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As I walked up the 18th fairway at Royal County Down, one of the world’s truly great golf courses and the venue for this week’s Irish Open, the sun slipped through a crack in the overcast skies. The changing light cast a warm glow on the final green and gave definition to the grand Slieve Donard hotel and the mist-shrouded Mountains of Mourne off in the distance.
It was a magical, almost supernatural conclusion to a golf-themed road trip through Northern Ireland.
Whether inspired by nature or just the beneficiary of sheer blind luck, I made a par on that final hole despite hitting my second shot into a deep fairway bunker, and I posted my lowest score on the brief but amazing visit that included rounds at Royal Portrush and Castlerock.
These links, all more than 100 years old, all ruggedly beautiful, all nestled among seaside sand dunes shaped by the ever-present wind, are must-plays for any golfer who takes the game seriously enough to fly overseas in search of its roots and essence.
As good and memorable as they are, the courses were merely stops on a road trip that took me along the breath-taking Causeway Coastal Route, beginning outside Belfast and meandering through numerous idyllic villages that dot the shores of the Irish Sea. The trip included a stay at the Bushmills Inn in Carnlough, and a visit to a familiar Game of Thrones scene, Ballintoy Harbour.
In this case, the journey was as amazing as the daily golfing destinations.
The journey began on Aer Lingus to Dublin, followed by an easy, two-hour shuttle ride into Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast.
A battleground of sectarian violence for 30 years, mostly through the 1970s and ’80s, Belfast is a city on the rebound, increasingly cosmopolitan and modern with development on every corner.
As much as I found Belfast a pleasant surprise, I was there to golf, and the best golf is outside the city.
Like Belfast, Northern Ireland itself isn’t vast – it’s larger in area than, say, Cape Breton Island but smaller than the Okanagan Valley or Southwestern Ontario. It would be easy to zip from one corner to the other on its interior highways. But that isn’t the way to see it.
To experience its best attributes and even its soul, you must stay tight to the Irish Sea and travel along the two-lane Causeway Coastal road that seemingly gets narrower the further you go north and northwest from Belfast.
Full disclosure: I did not drive myself during my Northern Ireland visit. Travelling with three other golfers and all our gear, not to mention being shy about driving on the “other” side of the road, I was content to ride in a chauffeured van.
But the road trip experience was none the lesser.
The first courses on the itinerary, Castlerock and Royal Portrush, are both near the northern tip of Northern Ireland (all of Ireland, actually), so that first day of travel offered a lengthy and steady immersion into the rural milieu.
Picking up the Causeway Coastal Route about 40 minutes from Belfast’s city centre, at Larne and not far from the impressive Ballygally Castle, we passed through a series of villages frozen in time, still connected to their farming and fishing roots.
To the left as you drive north, small rectangular fields divided by hedgerows rise into the hills. This patchwork look is the result of (controversial) land division policies established in the early 1600s by England’s King James I.
As much as the green and organized fields put my mind at ease, my attention kept getting yanked back to the right side of the road, to the grey, less-peaceful and heaving Irish Sea that splashes up on the shore’s basaltic (black volcanic) rocks.
On a clear day, one can supposedly see Scotland to the east. (The Mull of Kintyre is just 11 kilometres off the Irish Coast at Torr Head, for example.)
The two-lane Causeway Coastal road dates back to the early 1800s, when it was built to move British troops north and south efficiently. The engineer, William Bold, simply laid the road along the jagged contours of the coast.
While modern designers might have chosen a straighter path inland, Bold’s plan “has left us with one of the nicest coastal roads in Europe,” says Ken McElroy, a tour guide who joined us for part of the journey.
Nicest, yes. But also one of the most precarious. The edge of the road is separated from the cliffs and inclines that fall away to the beach by a mere metre of pavement and a waist-high rock fence that somehow serves as a guardrail.
It narrows to such an extent between Cushendun and Torr Head that coaches and caravans, as RVs are often called here, are prohibited and must make a detour. The road is not for the faint of heart, but the courageous are rewarded with mesmerizing views.
As for stops along the way, I particularly enjoyed quaint Carnlough. Its harbour was filled with fishing boats and its docks were lined with lobster pots. Winston Churchill once owned the small hotel (Londonderry Arms) in town.
Bushmills was tasty, perhaps for obvious reasons. The village, where we stayed for two nights at the charming Bushmills Inn, is home to the Irish whisky distillery of the same name. It’s the only working distillery in Northern Ireland and the best place to get a fiery, throat-warming dram at 10:30 a.m. if, like us, that’s when you happen to visit.
Among the more famous sights along the route, both near Bushmills, are the Giant’s Causeway , a natural wonder of 40,000 rock columns formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, and Dunluce Castle .
The castle was the former stronghold of the MacDonnels, a Scottish clan who were dominant in the area in the 17th century. Part of the castle collapsed in the sea in 1639 but the rest of its ruins remain as a tourist attraction – and one of the country’s best photo opportunities.
The countryside is so untouched by modernity that some scenes in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, set centuries ago in the age of knights and chivalry, are shot outdoors there. (Other scenes are filmed indoors at a studio in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, and in Iceland and Croatia.)
I checked out some of its more famous locations, like Ballintoy Harbour (where ships come ashore), the Dark Hedges that form an eerie archway over a road near Ballymoney and the caves at Cushendun, where the show’s “shadow baby” was born.
Hard-core Game of Thrones fans can sign up for organized tours – and even don costumes for scene re-enactments through various charter companies – or take their own self-guided driving tours of one, two or even three days.
Game of Thrones, in its fifth season, is the talk of Northern Ireland. Locals spoke proudly of the show and its stars, who frequent Belfast’s restaurants and pubs without fuss or fanfare. The city’s favourite son, Van Morrison, was the only celebrity mention I heard more often.
Bushmills and its inn, with its street-front pub, abundant fireplaces, cozy nooks and country-chic rooms, served as a perfect launching pad for our first two golf courses, Castlerock and Royal Portrush.
Castlerock might not have the name recognition of Portrush or Royal County Down, but it’s a strong links that really takes off in quality midway through the front nine. It’s well worth playing.
Portrush has more cachet, perhaps because of its famous members, who include major champions Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell. It will play host to the 2019 Open Championship and is about to undergo a renovation to make it worthy of the tournament. One of the biggest changes is creating a couple of new holes and abandoning the current 17th and 18th, which, oddly, are the only two weak ones on the course.
Royal County Down in Newcastle is Northern Ireland’s jewel, regarded highly by the golf intelligentsia (Golf Digest calls it the fourth best course in the world, the best outside the United States) and regular golfers alike.
The holes wind through towering dunes and, while they’re challenging and occasionally quirky (blind shots abound), the course is playable and fun.
It will be interesting to see how some of the world’s best professionals handle the course this week at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (as it is fully called). Undoubtedly, they’ll play a much longer course than I did, and it will be set up to present the sternest of tests.
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is from Holywood, just outside Belfast, will be in the field and serve as host. “It’s sort of like my fifth major this year,” McIlroy said this month in a U.S. television interview.
His presence alone will make the championship a big deal, but other European stars such as McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, and American Rickie Fowler will add to the wattage.
And Royal County Down will get its share of attention.
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