I love playing golf in Northern Ireland. There is always the warmest of welcomes, the full Irish is one of the world’s great breakfasts, the Guinness and the craic is unmatched.
The island of Ireland has more links golf than anywhere in the world, including some of the best, of which Northern Ireland has two of the finest.
Royal County Down, originally laid out by Old Tom Morris for the grand fee of £3, 4s and 4d – roughly £250 today – usually figures in the world’s top five, while, since Martin Ebert applied his magic to update Harry Colt’s Royal Portrush for the 2019 Open, I now think the latter is even greater.
For me, three days on the Causeway Coast, playing Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock, provides an almost unbeatable golf break. But this trip provided something entirely different, an invitation to play three inland parkland courses: Galgorm Castle, Cairndhu, and Templepatrick – all new to me, with the added bonus of the flight from Glasgow down the Ayrshire coast with its wonderful aerial views of Royal Troon, Prestwick and Turnberry and arrival within 40 minutes at Belfast International. It’s only a further 30 minutes to the first course.
Home of the Northern Ireland Open, venue for the 2020 year’s Irish Open, and one of Ireland’s finest Championship parklands, Galgorm Castle is an Ireland Golf Tour Operator Association ‘Parkland Course of the Year’ winner and is consistently ranked as one of the best parklands in Northern Ireland.
The par-72 layout was designed by Simon Gidman and opened in 1997. The course is nestled in the heart of the 220-acre historic Galgorm Castle estate, providing a handsome mature setting bordered by the rivers Maine and Braid which come into play on numerous holes, as well as five lakes and the magnificent oxbow lake adjacent to the 14th hole.
At 7,015 yards, it provides as tough a test of golf as you would wish. Even off the green tees, almost 1,000 yards shorter, the consistently thoughtful design sets a challenge which makes the course seem a lot longer. It certainly tested my game, and at the end of the round, I needed more than a Guinness to revive me.
Help, however, was at hand. I was booked into the Galgorm Hotel & Spa which, apart from providing the utmost luxury, boasts a spa voted the best in Ireland, and offering the opportunity for a prolonged soak.
I’m not normally a spa aficionado, but Galgorm – apart from offering two indoor pools with saunas, steam room, assorted treatment rooms and gym – features what the hotel terms a ‘Thermal Village’, a series of gardens beside the River Maine, accommodating an extensive range of outdoor hot-tubs, saunas, steam rooms, and pavilions.
I indulged myself for a couple of hours, enjoyed a dinner distinguished by an enormous platter of barbecued ribs and Guinness, and afterwards, slept like a log.
In the morning I enjoyed an American breakfast of pancakes, maple syrup and crispy bacon in the fabulous conservatory, and set off for the coast.
Cairndhu Golf Club, although coastal, is certainly not a links. On the contrary, it sits high on the cliffs and from its mountainous heights, provides stunning views across the ocean.
Mountainsides are not ideal locations for golf courses, and the first nine holes demand some hard climbs, with the ocean vistas the main consolation.
However, the second nine, which the club refers to as ‘the forest nine’, provides just that – a Sunningdale or Woburn-like experience, and really of a comparable standard. It’s a rollercoaster ride enhanced by the occasional break in the trees giving glimpses of the ocean far below.
I finished exhilarated if exhausted and ready for sustenance in the bar with its panoramic seascape views, followed, back at the hotel, by another couple of hours relaxing in the Thermal Village.
That evening, in the hotel’s Fratelli’s restaurant I enjoyed an Italian repast as fine as any I have eaten in mainland Italy or Sicily, and the next morning, I managed the full Irish in preparation for my final round at the Hilton Templepatrick.
Like Galgorm Castle, Templepatrick, set in 220 acres of the Castle Upton Estate, is also a lush parkland championship course, also over 7,000 yards long, its fairways wending through a rich variety of woods and with water hazards adding to the interest. As challenging and as well-conditioned as Galgorm, it has, if anything, a greater variety of holes and an even more attractive ambiance.
Designed by David Feherty and David Jones, the former one of golf’s finest brains and the latter one of Europe’s most inventive architects, it provides a perfect balance of challenge and relaxation. By the 564-yard third, and a misjudged second into the lake which bisects the fairway, I was entirely hooked, enjoying the many tests set, particularly on the perfect but tricky greens, and simply absorbing the woodland peace and spectacular autumnal colours of the turning eaves.
Emerging from the woodlands to the openness of the 520-yard, double dogleg 18th with its final water hazard – a perfect finishing hole – I could only reflect that Templepatrick had provided one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf in my recent experience.
The same enjoyment applied to the whole break. A genuinely world-class golf trip – all on your doorstep.
Thinking about playing golf in Northern Ireland?
For more information, visit the the Tourism Ireland website.
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