to book your stay
2) Galgorm Resort & Spa
Go to www.greatgolfholiday.com to book your stay
For more information, visit www.tourismni.com
Mark Alexander Award-winning photographer and journalist
T: +44 (0) 1337 858 807 ?M: +44 (0) 7855 361 203
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