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GOLF TRAVEL

Northern Exposure The quality of their country's courses goes a long way to explaining the recent and unmatched success of Northern Irish golfers, writes Craig Morrison

A Player’s Guide

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF 18 GREATEST GOLF / JOHN KERNICK

Royal Standard: The magnificent links at Royal County Down, one of the most highly rated courses in the world 58

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y anyone's reckoning, Northern Ireland is tiny. It has a population of just over one and a half million, which is just three per cent of the total of the United Kingdom. Put another way, there are over four times as many people from Hong Kong as there are from this scenic – if historically troubled – corner of the Emerald Isle. Amazing then that three of the last six major champions – Graeme McDowell, Hong Kong Open-bound Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke – should hail from such a diminutive country. Add to those luminaries the names of Michael Hoey (who after 10 years playing pro golf has won twice in Europe this year) and the comparatively new name of Paul Cutler (the unbeaten star turn at this year’s Walker Cup) and Northern Ireland has a quite remarkable roster of players. While in part true, it’s probably unsustainable to argue that it’s simply a unique product of the gritty Northern Irish character which has made such great golfers of these men. Similar cases are made for Scottish football managers (eight of 20 English Premiership managers at the time

of writing are Scotsmen) but the truth always seems more complicated. Perhaps Northern Ireland’s embarrassment of pro-golfing riches has something to do with its fantastic courses, most famously Royal County Down and Royal Portrush which regularly appear right at the top of the rankings in Britain, Europe and even the world. They are Northern Ireland’s finest tracks and in fact all of Ireland’s greatest courses. They are must-plays on any travel itinerary around the north. Not all the aforementioned players call those clubs home - though McDowell and Clarke are Portrush men – but all regularly tested themselves on them whilst coming through the ranks, so maybe their unique challenge explains something of the players’ successes. Add to those two courses a third must-play, Lough Erne (which Rory McIlroy now represents on tour), a fabulous Faldo layout at Enniskillen, and you have the basis of a near unparalleled golf tour. Lough Erne is only three years old, not a links course, and laid out as the centerpiece of Northern Ireland’s first ever five-star resort. This may sound unpromising to the visitor seeking seaside sport, but it is an undoubtedly brilliant addition to golf in the region.

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN

Royal County Down is an amazing golf course in an amazing location, regularly, almost continually, rated number one in the British Isles. It requires considerable skill: the golfer must be accurate and long. But it offers up much fun too: there are some blind drives, the fairways are fast and the greens furious. The Mourne Mountains, the Irish sea, the glorious gorse, the smell of peat, the little town of Newcastle’s towers: all these add to the golfer’s joy. That Tom Morris, Harry Vardon and Harry Colt have all contributed to the design just adds to the thrill. Perhaps its finest holes are the fourth and the ninth. The fourth is a long par three, so lovely and so tricky it gives great significance to any well struck shot which will forever live in the golfer’s memory. The ninth is probably the course’s most famous hole. It demands two great blows. Cresting the heathery hill over which the blind drive has been struck you are captivated by the sight of the mountains beyond the bay and the lighthouse at St John’s Point. The perfect drive will have been struck square on the spire of the red-bricked Slieve Donard Hotel above the cluster of town roofs, carrying the brow and then dropping 100 feet to the fairway below. Perhaps one can get away with a slightly slack drive, so long as it travels far. But the approach must be threaded firmly and finely amongst a pair of bunkers. The front nine is much lauded, possibly the greatest half in the world of golf. But in fact 60

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the entire composition is wonderful. The once slightly mundane 18th now boasts 25 bunkers – not just for the sake of it; the result is rousing.

