Philippa Kennedy headed to Northern Ireland and discovered why this golfing mecca should be on every player’s bucket list whatever the weather!
Walking down the 18th fairway of the famous Dunluce course at Royal Portrush onto a green still cocooned by viewing stands, one could only imagine the exhilaration of Open champion Shane Lowry just six weeks previously.
It was a similar sort of wild North Antrim day with its gusting winds and sudden torrential downpours - this course is not for the faint-hearted.
For three bedraggled golfers it turned into an endurance test rather than a Lowryesque triumph and looking at the downcast faces of a group of Americans behind us, we reckoned we weren’t the only ones to struggle.
I had seen them thrashing around the unforgiving rough and taking refuge in one of the many little shelters cut into the towering dunes when the skies opened and drenched them, but as one of them said: “You don’t come here for the weather”.
They come because Royal Portrush has shot to the top of their golfing bucket lists and the legacy of a superbly run Open is clear. You’ll be lucky to get a tee time either this year or next. Around 75% of recent bookings are Americans or Canadians.
I’m pleased to be able to report that rumours that the club charged golfers £500 a round during the two weeks after the Open were rubbish. The green fee for the Dunluce course is £220 during the high season and £203 at other times of the year.
Club Secretary Wilma Erskine, the woman whose drive and determination landed The Open for the club, speaks about “a tsunami of green fees” since 2018 and a gathering sense of excitement as the course neared readiness with its two new holes - the old 17th and 18th became the tented village.
Locally, just about everything has improved with new hotels springing up and old ones getting a facelift. We stayed at the three-star £118 per night Golf Links Hotel, perfectly placed for visiting nearby attractions like the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle. With its big comfy beds and cheery bar, it’s ideal for golfers.
The government put around £15million into the area, building new roads, resurfacing old, installing fibre-optics, improved water supplies, sewage and other services.
“It was a team effort that sprang from a bit of a dream. We had to prove that Northern Ireland was capable of putting on a big event,” said Wilma whose diplomatic skills came into force as she charmed and cajoled the politicians, police, Tourism Northern Ireland, R&A officials and other stakeholders into realising that dream, while keeping Portrush’s members happy.
She admits: “The last three years have been pretty hectic.”
The hard work that has been going on since well before the club landed the successful 2012 Irish Open has paid off and there’s a great feel about the place these days. While the economic benefit is clear, the image of Northern Ireland has subtly changed from the dark and dangerous days of The Troubles to a beautiful and interesting place to visit and a golfer’s paradise.
The fact that three top golfers - Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke cut their teeth on these fairways has added to the newfound glamour of Northern Ireland golf. Shane Lowry and 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley were also frequent visitors.
Says Wilma: “It’s going to give Scotland a bit of a run for its money. And all because of a lot of highly paid men rushing around chasing a wee white ball. The knock-on effect on other courses has been great too.”
There are plenty of other top-ranked courses to choose from - including nearby Portstewart and Castlerock, currently bidding to stage the 2021 Irish Open.
On a sunny but breezy day at Portstewart, I had a solid round on The Strand links course playing four shots over my handicap and felt very pleased to have done so well on another big challenging course with its towering dunes and spectacular views.
Castlerock was another challenge and I came away humbled but convinced that links golf is the only true test. Not far away in neighbouring County Down lies Northern Ireland’s other golfing gem - Royal County Down - although we didn’t play it on this trip.
We did play Massereene, a delightful parkland course where the pro-am before the ISPS Handa World Invitational was held. It’s a friendly members’ club and one that I’d be happy to join if I lived there. The pro-am field was divided, with the other half playing Galgorm Castle GC, another championship, award-winning parkland course. Both courses suffered in torrential rain, however and whereas the links courses built on sand drain quickly, the parkland courses don’t.
My lovely room in the luxury Galgorm Resort was littered with soggy wet-proofs, golf shoes and clubs that thankfully dried overnight.
But as the man said: “You don’t come to Ireland for the weather.”
GALGORM SPA & GOLF RESORT
You only really appreciate a really great spa after you’ve been to a few duds. With its idyllic setting in 163 acres of beautiful parkland, this spa is up with the best in the world and it has a prestigious award to prove it.
The Serenity Garden is thoughtfully designed with its peaceful walkways and water features, hideaway cabins surrounded by sweet-smelling plants and foliage for privacy and hot-tubs where you can be served with Prosecco and a picnic for your two-hour session.
The River Maine flows and froths its way through the estate, bordered by immaculate lawns, creating a lush, natural feel that enhances relaxation.
Treatments in the main Skin Clinic are not cheap with a 60 minute ‘skin specific’ facial costing £120 but there are plenty of great value offers to be had and the therapists know their stuff.
Donna stuck my head into a black box that shows up every wrinkle and blemish a couple of layers down and convinced me that I should be wearing SP protection daily. She gave me a Skin Ceuticals facial that left my skin feeling clean, fresh and just a bit younger after a battering from wind and rain on the golf course.
If you’re a guest in the luxury 122- room hotel with its natural colours, lush soft furnishings and tasteful art, there are plenty of treats that are free in the thermal village with its hydra baths where hot jets of water ease away shoulder and neck pains.
Other hot tubs are dotted around the gardens and there are steam rooms, saunas and an outdoor heated pool for guests who wander around the spa in fluffy white dressing gowns and flip-flops provided. It’s a favourite with honeymooners and it’s not surprising that Galgorm Spa won Global Luxury Spa Hotel of the Year 2018 at the 12th Luxury Hotel Awards held in Bali.
There is an abundance of places to visit and things to do with many stunning areas of natural beauty around the North Antrim coast and further inland towards Belfast.
Causeway Coastal Route- Worth the drive for spectacular views of a rugged coastline. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge- A white-knuckle walk across the 350-year-old rope bridge.
Giant’s Causeway- Listen to the legend of legendary giant Finn McCool at the modern visitors’ centre and marvel at the natural wonder of rock formations that make up the causeway itself.
Bushmills Distillery- Ireland’s oldest distillery, it’s a great tour if you manage to book in advance but it’s always very busy.
Titanic Belfast- The centrepiece of the expanding Titanic Quarter, this is an unmissable and poignant must-see where the stories of doomed passengers and those who escaped the disaster are brought to life.
Harry’s Shack- Round off a morning’s golf at Portstewart with a plate of fresh mussels and sourdough bread or good old fish and chips washed down with a choice of 30 different whiskeys including nine varieties of the local Bushmills whiskey.
Dunluce Castle, The Nine Glens of Antrim, Rathlin Island, The Troubles Tour, Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition are just a few other suggestions.
For further information, visit: Ireland.com/golf and galgorm.com