For a country with a population slightly less than Qatar, Northern Ireland has contributed more major golf champions in the modern era than any other European country with three in the space of just 14 months, from the US Open in 2010 to the Open Championship in 2011. So what is the secret...
First published 2013
I have at various points in my life travelled around the UK. England, Scotland and Wales are locations that I know well. But Northern Ireland is uncharted territory, separated as it is from the rest of the UK by a bit of water known as the Irish Sea. So it was with great curiosity that I boarded a plane bound for Belfast last summer.
With a population of only just over 1.8 million people, it’s staggering how many well-known golfers come from here. This corner of Ireland is home to Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell to name but a few. So why are there so many top golfers? According to Darren Clarke it’s the Guinness, although if I drink too much of the dark liquid I don’t have a hope in hell of being able to hit a small white ball, so I think that there is a little more to this phenomenon than just beer. Could it be that they have some fantastic golf courses?
Time for Guinness. I arrive at Belfast George Best Airport in brilliant sunshine after leaving a wet and dreary England behind. My taxi is waiting to take me to Roe Park Golf Resort which is located in the north of the country and not far from Londonderry. This is to be my centre of operations for the period of my visit.
I’m really not sure what I expected to find on arriving here but as I look out of the car, it could really be anywhere in the UK. After about half an hour I arrive at my destination. I check in, drop off my bags and retire to the bar for a cool Guinness, which I hasten to add I consider vital if I am to experience the true Ireland.
It’s not long before I’m joined by various other members of the journalistic fraternity, who generally aren’t known for their love of orange juice and Babycham. However, I am conscious of the fact that tomorrow we are all booked on a day trip to Derry, so after a couple of pints I decide to have an early night.
Irish humour. The next day we congregate in the lobby, some looking slightly worse for wear, and are introduced to our guide Lowell Courtney. Lowell runs a travel firm called Lynchpin Tours. He has the added skill of knowing his history inside out and also getting us in fits of laughter with his dry Irish humour.
If you want to know the history of Ireland in condensed form, he’s your man. Of course if you want the long version, he’s also your man!
Now, you cannot say that Derry is without problems, even today there is an on-going discussion as to whether this is Londonderry or Derry. This is still a city with a community learning to live together, but things have changed and there is no going back to the bad old days.
The wall. A walk along the old city walls on the banks of the river Foyle is a must and gives you views over the surrounding area. Built originally to defend the city from attack by various marauding Irish chieftains; it stands at 26 feet high and 30 feet thick in places and over a mile in length.
Completed in 1618, it proved to be a formidable barrier when in 1688 thirteen apprentice boys raised the bridge and closed the city gates against the Jacobite forces of King James. The Protestants held out for several months.
I would add a note of caution here, enter any bar in Londonderry at your own risk, the people are friendly and may insist on you staying for one too many. Several of our party returned flushed and glassy eyed.
Portrush and the Open. The following day we travel to the masters at Portrush, it’s pouring with rain and none of us are overly confident that we are going to see much golf today, but we board the coach and head off. It’s a short drive from Roe Park, but in the time that we are travelling the rain eases off.
There are two courses here but the main one is Dunluce links, a wonderfully dramatic course that will test a golfer of any standard. All I can say is if you land in the rough make sure that you have packed sandwiches and a tent!
The wind coming in off the North Atlantic seems to drop to nothing one moment, then a split second later it’s howling in like a crazed banshee. The term banshee is Gaelic/Irish and refers to a wailing spirit warning of impending doom, quite apt in some cases.
I and several other journalists decide to head for a position near the tees on the sixth and the green on the fifth, a perfect place to watch some big names coming through.
The heavens open. It’s worth noting that in 1982 this exact area had to be rescued from being washed into the sea. With the wind gusting around and sending several shots wayward, there are a few players that are rather hoping that this may still happen.
Soon enough Darren Clarke appears, followed by Rory McIlroy and Colin Montgomerie. But it’s not long before the heavens open and play is stopped. Well there is a reason why it’s so green here, and it does involve water. I believe the locals call it liquid sunshine!
