Golf in Ireland is more than just a round of 18 holes. It’s a complete experience – one that offers fantastic golfing challenges, unforgettable memories and authentic connections to the Irish people on and off the course.
Fans who fancy a taste of the emerald greens should tee up a trip to the Irish Open this summer; it’s one of the great treats of the golfing calendar.
The spectators who assemble with the top professionals at Royal Portrush Golf Club on 28 June will quickly become familiar with the best players in the world, the achingly beautiful course down the road from the famed Giant’s Causeway, and Ireland’s legendary 19th hole craic and hospitality.
The Irish are renowned for their ability to put on major golf events with style. The Ryder Cup was staged in the K Club in County Kildare in 2006 and the ladies’ equivalent, the Solheim Cup, was staged in Killeen Castle in County Meath in 2011; both golfing events were major successes for the island of Ireland.
The Irish Open and the Ladies Irish Open are also great events on the European Tour calendar that combine top quality golf with a festival spirit that nowhere but Ireland can do.
Ireland and links golf
The fans will definitely be in festive form. But the pros are coming to play golf - links golf. The type Ireland offers in spades, and the kind players need to master to have a chance of winning majors.
Of the 30,000 golf courses in the world only 246 meet the criteria for being true links courses. Ireland has 58 of them (over a quarter), and with over 300 courses in total it has proportionately more places to play golf than anywhere else in the world per square mile.
Links courses are the most traditional and natural golf terrain. Located at the banks and dunes of coastal regions, they drain well, provide a very firm golfing surface all year round, but are tricky to play and are the ideal learning ground and preferred choice of many top golfers.
And boy have they delivered top Irish golfers. Of the current crop there are European Tour winners Paul McGinley and Michael Hoey and then the elite major-winning players Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who have all graced the top ten world rankings, McIlroy most recently at number one.
Their exploits have led to Ireland being labelled ‘the home of champions’ and Northern Ireland as the ‘golf capital of the world,’ while international interest in the courses and golfing experiences that perfect their talents is at an all-time high.
All will play at Royal Portrush. Both Clarke and McDowell honed their games there and both have homes nearby. Together with double Open Championship and three-time major winner Harrington, they are also members of the club, with Dubliner Harrington labelling it as his “favourite course in the world.”
Actually, most of the world’s top golfers have already dropped in to Royal Portrush, among them the legendary Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer and greats such as Tom Watson, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.
Courses to check out
Although there is an abundance of world-class parkland courses available all over the Emerald Isle, links courses form a necklace of golfing jewels around its coast, with a fabulous concentration of places to play lying around the northern shoreline.
If you want to play your own golf as well as spectate at the Irish Open, within a few miles of Royal Portrush and well worth checking out are the equally testing links of Portstewart and Castlerock , and several other parkland courses.
And soon to be added to the collection on the remarkable Causeway Coast is the first new links to be built in Northern Ireland for almost a hundred years.
The luxury £100 million Bushmills Dunes Resort and Spa will be just outside the village of Bushmills, home of the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery. It will feature an 18-hole championship course, a 120 bedroom world-class hotel and 75 high-end residences.
The development aims to match the quality of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, both acknowledged as among the top ten courses in the world, and strengthen Northern Ireland’s position as the international gold standard in links golf.
“There are very few places in the world where someone will be able to play four world-class links golf courses, all within half an hour of each other,” says Dr Alistair Hanna, the man behind the project.
This is one of the big draws of international golf, and what pulls in male and female, young and old, amateur and professional alike – including the big players.
Tiger Woods is a regular, for instance. He traditionally uses the quiet Irish courses in preparation for the Open Championship and has a strong liking for Royal County Down as well as Portmarnock near Dublin. Back in 2002 he publicly thanked Ireland for helping him win the British tournament, which is always played on a links course.
Among the stunning views from the Royal Portrush fairways and tees are vistas into Ireland’s northernmost county, Donegal.
This rugged and mountainous county will also be a popular destination alongside Northern Ireland as many golfers combine a trip to the Irish Open with a chance to tackle the challenges of its selection of magnificent links.
Donegal is home to the world-famous Ballyliffin, the historic course at Rosapenna and the spectacular Narin and Portnoo, while the neighbouring County Sligo Golf Club offers views of five Irish counties from its third tee.
This northwest golf region, of which Royal Portrush and Portstewart are part, was named European Golf Destination of the Year for 2011 by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, beating out the likes of Fife in Scotland (which includes the Old Course at St Andrews).
The settings are nothing short of spectacular, but the green fees are modest by international standards, like most Irish courses.
Unless you have bags of money or are extremely well connected, the top golf courses around the world are often pretty impossible to get a game on. Not in Ireland. The best courses are still very much open to the public. It’s the Irish way.
Specialist tour operators can help you play as many as you like, dealing with transport, accommodation and tee times while you take time to play in one of the most ideal golfing locations on Earth.
While the golfers battle the famous Irish links, their families or fellow travellers can enjoy Ireland’s top resorts and hotels with first-class leisure and spa facilities, or explore the local attractions taking in the culture that makes the Emerald Isle so absorbing for everyone.
Golfers should make time to enjoy off-course Ireland too, because a base anywhere near the thriving sea-side holiday town of Portrush on the Causeway Coast at Irish Open time would leave you within minutes of a feast of unmissable Irish summertime experiences.
The wonders of this carefully protected natural phenomenon have been made famous by the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of over 40,000 hexagonal-shaped stone columns whose shapes and origins have astonished visitors for centuries, and provided the area with a wealth of history and legend – just ask a local.
Or visit the new world-class visitor attraction at the Causeway, built into the hillside.
The area is also the location of the Causeway Coastal Route, covering 80 miles of Northern Irish coastline and regarded as one of one of the most outstanding scenic drives in the world.
A small detour from the breathtaking and rugged coastline transports you into the romantic landscape of the deep and silent Glens of Antrim, home of waterfall walkways, lush forest parks and Gaelic culture.
A tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery will tell you much of what you need to know about Irish whiskey, and if you are there the week before the Irish Open you can catch top Irish band Snow Patrol, the first of a number of artists who will perform at ‘Bushmills Live’ (20 – 21 June), a newly instigated handcrafted whiskey and music festival.
Nearby the cross-me-if-you-dare Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge gives you an experience of Irish fishermen, who used the suspension bridge to cross to a small island to fish for salmon. Visitors bold enough to cross to the rocky island are rewarded with fantastic views.
Or at the end of the Causeway Coastal Route, a visit to the Walled City of Derry will put you at the centre of the story of 1,500 years of history, a thriving entertainment and arts scene and a sneak preview of the highly energetic and much talked about UK City of Culture for 2013.
Elsewhere on the Causeway Coast, miles of golden beaches, quaint coves, harbours and castles will vie for your attention alongside a choice of superb restaurants, pubs playing traditional Irish music and every type of leisure activity imaginable.
A golf-themed trip based around the Irish Open will be one you won’t forget.