Quiz question: Fourteen links courses have hosted the Open Championship, six in England and seven in Scotland. Which is the other? The answer? Royal Portrush. The Dunluce Links, on the north Antrim coast, is the only venue which makes the British Open anything other than an all Anglo-Caledonian affair since the first ball was struck, back at Prestwick in 1860. In 1951, when the eccentric Englishman, Max Faulkner, won the Claret Jug, the course received nothing but praise, not least from the doyen of golf writers, Bernard Darwin, who described Harry Colt’s remodelling as “a monument to himself more enduring than brass”. In truth, Colt must have counted himself very fortunate to have been handed such a canvas, with the Dunluce enjoying the most striking of locations.
A mere 68 years after Faulkner’s triumph, the Open made its long-awaited return to Royal Portrush this past summer partly in celebration of the Northern Irish glory in the past decade. And on the course Darren Clarke considers to be his favourite links course in the world, the result was a roaring success.
Portrush should be approached via the precipitous coastal road from the east – it is a stunning experience. No sooner have the crumbling ruins of Dunluce Castle which literally overhang the sea been circumnavigated then the links is revealed beyond and below in its full glory.
In the right conditions, the rich green swathes of its fairways shimmer in the sunlight, framed by the sea to the right and the town beyond. This elevated view is so exceptional that no visiting golfer should leave the area without pausing for a moment to bear witness to the happy accident of nature which left a landscape so apposite for golf.
With such rare natural advantages, it comes as no surprise to learn that the links was laid out as long ago as 1888, and initially it was a mere country club. Royal status was bestowed by the Prince of Wales seven years later and ever since Colt’s improvements in 1947, Portrush has vied with that other Royal, County Down, for the title of Northern Ireland’s finest links.
Not that golf is the only star attraction around here. The world-famous Giant’s Causeway is just a few miles along the coast, as is the Bushmills Distillery for those with a love of whiskey.
Much more hilly than you might expect, the emphasis is on angles rather than blind shots, bunkers which threaten the drive rather than the approach and relatively small, subtle greens which make certain 15-footers three-putts waiting to happen.
Much like at County Down – and, with the notable exception of the Old Course, more or less any other links worthy of the name – repeatedly missing fairways will result in high scores, because the rough doesn’t so much swallow balls as devour them whole. If you are fortunate enough to find yours, be grateful for small mercies and hack it back on to the shorter stuff immediately.
This is a genuine Championship course, and as such wayward shots are thoroughly punished. But then you wouldn’t expect any less on a course where holes bear names such as Giant’s Grave, Himalayas, Calamity and Purgatory.
In the right conditions, the rich green swathes of its fairways shimmer in the sunlight, framed by the sea to the right and the town beyond.
From an unremarkable 1st hole, a medium-length par four played directly uphill, the fun really begins at the 2nd, the aforementioned Giant’s Grave, where a downhill par five swings to the left and presents those brave enough to attack it with an excellent early chance of a birdie.
There are no such luxuries at the 4th, a beast of a two-shotter named after Fred Daly, the only Irishman to win The Open to date. Daly grew up playing at Portrush and this hole, with out of bounds to the right and a nasty bunker eating into the left of the fairway at driving distance, is a fitting tribute to him.
It is the kind of hole where a bogey is an achievement, because even from an ideal drive, the second shot is likely to require a long iron to be threaded between the two dunes which guard the front of the green, repelling anything that isn’t destined for the very heart of the green.
The 5th, White Rocks, is Portrush at its very best. Cut off as much as you dare from the tee and hope your tee shot plunges onto the fairway below and not the oceans of rough that flank it. The green is set tight to the cliffs at the very furthest point of the course, hence the name.
The Himalayas are the rows of dunes between which the 8th fairway runs. This hole makes a late turn to the right, so much so that it seems a clear view of the green will never be forthcoming, no matter how long the drive.
Free of a single bunker, the long, narrow green is surrounded by more juicy rough and can be a terrifyingly small target when the wind is up.
Two par fives then run back towards the clubhouse before the short 11th, Featherbeds, calls for a short – or not so short depending on the breeze – iron from an elevated tee where the challenge, as the name suggests, is to generate a soft landing.
After the tough 12th, Skerries plays longer than its yardage suggests towards a cluster of rocks which resemble a sinking ship and give the hole its name. At which time, prepare yourself for the Dunluce’s signature hole, Calamity. A nightmare particularly for anyone who tends to lose their long shots to the right, this 210-yard par three is played across a chasm with the only safe miss long and left. Miss the green right by a yard and you will do well to escape with a four.
Purgatory follows immediately after, but if the fairway can be found from the tee, this downhill par four should not live up to its name. The final three holes are uncharacteristically flat, but with the 18th now a par four (it used to be a par five, creating an unusual finish) they are three tough holes to finish with.
Position is key from the 16th, which doglegs to the right, while the cavernous Big Bertha bunker to the right of the 17th fairway simply must be avoided. The last, with bunkers and rough abounding, makes for an unyielding final hole, very much in the great tradition.