If Royal Portrush whets your appetite for Northern Irish golf, there are some sensational courses on this stretch of coastline
Northern Ireland's coastline stretches for miles around bays, islands, peninsulas, seas and oceans. The northern stretch, from Belfast to Londonderry, is known as the Causeway Coastal Route, home to the magical Giant's Causeway. These famous rock formations lie between the courses of Royal Portrush and Ballycastle and yet there are many more tourist gems to be discovered... and more courses to be played.
Such golf offerings will all fall under the spotlight as The Open lands on Irish shores in July, for the first time in almost seven decades. They will reveal the depth in golf quality that Northern Ireland possesses. This country of almost two million people is not solely about Royals Portrush and County Down, Portstewart, Lough Erne and Ardglass – all instantly recognisable names among golf aficionados – for there are dozens of remarkable courses that are rarely mentioned above a whisper.
For the devoted planning a trip to this Causeway Coast, you will find a rich mix of golfing adventure. From Belfast (airport or ferry) there are six golf courses within easy reach. They combine value, adventure and playability. They toss in tourism hotspots, renowned eating and drinking haunts, and accommodation choices for every budget. Both Ballycastle and Gracehill golf clubs have strong ties to TV's Game of Thrones, with Ballycastle promising views to Scotland. Roe Park, with its four star resort, lies at the western end of this six-course stretch and caters for golfers on so many levels.
Moyola Park, dark and brooding among towering trees, has the air of the inescapable "hidden gem", while both Castlerock and Royal Portrush have second courses that are too often overlooked. Each course has unique qualities and here's why we think you will enjoy every single one. Here's our pick of the best...
• Green Fees: £20
• Par: 34
• Yardage: 2,446
This is a nine-hole gem with just one bunker (par-3 3rd) to taunt you. Holes play along the Atlantic and Bann estuary, and tumble through low, sweeping dunes that reveal their curves slowly. The Mussenden course – recently upgraded by Martin Hawtree – may be the main attraction, but the Bann packs in the fun with three short par 3s (the 3rd is 92 yards, but possesses a serpentineshaped green) and one of Ireland's best par 5s. The 490-yard 5th tees off above the estuary, and then curls around the beach with bands of dunes channelling you to the green.
Elsewhere, you will discover some sweet ups and downs and a clever routing that takes full advantage of the terrain. Greens are not big so you need to approach them with care, even with no bunkers to thwart you. Still, this is about links golf with large injections of entertainment.
Royal Portrush (Valley)
• Green Fees: £25-35
• Par: 71
• Yardage: 6,346
Harry Colt designed both the Dunluce and valley courses at royal Portrush. and both were recently renovated and upgraded by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie & Ebert. the valley has always played second fiddle to the mighty Dunluce, but it is a superb links in its own right, playing through a valley floor that hides all manner of quirks and thrills. Fairways can be narrow and cavorting as they slip through sharp and erratic dunes that tilt fairways... or they can be wide open inviting you to swing hard.
The green settings are majestic – as on the Dunluce – and their brilliant shapes shine with limited bunkering. this is not a long course, so intelligence not strength is required. holes six to nine make that abundantly clear. By the time you reach the 10th you'll feel like you've stepped off a trampoline. holes 14 to 18 promise a similar experience.
• Green Fees: £25-50
• Par: 70
• Yardage: 6,180
This four-star resort has a calm parkland wrapped around it. the course starts low, beside the river roe, before the par-3 6th shoots up to a turret and old castle walls, right through the heart of the hotel. there can't be many resorts with such a hole and it sets the tone for an entertaining stretch that rumbles over the park's most shapely terrain.
There are trees here, but it never feels overly crowded... except on the 15th, one of the most tantalising holes you will face. a short par 4, it offers a view of the green through the trees, above a pond. the fairway, however, is well to the left and in a deep hollow. it is short enough that you might want to go for the green. and wouldn't it be a thrill if you made it? there's a full driving range, too.
• Green Fees: £30-40
• Par: 72
• Yardage: 6,574
Mention 'the Dark hedges' and people think game of thrones, but around here the famous avenue of trees is used to give directions to reach Gracehill golf Club next door. this is a gently owing landscape with some unexpected surprises – none more so than the par-4 1st where a gentle drive downhill is followed by a shot over a lake and up onto a ridge, where the entrance to the green is protected by trees.
Much of the course is an Gracehill adventure like this, especially around the wooded perimeter. there are trees in the heart of this parkland, too, but also wide open spaces and some large natural water features. the cream comes at the end where holes 13 to 18 give Gracehill an extra polish, throwing in dashes of heather to add more colour to some tricky, tight challenges. Love the surprises and the game of thrones door in the clubhouse.
• Green Fees: £50-60
• Par: 71
• Yardage: 6,519
Quite possibly, the best unknown parkland in Northern Ireland. this is an old estate course and the trees are majestic, framing holes elegantly and provocatively. the centrepiece is a tree-drenched hill with the Moyola river curling around it. here you will find the most thrilling holes and enchanting walks. the river first comes into play on the approach to the index one par-4 6,519 yards 8th and you walk across the bridge and into the woods to reach the green. there are other holes that use this hill and river, but none better than the par-3 16th, which drops from a great height through achingly tall pines to a green on the river's edge. there are plenty of other good holes and Moyola Park thrives in its natural setting. What stands out most is how peaceful it all is.
• Green Fees: £70
• Par: 71
• Yardage: 5,899
Ballycastle is a combination of views and hole variety. With the atlantic Ocean nestled up alongside, the course embraces parkland to start (holes one to five) followed by a mix of links and headland holes. it calls for a good set of skills as the terrains vary and the wind alters significantly from holes tucked away in trees beside the river Margy, to those on the headland that look across to rathlin island and the Mull of 5,899 yards Kintyre. the short par- 4 6th, named hog's Back for obvious reasons, begins in front of the clubhouse and curves gently upwards and away from the atlantic. the flag is perched on the skyline, but you'll go much higher as the 8th and 9th rise dramatically to the headland. Up here, your driver will be flashing for several holes. the tall clubhouse offers plenty of views and shows o hog's Back in all its glory.