GOLF fans are blown away by Northern Ireland’s warm welcome – and its more fiendish courses, writes Minty Clinch
For Rory McIlroy, the time is now. Win the 2015 Masters next Sunday and the 25-year-old star will be the youngest player to hold all four majors at the same time. Lose it and that particular chance of immortality will be gone forever.
In one sense it doesn’t matter, because win or lose, McIlroy is still the catalyst for Northern Ireland’s unstoppable golf bandwagon.
The province has always had courses to equal the best in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, but today’s American wannabes, and golf tourists from all over the world head straight from the international airport to a modest club in the hilly Belfast suburb of Holywood.
First stop is the pro-shop to stock up on McIlroy memorabilia – when I followed the trail shortly after McIlroy’s US Open victory in 2011, the shelves were empty, but stockists are up to speed now.
Next a detour into the clubhouse to spot McIlroy, 2005 Gentleman’s Champion, on the roll of honour. How happy his fellow members must have been when the prodigy moved on, giving them a chance to add their own names to a list that includes his. Upstairs, in the McIlroy suite, the Claret Jug, the grossly weighty US Open Cup and the Wanamaker Trophy (USPGA) vie for display space with a personalised Ryder Cup golf bag and blow-ups of a cheeky pre-teen child clutching oversized silver and glass. Ask nicely and Rory’s gleaming replica trophies are freely offered to passing strangers so they can pose like champions. For the lucky ones, a McIlroy uncle may be on hand to do the honours.
Privileged status secured, most visitors glance fleetingly through rain-streaked glass at heavily cambered fairways overlooking the shipyards that built the Titanic before moving swiftly on. Gerry McIlroy, who lives down the road and plays off seven, introduced his son to his destiny on this muddy turf, but mastery doesn’t turn a workhorse into a thoroughbred. At Holywood, creative design is limited by lack of space, especially on the front nine which features consecutive parallel fairways going up and back. The drama picks up on memorable holes at the start of the back nine, only to fade on the final stretch. None of this ensures a good score, but foreign golfers seeking trophy courses tend to look elsewhere.
Given that Northern Ireland measures 90 miles by 100 miles, they don’t have to look far. In addition to Holywood, Belfast City has some fine traditional parkland tracks, notably Royal Belfast and Malone, but Ulster’s jewels are Royal Portrush, near the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, and Royal County Down, on the east coast “where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea”, as the Irish musician, Percy French, famously put it in his late 19th century folk song. Both are superb championship links, their thick golden dune grass rippling into the distance.
Sensibly, both clubs are keen to cash in on the prestige and profits that come with major tournaments. The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush, Ireland’s one and only host to the (British) Open Championship in 1951, has been angling for a repeat opportunity since the Good Friday Agreement brought realistic hopes of peace in the late 1990s. To prove its capability, the club staged the Irish Open in 2013, a success which earned a prized provisional Open fixture for 2019.
After his late flowering first major at Royal St George’s in 2011, McIlroy’s compatriot Darren Clarke moved in. “You’ll hear him before you see him,” said the lad in the pro shop, laughing as he issued my ticket. “He turns up like clockwork to demand his morning coffee whenever he’s in residence.” On the heady high of victory, Dazza and his cronies might close the clubhouse bar a dozen or so hours later, but things are quieter now he’s sworn off the black stuff in favour of a slimline wardrobe and the occasional glass of red wine. On a bleak spring morning, he putted on the practice green for an hour in horizontal rain. No dazzling smile, but total concentration: at 46, he’s still aware that champions are made as well as born. No wonder he was recently confirmed as Team Europe’s captain for the 2016 Ryder Cup.
If the perfect golf holiday week requires at least three quality venues, the Antrim coast is Northern Ireland’s must play. The Valley, home to the Rathmore Golf Club, where Graeme McDowell learned the game, shares terrain with Royal Portrush, and there are two more late Victorian classics, Portstewart and Castlerock, a few miles down the coast. Portrush’s other plus is the Bushmills Inn, a sprawling traditional hostlery with robust meals and a bar with live folk music which goes late late, even on week nights. In Ireland, north or south, it would be hard to find a warmer welcome.
Royal County Down, Portrush’s even more highly regarded rival, takes its first step in the catch-up stakes when it stages the 2015 Irish Open Championship in May. McIlroy’s charitable foundation hosts the tournament, a commitment that the golfer has honoured by persuading his mates, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els, to play in his homeland for the first time. He’s also lined up Rickie Fowler, his contemporary and friend, to resume a battle first joined as amateurs on opposing Walker Cup teams.
If native predictions are right, the crowds will surpass those at St Andrews for the Open Championship two months later, but in Ireland, insane optimism often rules.
At County Down, the spacious clubhouse, luxuriously fitted out with international tournaments in mind, and the neighbouring Slieve Donard hotel, a massive red brick beach front pile that opened at the height of the railway boom in 1897, offer excellent dire weather cover. On the opening holes, breakers crash distractingly on to the beach within driving distance of the fairways.
Balancing the ball on the peg is precarious, hitting it even more so, especially on the tee boxes that are too exposed to guarantee a steady stance in a 60mph gust. If you use a trolley, wedge the wheels with a club before you set up your shots: when I turned briefly away from mine, I next saw it upturned in a bunker 15 yards away. Some tee shots are blind, others require considerable carry, so don’t stint on balls.
Don’t get me wrong, this dramatically beautiful course is worth every effort you can throw at it but be prepared for a rough ride. And don’t say you weren’t warned.
• Your Golf Travel (yourgolftravel.com; 0800 043 6644) Darren Clarke Golf Tour, 3 nights Bushmills Inn, £735, with golf at the Ryder Cup captain’s three favourites, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down & Ballyliffen (Donegal).