ROYAL PORTRUSH

What a setting! There are great golden sandy beaches on two sides. The hills of Donegal are to the west. And to the north, looking to Scotland, on a clear day one sees the outline of Islay and other Hebridean islands. Overlooked by Dunluce Castle, a 13th century Norman Fort, the Dunluce Links, Royal Portrush Golf Club’s premier course (there are three layouts here) is a thing of wonder. It’s a very hard course through high dunes, endlessly up and down and changing direction. The 14thhole, "Calamity" (the name tells you everything you might need to know), is basically perched on a cliff edge, the most severe one shotter you can imagine. It is more than 200 yards and golfers play across a vast deep chasm from which no ball can really be recovered. Happily, on a course of small greens "Calamity" boasts a large putting surface. And there is one area for some sort of bail out, "Locke’s Hollow", where South African legend Bobby Locke hit his tee shots on four consecutive days, preferring to pitch and putt rather than risk all with his tee shot. That was in 1951 when Portrush became the only Irish club to have hosted The Open Championship (Max Faulkner won, never once breaking 70 such is the course’s severity). It’s not impossible to imagine The Open’s return, partly

Perfect Pair: The Mourne Mountains provide a wonderful backdrop here at the ninth hole at Royal County Down (left); Royal Portrush, home course of both Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, hosted the 1951 Open Championship, the first - and so far only - time the tournament has been staged in Northern Ireland HK Golfer・NOV 2011

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a perfect place, more charming than its scale suggests, more refined than its tender age might imply. The 120 rooms and 25 luxury lodges are very special and most afford fabulous views of the water-strewn landscape. The course is laid out, mainly, on 600 acres of land known as Ely Island, a rugged parcel of terrain with wonderful woodland belts stretching across it. We are in County Fermanagh, a beautiful place, all waterways and impossibly green hills. But above everything it’s the golf which is phenomenal. Faldo’s layout is tough but fair, perfectly presented, thrillingly routed through trees, over hills and hard by the water’s edge, always emphasizing the location’s natural charms. Some shots here intimidate and all shots here inspire. Fairways narrow beyond average driving distance but overall the course is not long. It is best played as much by mental agility as physical effort. Faldo often excelled by playing conservatively from the tee and aggressively from fairway to green. If you can manage it, a similar style will yield results here. Don’t go at the drives too hard; but be brave and fire at the pins because the greens here, although fast, are receptive in the US mould.

BEST OF THE REST

The Newcomer: Lynn McCool (left), one of Ireland's best-known female golf professionals, joined Lough Erne as the Director of Golf and Head Professional in 2010; the 10th hole on the Faldo Course at Lough Erne (right) occupies a stunning setting 62

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because of the recent successes of its famous sons McDowell and Clarke and partly because of the fabulous layout itself, the design genius of its architect Harry Colt. Colt built Wentworth, Sunningdale, Rye and Pine Valley and of course added greatly to Royal County Down, yet he considered Portrush his masterpiece. Its second 18-holer, The Valley Course, is also a thing of beauty.

LOUGH ERNE

Sir Nick Faldo’s course is wonderful, one of the best inland creations to emerge anywhere in recent years. Between Castle Hume Lough and Lower Lough Erne, just outside Enniskillen, Northern Ireland’s first five-star resort is spectacular. Do not balk at the idea of a new resort with golf and real estate attached. It’s

Countless other clubs will reward a visit, including the fast and firm links at Castlerock and at Ballycastle on the northern Antrim coastline. As will the Ireland's most easterly course – Kirkistown, a less well-known James Braid design. Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital, is home to a number of notable clubs, including Malone, Harry Colt's Belvoir Park and the oldest of them all, historic Royal Belfast, another charming Colt creation. But the golfer needn’t travel far from the country’s top two: close to Royal County Down is Ardglass, a thrilling clifftop course with a collection of standout par threes; and hard by Portrush is Portstewart, a great seaside set-up with a spectacular front nine twisting through heaving dunes. Its first hole is rightly considered one of the best in the game. Craig Morrison is the co-author of 18 Greatest Irish Golf Holes, a book described by The Golf Channel as ‘soul-stirring’ and by Forbes Magazine as ‘an instant collectible ... truly beautiful, a must for the golf library collector or a great gift for any golf enthusiast.’ 18 Greatest Irish Golf Holes (as well as 18 Greatest Scottish Golf Holes and photographic prints from both titles) can be purchased from many of the world’s most exclusive golf clubs and from the publisher’s website, 18greatestgolf.com. The books are limited editions and cost US$300. HKGOLFER.COM

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