Play does begin again much later but by that time we are all on the coach and heading back to the hotel. Oh well, there may just be time for me to try my hand back at Roe Park.
Roe Park Golf Resort. Roe Park Resort is located just 16 miles away from Londonderry and offers access to a wealth of tourist sites and other places of interest, including the “Giants Causeway”, one of Irelands top tourist attractions.
Here you will find an area full of hexagon shaped columns of volcanic rock formed by the cooling of an ancient lava flow. At least that’s the scientific version, we all know that it was really a bridge between Scotland and Ireland that was destroyed by the Scottish giant Benandonner while trying to escape from Irish folk hero Finn McCool.
Relax and enjoy. The resort is set not far from the causeway coast and has a backdrop of mountains to the south. This may be a less challenging course than Portrush, but just as enjoyable and enough to keep any golfer on their toes.
With the first five holes heading towards the river Roe and consisting of a nice gentle downhill par-4 to start things off, this is a course on which to relax and enjoy the views. The third hole is a par-3 with a well-positioned lake which might cause problems for those with an aversion to water.
Play safe. After the fifth hole the course moves to the opposite side of the hotel and meanders its way up the hill. Make sure that you have your game hat on when playing the sixth as it’s overlooked from the Brassiere. Here perhaps it’s best to play safe as you are almost guaranteed a critical audience.
Water again comes into play on the twelfth, a par-3 over a pond. The fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth I found to be particularly pleasant with wonderful views and wide fairways.
All I can say is that you are guaranteed a pleasant round on this course. And where better to sit after your game than in that Brassiere, have some excellent food and also become a critical spectator of the sixth hole.
Belfast and the Titanic Museum. In between the golf it’s well worth taking a trip to Belfast and the Titanic Museum. It was here at the Holland & Wolfe Shipyards that the infamous vessel was built along with its sister ship Olympic.
Titanic was launched from here on the 31st May 1911 and we all know the story of its maiden voyage. The museum itself is a glistening work of modern art and I would personally recommend a visit.
The building which is called “Titanic Belfast” is influenced by various maritime themes including, quite obviously, ships hulls. It covers 14,000 square metres of exhibition space within which are nine interactive galleries complete with the “dark ride underwater exploration theatre” and recreations of the ship’s decks and cabins.
Castle Rock. For my last day I had arranged to play Castle Rock but time was limited so Lowell kindly offered to give me a tour of the course. It’s a real shame that I didn’t get to play as this is a real gem, a truly classic links course set amid towering dunes.
Having two courses and only limited time we decided to take a tour of the eighteen hole Mussenden course. It starts off pleasant enough with a nice par-4 with a slight dogleg right. At the second, which is again a par-4, you have a chance to practice your uphill shots, all the way to the green in fact.
I particularly liked the fourth, aptly named “Leg O’Mutton”, due to its shape I think rather than possibly what the golfers here like to eat. This is a tricky par-3 of 200 yards with bunkers on all side of the green.
The eighth is where it all seems to get rather interesting. This is an uphill par-4 with a long dogleg right. Following on is the ninth, aptly named “Quarry”. This is a quirky par-3 with water to the left and just waiting to lure a lefty like me to his doom. I can almost hear the call of the banshee!
Time to leave. By the time you reach the fourteenth you will either be light with success or lighter still with the balls that you have lost. You end as you began, with a nice par-4 at which to make up for any loss of face over the previous holes.
Alas my time here is at an end and I am soon on my way back to London. If you are planning a golf trip don’t forget this Northern realm, it really is worth the visit. There are many other great golf courses that I did not get time to visit, most notably Scrabo Golf Club near Newtownards.
It’s a small country and you never know who you may meet while on the course, it could be the next Rory McIlroy or Darren Clarke, or it could be one of the great men themselves. I can definitely recommend the Guinness, but you may find that the only person who thinks that it improves your game is you and Mr Clarke.
Good to know
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